Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of situations I get myself into. As I use the term, it points to relationships in nature I notice but don’t understand. My kind of wildness prompts feelings of awe and wonder, leading to questions about why things turn out as I discover them. Here are a few sample questions based on my pursuit of wildness during this past summer.

  • Why do trees grow layers of smooth bark—only to rend them in growing bigger, producing characteristic patterns and textures of rough bark?
  • Why do lichens express themselves in so many different forms?
  • Who drops crab parts on the forest floor far from water?
  • Why do Indian pipes sprout up in thick clumps, and who pollinates them so they can do it again next year?
  • Why do mushrooms come in so many colors?
  • Is it mushroom spores or flesh (or both) that attracts slugs?
  • Which comes first, flowers or their pollinators? Do they evolve together?
  • Life exposed at low tide seems so vulnerable to shoreline scavengers (raccoons, foxes, gulls, crows, eagles); it’s as if sharing the wealth were part of nature’s wild structure. Or is that my wild imagination?
  • Foresters talk about “overage” trees which should have been cut, but snags and decaying stems and branches are essential to healthy forest ecosystems in the future. What am I missing?
  • I have never found two trees alike; each grows into its unique location on Earth as an expression of the unique conditions on that site. Yet we talk in general terms of “wood” and “trees” and “forests” as if particular trees did not exist as living beings. Once we reduce life to platitudes and generalities (“dinosaurs,” “Indians,” “natural resources”), we are not telling the full story. Why do we base education on books as a substitute for personal discoveries and insights in the field?
  • How long does it take a spider to spin a ground web? How does it do that, fitting each strand to the local terrain?
  • Why is old man’s beard found on one branch of a tree and not another nearby? Does it get water from airborne vapor, or does that vapor need to condense on individual filaments?

Wildness to me is one big question. It is something that draws my attention but I can’t explain. I live with wildness every day as a mystery I seem to be immersed in, even though I know that sense is in me and not the world. If wildness existed in the world, everybody would be exploring it and asking questions, not making a killing on Wall Street or a battlefield in some distant land. Wildness is right here where I live because it is something I take with me everywhere I go. Wildness is part and parcel of my consciousness, a feature of my inquisitive mind.

It is no accident I have a small digital camera in a case on my belt. I love to photograph the wild mysteries I come across in my wanderings, and have since I was four years old. This summer I’ve been engaged with wildness every day, producing hundreds of JPG files each week. That’s what I do when I confront wildness—take its picture, if I can. Other people listen to music, watch TED talks, go to movies. I press the shutter. Then Photoshop each picture, adjusting size, contrast, brightness, sharpness. I compare photos I’ve made of wildness, select the few that present it best to my eye, resize them to post to my blog, upload them to show the world the kinds of situations I get into while making myself happen as I do.

It’s all here in this blog—the sensory impressions I face on a daily basis, the situations I build around those impressions because they’re so wild, and actions I take in response to that situated wildness by going through the necessary steps of engagement it takes to post my words and photos to the Web.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of being conscious in the way I have learned to think about consciousness over the past thirty years in terms of loops of engagement connecting my mind to the world—and hopefully to other minds in other corners of the world.

I’ll add a few more photos of wildness as I see it in my next post.

As ever (while I last), y’r friend, —Steve from Planet Earth

P.S. While stretching my legs after writing this post, I heard a whooshing sound nearby along the trail, and looked down on the rotting carcass of a snowshoe hare, covered with flies, alighting after my approach sent them whooshing up. Wildness in the flesh (i.e., in my mind). I came across the same scene on a different trail last year; it was gone in two days, old life turned to new.

Reflection 316: Self-Awareness

September 7, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I see it, phenomenology applies the powers of mind to understanding the self. Fundamentally, it is self-reflection taken to an extreme degree in discovering not the everyday, self-accustomed I in its everyday world, but how the biological self pieces together that I from the several dimensions of consciousness. These dimensions include sensory impressions; meaningful interpretations of those impressions; as well as feelings, biological values, autobiographical memory, accustomed habits, personal points of view, and felt situations within which subsequent courses of action become meaningful.

