(Copyright © 2009)

We recognize from the diversity of people we meet that consciousness must come in a wide variety of colors (flavors, patterns, classes) because, though no two of us are outwardly or inwardly the same, we effectively ally ourselves with groups having similar characteristics. I use the term idioms of consciousness in referring to the different sorts of mental configurations I infer from the types of behavior people exhibit in similar circumstances or situations.

Human consciousness is shaped by a strange blend of natural and cultural influences. “Strange” in that the fine-grained biological structure of the brain allows ancient natural and modern cultural awareness to exist side-by-side in mutual yet wholly unpredictable relationships. Who, for example, can foresee which of us will be driven by financial setbacks to commit suicide? Who can understand cultures that routinely amputate with a stone knife the clitoris and inner labia of young women to appease the sexual insecurity of their future husbands? Who finds it rational behavior for political parties to pitch into each other because of their respective stands on abortion? And to conclude this short sampling of mysteries of the conscious mind, who is not stunned by the irony in fighting wars as a way of making a living?

But there it is: one part of the mind at odds with another. As I have said before, consciousness plays by the rules it derives from the situation it finds itself in at the time. Different situations as perceived, different rules, different behaviors chosen or tolerated. We entertain an odd mix of drives, judgments, values, and awareness, and must sort them out as best we can. When public figures don’t do a very good job of managing their conflicted parts—think Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer, Bernard Madoff, teens who risk unprotected sex, or mothers of octuplets—their failings make news, often bigtime because we crave examples teaching us how to avoid the pity and ridicule they invite.

But consciousness, because of its unfathomable mixing of culture and biology, is inherently ridiculous in itself. Nobody could have planned such a creature as we turn out to be. We claim to be wise, but seldom make sense to ourselves. Culture changes too rapidly for our biology to keep up. The best we can do is recognize our personal balance of strengths and weaknesses, accept it for what it is, then look around for others similarly inclined (or condemned) to live out the same idiom or predicament. Banding with them, perhaps we can stretch our chances of surviving a little longer.

An idiom is a manner of expression peculiar to a group of people, so an idiom of consciousness is the underlying structure of the mind giving rise to that outward manner. Other terms for sorting people into types based on inferred mental structures are temperament, personality, character, profession, traits, creativity, originality, or even pathology. Some aspects of these human differences are innate, others are learned through study, training, or imitation of those we admire. However we acquire them, our manners of being in the world reflect the integral makeup of personal consciousness by which we become known to ourselves and to groups with which we associate.

The makeup of our particular idiom varies considerably in relying on different facets of consciousness such as acting, perceiving, feeling, thinking, interpreting, judging, and speaking. Some of us are doers, others are noticers, empathizers, thinkers, seekers, arbiters, talkers, listeners. Externalizing these personal traits, we sort ourselves into social roles we feel comfortable with, some becoming nurses, machinists, carpenters, or astronauts, others salesmen, teachers, hermits, poets, drug lords, or warriors.

The subjects we study in school are aimed at exercising different facets of consciousness so that we develop an ease not only in dealing with specific tasks but more in harnessing our own mental powers. The disciplines of higher education appeal to the different idioms of consciousness by which we choose to develop ourselves and the lifestyles we aspire to. Part of our animal nature, as Aristotle pointed out, is political, complementing other parts which may be caring, curious, hungry, athletic, artistic, philosophical, verbally fluent, or spiritual—forming together with other faculties of consciousness a particular idiom for being true to ourselves and our group in a diversified world.

To take an example, organized religion is one idiom of consciousness providing a framework for being in the world. It governs not only thought and perception, but a mix of expectancy, judgment, feeling, and meaning in experience. Too, religion translates states of consciousness into suitable behaviors, converting faith and intentions into the disciplined and habitual practice of a religious way of life.

As an idiom of culture, religion is not inherent in biological consciousness itself but is learned through experience largely modeled on the behavior of others in social situations such as gatherings for celebration and worship. Stemming from organized cultural events, religion has a history often going back hundreds or thousands of years to a beginning in the consciousness of a particular individual who conceived the idea of a right way of being in the world in response to formative lifetime events. The development of that right way of being is told in the sacred historical narrative by which it is revealed to new generations, narratives such as the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Bhagavad-Gita, or Book of Mormon.

People of the various sacred books tend to be people who believe what they read in (or hear read aloud from) works they take to be authoritative. Such beliefs are reinforced and acted out in prescribed rites and rituals, ensuring harmony between the inner world of consciousness and the world of action. The point being to act in the world as one is allowed or expected to act, letting biology and culture—no matter how conflicted—come to terms. The illogic of the resulting balance must be accepted on faith as a sign of true belief—or denied as farfetched—whichever the case. Either way, the idiom of a particular belief system serves to bind the faithful to the group while at the same time excluding nonbelievers.

Quakers, for instance, emerged during the mid-seventeenth- century English Civil Wars when the established social order of monarchy-church-gentry-judiciary was briefly overturned by a Parliament and populace in revolt. Charles I was executed, Oliver Cromwell made lord protector. But the realm was accustomed to monarchy, so following an eleven-year interlude, Charles II succeeded his father to the throne, and order was restored much as before. For budding Quakers, the issue was inequality and social injustice imposed by the alliance of those claiming to be superior to the average person. The idiom Quakers adopted was the religious claim to equality before God as revealed in the recently translated King James Bible. That equality was not restricted to steeple houses of a particular denomination, to one sex or social class, and was not administered by the gentry or royal courts. Leader George Fox summed up the essence of Quaker belief in 1674: 

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing.

Coupling a drive toward equality to the sacred authority of the new translation of the Bible, Quakers invented a new idiom of consciousness that served their need for social justice and respect. The notion that God is present in every person cut across class distinctions, rendering them invalid from a Quaker point of view. Asserting their self-declared equality by refusing to remove their hats as a sign of honor to their supposed superiors, they bore the wrath of those higher up in the traditional social hierarchy, and were thrown in prison to suffer the rewards of cultural noncompliance. And suffer they did, not only indignity, but deprivation, illness, pain, and death. In many cases, the attempted balance between self-integrity and physical wellbeing was self-destructive. Yet as a matter of faith, the founding Quakers stuck to the defining principles—the new idiom—that turbulent times called up in them. And their successors have kept that idiom of equality and social justice alive to this day.

The essence of Quaker consciousness is respect for the equal dignity of all persons. This leads to social actions in support of the deprived, downtrodden, defeated, and destitute. And beyond these, in broad support for disarmament and world peace. Two forces came together in the mid-seventeenth century that gave rise to this idiom of awareness: wide distribution of the King James Bible, and harsh social injustice inflicted by the privileged classes in England upon their supposed inferiors. Quakers are only one example from the spectrum of Protestant sects that arose in common response to the top-heavy social structure in England at that time under a Catholic monarch who favored hierarchical (trickle-down) solutions to state problems.

