(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72

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(Copyright © 2009)

Hand motions are planned in the pre-motor areas of the brain, so in a very personal sense such motions represent activity in those areas. As such, they can be seen to map out neural activity in the brain that planned and executed them. As an example, I offer this score by Johan Sebastian Bach as a map of neural activity at the focus of his conscious attention.

  Bach

On any given staff, pitch is told by the vertical placement of notes, development of tonal relationships in time by the sequence of notes along the horizontal dimension. We think of Bach as composing music, but another way of looking at him is as a mapper of his own mind in two dimensions—in sound first, then notation used to represent the original as a basis for subsequent performances. Whatever their medium, creative people give us representations of their conscious neural activity. Art in that sense is more revealing than we often suppose. Can anything be more intimate than the mental processes of a particular man or woman focused on a project of importance in personal awareness?

For another example, take this schematic diagram of a football play Coach asks his players to learn by tomorrow’s practice. Based on his personal experience, it comes straight off the top of his brain.

Football Play Diagram-72

Another diagram, another series of gestures, another map of someone’s mind. It isn’t just artists who turn themselves inside-out in performing their duties. Everyone does it. When Mom cooks dinner or bakes a cake, her brain tells her how to do it. The tasty results are as much a map of her mind as Bach’s scores are of his. Maybe she followed a recipe in cooking from scratch; maybe she opened a package of cake mix. However she did it, it was her brain that told her how to proceed. Even the historian reconstructing the battle of Marathon represents the understanding of his mind, mapping his neural workings in the process. If he gets it right, it is his brain that approves and tells him so.

Battle_of_Marathon_72

When the Persians (red) moved in from the coast where they landed, Greek forces (blue) lined up in opposition. As the Persians attacked, the Greeks boxed them in on three sides, leaving escape to the rear as an option to their bold pincer formation. The Greek center fell back, but the flanking forces moved in. Crunch. The Persians lost 6,400 men, the Greeks 192. Olympic runner Pheidippides raced from Marathon to Athens with news of the Greek victory: “Rejoice, we conquer!” he gasped, then fell dead in a dramatic conclusion to the first marathon. The map above is a schematic representation of Persian and Greek minds engaging on the plain at Marathon.

Below is an intimate portrait of my own mind in charting results of a study of breeding horseshoe crabs in 2007. My hunch from earlier seasons was that water temperature exerts a strong influence on horseshoe crab mating behavior. Wanting to find out how true that was, I plotted the number of crabs that showed up (colored bars) along with shoreline water temperature (purple line) each day through the breeding season. I counted the crabs and read the thermometer for thirty-eight days in a row, so my brain was very much involved in the project.

HSC-Egypt-72

Results showed that for the first half of the breeding season, the number of crabs correlates closely with water temperature, but after that, the temperature becomes irrelevant. By the time the correlation breaks down, nest-digging and egg-laying are effectively done for the year. After that, water temperature doesn’t make any difference as far as the crabs are concerned. When it begins to cool in September and October, they retreat to deeper water and prepare to hibernate from November through the winter. The above chart shows actual mating horseshoe crabs and water temperatures reduced to data in my mind, then plotted to reveal the pattern of relationship between them I was looking for. Greetings from my mind to your mind.

My last map is a self-portrait of my own mind contemplating itself in December 2005. The red vertical line on the left side represents the motor (muscle movement) or output pole of my mental being; the blue vertical line on the right represents the perceptual or input pole. My purpose in making the map was to show various parallel loops connecting the two poles to make a whole person. The vertical arrows (4.) on the right suggest the relationship between mental effort and mental economy on different levels of mental activity. Full consciousness at the bottom requires greater mental effort than the reflex arc near the top.

On Level 1. I act in the mysterious world and receive feedback from that world—but nowhere am I aware of goings-on in that world in or of themselves. Level 2. shows five internal connections (dashed blue arrows) between the two poles as they complete the loop of experience, but below the threshold of awareness. Level 3. illustrates various possibilities for linking perception to action via the many aspects of consciousness (yellow area), only a selection of which are apt to be in play at any one time. The Hat Switch on the right side of Level 3. represents the choice of perspectives I have available in responding to my self-placement in different situations. 

4_loops_and_levels_72

Imagine a mind that can schematically conceive and depict itself! Not in any external world familiar in being what it is but an internal world that imparts a familiar feel to the world it devises on the basis of feedback it gets when it directs gestures toward the outside mystery and interprets the signals that come back. Here is the only world that can be called real, on the inside, as perceived, made meaningful through interpretation, and then acted upon to maintain the flow through the loop of experience in a state of alertness and vigilance.