Phenomenology, that is, accounts for derivation of a course of appropriate action from analysis of sensory input within a situation informed by both current motivation and prior experience. It is an ongoing process for suiting actions of the self to the conditions shaping the situation within which that self exists as a coherent whole composed of diverse dimensions of consciousness.

From my own self-analysis, I identify these dimensions as including, on the perceptual side:

  • the cultural setting of experience
  • expectancy derived from past experience
  • arousal or wakefulness
  • attention
  • sensory impressions or phenomena
  • concepts as recognizable classes of sensory impressions
  • understanding within fields of interrelated concepts
  • feelings
  • biological values
  • culminating in a perspectival sense of the situation one is facing at the time.

Dimensions of consciousness on the behavioral side include:

  • judgments prompted by felt situations
  • decisions about what might be done
  • setting of goals
  • planning of projects and relationships
  • execution of projects and relationships
  • culminating in a program of action monitored by attention.

The entire assembly of coordinated dimensions of consciousness constitutes a loop of engagement joining an individual to a world within the situation as consciously construed in his or her mind.

By this scheme, our lives don’t just happen as they do; we make them happen in light of our biological motivations and prior experiences applied to our current situations as we construct them in our minds. Yes, we respond to patterns of energy interpreted as events in the world, but we also make ourselves happen as our engagements with those ongoing events develop moment-by-moment.

Phenomenology is the conscious and deliberate study of those momentary events in our personal experience as based on the dimensions of consciousness that apply at the time. Even if we don’t study them, those moments happen unconsciously anyway—as if we had no agency in their doing. Phenomenology applies the powers of the mind to personal experience, highlighting our role in making ourselves happen as we do.

No more and no less, phenomenology is the process of making ourselves—not world-aware—but self-aware. That is, it lets us shoulder responsibility for being ourselves without blaming the world for making us who we are. No learning can be more crucial than that in coming to self-understanding and self-realization. Which is why I am subjecting you to this exercise.

As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

If, as I claim, wildness is subjective (phenomenological), so, too, are happiness and its pursuit. Feelings and values are not in the world but in our minds. In fact, the world, insofar as we can be aware of it, is in us, along with everything else we can experience. We are not born to a world so much as born to ourselves.

What the world does supply is patterns of ambient energy, many of which we come to recognize as familiar, and to which we give names. And not only names (to single them out), but meanings in relation to our memories of personal experience, so we come to understand (stand under or support) those familiar patterns in personal ways. We lay meanings on the patterns we associate them with, making it seem as though that significance came with the patterns (as information), but actually the patterns elicit it from our memory of earlier patterns we have experienced and named in particular situations. Which is why someone speaking to me in Russian, say, or Arabic may believe she is telling me something, while I (a speaker solely of English) hear only the sounds she makes (the patterns of energy issuing from her lips) without the meanings she associates with those sounds.

Learning a language means learning to associate personal meanings with particular sound combinations directed by members of our culture at us on specifiable occasions, which we translate or construe as personally meaningful situations. It is how we understand those situations that is mapped onto the recognizable sounds that we hear, so that the situation conveys the meaning we come to link to the speech sounds we hear on that occasion.

Speech, that is, is made up from both a public and a private component, one a patterned flow of energy as speech sounds, and the other a sense of the currents of mental activity within us that accompanies our hearing of those sounds. Putting the public and private components together, we “hear” meaningful speech.

How wild is that? Unruly or whimsical enough that each person present when a certain utterance is made may take it differently (that is, personally) although each assumes they all speak the same language.

Only by smoothing the differences between our individual streams of experience through rote repetition and iron discipline do we ever approach speaking and understanding somewhat similar languages. It is far easier to assume we all speak the same language than to accept the idiosyncratic nature of the language-learning process. Which is why there is so much misunderstanding between us, because we don’t hear what is said to us in the same way it is spoken, much less speak truly for our inner selves.

Nothing is wilder than the nonsense we spout when we don’t monitor our own efforts at speech. We often seem to say one thing but mean something quite different, particularly when we try to please our audience by saying what we think they want to hear. Hard as it is, sticking to the facts of personal experience is best, along with listening carefully to what others say in response.