What history often leaves out (because there is no adequate record) is the transformation in personal consciousness spurred by such times, giving rise to wholly new idioms in response to the intolerable imbalance between cultural and biological forces in the minds of the people. Idioms of consciousness require solutions in the here-and-now. They cannot afford to wait for evolution to come to their aid. Stress spurs new alignments within consciousness itself, allowing new priorities, new attitudes, new judgments, new interpretations—all leading to new idioms, new paradigms, new ways of being, and new actions on the world stage.

As I see it 360 years after the execution of Charles I, I live in a similar stage of cultural collapse as I write these words, a stage that can only be redressed by an idiom of consciousness that can deal collectively with economic injustice, global warming, pollution, excessive consumption of Earth resources, human over-population, wastefulness, abuse by powerful corporations, and failed governance. Has consciousness made headway since 1649? Certainly it has changed, but whether it has advanced is an open question. Are things better for people around the globe? For the privileged few, certainly, at high cost to the rest.

True history is written in the minds of the people—all the people. Narratives by those in power don’t tell the whole truth. Barack Obama is making history today as a man with a new idiom of consciousness in a position of power. But he is not the whole story. He cannot improve the climate of our times by himself, even with the administration he appointed to back him up. It takes a committed nation to raise a new nation. I am part of that nation, as are you, and you, and you.

So here we are with our shopworn, tired old models of consciousness, in an era crying out for new ways of being in our neighborhoods, our nations, and around the Earth. Given what we know today, the challenge is to reconcile the inconsistencies between our biological and cultural consciousness so to forge a new mind adapted to living in what we call the 21st century, but is really closer to life’s four-millionth century on this long-suffering planet.

I know we can do it—find that new idiom within ourselves, the new alignment between facets of consciousness. We’re working on it, each of us doing what she can. But as of now, whether our collective wisdom and experience can produce the new paradigm in time to stave off pending disaster is unknown. If we fail for lack of effort or imagination, so be it, let that be our epitaph: THEY HAD GOOD INTENTIONS.

Lunar Eclipse-72


Reflection 27: Clarity

November 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

For me, the sound of Hancock County, Maine in June is the call of the hermit thrush. Cousin of the robin—who sings his heart out in the treetops—the hermit thrush carols close to the ground where he gleans insects in the duff beneath woods of spruce and fir. To hear its call in the near distance is to love the bird at once. I anticipate June for that reason, and dread the approach of August when I know the thrush will fall silent.


In the 1970s, my older brother took up the saxophone. He couldn’t commit to one instrument, so on vacation he would bring three—alto, tenor, baritone—to Maine. He usually arrived in early June and stayed through August. That is, he pretty much overlapped the hermit thrush season. So I would often be sitting still outside at dusk listening to an approaching thrush as it caroled its way nearer and nearer—and there would come this brassy blast of sound through the trees that sounded like I imagined a wounded albatross would sound, if there were any wounded albatrosses in Maine. Needless to say, the lone hermit could not compete with that noise and might as well have called it quits. But it kept gamely on, only to have every chorus drowned out by my tight-lipped brother blowing through his hollow tube. I was the one who gave up and went inside. In the morning we would have words, my brother and I. I would point out that the hermit thrush is indigenous to Maine while the saxophone is an import from Belgium. He would call me shithead, and that was that. I give him credit, though, for eventually building a modest concert pavilion on the far side of a ledge that somewhat muffled the sounds he emitted by the time they reached me. Still, I was so sensitized to the sounds he made that even that was not good enough. I wanted the thrush to emerge out of evening stillness without competition. We kept a wary distance from each other for some twenty-five years, while my brother and the thrush would wage duets at dusk while I fumed. He hasn’t come to Maine in recent years, so I have been left to enjoy the thrush doing its thing as often as I have been able to attend.


We rely on consciousness to do everything it can to lift meaningful sounds (sights, smells, tastes, textures) above competing inputs that have less or no meaning for us. It does this by heightening the contrast between signals and any noise against which they may play. The ratio of meaning to unmeaning (signal to noise) is a measure of the clarity with which we receive phenomena in awareness. Once the mind decides which voice it wants to listen to, the brain does its best to separate that one from the general din by doing what it can to suppress the others. Consciousness delivers an either-or, this-or-that kind of world. The outside world (which is really a mystery) did not get that way on its own.


Suppose for a moment that some people might prefer the voice of a saxophone to the note of a thrush. It might well be possible for them to hear the voice while entirely ignoring the note to the point they do not notice it at all. In my little story(above), the voice of the saxophone had the edge because it was so brassy and the thrush was so soft. My brain was unable to turn tables on my brother and bring out the thrush at the sax’s expense. I heard two competing signals, and could not stifle either one.


That kind of situation drives me to distraction. Cocktail parties are hell on Earth because I hear every voice in the room blended into a drone and cannot pick one or another to concentrate on. Even if someone right in front of me is speaking, her voice is lost in the din. That is a characteristic of my individual consciousness, and I have to put up with it. Which is why I avoid situations where people all talk at once. I prefer gatherings where one person speaks at a time.


I offer this blog as Exhibit A. Please note that there is only one voice, and that voice is mine. Again, this is not egotism but the only way I can know my own mind, which, in writing about consciousness from the inside, is essential. To write a book, I once took to an island on the Maine coast, where I lived solo for two-and-a-half years—just me and the likes of hermit thrushes, which was fine by me. I have been reflecting on consciousness for so long, it is second nature to me now. I welcome comments on these posts because I can respond to them in the relative calm of my apartment, one by one.


It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to manage my consciousness to get the most out of it. And I’m still at it. Through much of my life, I have been distracted by a busy world impinging on my senses, so have had a hard time concentrating on much of anything. Now I live by myself and can sit at my computer, explore my thoughts, and write. Any human voice within earshot distracts me, and so terminates that line of awareness. Even songs with words draw my attention. I prefer Mozart piano sonatas. And best of all, silence. It is no accident I am a secular Quaker and attend silent meetings on most weekends. I don’t go in order to worship, but more to rediscover who I am on that day in that situation. That respectful meditation punctuates my life, providing the clarity I need to enter the coming week (what metaphor shall I use?) . . . on an even keel.


