(Copyright © 2010)

This blog is an extension of a project I started in July, 2006 in a summer research seminar led by the Quaker Institute for the Future at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Each member worked for a month on a project in an atmosphere of communal discernment, making several presentations to the group, offering comments and suggestions in an atmosphere of mutual trust. My project was a Power-Point promoting resolution of conflicts over marine issues on the Maine coast. How, I asked, could people come to mutual agreement on issues they approached from divergent points of view? My conclusion was that human consciousness is such a personal matter, there is no way fully to appreciate another’s perspective. Mapping our life experiences onto our respective worlds as we do, we effectively live in parallel universes ruled by different assumptions, customs, rules, and desires, making agreement about anything extremely difficult.

Which didn’t advance my project idea very far, if at all. Following the seminar, I put together several more detailed presentations, each falling short of my ambitions. It struck me I might be working in the wrong medium, so took to blogging about consciousness as an alternative route to the same goal. After 199 posts, am I any further along than I was? Yes and no. I have developed several new ways of looking at the problem, and broadened my respect for the difficulty of what I am trying to do, which I see now, comes with the territory of being human. Consciousness is a very flexible tool for overcoming short-term difficulties, but it is less helpful in the long term because rooted in the practical here and now, not the necessarily conceptual then of the future.

In effect, at the same time they are the bases we stand on, our past ways often prevent us from taking new positions in unfamiliar situations. And every new day is an unfamiliar situation (if it’s not, it’s not a new day). Changing our ways requires we give up old habits of making ourselves happen in the universe. If we can’t slough the skin we present to the world, then it’s bound to become dry and disfiguring. Is that what we want—to cling to what we’ve already become? Or can we keep up with changing times by incorporating new factors into our makeup?

On that note, I went back to Reflection 1: Dying Crow, to see where I was when I began this series of posts. Here’s the “snippet” of consciousness I dealt with in October 2008:

I am driving along a country road and see a dead crow ahead. No, not dead, a dying crow—its wing feebly flapping the air. A shadow on the edge of the shoulder showing signs of life. What should I do? For me, this is a worst-case scenario. I can’t just drive by and leave it to suffer. I am aware of strong feelings welling within me. I don’t want to stop and wring its neck, but what else can I do? I’d rather keep going. I am conflicted. Then, as I approach the dying crow, I see it differently—a trash bag blowing in the wind. Yes, definitely, a black plastic bag agitated by the wash from passing cars. Relieved, I drive on.

Categorization, that’s what I was dealing with. Mapping my values, attitudes, and experience onto the world—and getting it wrong. I caught myself in the act of falsely projecting my fears and assumptions onto an innocent phenomenon—a dark, shifting shape by the side of the road. In that instant, I confront not a dying crow but my own consciousness remaking the world to suit itself.

In Reflection 4: Crash, I did exactly the same thing in seeing a swept-back, metal TV antenna gleaming in sunlight as a crashing airplane. In Reflection 6, I saw a complete stranger ahead of me on the sidewalk as my friend, Fred, because he was dressed as Fred would have dressed and walked with a similar gait. Erroneously mapping concepts onto my immediate surroundings, that’s where I began this blog. I didn’t use the word “categorization” because it wasn’t in my working vocabulary, but I see now that’s what I was dealing with.

In Reflection 3: Mia Culpa, I tell of looking for a jar of mustard—and not finding it anywhere—even though I looked right at it several times in my search. What could happen to a jar of mustard, a fixture in my very idea of kitchen and refrigerator? What did happen was that it was lying on its side, presenting a round, red top, not the half-full, bent-sided jar I had in mind. Wrong gestalt. I had the wrong image of what I was looking for. The pattern I was seeking didn’t exist because it had morphed into an unconventional view I didn’t associate with mustard. One of life’s minor situations, and an occasion for learning about my habitual search strategies. Categorization, again, gone sour. Casting trite expectations onto my little world, I came up empty-handed and still hungry. 

In Reflection 5: Sunflowers, I told of going upstairs to get something, and not seeing a bunch of huge sunflowers in a vase that I passed within six inches of while both coming and going. I was so fixated on whatever I’d come after as to be functionally blind. “Do you like the sunflowers?” asks Carole. “What sunflowers?” says I. Again, a void in my personal space because, for me, sunflowers weren’t the issue, so I wasn’t looking for them. And I don’t seem to see what I’m not looking for. Expectancy, attention, and categorization are key in how I map my mind onto the world, making the world I construe for myself absolutely my personal world. Anyone coming right behind me would construct a different world based on her expectations, attention, and habitual modes of categorization.

All of which have consequences. In Reflection 10: Diagnosis, I told of going to an eminent doctor who, thinking I had cystic fibrosis, put me in hospital for a week of tests intended to confirm his hunch. Except they didn’t. He released me, not having a clue what I had (which, as it turned out thirty years later, was celiac disease all along). Diagnosis is how we decide between our options for categorizing particular patterns that interest us. It is a way of getting hold of the pattern so we’re sure it’s this one and not that one. Putting a name to a pattern of symptoms, we then apply the standard remedy or customary course of treatment. Who are we? Diagnosticians, every one. Or cartographers, bent on mapping our expectancies onto phenomena that matter to us. Then acting (rightly or wrongly) on the basis of the diagnosis we have mapped out.

In Reflection 37: Terms of Endearment, I blogged about giving names to persons or things that change our lives. In hindsight, I see I was dealing with an aspect of categorization by relying on prior experience in becoming conscious of something new:

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.

Naming is applied intentionality, a defining characteristic of consciousness:

Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.

Scary, to think that how we name our children and our pets reveals who we are. But there it is: consciousness projecting itself onto patterns in our heads, and those named patterns becoming features of the world we wrap ourselves in. Other cultures, other people—other quilts for consciousness.

Throughout this blog, I have tried to deal with metaphor as a variant form of intentionality, also deliberately applied. Intentionality is habitual categorization, representing a personal style of mapping concepts derived from prior experiences onto patterns that emerge in everyday life. Which is exactly what categorization does for us in giving meaning to sensory patterns and relationships. When personal meanings are an issue, metaphor tells the world emphatically how we see it in light of our experience.

Humor, too, reveals categorizations by setting up a conceptual framework or situation that is fulfilled by a specific punch line, resolving a tense situation (because of frustrated or confounded expectancy) in an apt yet novel manner, eliciting laughter—our stock response to nonthreatening surprises.

Categorization is a basic feature of consciousness that surfaces in almost everything we do. Human understanding is a form of categorization—of lending character to the world based on how we choose to depict it from our point of view. The bulk of this blog, it turns out in hindsight, deals with aspects of categorizing as a key aspect of mind. Dying crows, crashing planes, missing mustard jars, strangers mistaken for friends, sunflowers not seen, naming, metaphors, humor—here in each case is meaning-making in action, the human mind at work trying to find sense in its relevant universe by mapping abstract concepts from the past onto sensory patterns in the here and the now.