The problem is that so-called facts are a blend of public sounds and personal meanings, so are seldom as clear as we want them to be. One approach is to say what we said again in different words, then to be open to whatever response comes back, and to keep trying in the spirit of true dialogue between equals.

Wild words often miss their mark if the passions behind them, the fears and desires, are suppressed or lead to unintended consequences. If we were the rational beings we claim to be, we’d speak the true every time, but we aren’t and we don’t. Rationality is a myth, or at best an ideal we aspire to but seldom attain.

Instead of blaming others for the troubles of the world, we do better to get clear in our minds what we want to accomplish, then remake the world one person at a time, one engagement at a time. When words are involved, we have to remember that words don’t contain meanings so much as suggest them to other minds having unique habits of speech. It takes time and effort to reconcile differences in personal outlook and understanding in even the simplest situation. “Hi, how are you?” opens onto a spectrum of possible responses. The color of the reply is not ours to predict.

Interpersonal engagements are not set pieces so much as voyages of exploration and discovery. We send our words into the world to see where they take us. Life has but one destination; the route we take in arriving there makes all the difference.

It is good to remember how wild words can be, especially in tense situations. On that note I’ll sign off for now. Y’r brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of felt situations that arouses curiosity (What have we here?) and invites further attention and exploration as guides to appropriate action (What are we going to do about it?).

The examples of wildness I have illustrated (Reflections 301–313)—tree bark, lichens, crab remains, Indian pipes, fungi seen from above and below, flowers, shore life at low tide, fallen trees, standing trees, ground webs, old man’s beard—show wildness in the form of noticeable features and curiosities met in a forever-wild sanctuary on an island in Maine.

Wildness in that sense means existing in a natural state, not groomed, tamed, or cultivated. Existing where? In the mind of one particular person, namely me, Steve from Planet Earth. Wildness is a quality of my personal awareness of a situation I am in at the time. This is not wildness in the world so much as a sense of wildness from inside looking out through these eyes. Wildness, that is, as an aspect of mind, of personal conscious experience. I am writing about wildness as being subjective or phenomenological, wildness as a property of consciousness, and of my consciousness in particular.

I am not concerned with civilized wildness here, with warfare, cruelty, greed, or abuse. I am more interested in wildness that admits to mystery and wonder and unending engagement. Wildness we can build a life around without destroying other lives. Wildlife that opens onto a landscape we want to learn about, to wrestle with so we can feel, grasp, and understand it. This kind of wildness promotes engagement enabling us to grow into the landscapes of our own minds.

I am interested in wildness that leads us to appreciate other cultures, make voyages of discovery, visit national parks, and explore our surroundings and native habitats with curiosity, awe, and respect. This wildness expands our mental horizons so our minds have no choice but to expand instead of shrink as self-satisfied minds often do.

The way to build such a wild kind of life is to pay attention to the details of sensory impressions that attract and draw you in, not take them for granted as features of a conceptual and conventional existence. To savor where you are in your own mind, and want to reach beyond your current self to the self you will become in the future. That inner sense of wildness will lead you to a life of mental adventure, exploration, and discovery. You build yourself inside-out. You don’t set out to be a nurse or policeman so much as see how far you can get on what you’ve got right where you are.

That’s where your mind will take you if you give it free rein to live out its own wildness in making yourself happen according to your untamed insides.

That’s what I’ve been trying to say in my last thirteen posts. As ever, —Steve from Planet Earth

(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 this post, my topic is introspection, which raises eyebrows in some circles To start with, I offer these caveats from Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self:

 

1. We have to be very careful when we use verbal reports based on introspective analyses of one’s own mind as scientific data (Emotional Brain, 32).

 

2. Introspection is not going to be very useful as a window into the workings of the vast unconscious facets of the mind (Same, 33).

 

3. Introspections are often going to be a poor window into how processing that gives rise to conscious content works and are no window at all into processing that does not give rise to immediate conscious content (Same, 66f.).