To update this 2005 map I would add another dashed line on Level 2. to represent the mirror neuron system which allows me to mimic the actions of others. I would also play up the role of feelings in affecting every aspect of experience. But as a gross simplification of one mind’s relationship to the universe, I offer this version as background to my general approach in consciously coming to grips with my own mind.

Everything we do is an outward and visible-audible-tangible sign of coordinated neural activity in the brain and other parts of the body, some accessible to consciousness, some not. We already sense that when we look deep into someone’s eyes and find them looking back into our own. But by relying overmuch on language as we do in everyday life, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that words can say it all—and so belittle everything else as an avenue of interpersonal connection. By attending to every gesture, every nonverbal utterance, every change of posture and expression, and every artifact as I am suggesting here, we can boost our looping connection with other beings by opening ourselves to more extensive feedback and engagement with worlds far different from our own.

heron-stalking_10-84

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Everybody knows that schools are for educating our children. Very well, what does that mean—educating? The word stems from Latin educare, to lead out (e-, out; ducare, to lead or draw). Education, then, suggests a process of leading our children into the (adult) world. Which is pretty much how it works, adults setting the curriculum and walking children through it stage by stage, supervising development of relevant skills as they progress. The process is a bit like running a steeplechase with ever-higher hurdles and broader water jumps.

 

This view of education rests on a great many assumptions. For instance, that adults know what is good for children in general and each child in particular at every stage of development. That adults can anticipate what sort of world their children will grow into. That all children should strive toward the same goals. That the understanding and skills valued by adults are exactly the sort their children will require when they mature. And above all, that children need to be taught by adults and can’t be trusted on their own to learn about the world they are growing into. That is, education is a top-down (or outside-in) rather than a bottom-up (or inside-out) process. The basic fear is that left to develop their own resources, children will turn feral and become too wild for civil society.

 

Yet every child learns to talk within a language-speaking community without being taught how to do it. She acquires language through imitating the speech she hears around her without requiring instruction in syntax or grammar. And to walk-skip-jump-run within an ambulatory community, and be social within a sociable community, and play games and exhibit curiosity and have fun and observe her surroundings—driven by her own motives and curiosity in company with peers and adults, all without reference to any syllabus or curriculum, all shaped by examples but not taught by instruction. On their own, children are born learners. What they require to develop skills is clear examples of others using their bodies in disciplined ways. Those others could be dogs running, birds building nests, people living their lives.

 

An alternative to education (leading out) is introduction (leading in; intro-, within; ducere, to lead). Introduce a child to new experiences and he will incorporate their features on his own according to his interests, abilities, and readiness. Will he get what he is supposed to get from such experiences—that is, what adults want him to get? Perhaps not. But by considering phenomena within his own consciousness (and not that of his teachers), he is likely to get what excites him and he is ready for. The world he grows into will prove to be an outward expression of his personhood. Nobody’s minion, he is his own man.

 

What I am suggesting here is a course of introduction to the many facets of consciousness as an alternative to cognitive (subject-matter) education as it has evolved in today’s world. Mothers encourage their children’s development by interacting with them—by introducing them to activities that each can enjoy on her own level of challenge. Such participatory learning is mutually exploratory and engaging on all sides. It’s not the subject matter external to themselves that children must learn but the processes necessary to living a life.

 

What I recall from my own schooling is counting holes in ceiling tiles over and over, or looking out the window waiting for the day to be done. Teachers instructed from the front of the room; students did as they were told while sitting in their seats. Whether mental or physical, there was very little mutual engagement. If there was joy or excitement in the classroom, it was discovered apart from and despite the daily lesson plan.

 

Consciousness has many rewards, one of which is behavior judged appropriate to the situation that arouses it. Consciousness, that is, is participatory in shaping behavior in light of sensory feedback through a series of successive approximations until the desired level of performance is achieved. That loop is partly internal, partly external, and the reward is a sense of self-satisfaction at having met a challenge on the desired level of performance. It is not the teacher’s job to hand out gold stars because she is external to students’ loops of consciousness. What counts is each student evaluating her own performance by her own standards, and keeping on until those standards are met. Then raising them still higher.

 

In the schools I attended, power was reserved to the teacher at the front of the room. This disempowered students from the first day of classes to the last, sending the message that education was something done to students, not something they did for themselves through active participation. Classroom situations in such cases become a kind of dare. Teacher says, “Be quiet and do your work;” those in her charge reply in effect, “Make me learn if you can.” This dynamic is played out year after year until graduation day, when students think they are being set free, only to enter the workforce and encounter supervisors who control their performance much as teachers did in the classroom.