It was Gerald M. Edelman who gave me the word “categorization,” which he distinguishes from the philosophical sort by calling “perceptual categorization.” In the Glossary to Wider than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness (Yale, 2004), he lists perceptual categorization as, “The process by which the brain ‘carves the world up’ to yield adaptive categories. The most fundamental of early cognitive functions.” Reading his works this past winter, I realized he and I were talking about similar aspects of mind using different words. In addition, Edelman suggests not only a neural substrate, but an evolutionary or adaptive origin as well, both of which lie beyond my limited experience. Seeing categorization as the central core of consciousness, I switched to Edelman’s way of thinking, trying to work my way into the concept, which keeps growing larger and more encompassing in my understanding. It provides a fitting culmination to this blog, letting me tie much of what I have written together—a major categorizational shift in my way of thinking.

I call this next-to-last post (I am retiring for now) “Letting Go” because one part of categorization I haven’t dealt with is how we grow to become more discriminating categorizers by letting go of, or transcending, the limits imposed on our seeing-the-world by the narrowness of our lived experience. If conflict resolution between those who see the world differently is an issue, then I believe the best solution might be to let go of our conflictive selves in order to grow into larger persons with broader abilities to find meaning in the patterns we see in the world. It’s OK for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims, atheists to be atheists, people to be who they are because they cannot reinvent themselves as someone else. Clearly, this requires self-transcendence of us all. If our categorizations become hardened because written in stone for all time, we are incapable of waking up to a new day. When, in fact, every day is given us as a new challenge because the past no longer exists. It is up to us to keep up with the sun and the seasons by renewing ourselves to meet the challenge of today, not those of yesterday, or thousands of years before that.

I say we need to discover more humor in our rigid categorizations by rising above ourselves and looking down, seeing ourselves as characters in a story (or is it a joke?). That is, of letting go the chains we wrap round our minds as if we were creatures, not of the instant, but of all time, ever the same because we are trapped in our minds and cannot get out.

Did Moses know it all? Did Jesus? Mohammed? Shaping ourselves in their image by repeating words ascribed to them, we become cardboard cutouts of so many smiling waiters or waitresses bringing trays filled with mugs of beer to assure our satisfaction and happiness. As if a particular brand of beer—or religion—held the answer to all questions. As if loyal or even orthodox adherence to the past was the way to the future. As if we knew now what the future will bring, and it will be as we describe it, without fail. As if each day was not new, but only an opportunity for us to cram it into the mold of the past to fit concepts we have in mind because that is the only way we can reliably know who we are. As if we were not flesh-and-blood humans but creatures of stone, much like the terracotta warriors of China.

In truth, consciousness has the power to reinvent itself in response to the situation each of us finds him-or-herself in today. We may not be able to beam ourselves into new bodies, but we can transcend the limits we put on ourselves yesterday and the day before. Indeed, it is we who bind our minds with steel bands lest we think a new thought or dream of casting-off our old, worn-out personalities and tired ideas. They are already dead; all we need do is let go and shed them as our former selves. It is not written anywhere that who we were is who we are for all time. That is a trap laid by unsupple minds to catch themselves changing and growing into new selves more suited to the new day. It’s as if people were holding their breath, stopping their blood from flowing, not thinking new thoughts. Not daring to live.

One thing is certain: rigidity of consciousness is a catatonic state of mind that locks the living world into a dead cartoon of the world as it might be if we but opened our eyes. What are we to do? Release the past from the chains we’ve put round it and let it go. I am not—and cannot be—the child I was, or the man I hoped to become. I am wholly other because I have given myself to my environment as it flows through my senses. I am none other than a creature of my time and place on this planet. I turn with the Earth so that I can be fully what it makes of me. That way, I evolve. That is the only way I can enjoy the ride—which is the trip of a lifetime. My lifetime. My days as a conscious son of the Earth.

No, they don’t teach that in school. Everyone is too anxious to leave young minds up to chance. We invent curriculums and standardized tests, which are mental chains in themselves. Think of the irony of a gang of unique kids being herded into one end of the education system and cranked out as a uniform standard product at the other end. What has been lost in the process is the quality of individual uniqueness, sole fount of imagination, invention, and ultimately, survival under ever-changing yet unique circumstances and conditions. That is, our humanity has been stripped away because, by biological definition, each of us is unlike any other.

What a difference it makes to conceive of yourself as a unique being instead of a replica of everyone else. That way, you can reinvent yourself as you choose and don’t have to live up to the identity laid upon you by the expectations of your peers. Are you living for them? Is that how it is? They are your guides and masters, your controllers? Your life is an extension of theirs? If so, that is because you have already surrendered and are dead but don’t know it.

Let go of all that. Open yourself to discovery. Let the world in through your senses, not those of celebrities, columnists, loud talkers, or pundits. Activate your own mapping skills so that you live in your own personal territory, not the cell assigned to you. That territory is in your head and belongs solely to you. Never trade it away for any reason. Live by your own wits, not the dictates of others. Open yourself to the sensory patterns flowing around you; immerse yourself in them. Deal with the patterns of your time and your place on this Earth. Then lay meaning on those patterns as best you can account for them. And act on those meanings to see if they are accurate or not. If not, try again—something different this time. Not always the same as if you were a stone warrior, a true believer in the single, true faith.

That’s what I mean by “letting go.” Really, becoming yourself and fulfilling the potential you were born to. Is there any other way to live? Evidently there is—many of us dragging in chains our whole lives, thinking thoughts approved by others in advance. And consorting only with those who categorize their sensory worlds as we do, because it is much too dangerous to stake out individual territories for ourselves.

With the result that we are not truly alive, or truly ourselves, but are some kind of zooid living out a life sentence, hoping it will end soon, without pain or mishap. Which means not taking the risk of making ourselves happen in the world as if each of us were an individual capable of independent action, thought, and responsibility. Trapped by outdated ideas, we live in the old days, as we have been taught. Discovering freedom requires us to let go of all that. We have the mental equipment to do it. And a methodology for knowing ourselves as categorizers and sensory pattern detectors (go back and read this blog if you missed that part) who make their own worlds. Mental chains are a challenge meant to be mastered—as Alexander undid the Gordian Knot.

Gordian Knot Pattern

 

Reflection 178: Mind Sets

February 4, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Never underestimate the power of is.

One and one is two.

Abbas is yesterday’s man.

God is love.

The cat is on the mat.

That giraffe is one sick animal.

In each case, one part of the human mind (conceptual memory from the past) reaches out to another part (sensory perception in the now) in such a way to categorize or characterize (lend character to) it, using language to create a meaningful moment of experience. The is bestows not only attention, recognition, or existence on the perception by naming it, but gives it definite qualities or character as we see it in our mind’s eye.