The human cerebral cortex is a genius at finding order in chaos by carefully adjusting feedback from one neuron to another in order to maximize the clarity (signal to noise ratio) of excitation in any sensory modality. It does this by increasing the contrast between the signal attended to and any which compete with it. The brain does not process images, objects, or events received directly from the world. Rather, it takes them apart and processes their attributes—colors, contrasts, edges, contours, motions, elements of shapes, and so on—separately. From the retina inward, the world is dismantled into its components, processed in terms of basic characteristics, then reassembled in a way to maximize meaning and significance in the context of the situation that pertains at the time. Another moment, another situation, another meaningful reassembly.


Thus our brains work their way through the day. Not that we are conscious of the process. What we become aware of is the end product as informed by our expectations and desires of the moment. Which help sharpen the phenomena we do become aware of in light of our personal interests. What I see or hear is not necessarily the same as what you see or hear.


Picture a heronry of two hundred nests, with from three to five juvenile birds in each nest. Picture an adult heron flying in with fish in its gullet, emitting a one note call, graak, to alert its young so their digestive juices start to flow. When this happens, only the young in one nest respond. They perk up and look eagerly in the direction of the call. The rest carry on as before as if they heard nothing. Yet when either of their parents gives such a call, they make an appropriate response because they each receive that signal as a personal notification that dinner is about to be served.


Which is precisely what we do. Pick and chose between sensory signals, paying attention to any to which we ascribe meaning. Attenuating such signals, boosting them by treating all others as meaningless noise, we suppress those deemed irrelevant to our life situations. In the process creating a life world distinctly tailored to our personal needs, interests, and expectations.


When we are clear about something, we are clear in different ways because we all have different backlogs of life experience and gauge events differently in relation to the perspectives and meanings with which we address them. This often goes unnoticed because our respective ways of attaining clarity are internal matters not detectable from the outside. Until we make some sort of response differing from the ones our neighbors make, giving others a hint that the way we take the current situation may differ from the way they view it themselves.


In fact we do advertise the ways we seek clarity in many ways. By supporting one team or another, one political party, one side in a battle, one religious system, one party in court, even by demonstrating a preference for saxophones or hermit thrushes. Because of the way consciousness achieves clarity, in almost every instance we divide the world into two classes: those who are with us and those against. The recent presidential election is a good illustration of the process we undergo in achieving clarity on a national scale. We the people have made up our minds. It took the better part of two years, but we did it. We weren’t clear who we wanted to lead us at the beginning. But we eventually winnowed the candidates down to three, then two, and finally one. The outcome of that process is beyond doubt. Barack Obama will lead us as of January 20th, 2009.


The divide between supposedly red states and blue states is all in our minds because it stems from the processes through which our brains seek clarity in enabling us to act consciously and deliberately in life situations as we perceive them. Political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. We have them because we the people need help in coming to decisions within the framework of our democracy. In order for our minds to make meaningful choices, it is extremely helpful to engage in a process that narrows the field down to two alternatives. Consciousness thrives on clear choices because that is how the brain works in separating meaningful signals from a background of noise. The higher the ratio between the one and the other, the easier we find it to make up our minds.


Which is why we have true believers and infidels, good cops and bad, cowboys and Indians, Shiites and Sunnis, and an endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In the last case, there is no process by which those of either mindset can embrace the two as equal blocks or constituencies and so resolve their differences by one means of achieving clarity or another. The only thing that would allow such a resolution would be to structure a situation such that the two peoples have equal right to consideration by all concerned. But most minds are closed to that option from the start. The contest is over before it has a chance to begin. All that’s left is for each side to throw rocks or rockets at the other in deep-seated enmity as if one side were born wholly good and the other wholly evil. The difficulty of the situation is compounded by the scarcity of land and water in a region where too many people are struggling to survive on minimal resources.


The U.S. has just gone through the exercise of electing Barack Obama as president of its national plurality of peoples. All peoples, not just one group or another. That is a tremendous leap of consciousness into the future from a past in which such a thing was unimaginable. Blacks, Native Americans, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and other settlers have been together here for over 400 years. It took that long for a man of mixed ancestry to transcend his otherness in being elected to the presidency. He is now The Man, not just background noise. Imagine a Palestinian emerging as The Man in a union embracing both his people and Israelis. Until all sides can consciously imagine such a thing happening, it will not happen because the very idea will be suppressed as nonsense.


Imagine a state in which lovers of saxophones live in harmony with lovers of hermit thrushes. Is such a state possible. Yes, when the people of each persuasion can celebrate the underlying humanity of the other. And beyond embracing it, become consciously willing to defend that celebration to the death. Until then, consciousness renders one party less human than the other, and no clear accommodation is possible.












(Copyright © 2008)

Relationships are anything but static. In fact change often keeps them going. They are not meant to remain forever the same. Consciousness thrives on novelty and adventure. Sameness puts us to sleep. We are most alive when dealing with situations that interest us because we are invested in them. Without interest—z z z z z z z. We are all interested in love. Here’s what I wrote on that topic in my write-up of the same hike I dealt with in my last blog, (Reflection 22: Relationships):


Love is one of the greatest mysteries in any relationship. We know people become attracted to each other in such a way that acquaintance blossoms into friendship and, when desire conquers fear, into the more intimate stages of love. We do not know what starts the progression, or sustains its development. Why these two people out of millions? Why now? Why here? We come up with star-[matched] love and fatal attractions, but those are metaphors, not explanations. My hunch is that place draws people together. Lovers are active expression of their place on Earth. They stand somewhere, rising from ancient roots, living proof that their lineage is successful, and they are ready to commit themselves to the continuation of their lines into the future. Love flows not from the heart but from the Earth. From the springs of beauty, health, promise, and success. When two people come together as particular expressions of Earth’s bounty and ongoing creativity, they lay the foundation of the future, not just for themselves or their habitats, but for the next stage in the unfolding of the great universal adventure. Without the dimension of place, couples represent only themselves as motes entangled in air. The word “casual,” as in casual encounters, casual conversation, and casual sex, hints at the missing element of commitment to place. If this commitment is not part of a relationship, the coming together of two people is an accident of two desires rubbing against each other for fleeting gratification. Partners who endure represent more than themselves. They are Earth embracing Earth, place embracing place, life embracing life.


Each of us becomes an agent for our placement in life. We let our genes do the talking. Our life worlds, then, open onto scenes or situations peopled by other agents, objects, props, scenery—all viewed from our perspective, all seen in relationship one to another. This is the phenomenal world which constitutes our consciousness moment by moment as such situations change and develop into stories or, when conceptualized, scenarios. All consciousness emerges from the perspective of the self, is situational in nature, and flows along like a river or storyline. We are eager to find out—and to live—what happens next as the situation unfolds in awareness.