 

The most important thing children need to learn is how to manage the left-brain interpreter lodged in their brains and from which there can be no escape. That is, they need to base their judgments and self-accountability on convincing evidence, not opinion, prejudice, whimsy, dogma, or a factoid or two. Not partial evidence selected to support preexisting opinions, but sufficient evidence on which to base informed courses of action.

 

On whose authority should that course be adopted? The only authority consciousness heeds is personal authority—the authority inherent in each person as a unique individual. Citing external authorities is only the beginning. The issue is not what they thought then (courtesy of their left-brain interpreter) but what I think now (courtesy of my own interpreter) because I am the actor in every instance of my own behavior. If I pass the buck to Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, then I am acting on their behalf and am not my own person. Which is unwise in light of the fact that my survival is at issue, not theirs.

 

The key thing for us all to learn is to question what our left-brain interpreter is trying to tell us. Its motives are always suspect because it is operating within a larger situation that may well corrupt its narrative, resulting in spin, not truth. Are we trying to please someone? To undercut someone? To be outrageous? To take the easy way out? To appear to know more than we do? We can’t trust anyone else to guide us but our own judgment based on our cumulative life experience. Every action we take in the world is a product of that judgment. More than any other facet of consciousness, it makes us who we are.

 

So what are schools for? Nothing less than taking our budding judgments through their paces. That is, introducing us to different sorts of challenges, letting us evaluate and try to meet them, letting us fall short, letting us pick ourselves up and try again. In brief, letting us find our way by exercising and developing our personal judgments, along with the skills necessary to turn them into effective behaviors. That requires paying close attention to the interpreters of events in our heads, which are fully capable of waylaying us at every turn, causing us to base our actions on less than a full grasp of the facts of our current situation.

 

Only by doubting our own motives, opinions, and actions can we surpass our childhood selves and become reliable contributors to meeting the many challenges before us. Doubt, not accepted knowledge, is the key to exercising good judgment in the world of today, which is far different from the world our teachers’ knew in their day. This requires us to exercise our most basic piece of equipment—the individual consciousness through which we view so-called reality, but really serves as the seat of our interpreter, our judgment, our authority, our convictions, and our expectations—the inner reality we project outward in reinventing the world to suit ourselves.

 

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

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Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat

November 28, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

It is evening. I am in the kitchen putting away dishes. The drainer is to the left of the sink, the cupboard to the right and above. The cupboard door is hinged on the left, so when I open it, it blocks my way as I move back and forth. I move out and around the cupboard door, out and around. Suddenly a loud shriek—I have stepped on the cat. Leaping reflexively, I do some fancy footwork to release its tail from underfoot. In my mind, I picture a strange cat looking up at me—mildly I would say—blue-gray face surrounded by a mane of long fur. Trouble is, there is no cat. I have not had a cat in my apartment for over twenty-five years.

 

Moving back from cupboard to dish drainer, I caught the open cupboard door with my shoulder, swinging it open wider than usual. The shriek was the bottom hinge complaining under stress. I don’t remember it squeaking before, but there it was, complaining. My immediate response was to import a cat into consciousness, as if an imaginary animal would explain the whole thing. I responded quickly and appropriately to the cat that wasn’t there, and quite inappropriately to the hinge that was and always had been there. Now, where did that cat come from—that specific cat I saw looking back at me? I’d lived with several cats in the past, but never one like that. It looked like your basic tabby, a stock cat ready to leap out of the wings on cue when the occasion demanded. Not like a real cat which would take its time and probably head the other way, this one was right there in my mind when consciousness called for it. The meaning of that shriek was right there, a cat, not a dry hinge. By way of proof, a clip-art figment to embody the shriek in my ears.

 

It was as if my consciousness demanded an explanation. As if meaning must be made at any cost. But since feeling is first, as the poet says, maybe it was feeling, not meaning, that made me jump. That might explain the whole situation, even if it had to conjure up a cat to stand in for the true explanation. Which was that the shriek I heard startled me. Upset me. Made me feel guilty. The alarm had sounded. What was I to do? In stepping back to avoid the cupboard door, I put my foot on the cat, which obligingly howled, so I (feeling responsible) immediately leapt up and, mid-air, “saw” poor tabby, a ready stand-in for the source of the squeak, which was ambiguous.