One and one is two. Two distinct things make one unified thing—a pair, couple, item, entity. If that isn’t mental magic, I don’t know what is. The only way that can happen is for all particularity to be stripped away, making the entities identical for our present purposes. One apple and one orange make two pieces of fruit. One boy and one girl make a pair or an item. They may be separate, but we come to think of them together, even to see them together. Different sexes perhaps, different blood types, different genomes—but in our minds we bind them as one. Jack and Jill, Antony and Cleopatra, Rogers and Astaire, Laurel and Hardy. Separate but equal contributors to a whole. If not in reality, then in our minds. That’s where the magic is performed.

Abbas is yesterday’s man. Let me give you the whole sentence as Fawaz A. Gerges wrote it (“The Transformation of Hamas,” in The Nation (January 25, 2010):

P[alestinian] A[uthority] President Mahmoud Abbas has been weakened by a series of blunders of his own making, and with his moral authority compromised in the eyes of a sizable Palestinian constituency, Abbas is yesterday’s man—no matter how long he remains in power as a lame duck, and whether or not he competes in the upcoming presidential elections (page 22).

Presenting Abbas as a man who has outlived his time, how powerful is that? Mind magic, again, categorizing a person from a particular point of view—as seen through another man’s eyes. Here the author’s attitude toward his subject colors what he finds, or places him in a box wholly different  from the conventional form of “PA President.”

God is love. The ultimate abstraction is painted in terms of a feeling we have all known at one time or another, as if the abstraction generated the feeling: Where love is, there is God—confounding a concept with a biological state of mind. This is not just mixing metaphors, it is smashing them together in a particle collider. The phrase rolls off the tongue, and is much cited, but it doesn’t mean anything because it treats two different categories of life experience—one essentially mythical and literary, the other experiential—as if they were the same.

The cat is on the mat. You wouldn’t believe how many linguists have analyzed this sentence to find out where it came from. It categorizes the cat by giving it a place, answering the eternal questions, “Where’s the cat?” or “What’s that thing on the mat?” or “What’s under the cat?” etc. The whole sentence betrays a scientific attitude toward syntax and the spontaneous generation of language. As such, it is a conceptual horror, an artifact, a research tool never imagined by real children. Teacher says, “Give me a sentence of one syllable words containing a prepositional phrase and a word rhyming with cat.” It may look like language, but it died in the making.

That giraffe is one sick animal. Here the abstract concept “giraffe” is qualified by unmentioned symptoms of illness, so is categorized very loosely as “sick” without telling us why. This is an intuitive, folk diagnosis, on a par with “Tell me what’s wrong, Doc,” betraying a certain wariness, which is the true subject of the sentence. The squeamish attitude of the speaker or writer is the unstated issue (subject), not the giraffe—and it doesn’t even appear in the sentence in so many words. If you diagram it correctly, you miss the point.

The point I’m trying to bring out is that categorizations, which each of us perform a thousand times a day, are trickier than at first they seem. Only rarely can we get away with calling a spade a spade. Or stripping all qualities away and dealing solely with quantities, as if 1 + 1 = 2 were actually true and not code for a multitude, depending on how you look at it. I call individual posts to this blog “reflections,” trying to draw attention to our personal responsibility for seeing the world as we do, which is invariably other than it is. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about finding “an echo of thought in sight,” which sums up my whole point. Yet we unwittingly cast those echoes into the world without seeing them for the projections they really are. We are the magicians who create meaningful episodes of experience, and yet take no credit for our skill.

The recognition of a pear as a pear, a road as a road, a cloud as a cloud—is in us, not any pear, road, cloud, all coming to us unlabeled and uncategorized. We cast pearhood upon this one, roadhood on that one, cloudhood on the one up above—transferring a handy item in memory to the scene before us, as if our experience were a property of the scene itself and not of personal consciousness—as if everyone else sees it exactly as we do. But meaningful couplings of concepts and percepts, memories and phenomena, are demonstrably features of the mind, not the world. In truth, nothing can be as it appears without a mind making that judgment. In calling a spade a spade, it is the calling that matters, not the spade or the idea of a spade. It is the act of categorizing, recognizing, projecting, transferring that matters, the bodily casting of an idea upon the waters of the world. Which we all do all the time without realizing it, turning the world outside-in, ourselves inside-out—all as a matter of course, not appreciating the magic in what we do every day.

Our minds are full of sets of things. Categories, types, sorts—in a word, concepts. Which we have interpolated from similarities between a string of earlier sensory experiences, laying down networks of linked pathways in our brains, ready to cast upon the world whenever sensory phenomena assume a familiar pattern—itself generated by the networks that perform the recognizing each time. We see what we are familiar with because becoming familiar with the patterns we encounter in our minds is what we do best. Allowing us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, as if we invented the whole process, which we did! As we look upon the world, so do we see. If we fear terrorist attacks, we suspect them everywhere. Wheat makes me sick, so I even imagine it blowing on the wind. Real or imagined, the world is as we categorize the patterns we look for—and inevitably find. Each in her own way because her life experience and her physical development and her genome are unique. So each of our worlds is unique; it has to be, it is our own doing.

On playing fields, umpires categorize as a profession, telling balls from strikes, safe from out. Judges in their courtrooms do much the same, distinguishing falsehood from truth, guilt from innocence. Careers are at stake here, reputations on the line; which is it to be, personal freedom or incarceration, or even capital punishment? Categorizations matter. They are often mistaken or plainly wrong because we are all creatures of strong views and prejudices. Politicians distinguish very broadly between party beliefs and affiliation, party members seeming to inhabit separate universes whose laws are mutually exclusive. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to be an expert at recognizing Communist sympathizers on sight. Whatever the facts, he would sniff them out, as long as they fit the pattern in his head, or the scent that so famously stopped up his nose.

Speaking of noses, the molecules our bodies are made of—together with the atoms making them up—are loaned to us by the universe to see what we can make of them and do with them. The animalcules on our skin and in our gut—ten times more numerous than the cells making up our bodies—are also loaned to us to see what, together, we can do. What we can make happen in this crazy paradise we call Earth. Plants arrange their molecules into cells conducting sap from soil to leaves. At the heart of the stem, cells die, forming a structure that is flexible and holds the tree up, swaying in strong winds. Near the outside just under the bark, living cells conduct sap upward, nutrients downward, promoting growth and life’s continuance. Other beings come from outside the tree to drill holes in the bark, allowing sap to ooze out, so bacteria have access to it, then the other beings—yellow-bellied sapsuckers, say—come back to check on what is happening in the holes it drilled earlier, eat the sap and bacteria to replenish their bodies in order to see what they, in turn, can make happen on Earth. Each being is a unique agent of the universe, all collectively striving to see what this generation of Earthlings can make happen.