Through language, we give voice to situations as we experience them from our points of view. Prepositions, by definition, are relational: from, to, in, on, by, over, through, across, under, near, and so on. Conjunctions are relational: and, for, or, both, either, before, until, while. Subjects or agents acting on other agents or objects are demonstrably relational through verbs depicting specific actions: hit, take, move, cry, tell, hold, share. Adverbs modify the description of such actions: slowly, carelessly, deliberately, repeatedly, relentlessly, lovingly. Even conceptual nouns are situational in being evoked by particular sensory phenomena as being relevant to a situation unfolding in consciousness. Their reference is not to the outside world or to memory itself, but to the situation the speaker/writer actively holds in awareness because it interests her and arouses her feelings and attention at the moment.


As that moment of attention leads on to another, the situation develops, and consciousness follows along, eager to see what happens next. The motivated self or point of view brings up a situation in consciousness, which soon changes into a different situation, and then evolves into a situation with a history heading in a certain direction—thus becoming a story (or joke, episode, paragraph, song, opera, painting, and so on).


Each of the postings I include in this blog is a reflection of my state of consciousness as I piece it together at my computer. I set Reflection 20: Nothing on My Mind to post at 6:00 a.m., Friday, November 7. The night before, I woke in the middle of the night regretting two words I had added at the last minute. I felt they opened up side channels which distracted from the flow of the piece. I got up at 6:00 and deleted those two words. Reading that reflection through, I find it flows in fourteen paragraphs like a rushing river through, more-or-less in order:


  • cargo cults
  • shepherds watching their flocks at night
  • progression of the seasons
  • rural activities dependent on seasonal floods
  • uses of the calendar
  • angel messengers in the heavens
  • removal of social authority to urban areas
  • the idea of supreme beings
  • outer limits of concept formation
  • emptiness of absolute concepts
  • consequences of monotheism
  • the hollowness of supremacy, all leading to
  • the powerful abusing the consciousness of the weak.


That’s quite a story. All told from my perspective on a natural situation evolving over time into a modern cultural situation with a long and complicated history in human consciousness. Each generation lives only one episode, so cannot fully grasp the big picture. But if we seek them out, we can retrieve many of the separate episodes and piece them together. Which is what I tried to do in Reflection 20, giving not just the current state of affairs, but also the key stages of its evolution as seen from the point of view of my state of consciousness when I wrote that blog (which, if I live long enough, is apt to go through additional stages in years ahead).


Consciousness is all about evolving relationships in evolving situations as experienced from an ever evolving point of view. There are no absolutes in consciousness. Everything is seen in relation to everything else. Like the juggler, we hoist our set of Indian clubs (or hacky sacks) on our own and keep them flying until we die. There’s my set, your set, your mother’s set, your father’s, your children’s sets, and on and on. We do our best to keep them flying. Sometimes we drop a few, or all of them. We pick them up and start again as best we can. When we tire, we toss a few and keep going until the end.


Such is the challenge of consciousness. We have to work at it. All the time. And try to keep abreast of the situations we find ourselves in. Now it’s personal relationships, children, global warming, economic collapse, fuel costs, loss of jobs, hard times, and all the rest. Here we are, each living our own story, our evolving life, doing the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed.


This is the kind of situation consciousness has evolved to help us deal with. Few if any saw it coming. But now it’s here, and tomorrow will evolve into a new situation. Novelty is at the core of human awareness. Now our job is to apply our judgment to the options before us, prioritize those options, work as closely as we can with our partners in similar situations, hoist our clubs and keep going. Every generation has its time to shine. This is ours.





Reflection 22: Relationships

November 12, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

On a hike I made on August 16, 1996, I got into relationships. That is, relationships got into me. I met eight groups of hikers along the loop I made on Western Mountain in Acadia National Park. All but one were carrying on lively conversations. The silent exception was a man carrying a toddler papoose-style on his back. The rest were all talking, talking, their tongues working as hard as their legs. I heard them coming along the trail, I heard them going.


What is the difference between hiking in a group and hiking solo? I asked that question then, and—after writing Reflection 21 about each of our consciousnesses going it alone—I ask it more generally today. What is the difference between being alone and being in relationship with another who is also going it alone? How can two atoms in the universe link up and share a higher order of consciousness which transcends their isolation? This is how I eased into that topic in 1996:


Unique events and singularities are almost beyond comprehension. There is nothing we can compare them to. We think in terms of classes of things, categories, repeatable events. A class of one is no class at all. It is something waiting to be grouped with something else—to be made plural, coupled, included as part of a whole. Nothing exists by itself. Relationship is all. All is relationship. Plato labored over the problem of the one and the many, the difference between one thing and more than one. Here is a thing all by itself; it is what it is. Put it with another thing, it becomes party to a relationship, which is something else again. No longer an independent whole by itself, its nature now depends on its connectedness to something beyond itself. Man and wife. Mother and child. Teacher and student. Labor and management.


When singular items become joined, there is a tradeoff from a state of differentiation to one of integration. From being alone to being together. Specific detail is sacrificed for a more general state of unity. When two individuals become linked in their minds as a couple, they exist in a wholly different space than they occupied previously. They may look much the same, talk the same, walk the same, but they do so in companionship with another looker, talker, walker. And this change is not just a matter of appearances. Both parties are changed on the inside so that they actually look upon their respective worlds in new ways. Their consciousness becomes energized, their hormones surge, their identities expand to include another being as an essential part of themselves. In writing up my hike twelve years ago, I said:


In school we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, but that simple formula speaks a mystery the greatest minds do not understand. There is a distance and a tension between individual things that must be included in the notion of plurality. A couple exists in relationship. The relationship is what makes it a couple. Yet the relationship is not part of either one by itself. It is something else. The mystical plus sign is everything. That is where the magic is hidden.

Language, love, and beauty live in the plus sign, the space between partners in relationship, and between pluralities. The plus sign makes room for science, religion, government, and art, which are not disciplines in themselves so much as systems of relationship within society. The plus sign gives ideas a place to grow.


Not only ideas but babies, families, communities, tribes, and nations grow in that plus sign. Clearly, we have evolved as a species to join together in common purpose with others we invite to share our personal space. As hydrogen ions are born to share their being with other ions to form atoms and molecules, we are born with not just a potential but a proclivity for interacting with others who are born with a complementary drive.


In partnering, we fulfill—not the other—but ourselves. Both the urge and the satisfaction to which it leads are parts of our personal makeup. That way we preserve our integrity. Our plus sign fulfills itself. If we give from the heart, in the very same act we are expanded in kind. Which sounds like New Age gibberish, but is how the social dimension of consciousness works. We may feel good about having found our partner, but, too, we approve of ourselves in the relationship we have established. We are fully ourselves the whole time. That way, we do not give ourselves away, and so do not feel diminished. As I wrote in my trail book:


The wonder of hiking with a companion is that both people can enrich their relationship by being together in similar landscapes at the same time. Letting the landscape be the plus sign that unites them, couples can grow in new ways in new places, sharing new experiences, letting their relationship grow beyond what it was before they set out. One of the secrets of sustaining a relationship is to let it grow in new ways. This takes trust that the new ways will not threaten what has been attained, but will add new dimensions to it. . . .

