Our actions are driven by feelings and approved by judgments we make on the flow of sensory energy as felt in the moment. They come not so much from our muscles themselves as from the forces that spur our muscles to flex or relax. Our deliberate actions flow from the situation—the particular set of mental dimensions that make up the living space of the intelligence at the core of our minds.

When we speak, our actions take the form of words arranged in sentences because that is how the culture we are born to understands and expresses its felt situations. Our birth culture calibrates our minds in the words and numbers we will employ ever after.

That culture includes a vocabulary suited to the variety of situations its members are likely to face in leading the many aspects of their lives. The makeup (syntax) of that speech is meant to convey the structure or meaning of the inner situation as experienced by the speaker.

We speakers are both subjective agents who put energy into intentional acts, and objective recipients acted-upon by energies taken in by our sensory receptors. Which is why we as individuals reflect ourselves in speech as playing both complementary subjective and objective roles: we do things, and things are done unto us.

Our speech is always purposeful. We have reasons for saying what we do. The burden of checking on our motives falls to our listeners. Who have a list of questions they can ask in getting the clarification they need to figure out where we are coming from so they can make a suitable response. Questions reflect curiosity, uncertainty, doubt, interest, and suspicion, among other states of mind.

Conversations unfold according to the interests of those who take part. Casual conversations bounce from topic to topic, driven by connections that participants make with something that comes up. Such connections serve as some sort of reminder that stirs a particular memory or line of thought.

One mentions a trip to “Cincinnati,” say, and someone tells a story about her uncle in that city, and someone else tells of going to school there, then someone else again tells of traveling by train through the city at night in the winter, and so on. Not much gets said, but everyone present has their personal say on the topic of Cincinnati.

Inclusion in the circle is the name of that game, putting your oar in the water, being a player. Little gets accomplished, but everyone goes away feeling good because connected, even though she remained snug in her personal black box the whole time.

Other conversations draw people out of their black boxes, a riskier kind of engagement, requiring trust of those involved. Some find confessional gatherings unseemly, others thrive on the tidbits they glean. Still others are genuinely interested in getting to know their friends and neighbors, so systematically inquire about backgrounds, schooling, jobs held, hobbies, cities lived in, families, and aspirations, often modeling the behavior they seek by taking the lead in sharing such information about themselves.

Conversations among professionals tend to stick to business, some aspect of a topic of interest to all who are present. There are as many uses of speech as there are speakers, so I am only giving a smattering of the social possibilities. I will repeat that everyone has a purpose in saying what she does, and sooner or later, everything that can be said will be said by someone.

After all, words (among other gestures and activities) are the glue that binds us together as friends, families, communities, and cultures. There is no way to underestimate their importance when we link our respective situations together. Or their misuse in various forms of skulduggery by which we take advantage of one-another.

 

 

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Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Row, row, row your boat

    gently down the stream;

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

    life is but a dream.

My consciousness tells me it is time to go back over what I have posted since last October to get a sense of what I have covered, all with an eye to producing a summary of my findings. That will take some time. Since I can focus on only one task at a time, I plan not to post to this blog until I am able to produce a summary of where I’ve been in order to chart a course for where I want to head in the future. Too, I have a pile of seven books by Gerald Edelman on the topic of  consciousness which I want to read. So as of today I hang a sign on the door, GONE ROWING.

In the meantime, I encourage you to use the Postlinks page at the head of this blog to look for posts on topics which might be of interest to you. (Note that posts in 2008 are listed following those for 2009.) My plan is to resume posting in October or November.

I want to thank you for checking out this blog on introspection. There’s a big drive on to uncover the workings of the brain (neural substrates, so-called) that make consciousness possible, and my intent here is to offer a serial description of some of the kinds of mental activities that need to be accounted for. For example, this morning I woke up at 5:15 a.m. and lay a’bed thinking about what I might say in this post. I didn’t open my eyes until, abruptly, I realized the balance in my checking account was getting low, and the first thing I had to do was deduct two debit card payments I had made yesterday. My eyes popped open and I immediately got up. The moral being, consciousness gears us for action by prioritizing what we are to do and how we are to do it. One suggestion for the substrate seekers might be to start with motor sequence planning areas of the brain and follow their various inputs back  to their relevant sources of motivation.

Gone Rowing

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

Ω

(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.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

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