My personal categorizations flows like sap from my body and from the experience of its molecules and atoms, its cells, organs, and organ systems. This enables my brain and my body to make collective sense of what I can know of the Earth, to organize an understanding of how Earth works for the purpose of working with similar systems or enhancing those that constitute my tribe and my kind of people. All this came to me in a dream as I was waking up this morning. A crazy dream, but no crazier than the life system that makes it possible, no crazier than the categories I project onto other dreamers so they will fit my understanding of my time and my place and what I am here to make happen while my particular mix of molecules gives me and my animalcules the structure we share together to make events happen in the universe. Thank you atoms and molecules, animalcules, thank you universe. I’ll see what I can do. When I die, I will donate my atoms and molecules to those who come after me; perhaps they will make better use of them than I have been able to do.

Speaking of craziness, I once sat through a lecture feeling uncomfortable the whole time because the speaker looked straight at me and no one else in the audience. Afterwards, I asked her why she had singled me out and she said I looked just liker her son. She was talking to him, not to me; I was just a dummy sitting in a chair. In certain circles, that is called transference, but at root it is miscategorization—treating a spade as if it were an eggplant. One thing leading to another, as it so often does in this life, I later (1970s) found myself in a graduate student professional development program studying how to use such projections or transferences to raise self-awareness. That led me to a brief acquaintance with the percept language developed by John Weir. I realize now the broader implication of percept language as a tool for mastering categorization by helping us see how we do violence to the world by shaping our worlds to conform to our personal experiences, as that speaker so long ago did—as I sat quietly in my chair—violence to me. It felt like rape at a distance, she using me for her own purposes while I was defenseless to do anything about it.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in revenge for the leveling of the Twin Towers fits the same pattern, transferring our hurt and anger to an innocent nation we didn’t particularly like, even though we had used it in the 1980s as a pawn on our side in the Cold War. Just as the nation of Israel now vents its spleen on the current generation of Palestinians whose parents it displaced in invading Palestine in 1948, deflecting its own collective guilt onto innocent parties, blaming the victims, not seeing that its own hostility is a projection, transference, or miscategorization aimed at the wrong target employed precisely to get itself off the hook so it can sleep comfortably in its bed at night.

Such is consciousness, and the life conducted in its name. I call it crazy and shameful, unless we all assume an attitude of curiosity about why we do the things we do, and take personal responsibility for the chaotic scripts we enact in doing the terrible things we inflict on others. Heightened self-awareness is the less-traveled road we could take if such a course fit our itinerary. Instead, we insist on plummeting toward Armageddon as if that were our destined endpoint. Which is where Weir’s percept language comes in, designed for those who catch themselves in the act of using other beings for their purposes. The language is so powerful, it makes you take responsibility for your own actions instead of blaming others, abusing them as if they deserved it through repeated acts of aggressive self-justification. I don’t think John Weir understood the greatness of his contribution. Since the early 1980s, I have never met anyone who has even heard of him.

To set the record straight, I will end this post with two paragraphs from his chapter on “The Personal Growth Laboratory” in Benne, K., et al., The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application (Science and Behavior Books, 1975; available at GreenPsychology.net on January 25, 2010, when I downloaded it):

The first morning session is devoted to reporting the previous night’s dreams. At this time, we introduce a special point of view which we will emphasize throughout the lab. We start with the centuries-old philosophical theory of solipsism which states that only the self exists, or can be proven to exist. In our application, we take the position that, as far as I, the perceiver, am concerned, the external world “exists” only inside me as sensations and images. Objects as experienced are solely the consequence of my perceptual processes. . . . All my experience takes place solely within me, within the confines of my body. It occurs continuously, from moment to moment. I live only in the here and now. . . .

Our frame of reference for the lab, then, is that each of us is continually perceiving and organizing his world in his unique way, never precisely the same as anyone else. I am “doing” myself and you are “doing” yourself. Your “existence” is for me always my perception of you, the “you-in-me,” and I “exist” for you only as the “me-in-you.” You are there, you act, you may even physically influence me. This has the consequence of changing the “you-in-me” and the “me-in-you.” How I “do” the “you-in-me” is determined by my deeds, my perceptions, and my past experiences. It is, I am, always my own responsibility. This is true both for how I do myself and how you do yourself. We conclude that the perceptual elements of our interpersonal interactions consist of a “you,” a “me,” a “you-in-me,” and a “me-in-you.”

Like the umpire or referee, our behavior is invariably a matter of judgment calls. To make this line of thinking more accessible to ourselves, we can think of all behavior as being, at base, metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are miscategorizations to a purpose, which is to emphasize a particular aspect of an event, thing, situation, or phenomenon in awareness. They are deliberate cartoons, distortions, exaggerations, or misrepresentations drawing attention to something as seen from one point of view or another. We take responsibility for the metaphors we cast on the world. When we take them at face value and don’t see them as intentional distortions, is when we get into (and cause) so much trouble. Then we label our intent as God’s truth, which others may experience as Satan’s outright lies. Thus our respective worlds turn about an axis provided by the unique set of our own minds.

As we look, so do we see.

(Copyright © 2009)

But enough of my own consciousness. I am also interested in how other people experience their own minds. Since I do not have direct access to other minds in other bodies leading other lives, I leave the reporting of what they discover through personal introspection to them as being complementary to my own research.

From time to time I will post (as guest blogs) such reports as I come across them. Today I have permission to share a piece recently published in the Vassalboro Quarter Newsletter, “A Garden of Forgiveness” by Maggie Edmondson, who lives in Readfield, Maine. Maggie writes, “I am very interested in imagination and the spiritual power of metaphor.”

A GARDEN of FORGIVENESS

Maggie Edmondson

While I was in England this time last year the Chelsea Flower Show was in full swing. There were something like thirty 10×20 gardens created for the event by landscape artists and for several evenings there were shows about them on the television. As a garden lover I enjoyed this tremendously and noted down features I thought I might be able to incorporate in my own garden.

But I also wondered how people might benefit from the garden idea who had no land to plant. My imagination started to work with the idea of designing an inner garden. How would that garden look and feel and smell? Would it be all tranquil shades of green as some of those Chelsea gardens were, maybe accented with a few pure white flowers? Would it have waterfalls or other water features to give it an element of purification and regeneration? Would it be a riot of color to replace a sense of bleakness? Would its form be simple and elegant or strange and fanciful? I had a feeling that if we were to allow our hearts and imaginations to do their nonverbal, image-building work, we might create individualized inner garden retreats which would feed our souls.