          For people hiking in groups, being there is the secret. Being together in relationship as who they are, where they are. Not as who they were somewhere else; who they are, together, here, right now. One of the plus signs, the elements of relationship, is the location where the relationship comes into being. Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum; they are situated where the participants are as they relate to one another. The setting is part of the relationship. Not in an incidental way, but fundamentally and substantially. Location shapes what happens, becoming part of events as each participant and witness experiences them.


Events express the landscapes where they enter into consciousness. People become aware of their surroundings and what I now call their situations, so becoming partners with trees, plants, birds, water, sky, and other natural elements. The “where” is more than just a place on a map, it is a place to be and to live—a habitat. An address in the universe where people can reach out and be touched. The very situations that shape our personal consciousness at particular moments—those same circumstances suggest ways of being together with others in similar situations.


Though our particular edition of consciousness is ours alone (see Reflection 21), we need not feel locked in solitary confinement. The way out is also included in that same consciousness. We discover such openings once we take responsibility for being who we are as individuals and become comfortable with that individuality as our greatest asset. Then the way to offer ourselves in partnership with others opens before us, as the road to the Emerald City opened before Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We gather courage, heart, and intelligence together—and off we go.



Reflection 21: Mind to Mind

November 10, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Do we all live in the same world? Or, put differently: Does anybody live in my world besides me?


I have evidence suggesting my two eyes live in different worlds, so even “I” don’t live in one world. Used to be, when I looked through my left eye (the good one), the scene before me was brighter than when I looked through my right eye (which I never thought of as bad, even though it rendered everything darker and greener). Having had the cataract in my right eye removed two weeks ago, I now find the vision in that eye much brighter, and the vision in my left eye to be green and comparatively dim.


So the worlds rendered by my two eyes are not the same. Just as the worlds rendered by my right and left hands are not the same. I carry buckets, open jars, bail boats with my left hand; I write with my right hand. The muscles and sensory apparatus on the two sides of my body are not symmetrical, as if each side lived in its own world. Which, as far as I know, and operationally, is true.


Those with cataracts see the world differently than those without. Which is also true of the colorblind and those with vision impairments of any kind. Think of veterans with amputated arms and/or legs. Even with high-tech prostheses, they may still receive sensations as if relayed from the missing part, as in the phantom limb effect. The leg is missing, but at the same time seems to be there. It is hard to imagine the worlds of the wounded, and hard for the wounded to imagine the worlds of the whole. Without doubt, their life worlds are specific to their conditions. As are the life worlds of those with Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, unusual genetic make-ups, and all the other conditions that vary person-to-person, causing us to differ at the core of our being. To adopt unique perspectives. And, yes, projected outward, to live in life worlds of our own.


Even if apparently whole and sound, each of us—because of our genetic make-up, rearing, education, training, and life experience—is not only distinct but unique. On the inside as well as the outside. Not only physically, but perceptually and conceptually. So from Stephen Hawking to Mohammed Ali, Helen Keller to Hillary Clinton—we live different lives in different life worlds. My body is not your body. If I had your body, I’d be you. Thinking your thoughts, looking through your eyes.


Where is the real world scientists purport to study? Not out there waiting for them, ever the same, but in their heads as their methods and traditions have fashioned it over the years. The “real world” is a statistical concoction made by a great number of observers over time. That world smoothes out the differences between observers—the personal equations—by resorting to mathematical conceptualizations that make particularities and irregularities vanish, leaving only such vague generalities as survive the process of thinking about the world while not actually living in it. Scientists go home to dinner like the rest of us, leaving their mental worlds at the lab.


Which is why scientists have such a devilish time telling the rest of us what it is, exactly, that they do. Nothing is more difficult than translating the details of one world into perceptual language that others can understand. Like the truck driver without his truck, like the pilot without his airplane, the MRI technician without her machine cannot exist. They all depend on the perspective their apparatus gives them to be who they are. Which is no different from those of us who depend on our unique sensory equipment to be who we are in the life worlds we have fashioned for ourselves.


Scientists keep trying to reduce the world to its essential equations and numbers, when the world itself exists beyond such realms as mathematics and physics. The world is the world, unknown and mysterious. The mathematical formulations scientists come up with say more about themselves and the positivistic assumptions they started out with than about the world they seek to describe. In every case, the world is what we make it out to be. We, the assorted perceivers and thinkers of the world, fashion our respective worlds with our personal perspectives at the core, building worlds around our experience, not the other way around. When we are gone, the world will go on without us—without numbers, words, concepts, which belong to us, not the world.


Going blind, we ask for more light. Becoming deaf, we tell others to speak louder. Breathing oxygen from a green bottle, we have windows opened to let in more air. Consciousness factors out its own workings as if it gave upon a world incorporating such failings on its own without us. If we have a million dollars in the bank, we sincerely believe that sum is not sufficient to meet our needs, so find ways to manipulate the world into doubling our worth. There is no limit to how consciousness can distort our life situations, always with sound justification.


Just as for decades Congress has been lax in exercising its oversight responsibilities over the Judicial and Executive branches of government as spelled out in the Constitution, consciousness cannot recognize its own flaws and deceptions. Blame is always cast outward onto someone else. I am the last person to remove the wax from my own ears, my dog from my neighbor’s garden, my thumb from the scales weighing my just deserts. It is as hard for the obese to stop eating as for the anorectic to eat more. We, personally, are never the problem. Except we are always the problem and can’t see it.


To set a limit is to challenge all comers to do better. Witness The Guinness Book of World Records. Slower growth is a crime against the economy. We have to have more, and more after that. Consciousness can never be satisfied. It is calibrated in relative terms, not absolutes. The grass is always greener somewhere else. Someone else’s wife is more desirable than my own. What, me write the foregoing sentence? I never did. Except I did. Consciousness is restless, always searching, scheming, striving to get ahead.


Do we all live in the same world? Not very likely. Consciousness is a process, a way of seizing the unknown, which is a myriad of processes in itself. With consciousness, everything is on the move, like a juggler’s Indian clubs. Consciousness never rests. Today is day one of the life of the mind. We are born again every hour, every minute. On the lookout for personal advantage, we look at the world from our shifting perspective. When conditions are right, we make our move. Then shift to the next situation, and start again from there.