 

All this happened in half a second or less, without rehearsal. The sequence ran: step back to avoid cupboard door, catch the door with my shoulder, causing a hinge to squeak, which I hear and link to stepping back, as if I had put my foot on the sound-maker, so I leap up to remove my foot, and justify that move by producing a cat out of my mental bag of tricks, which is always handy for use in emergencies. Rube Goldberg couldn’t have done it better.

 

This episode reminds me of seeing a black trash bag in the road as a dying crow (see Reflection 1: Dying Crow) or mistaking a rooftop TV antenna for a crashing jet (see Reflection 4: Crash). I’d guess now that crow, plane, and cat all came from the same ever-ready source. The hinge may have produced the sound, but the feeling that I was responsible (because I had stepped back) produced the leap and, at the same time, the cat. Somebody is watching my every move, just waiting for disaster to strike, preparing me to act intentionally in an emergency. That somebody lives inside my body with me, watching from the shadows of my mind. A kind of alter ego that, though wholly unknown to me, thinks far faster than I can. If not a somebody, then that fast thinker, whatever its form, is a silent servant of my own consciousness.

 

It’s as if I anticipate catastrophe at every moment, and at some level of awareness am prepared to act. Maybe I cast dire expectations onto my life world according to the specific situation I find myself in. Cats belong underfoot in kitchens, descending jets would be appropriate at rooftop level, crows by the roadside are familiar sights from a moving car. In a crisis, expectation supplies the speediest explanation of what is happening. It doesn’t wait to figure things out. Faster than a speeding bullet, a probable explanation is right where it is needed.

 

Like shockwaves preceding that bullet, expectations seem to radiate from the leading edge of my experience. Expectations that may be, 1) fulfilled, 2) denied, or 3) partially fulfilled. In each of the three cases—cat, jet, crow—there is a partial resemblance to the sensory phenomenon that caught my attention. The hinge did cry out like a cat. The TV antenna was swept back like the wings of a jet; both are metallic and glisten in the sun. The wafting trash bag fluttered as a dying crow might lift its wing. In each case, location was appropriate, the phenomenon apt. Apt, yes, but misidentified.

 

So my own expectations prepare me for fast action, as the Secret Service prepares its clients. Expectation serves me as a hidden secret service to alert me to occasions when I must act faster than I can think. It is at the forefront of my loop of engagement with the current situation, consciousness following behind to mop up when the situation I anticipate is poorly fulfilled. This doesn’t happen just occasionally. Every time the phone rings, I hazard a guess who it might be. When the doorbell rings, I come up with a quick list of possible visitors. I am full of dire predictions of what could go wrong in almost any situation. Raising children, I always saw danger lurking in the most innocent situation. The Scout’s basic message is, “Be prepared.” Rightly or wrongly, some part of me always is—or tries to be.

 

Consciously or unconsciously, life events always happen in a context of expectancy. Under comparable circumstances, we rely on our experience in the past in looking ahead. Current and future life situations are, well . . . situated in our pasts. That’s how we generate our expectations in extrapolating into the unknown. Not consciously, but we do it just the same. Life worlds unfold through successive approximations. The broader and deeper our experience, the better forecasters and prophets we become. Until a singularity occurs, an event rare or unique in our experience—tsunami, earthquake, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. Then expectation proves quite useless.

 

Back to the clip-art cat. Evidently, I brought that cat with me as I unloaded the dish drainer. And cast it before me just in case I might be called to act quickly upon hearing a sharp yowl. Squeaky hinge, angry cat—same thing. My expectations aren’t that finely tuned. I think it was that back step that made the cat the most likely option. Unwittingly, I have certainly stepped on many a cat in my day. Evidently that memory is still very much with me now. A possibility I wish to avoid, and if I can’t avoid it, then my secret service has trained me to make a fast response.

 

So, how does it run? Tying these stages together, I see a looping engagement with my situation as it unfolds in consciousness:

 

1) I act—Put dishes away, step back, brush cupboard door.

2) Feedback—Sound of squeaky hinge.

3) My expectation interprets the sound—Phenomenal cry of angry cat.

4) My reaction to interpretation—I feel responsible, so move my feet as if from a cat.

5) Expectancy is not done yet—To spur me, it flashes a stock image of a blue-gray cat.

6) Sensing cognitive dissonance, I check the situation—There is no cat.

7) Looking for the source of the sound, I move the cupboard door—It squeaks.

8) I process the above events by writing this blog.

 

What I make of all this is that I engage phenomena as if they represent goings-on in the real world. Until I catch them faking it on their own. On my own, for I am the faker and none other, caught in the grip of my past experience. Just as I am the believer that the phenomena I entertain fairly represent the situation I am in. This is one of life’s most basic illusions.