Then, through one of those wonderful “coincidences” when I attended meeting that Sunday a Friend who was a keen gardener spoke about her struggles to forgive things from her past. She expressed it as a desire to plant a garden of forgiveness. My imaginings of an inner garden became focused over the next few days toward an inner garden of forgiveness. I started to choose plants appropriate to my memories of places or people—a mulberry tree, a wall covered in climbing roses, bluebells, primroses and blackberry bushes, a stream with stepping stones. I also remembered some of the attributes traditionally associated with certain plants:

Gerbera daisies for beauty and innocence—what a wonderful thing to plant where there has been ugliness and abuse;

Irises for faith, hope and wisdom where there has been despair or lack of direction;

Vines for new life, regeneration in those places which seem dead and withered;

Honeysuckle for generosity where there has been selfishness or closed-fistedness;

Roses for love and admiration, where there has been anger or hatred or lack of appreciation; and

Forget-me-Nots, whose name says it all.

That garden lives vividly within my imagination, within my spirit. I can walk its pathways, experience its healing presence, feel the spirit of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Thanks be to God who speaks to us in so many ways, including our imaginations.

Iris-72

  

(Copyright © 2009)

Before I explain the title of this post, I have to provide enough background to make it meaningful.

 

The two most important words in the English language are the articles “a” (or “an”) and “the.” These little words distinguish between general categories of conscious experience (concepts such as a word, an apple, a dragonfly) and sensory phenomena or percepts specifically representing one category or another (the word “word” itself, the apple I ate for lunch, the dragonfly zipping back and forth over the still pond). The indefinite article “a” directs attention toward a class of things known for their shared resemblance within consciousness; the definite article “the” directs attention toward a unique member worthy of consideration apart from other members of any such class.

 

Put that way, the distinction between individual things and things that are members of a class of things seems merely a way of talking about things that are significant in themselves and things that are significant because they share characteristics common to a group of things. Which may seem a trivial distinction. What difference does it make whether I say, “I ate an apple for lunch,” or “I ate the apple on my plate”? An apple could be big or small, red or yellow, ripe or unripe, sweet or sour, whole or cut into pieces, tangy or bland, and so on. The apple is not a matter of serial either/or distinctions but is what it is and nothing else. We may not know all of the details, but we know its character derives from its exhibiting one specific combination of sensible details which are mere possibilities within the overall category.

 

The question is, why draw the distinction? And the answer must be, because it makes a significant difference to me, and if you will only listen to my story as it unfolds, you will come to understand the difference been an apple as a vague category of experience and the role this one apple plays on a particular occasion in my life.

 

The apple on my plate was put before me. I didn’t select it, it was presented to me. In my family we had to eat what we were given—the specific servings. We couldn’t pick and choose. If the starving children in China couldn’t pick and choose, neither could we. If the apple turned out to be wormy, sour, or bitter, we ate it nonetheless. An apple is an abstract idea; we didn’t deal with abstractions. We ate our dinners. Without hesitation, without question, without complaint. Abstractions don’t nourish the body, only specific apples on specific plates at specific times in specific places can do that. I am made of such apples. Without them I wouldn’t be here today. I am living proof of the distinction between an apple as an idea or category of experience and the apple on my plate. Both are apples in my mind, but in wholly different ways. One is both in my mind and my stomach; the other remains a dim phantom. Viva la [Burp.] difference!

 

All of which goes to explain the title of this post: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Take note: the cloud; a dog. Cloud as sensory phenomenon, dog as concept or idea—both in consciousness, but playing different roles. The distinction is crucial. If it was, The Cloud That Is a Dog, that would be a metaphor, not a simile. But the principle is exactly the same: a concrete aspect of experience bears on and informs an abstract or ideational aspect of consciousness, the two together building an edifice in the mind much larger than either structure taken by itself.

 

What set me off on this rather tortuous journey was a quote from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (Houghton Mifflin, Mariner Books, 2000, first published 1977). The second chapter ends with this thought:

 

For if consciousness is based on language, then it follows that it is of a much more recent origin than has heretofore been supposed. Consciousness come after language! The implications of such a position are extremely serious (page 66).

 

Consciousness based on language requires language to come first, as the foundation must precede the house. In my mind, given the rate at which life has evolved, that’s a mighty big “if.” From my perspective, consciousness must embrace both the concrete and abstract aspects of language such as I have taken pains to illustrate in this post so far—if language and metaphor are to be possible. Language is only one aspect of consciousness. I have looked at humor, how we name things, metaphor, seeing one thing as another, not seeing what is in front of us, pain—all involving various combinations of concrete and abstract ramifications within consciousness. If I can point to a single example of consciousness without words, then Jaynes’ contention, no matter how erudite, is open to question. Think sight gags, Picasso’s Guernica, the concluding movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the championship-deciding game in the World Series, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (sung in German), the ballet Swan Lake.

 

But no, I will offer only The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Not in so many words, but as a photograph of the actual event when it happened. Before I get to the drum roll, first think what that might imply: seeing a cloud as a dog. It is an act of perception and an act of cognition engaging each other, not in the world, but in the mind. My mind. Wholly without words. The mental representation of a cloud becoming mutually engaged with the idea—the very essence—of doggishness. This is not an example of language itself but of what makes language possible: the coupling of sensory phenomena with conceptual ideas so that words—whether spoken, heard, written, read, signed, or seen—take on meanings and convey them to other minds.

 

Drum roll. Expectant hush. A flash of brilliance. I give you, preverbally: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. 

 

DogCloud, 7-2008

 

In his Afterword, Jaynes allows, “Consciousness is not all language, but it is generated by it and accessed by it. . . . Consciousness then becomes embedded in language and so is learned easily by children. The general rule is: there is no operation in consciousness that did not occur in behavior first” (page 449). Which to me sounds like he’s hedging or preparing way for a cop-out. He claims solving problems, like driving, requires no consciousness—but to me solving novel problems is the essence of goal-directed consciousness which we must do on our own, in our own minds, in light of our own skills and judgment. Even driving, I skillfully access my progress through brief glimpses between and during cogitations. Bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back safely to Earth is Exhibit A of the conscious mind’s deliberate, informed, hands-on, preverbal, problem-solving ability.

 

For myself, I am content to inhabit a conscious world that allows me to visualize phenomenal clouds in the guise of idealized dogs, engaging my environment through a metaphor more fundamental and much older than speech. I spend much of my time in nature attending to speechless creatures of one sort or another (see Pix at the head of this blog). As I have written, there is no language per se in nature, yet there is consciousness of every sort—including my own. I keep my ears, eyes, nostrils open, mouth shut. Yet still I form concepts based on what I find, and my mind grows in every dimension. I have wordless feelings, expectancies, insights, and memories. Much of what I know today I have learned through personal, first hand interactions with nature more basic than language.

 

As an encore, I give you The Great Seal of the United States of America. It may look like the representation of an Eagle to you, but check out the carrot and stick in those talons—this is the representation of an eagle in the process of representing a nation’s ideals. Here is a visual metaphor cloaked in our national identity, no small trick for a bird, or for consciousness either, and all without words.