Does anybody live in my world besides me? Does anyone share my outlook or consciousness? No, we are on our own. Not mothers or daughters, fathers or sons. Certainly not husbands, wives, partners, lovers, colleagues, neighbors, or anyone else. Those you know most intimately you don’t know at all because you aren’t in their heads. Intersubjectivity is a fancy word for the dream that we all share the one world. With that myth—that fallacy—as a basic assumption, then we end up with the world we have built for ourselves because we are constitutionally unable to manage and take responsibility for our personal outlooks and actions. I cite the perennial differences between Shiites and Sunnis, Palestinians and Israelis, Hindus and Muslims, Hutu and Tutsi, Serb and Albanian. Think tribal warfare on every continent, rich and poor, native and immigrant, young and old, and on and on.


In brief, we will never be able to come together across the gulf of our differences until we confront the uniqueness of our respective minds and the worlds they give us. Only then can we make concerted efforts to span that gulf with bridges anchored firmly on both sides, so allowing meaningful engagement between us.


The irony of consciousness is that to come together, we must go our own way. We must learn to take our differences into account in order to grow close enough to understand one another. You must be yourself, I must be myself, if you and I are to grow into us. We are seldom taught that, but the wise among us acknowledge it. Which requires sustained effort on all sides, mutual feedback, caring for one another, and willingness to put nurture and cooperation in place of dominance and surrender.


Can we imagine such a life, much less bring it about? I think the answer requires us to take a hard look at the world we have made for ourselves—the world we actually live in, separate and alone. Is this the best we can do? More of the same will not help. What we need is a revolution in consciousness based on the gifts we have to offer one another from our separate perspectives, not on the wealth and ecstasy we see others denying us, practically daring us to have our way with them by force.










(Copyright © 2008)

Members of the first Pacific island cargo cults believed early explorers and missionaries had waylaid gifts that their island ancestors and deities had intended for them. The more strange and wonderful the cargo brought to their shores, the more certain the islanders became that only their gods were clever enough to create such treasures, and that surely the strangers had intercepted them before appearing on the horizon in their great wind-powered ships. When military forces replaced the earlier explorers during the Pacific campaign of World War II, the islanders hit upon the notion of imitating their dress and behavior, so to perform the powerful magic that had allowed the combatants to steal the treasures that were truly sent by island ancestors and gods to benefit none but their descendants.


There is a certain charm about this innocent—almost childish—tale of magic and gullibility among primitive peoples. Or would be if the story didn’t so closely reflect the origins of our deepest religious beliefs in the early days of pastoral tribes guarding their flocks by night beneath the stars in the valleys of the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers, where so many of our cultural ways and beliefs were birthed in the human mind.


The regular motions of heavenly bodies—the sun during the day and stars, planets, and moon at night—were so evidently connected to flowing rivers, blossoming and fruiting plants, and migrating animals, that they were freighted with awe and even divinity because of the mysterious causal influence they exerted on Earth and its peoples. The remoteness of the heavenly host put it beyond human influence, squarely in the realm of causation, which in those days was ruled by the gods.


Just as Pacific islanders mimicked the ways of those who relayed their cargo to them, so early planters and shepherds believed their wellbeing depended on their imitating the ways exemplified by luminous bodies overhead. On earth as it is in heaven is probably the most profound religious formulation ever devised—because it was—and is—so evidently true. A tribe of nomads regulating its affairs according to the seasons will learn to plant, cultivate, harvest, migrate, and fast on appropriate days during the heavenly cycle of dearth and plenty. As migrant tribes moved north out of Africa 100,000 years ago, the heavens became increasingly important to their survival via the plants, wildlife, and domestic herds they depended on through the seasonal rains and flooding of the great rivers that begat early civilizations.


After discovery of the heavenly order, the next great advance was translating it into human affairs through use of the calendar. Which was not annually distributed in those days, but was built into structures enabling close observers to tell the progression of the seasons through the relation of heavenly bodies to Earthly landmarks such as trees, hills, and mountains, then to set stones, obelisks, and monuments, and later to temples dedicated to receiving and interpreting the instructions sent by the gods to humankind.


Where depicted, the gods were often surrounded by halos of light similar to the natural radiance of bright stars and planets. The planets moving among fixed stars were welcomed as angels, a word which descends from Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” Originally, there were seven of them: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were revered as gods in early religions, and were worshipped in temples and sacred groves favoring aspects of their heavenly stature. Every tribe had its priestly reader of signs in the heavens to advise local leaders bent on keeping tribal affairs attuned to the wisdom and advice of the gods as relayed through the motions of, and relationships between, the angels.


Urbanization and removal of priesthoods from the countryside to more developed and populated ports and trading centers led religious beliefs to drift from their moorings in the skies and become attached to other deities and institutions as they evolved over time. One characteristic of this succession was the ruthlessness with which each succeeding system of belief suppressed its predecessors. Priestly classes shifted the secret lore that gave them power from the stars—which were in public view—to more arcane wisdom hidden away in sacred texts which only they had access to.


As long as all people shared in the survival wisdom freely told by the motions of the planets among the stars, the priesthood provided the public service of yoking human activities to a primal system of knowledge so self-evident that everyone willingly practiced its teachings. But once priestly beliefs in urban centers were distanced from folkways of the countryside (as Dionysian feasts and festivals displaced to Athens were cut off from the rural roots that had fed them for countless generations), the angels and heavenly host became detached in the urban mind from reference to observable events in night skies, so becoming abstract and conceptual, whereas before they had been at the perceptual core of pastoral and agricultural life. Formal, organized religious experience became subject not to phenomenal events but to doctrine. It was never the same after that. Some of the early forms persisted, but their substance was now assigned by the priesthood without reference to the self-evident connections between early shepherds and the visible heavens beneath which they watched.


In the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the nine deities were subsumed into one supreme being. Spiritual consciousness was given a single answer to all questions, whereas before it could have selected from a number of options. The supreme being became the Giver of All, Knower of All, Hearer of All, Seer of All, The All-Comprehending, The Perfectly Wise, The Greatest, The Highest. Diversity was looked upon as heresy. The One God was to be all things to all people, even when many of its attributes were in direct opposition: Giver/Taker, First/Last, Manifest/Hidden. In consciousness, the concept of deity was transformed from a plurality to an absolute. There was to be no room in the mind for more than one Being. By fiat, that One was declared Supreme.


Which created an outer limit to the art of concept formation, beyond which no mind could freely wander or inquire. The ultimate had been ordained for all time. For all men and women. In all places. Forever. God became a pure idea, unsullied and intangible. Henceforth it would be impossible to encounter this singular god on a mountain top, in a forest glade, or in dreams. The ultimate concept is beyond all sensible attributes. It is that which has no phenomenal dimensions of any kind. No shape, no size, no face, no body. No appearance, no voice, no heft, no motion. It cannot be portrayed in painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, or other medium.