 

The greatest mystery here is how expectancy backed up its claim by pulling a stock photo out of its bag of tricks. I kept seeing the same image all evening. Even after I had gone to bed, there was that damned cat, the most innocent face ever put on an unidentified squeaky phenomenon (USP).

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Reflection 14: Mindreading

October 28, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

We generally think of language as a matter of words, but we know it is much more than that. How we deliver an utterance is every bit as important as what we say. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and you will know what I mean. The music of language includes pitch, intonation, rhythm, pace, voicing, and other nonverbal aspects. Body language adds to the message. Our stance tells how engaged we are, our facial expressions and hand movements underscore what we say, and as always our eyes speak volumes about our attitude toward our topic, hearers, and speech occasions. Our eyes, after all, are forward extensions of our brains. The light within is the very radiance of our mental activity.

 

Do these factors enter conscious awareness? Not very often. We take them in as part of the message and its occasion without really paying attention to them. If we think we are receiving mixed messages from someone, then we may start looking for discord between the different channels involved in language. But generally we regard them as incidental rather than as essential clues to how we are to interpret a given utterance.

 

We do know that talking with someone on the telephone is very different from speaking with them face-to-face. Without seeing posture, gestures, and facial expressions, it is harder to understand what is being said, and harder to get our own side of the conversation across. “Do you know what I’m saying?” doesn’t really do much beyond make the listener feel like a dope.

 

Written language is even worse in that regard because it deprives us of the non-vocal sounds that are intimately bound to words on the page but simply aren’t there. Exclamation and question marks help, as do commas and periods, but they provide very rude support in helping us block out the message. Mostly we fall back on imagination to fill in the missing parts, so we read with an as if kind of attitude—as if we were witnessing someone actually saying those words. That is, we are left to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and there’s no sure way of knowing if we are reading the situation correctly or not. As in reading poetry, we have to use every clue we are given.

 

This is a kind of language participation that often gives persons with autism a great deal of difficulty. They have trouble reading postures, gestures, expressions, and eyes. Which are all parts of the language occasion or situation. They hear the literal words without all the trimmings that help make it clear what is being said. So their consciousness of language is diminished to a degree. Neuroscientists say those with autism often lack a “theory of mind” that lets them identify with the mental states and intentions of others, so they can’t “read” their minds. Even though few of us are aware such signals are part of everyday language, we are taking them in on some level and our understanding acknowledges that fact. Which is a tricky part of consciousness because we register the effects of those signals without being aware of the evidence itself.

 

We may not know how we do it, but in many situations we are able to read minds. How do we know that we know what we think we know is going on in another person’s head? The short answer is we can’t ever know for sure. But the long answer is that many times we can trust our intuition. Without such an ability, how would we ever feel empathy for another’s condition? How could we ever be with anyone else in spirit? How could we communicate on an intimate level, and so feel connected? Consciousness must be an additive function that doesn’t settle for taking the world at face value but adds an assortment of subliminal signals into a coherent impression beyond what can be experienced directly through sensory channels. And when the signals don’t add up, we become consciously aware of dissonance or mixed messages that put us on our guard.

 

I suspect we learn to read other people’s intentions very early in childhood through imitation of their gestures and expressions in a spirit of play. That way we establish a kind of resonance based on a caregiver’s grasp of our level of understanding, and build on that. In short order we get good at mimicking gestures and facial expressions (for which we are rewarded with feedback such as smiles, giggles, hugs, and kisses), which leads to anticipating what others are going to say and do, as if we could read their minds. Way before our formal schooling, through playful interactions we have laid the foundation for social exchanges we will rely on every day of our lives.

 

Our mindreading skills stem from imagination reinforced by positive feedback. We put ourselves out there and learn from what happens. Taking the feedback to heart, we venture again. And again. These fundamental social skills are acquired by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Scientists talk about the brain as a computer performing computations based on information received from outside. But really, “information” isn’t informative in this sense because the brain doesn’t have access to the situation in which data becomes meaningful on its own. The information-processing view is laid on our brains by others, but each of us develops consciousness on the inside by making gestures in the world, receiving feedback, refining our gestures, and modifying our behavior in a kind of endless loop of experience that is self-generating and self-improving. We on the inside are always the judge of what is effective and what isn’t. Those around us have as much to learn from us as we do from them.

 

Consciousness is spurred by imagination and a spirit of fun. Forget information. The more merriment, the better.

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