Great Seal of the U.S.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Haiku and metaphor originate in situations that bring two aspects of consciousness together simultaneously as a comparison or more basic juxtaposition. One aspect is a sensory image, the other is a series of images that has mellowed into a concept or an idea stored in memory. The conscious mind addresses both aspects as a unified situation having a concrete sensory and an abstract cognitive part, the two parts binding in a moment of emotional comprehension which joins them, perhaps for the first time.

 

Too, haiku and metaphor have an additional dimension involving words and phrases representing the experiential situation as a disciplined language event. The experience of emotional understanding is given linguistic form, and the entire ensemble of sensory image, idea, emotional insight, and specific language is referred to as a haiku or metaphor.

 

It is the creator’s job to translate conscious experience into words which carry the burden of the event without distortion, deletion, or unnecessary addition. It is the reader’s job to rekindle the emotional understanding from exposure to the raw words. Both jobs require full conscious participation and an attitude supporting an undertaking requiring full awareness, concentration, emotional sensitivity, and linguistic skill.

 

It is no wonder that the true poets of our species are few and far between. But by a lesser standard, all of us are poets in everyday life when we achieve a grasp of a conscious situation involving sensory and cognitive input, emotional insight, understanding, and speech skills at our personal level of mastery—which we do every day.

 

Language is not the whole of consciousness by any means, but it is one door opening into the many aspects of consciousness underwriting every episode of human behavior. This adds a qualitative avenue to the understanding of the mind as a supplement to the quantitative route so favored by laboratory scientists. Artists and humanists have access to consciousness in ways those trained in scientific disciplines avoid, and therefore fail to fully appreciate, understand, or explore.

 

I base today’s post on rough translations of three haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa ( 1763-1828 ) and one by Yosa Buson ( 1716-1783 ).

 

Example E.          a tethered horse

                             snow

                             in both stirrups

 

Buson’s horse is an idea, a compilation from all of the black-and-white westerns we have ever seen. Whoa! What’s that snow doing here? Not on the ground but in both stirrups! What’s the situation here? The rider has dismounted and is not minding his steed, staying overlong at the tavern, perhaps, or the whorehouse. He is inferred but not even mentioned, so we enter the consciousness of the horse. How does it feel to be left out in the cold? Terrible! Lonely. Hungry. Neglected. Of no use. Forgotten. It’s those snow-filled stirrups that so shock us. We’ve never considered such an image before. So it speaks clearly to us, rousing us, waking us up. Buson must actually have seen it, so he successfully conveys his compassion for the horse across all those miles and years which separate us. In the most economical way possible—that is the genius of haiku.

 

Example F.          mother I never knew

                             every time I see the ocean

                             every time

 

If you don’t know your mother, she is little more than an abstract idea. But the ocean is concrete—all those waves rolling, rolling against the shore. The sky has to be overcast, the waves glowing restless green. That feeling comes again, that empty yearning, that sadness, that self-blame for having no home to go to. It’s my fault. I must’ve really screwed up. So this is the home I keep coming back to. It is the same every time, yet not the home I was looking for. The home where she would be—if she were anywhere I could visit. Portraying ocean as unknown mother, Issa has done it again. Taken us into his conscious mind where we can glimpse how it must feel to be him.

 

Example G.         the man pulling radishes

                             points my way

                             with a radish

 

Like the stirrups and the ocean, that radish makes me see with fresh eyes. Makes me appreciate the situation. I’m on a journey and can’t find my way. Who can I ask for directions? Ah, in that field, the man pulling something up—radishes. He’s a stranger, so I don’t know him at all. He’s just another farmer to me. How else would he answer than by pointing with the radish in his hand? It all comes together: me the lone wanderer, the farmer, the radish. Now I know exactly where I am. And take delight in the image before me as I failed to appreciate it before. We are what we are. How could we be anything else? The trick now is to get that carrot gesture down on paper without burying the spontaneity of it under too many words. Issa makes it easy for me to put myself in his place as if his and my consciousness were the same.

 

Example H.         visiting the graves

                             the old dog

                             leads the way

 

Whose graves? The fallen, the famous, the ancients? This poem starts with graves as an idea, which doesn’t tell us much. Ah, the old dog. Not just any old dog, the one, specific old dog. We can see him there up ahead of us. The one in the lead that we follow as we visit the graves. We leap from our mind and our relationship with the dead to the dog’s mind and its relationship with the dead. That’s no mean leap—from human consciousness to dog consciousness. And we get the point. The dog had—and still has—a relationship with the dead. And we have come to rely on that relationship when we visit the graves ourselves. We love this particular guide because we respect his feelings and he respects ours. The dog is old, which suggests he had a relationship with the dead when they were alive. But, too, it warns us that soon we will have to visit the graves without our faithful guide. Which is not only a saddening thought but a scary one. We will be on our own. And we’re not getting any younger ourselves. Who will lead others to our graves when we are gone?

 

So here I have turned 38 of Issa’s and Buson’s words (in translation) into 1,087 words from my own consciousness. It took me 29 times as many words to say a part of what they said. Which is why some are poets and some are not. Haiku and metaphors are efficient means of conveying the sense of personal consciousness in the fewest possible words. The effort it takes to do that, however, can be immense. Poets are those who put in their ten-thousand hours of living, self-study, and preparation. Just ask Issa and Buson, they’ll tell you.

 

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For additional haiku, see:

Haiku Society of America Online Haiku Collections

 

Modern Haiku online issue samples

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

One way to study consciousness is to study activities people throw themselves into and are good at. As a species, we are good at making and doing things. Toys, furniture, weapons, art, and poetry are products of human consciousness, of the body and brain working together to reach a goal or produce a desired result. Every artifact is a reflection of human consciousness at work—planning, judging, choosing, doing.

 

I read a blog the other day that claimed Japanese haiku to be the simplest form of poetry, and therefore the easiest to create. I don’t believe that’s true—that haiku are either simple or easy—but they are relatively brief. And are certainly products of disciplined conscious endeavor. So what can haiku as a creative artifact tell us about consciousness?

 

Let’s take a look at four sample haiku. Right away, some will complain that these poems don’t satisfy the required syllable count. As we are taught in school, the 5-7-5 syllable sequence accords with a sacred formula that defines a haiku. Except that emphasis in Japanese haiku is indicated by words, not punctuation marks, and those words are written and read as part of the poem, whereas in English question and exclamation marks don’t add to the syllable count. Haiku in Japanese are written in one vertical line, not three horizontal lines. And most Japanese words end in vowel sounds, so Japanese haikus are flush with internal rhymes, but when translated, many of those words end in consonants, so there is no way to translate Japanese rhymes into English. Some teachers may like to teach rules for convenience, but when they distort the object of study, it is best to see through them to the true nature of the original form.

 

In this post I offer rough English translations of four haiku by the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) as examples of consciousness reflected in a small number of words.