The Absolute can only be thought. And not even that because it has no parts or qualities that can be thought about. What it is is absolutely nothing. The human mind cannot conceive of such a thing. The absolute god of monotheism, meant to comprise all and intend all, is beyond conscious imagination. Calling this god a mystery is no help. There is no way a mortal mind can approach it, much less apprehend it. As that which cannot be known, it is beyond conception itself.


The sleep of reason creates monsters. The sleep of phenomenal consciousness creates ideas without substance, which is as empty as a mind can get. Yet people kill in the name of their singular God. Burn nonbelievers at the stake. Explode the bodies of infidels with improvised explosive devices. Murder others who look different, talk different, or dress different from themselves, without remorse.


Books have been written detailing the words of this fictional absolute, but they have been written by men to put fear in the hearts of others for the sake of taking power over them. We live in a time when those all around us devote their lives to making money without doing any work. Another way is to create wealth by getting people to worship nothing at all, and ask them to pay for the privilege. This, too, is happening all around us. As Brooklyn Bridge can repeatedly be sold to innocents with little in their heads and too many coins in their pockets, belief in nothingness can be dressed in passion and sold to the fearful and destitute. Brooklyn Bridge, holy writ—as far as consciousness goes they amount to much the same thing.


Belief without substance at the core is worse than an oxymoron, it is a travesty of consciousness itself. Without something to chew on, the mind is as useless an organ as the coccyx or appendix. Which may well be the point. When the mind is fixed on emptiness, it is that much easier for those in high places to take possession of such minds and fill the void with dogma, allowing the strong and clever to think for the weak and the innocent.



Reflection 19: My Day

November 5, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Starting when she was First Lady in 1935, for 27 years (1935-1962), Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a widely syndicated daily newspaper column titled, “My Day.” She, like Henry David Thoreau, was a born blogger well ahead of her time. Both of them set high standards for years to come. I had a great day yesterday, noted on calendars in the U.S. as Election Day, and it’s my consciousness of the day I’d like to blog about.


To-Do List for November 4, 2008: 1) oyster monitoring; 2) vote; 3) dominoes.


By way of background, once a year I go out with Mike to help monitor the bay for signs that oysters from his aquaculture operation are spawning, sending spat out into the world beyond the marked boundaries of his lease site. Eastern oysters are not native to the area, so the state wants to know if-and-when any oysters escape into the wild from their watery corral. (If we find any escapees, Plan B goes into play. Except there isn’t any Plan B.) This work takes Mike and me onto the bay in his skiff for a couple of hours at low tide to check for spat settled on boulders in the intertidal zone.


By e-mail, we agree to meet at Sullivan Town Hall at 9:00 a.m., which would get us onto the bay about the time of low water. I get there first, so wait by my car in the parking lot, watching voters come and go, trying to figure out which ovals they had blacked-in on their ballots. A young man walks by and wakes me from my reverie. He puts out his hand—it’s Andy, who I knew years before as a kid, a wild kid having trouble adjusting to a family that had split apart under him. He now has a company that builds post-and-beam structures all over the state, is married with two kids, and looks great—like a lumberjack. I shake hands, and we talk briefly about life and such. We shake again. He goes in to vote, leaving me musing about the absurdity of three-strikes-and-you’re-out as applied to young men struggling to get their legs beneath them.


Mike drives up and tells me to follow him to where his boat is moored. I note his McCain-Palin sticker. He and I both love being on the bay for any reason. We go out on rare, windless days in the fall, visiting each of the eight boulders we selected as monitoring sites in 2005, covering a two-mile stretch of the upper bay, checking the boulders for miniature oysters—which so far we haven’t found. Today we see small flocks of red-breasted mergansers scooting low over the water, ring-billed gulls diving and dunking for sea worms, eelgrass, sponges, periwinkles, barnacles, blue mussels, limpets, an assortment of seaweed clinging to the rocks—but no oysters. Many exposed boulders and ledges are draped with harbor seals enjoying the warmth cast by a low sun. By the last boulder, we sight the underpinnings of the old wharf in Franklin where the last locally-built schooner was launched in 1898. We talk about how they got that great ship—The Caroline Foss—down the bay past minefields of submerged boulders laid by the last glacier. We shake our heads in awe and wonderment.


Driving away from the shore on the gravel access road, my bladder asks me to stop so I can release the flood I have been holding back for two-and-a-half hours on the water. Turning onto a gravelly stretch of South Bay Road, I slow, turn onto the shoulder—and drive into the ditch, hanging my car up on the edge with no traction forward or back, two wheels up, two down. What I took to be firm ground was … a dense patch of roadside vegetation. How many times must I relearn that looks can be deceiving? Especially road edges in rural Maine. My mind is still out in Mike’s boat, so I am not dismayed. A setback, that’s all.


A couple in a van stops to ask if I am all right. Do they know a tow service in the area? Well, there’s Bill’s down to Waukeag. I call Frank on the cellphone I keep in my camera case for emergencies. There’s Bill’s, he says, . . . and Merchant’s. Rick Merchant is my second cousin. What’s his number? I call Rick, and he sends a truck that’s there in ten minutes. The driver exudes calm and confidence. Have you out in a jiffy. He does his thing, then checks under the car for scrapes and leaks. None. I stop by Rick’s to pay for the service. Seeing him working on two vehicles on jacks out in front, I tell him he needs a bigger garage. Nope, a smaller one. He tells me a man from the state has found high bacteria levels in the nearby Carrying Place. Same old story. The drainage that runs in front of his garage is polluted—again. I’ve been through that with him before. A neighbor’s septic system was replaced three years ago. Now it’s another one. It never ends. I like Rick. He’s a straight shooter. He really lives his life.


I drive to Bar Harbor, eat lunch, vote. I am surprised how easy it is. After two years of arduous primaries and final campaigns, it ends today. (Now the real work begins.) I black in the ovals for nine local and three state referendums, senators, representatives, county clerks, and, oh, yes, president and VP. I do it, but feel nothing. I’d waited two long years—eight long years—for this moment. It’s here, and I feel nothing. I don’t know how it will turn out. Anticipation and dread cancel one another. I’m left with nothing. I walk out of the old school into the sun.


A day in the life. My life. I run through it again. There’s Andy. Open, direct, capable. A fine young man. Mike. Always quiet, waiting to be tapped. He loves what he does. The man who stopped. Overweight, but truly concerned. Helpful. The tow-truck driver, doing his job. A needed friend. Rick, best mechanic in these parts. Fairest. Able diagnostician. Good neighbor. Speaks curtly, in code—from his heart. Me? I love them all. Here they are, in my life on a day I get out on the water to pay attention to the real world. Days like this, I like my life.