 

It is a good idea to post such no trespassing signs at the entrance to your territory. I read them as cautionary, not prohibitive. To go point by point:

 

1. Yes, it is always wise to be very careful, no matter what methods we use in our investigations.

 

2. Yes, again, introspection is not going to shed much light on the workings of the unconscious mind, but it can prove an aid in suggesting some of the features to be accounted for by other means of research.

 

3. True, introspection, as an emergent property of neurological processes, won’t have much to say about the biological and chemical process making them possible, any more than words in everyday language can adequately describe or explain how they occur to the mind in the first place.

 

But these warnings do not mean that introspection is worthless or should be avoided. This blog, is based on introspection, supplemented by readings in the literature of neuroscience. My method of investigation is wrong for Joseph LeDoux, as his is wrong for me. We have no choice but to be who we are and act accordingly. I opt for introspection. Which I claim is ethical because it does not impose my will or beliefs on anyone but myself. I don’t experiment on animals, I don’t manipulate people. What I do, I do unto myself and bear the consequences.

 

And by the way, even LeDoux relies on introspective methods when it suits him. He quotes Charles Darwin:

 

I put my face close to the thick glass-plate in front of a puff-ader in the Zoological Gardens, with the firm determination of not starting back if the snake struck at me; but, as soon as the blow was struck, my resolution went for nothing, and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity. My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced (Emotional Brain, 112).

 

There in that account is introspection concerning personal will and reason. When it comes to personal consciousness, every person bears the authority of Charles Darwin in her own instance. Being both subject and object of study in one person has tremendous advantages. Your research never ends or runs out of material. You are always in the lab when something significant happens. You occupy a seat of tremendous privilege in actually being in someone’s mind all the time. Your findings will be as valid as the fineness of your observational skills, the questions you ask, and the time you put in.

 

Phenomenology is the basic discipline of introspection. Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have developed techniques for productive self-observation. One of the most useful is bracketing a sensory phenomenon in awareness, which requires holding it suspended in your mind before rushing to impress rational or emotional meaning upon it. This lets the observer feel the tensions toward meaning within him or her self, leading to exploration of the qualities of meaning elicited in such a situation.

 

In various posts, I have given a first-person report of a mental occurrence, using bracketing to focus my attention on what has transpired. I do not necessarily see things as they are, and I often miss things that should be clearly evident. Too, I sometimes experience things that aren’t there at all.

 

The most glaring way I fool myself is in believing that consciousness depicts events in the real world. As if my entire mental apparatus did not come between me and that world, skewing it, distorting it, shaping it to fit my personal fears and desires. Which (as I wrote in Reflection 32: Slap My Face) is why I blog—to keep myself awake, like slapping my face when I’m driving while tired. And to remind you to slap your face. To ask questions. To both wonder and ponder. That’s the only way I know to get better at this consciousness game, by not taking it for granted. I am out to improve the practice of consciousness, not to document it as a given. The world situation is a catalogue of what happens when consciousness fails us. If we are to do better, we need to learn to govern our conscious actions more effectively.

 

Blogging has given me a motive to do this research, and a platform for presenting it to the world. My primary learning is that consciousness supports whatever endeavor I engage in—as long as I do my part by putting my heart into it first and doing my homework. Insight is more likely to come to those who prepare the ground. I have woken up many times at three in the morning with the answer to a question I posed upon going to bed. My job is to goad consciousness into doing its thing by presenting it with a worthy challenge. Consciousness, I have found, always rises to the task. I don’t know why or how it does that, which is the sort of question Joseph LeDoux likes to take on regarding the workings of the emotional brain.

 

As for that, LeDoux himself acknowledges that introspection might have some heuristic value at least in shedding light on the mind and its brain:

 

While personal experience is not a good way to prove anything (we’ve seen the perils of introspection as scientific data), there’s nothing wrong with using it as a takeoff point for a more penetrating analysis (Emotional Brain, 295).

 

I am convinced consciousness is sufficiently complex to warrant attention from investigators of all sorts using a variety of methods. I am pleased to share these findings with others who wonder about the workings of the mind. I offer them as examples of what can be accomplished largely through curiosity, openness, and determination as posted to the global forum of the World Wide Web for public consideration.

 

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