 

Example A.          on a bare branch

a crow is perched—

autumn evening

 

In this first example we are given the sensory image of a crow on a bare branch, and the idea (concept) that it is late in the year and late in the day. Images and ideas are integral parts of consciousness, but they arise in two different parts of the mind—the senses and conceptual memory. What Basho is doing in this poem is putting two aspects of consciousness together so they play off against each other, the experiential whole adding to more than the sum of its parts. This gets closer to the essence of haiku than counting syllables on our fingers or listening for rhymes.

 

What is the dynamic between image and concept in this poem? Do they support each other or are they in conflict? We sense the bare branch silhouetted against the dusk, the black crow not flying but clutching the branch. All the while knowing that days are getting colder and darker. The fall setting provides a conceptual frame for the specific image Basho gives us, frame and figure combining to fill us with a kind of bleak chill and emptiness. The time has come to get scarves and mittens out; it will get colder and darker before spring revives us again—if spring ever comes.

 

As I have written (see Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain), metaphor is also composed of two parts, the subject or tenor and the predicate or vehicle. The vehicle qualifies the tenor so we see it in a way that expresses our feeling toward a particular event. Haiku set up similar mutual interactions between their major parts, but not through equivalency or comparison. In this case, the image of branch and crow gives substance to the conceptual frame provided by knowing it is not only autumn but also late in the day. Yes, the two parts complement each other, reinforcing our understanding through reference to what we can see with our own eyes. The result is a feeling that is not actually conveyed by the language of the poem. Nowhere do words like sadness or gloom and doom appear to suggest foreboding at the approach of death—but we feel their chill nonetheless. Basho has taken us straight inside his conscious mind, without telling us in so many words what he wants us to feel.

 

Example B.          June rain

hollyhocks stare

where the sun should be

 

Phototropic hollyhocks turn with the sun. Even in the rain, they still follow the brightest part of the sky. Hollyhocks in the rain serve as the vehicle of this poem, the concrete image pointing to the subject or tenor, which can’t be shown at all because the sky is overcast. “Where the sun should be” is an idea, not a sensory image. Putting the image together with that idea, consciousness creates a sense of yearning for, or being faithful to, a desired presence that, in this case, is denied. This haiku is not about beautiful flowers but behavior dedicated to one who is absent, as the mind of the beloved is filled with thoughts of her lover so that she carries on in fond and familiar ways while he is away.

 

Example C.          old pond—

a frog leaps in

water sound

 

This is probably the most famous poem in the world, and also the most underappreciated to the extent of seeming trivial. An old pond is a venerable aspect of nature. A frog is best known by its croak in the night. Here “water sound” is ambiguous, but certainly results from the frog leaping into the pond, which swallows it in one gulp. The tenor of this haiku is not the pond itself but the frog leaping into it. The concrete vehicle is the sound emanating from that unremarkable event—not a rude croak as expected but the subtle slip of a lithe body merging with its element. The surprise of that sound unifies the poem in a wholly suitable manner that the reader does not anticipate. Like the punch line of a joke, it shocks while at the same time fulfilling the expectations aroused by the situation—a frog by a pond.

 

Example D.          coolness

the clean lines

of the wild pine

 

Here again, image and idea combine in arousing a feeling within us. In this case an appreciation for the spare but elegant simplicity of the wild pine (as opposed to the domesticated form of a stunted pine in a pot) as viewed at a particular time of year when it stands apart from more complex deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. The tenor-subject is the concept of coolness in the fall; the vehicle-predicate the sensory image of a free-growing pine sharpened by consciousness to emphasize the uncluttered outlines of branches and stem. The surprise comes from applying a visual image as the avatar or physical incarnation of a season noted for declining temperatures. It’s not winter—yet, but rapid changes are taking place in the landscape of conscious expectations. The pine comes into its own as temperatures fall. Which comes as an abrupt revelation to the poet passing along the road through the forest.

 

Haiku use figurative language to convey aspects of consciousness that cannot be told in conventional terms. Their meaning is more to be sensed or felt than declared in so many words. Like metaphors, haiku thrive on the relationship between sensory images and conceptual memory, combining the two to convey the power of the ineffable. Where metaphors achieve coherence through implied similarities, haiku rely on simple juxtaposition to bring images and ideas into unity.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

How were you brought up? Did you have to go tinkle, pee-pee, wee-wee, take a pee or a piss, urinate, make water, or go number 1? In my family we spoke of breasts as huddies, younger members often having a giggle fit of self-consciousness when we tried to utter the word. Each of us is born into a language community or, more likely, a set of nested or overlapping language communities (family, friends, school, town, polite society, etc.). It was the conventional terms and ways of speaking in these communities we dutifully mimicked in acquiring the natural language we took as our native tongue.

 

The way we spoke at home was our family brand of literal language, which always said what we meant it to say because that’s how we were brought up. Other families were weird in speaking somewhat differently. Ours was normal language, theirs a twisted variation that seemed foreign. My friend Billy I. always said brefuk when he meant breakfast. Bob S. turned the sound of -ing into -een, as in goeen skeen for going skiing. Families used a variety of terms in referring to brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.

 

But all in all, we learned how normal people spoke in our neck of the woods. That was the neighborhood code governing literal language—as if by rule—but actually more by the flow of custom and convention in what people actually said. Out of the give and take of everyday life, we formed a language-using community in which meanings were mutually understood. We usually didn’t have to think about it, it just happened.

 

Literal language conforms to the abstract ideal that speakers use in recognizing certain phrases as being meaningful in their community. This ideal is independent of time and place, user or occasion. It is not a matter of rules but of anticipating the range of things that might be said in different situations. Literal language is predictable or probable language. The language we are likely to meet in daily life.

 

Figurative or metaphorical language is something else again. It defies the linguistic expectancies we so painstakingly piece together in experience. Literal language conforms to the code; metaphorical language jumps over the code to create a new way of speaking—of making meaning. “You’re a turkey,” “a skunk,” “a snake in the grass.” Literal language conforms to what we expect people say on a given occasion. Metaphors play against those expectations in surprising us with something new. Suddenly consciousness bursts on the scene, for speaker and listener both.

 

As an example, I offer two sentences by Alexandra Vacroux from her article, How to warm US-Russia relations (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 26, 2009). “At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded.” She goes on to cite Russian anxiety and insecurity in the global commodity crisis, dealings with Ukraine, a fearsome new treason law. Then sums up her position, “Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.” Russia/Russian bear/Injured animal—this is a three-tiered metaphor that picks up powerful meaning as it develops.

 

Metaphorical language involves improbable or unexpected utterances which jolt us out of our meaning-making habits. It stretches our conventions of understanding by violating the expected match between expression and occasion. This creates a tension between what was expected and what was delivered. Shazam! We are fully awake and paying attention. Metaphor is not only a new way of saying but a new way of meaning. Without warning, it gets to the core of language.

 

Metaphor rocks not only our expectations of usage but the way we size-up the situations to which we apply language in the first place. It arises from (and invokes) a novel perspective as an alternative to the conventional point of view. Metaphor forces us to expand ourselves and become different people than convention would have us be. It forces us to outgrow our customary limitations.

 

If the conventional point of view is based upon unwitting acceptance of words meaning what they say, then metaphor is based upon a rival accounting for the world and its language. Words in that new world mean what speakers intend them to say, and it is the hearer’s job to figure out what that might be. Whoa! This is a new game entirely. We can’t just nod “Uh-uh,” but have to consciously wrestle with what we are hearing. As if we were inventing language all over again.

 

Which is one of the primary roles of figurative language. To rock us back on our heels so we pay deliberate attention to what is being said. And to what we want to say, but aren’t sure how. Metaphors represent alternate ways of accounting for the facts of daily life. Or more accurately, for the phenomena we encounter in consciousness, which are more than once removed from daily life. Metaphor does nothing less than force the sleepy language community to wake up and reinvent itself.

 

A metaphor is a little theory offered in opposition to the “natural” way of finding meaning in the world because, in truth, the meanings we find are often the very meanings we planted (or assumed were) there in the first place. Convention salts the mine of phenomena with meaning, while metaphor insists on uncovering the true gem itself.

 

By what phenomenologists call “the natural attitude,” we generally take it as given that the world our minds present to us is the one and only world that is out there within reach of our senses. Metaphor raises the possibility of an unnatural attitude by which we have to discover that outside world through probing exploration. Metaphor requires deliberate attention to such exploration by disrupting conventional ways of understanding the world. The point of metaphor is to not get caught napping. Don’t take meaning for granted. Question it. Check it out. Which requires active pursuit of meaning as a wild and elusive quarry rather than the passive acceptance of familiar (domestic) conventions.

 

Metaphor is exceptional language requiring deliberate and self-conscious attempts to establish meaning. That is why discussions of semantics and much of philosophy are set in metaphorical terms. To confront the mysterious outer world requires us to go beyond words that mean what they say to a new language that can venture beyond convention into the unknown. The intent is to transcend everyday, literal efforts at meaning-making. That effort requires nothing less than transcendent language itself. The language of metaphor.

 

(See Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain for two other examples of metaphor.)

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In grad school I got into consciousness through the portal of metaphor. I’d been studying phenomenology, hermeneutics, and meaning, noticing that in everyday speech words and phrases seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere—the rote or unconscious mind—but that metaphors emerged often in novel situations requiring conscious attention to details.

 

Since I.A. Richards’ treatment in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), metaphor had been seen to consist of two terms, the first anchoring the figure to a word or phrase in conventional usage (the tenor or target), the second to concrete details implied by a second term (the vehicle or source) directly transferred to the first without resorting to an overt framework of comparison.

 

By way of example, NPR host Robert Siegel spoke of the idea of creating a federally-funded bank to buy up bad debts as “this Yucca Mountain of securities,” where the “bad” bank was the tenor of the metaphor informed by the vehicle Yucca Mountain of securities (All Things Considered, Jan. 28, 2009, 5:00 p.m. segment). The implied comparison is between repositories for bad debts and radioactive waste, respectively.

 

In another example, Ted Solotaroff wrote of having to deal with his sense of the editor’s intimidating “presence” in getting started on a piece for Partisan Review:

 

There followed a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again, hoping for a pass through the mountains to suddenly open” (“Adventures in Editing,” The Nation, Feb. 9, 2009, p. 31).

 

A pass through the mountains is the vehicle he uses to depict the hoped-for resolution to the sense of futility blocking his way, the phrase a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again serving as the tenor of this particular metaphor.

 

As a grad student, my insight was that the tenor tended to be abstract and conceptual in nature while the vehicle was relatively more concrete or sensory. Metaphor, then, conveys sensory qualities of the vehicle to the more conceptual tenor, bringing out specific features pertaining to the occasion that might be missed in everyday usage. The vehicle, that is, is meant to enliven or flesh-out the tenor. As always, the intended meaning must be appropriate to the speech occasion or the metaphor might break the flow by drawing attention to itself as strained or overly-theatrical.

 

Years after grad school, I find I am still the same person, concerned as ever with the workings of the mind. But now I don’t read articles on research into mind and brain so much as consult the turnings of my own consciousness, ever on the lookout for surprising twists that might reveal something about the only mind I can know from the inside and how it works.

 

That method is called introspection—looking within. Because there is no way to verify claims based upon it, most scientists warn against it. At best it is taken as anecdotal evidence, which places it on a par with hearsay. One voice in the wilderness announces its truth, to which the wilderness replies, So what? Well, there are two kinds of truth: Big-T Truth is based on statistical evidence gathered from all quarters in all times; little-t truth is more humble in pertaining to a specific instance in one place at one time. But there is nothing to say that little-t truth might not crack a door to Truth on a larger scale.

 

I haven’t heard anyone else claim that metaphor balances an abstract conceptual part (tenor) with a concrete sensory part (vehicle), the two together providing a more compelling experience than either taken by itself—yet that is my claim as based on personal observation. Twenty-five years later, it still rings little-t true to me. And it is that hooking-up of two different aspects of mind that led me to look more carefully into the one sample of consciousness available to me. Wilderness, this is Steve calling. You know, Steve from planet Earth. One tiny blog in a great big Blogosphere.

 

When spontaneous language loses its novel, figurative quality, it becomes “literal” and appears to mean what it says. But we have simply forgotten the metaphorical base of many everyday terms, assuming they blossomed thus in the Garden of Eden, the same then as now. But meanings evolve over time, words and their usage evolve, languages evolve. Give Beowulf a look if you don’t believe, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

 

Neuroscience now treats the brain literally as a computer, where earlier researchers might have regarded it as a hydraulic system, clockwork, switchboard, or hologram. In the brain-as-computer metaphor, the brain is the tenor receiving the vehicle’s thrust, which in this case causes it to be seen as a kind of programmable machine, a hardware network with a software mind.

 

There is humor in this formulation when we think how recently it was that the metaphor went the other way round and computers were billed as “electronic brains.” There is no approach to the unknown other than through the known. When computers were novel, we saw them as brains; now that we know all about computers, we generalize that term to the vastly more complex and mysterious lump of protoplasm, the brain itself.

 

Before Richards, it was common to refer to the vehicle alone as the figure or metaphor, thereby masking the mutual interaction between vehicle and tenor. Modern understanding of metaphor frees us from that error. Or should, if we truly appreciate the myriad ever-changing feedback and feed-forward—that is, interactive—electro-chemical networks we think of collectively as the human brain.

 

If metaphor can be said to have a moral, in this case it is that there is more than one way to picture a brain, or, brains are seldom what they seem.

 

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