Later, I listen to election returns while playing dominoes with my partner and her daughter’s family in Blue Hill. McCain-Palin didn’t make it. Obama-Biden did. Hallelujah! I am born again. Eight years of disdain from the highest levels of government—leading to ineffectiveness, frustration, powerlessness, not to mention world chaos—are at an end. Meaning that has been stolen and trashed will be recovered. Oh blessed awareness. I love this life.



Reflection 17: Election Day

November 2, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

The art of consciousness is in weighing our opinions and impressions as a means of selecting the most appropriate action to take within the limits imposed by our current situation as we construe it. This is extremely difficult to do, and when we accomplish it, it is a high art. More often we fall short.


Tuesday is Election Day. The needlessly tedious and costly campaign season is at an end. Now, assuming the system works as intended, the people will decide the outcome. The presidency is a zero-sum game: one wins all, the other loses all. As for the voters, two people can examine the same evidence and use it to support entirely different platforms or candidates. As a capsule summary of what is at stake, here are excerpts from two Letters to the Editor published on October 23 in Maine newspapers, the first in The Bar Harbor Times, the second in The Ellsworth American:


[Letter 1.] I continue to be dismayed as so many of my friends, otherwise astute, discriminating, intelligent thinkers, seem inclined to follow and support the very liberal Democrat candidate for the Presidency. This is a man whose associations with the likes of Jeramiah Wright, Tony Rezco, and the infamous William Ayers would raise the eyebrows of the most moderate liberal. Our security as a nation is threatened by associations with suspected terrorists.

          Under decades of legislative leadership by the Dems, we are now in the second greatest financial mess of this country’s history, and Barack Obama wants to increase the giving! This is a time worn, seemly [sic.] way of seeking power…. and more power!

          Where is our reason? Where is our sense of personal responsibility? When are we going to insist that the “dole” is not an entitlement? When do we take seriously the obligation to achieve victory in Iraq for our country? When can we expect to turn the tide of wasteful use of already excessive taxes collected by the Federal Government?

          Do you want to further the advance of rampant giveaways, unsavory and illegal activities of those who threaten the health and safety of our citizens?

          Or do you plan to stand up for self responsibility and fiscal conservatism?

          I will cast my vote for McCain/Palin and I implore right thinking individuals to do the same.  q


[Letter 2.] Being informed, reasonable, intelligent and understanding how our government works . . . should be minimum requirements for serving as president and vice president. The people we elect must be physically and mentally fit—and yes, they should pass a “litmus test” for character, proving they are morally fit as well.

          The McCain/Palin team clearly does not meet the standards. . . . McCain has shown his confusion (“the fundamentals of our economy are strong”), his poor judgment in his choice of running mate, and as evidenced by his smear tactics and avoidance of debating the real issues during this campaign, sadly apparently has sold his soul, too.

          Obama, in contrast, has shown us he is a man of integrity, with an even temperament and good judgment. His many years as a civil rights attorney and lecturer on constitutional law, his experience as an Illinois state senator and a U.S. senator, his ability to inspire, the dignified way he has conducted his campaign—have shown us he is the one truly qualified to be our leader.  q


The writers of these two letters do not live on the same planet. Not in their heads they don’t. At least they do not practice the art of consciousness the same way. Art has something to do with making things. The word stems from an early root, ar-, meaning to fit together, as a joint fits two bones together. Hence Greek harmmos, and Latin artus, both meaning joint. Also in Latin, arma means tools, and ars means art, skill, or craft. So an artist is one who puts things together. As in consciousness we all put a concrete sensory array (pattern, phenomenon) together with an abstract meaning which provides the perspective from which the array is viewed or interpreted. In applying meanings to shapes, we ignite consciousness as an opportunity to act in a manner appropriate to our current situation as we construe it at the time. If we are right, we receive positive feedback; wrong, we get negative feedback. If part right and part wrong; mixed or ambivalent feedback.


Consciousness as an art, then, is an act integrating sense and sensation, or image and idea in a single attempt to make meaning of our experience, which is not inherently meaningful in and of itself. We make the meanings we discover in our situation by overlaying concepts and episodes of past experience upon it. Or by understanding that situation in a certain way from a particular point of view. The meaning gives us a vantage point for looking upon our experience. Find something red in your surroundings; something shiny; something new or old. If you play that game, your experience becomes meaningful in certain ways which accord with the challenge. You find what you look for.


How you join the concrete sensory and abstract cognitive parts of experience together is a matter of your judgment. Which involves the breadth and depth of the concepts stored in your memory, your level of passion and motivation, and the finesse with which you match them to the patterns your senses present you with.


So voting, as an act of judgment, is a measure of your skill in putting images and meanings together in your mind, as if the meanings were inherent in images of, say, John McCain or Barack Obama, Sarah Palin or Joe Biden.


The one thing to be clear about is that the meanings do not reside in the candidates themselves but in your judgment of the images they present to you. So in a very real sense, when you vote, you are voting for your own judgment projected onto two figures which are mere images in your mind. You are voting for the candidate who (in your judgment) most resembles yourself in this election and for no one else. The candidates are your surrogates, one of whom will hold office in your stead for the next four years. The other you consign to the trash bin. Or so you hope, assuming the majority of voters, for reasons of their own, see things more-or-less the way you do.


Which sounds crazy, until you really ask yourself why you vote as you do. Can you really find a reason for voting one way or another? Not just a habit or convention, but a justification? On whose authority are you voting this way? Your best friend’s, your father’s, mother’s, one party’s or another’s, that of some articulate (and opinionated) co-worker? If not yourself, as meaning-maker in chief, whose influence does your vote represent? Who are you imitating? Whose praise do you seek?


Black Mountain and Gloucester Poet Charles Olson said, “The landscape is what you see from where you are.” When you favor one figure in that landscape over another, where, exactly, are you situated? Where do you stand? What do you stand for? Who are you, really, to take up that position? Which candidate will you under-stand, put yourself under in order to support with your life-long experience? Your feelings, your knowledge of the world and of yourself?


Your situation is where you are in the great scheme of things. It is your grasp of your interplay with your surroundings and the characters you meet there. Are you stuck in one place because it is so familiar, or have you taken up the best possible position because it provides the clearest view of what is going on—in the world, perhaps, but primarily in yourself. How well do you know who you are, what you stand for, and why? When you enter the voting booth, that is the basic equipment you take with you.


Your point of view, beliefs, experience, motivation—that is what consciousness has to work with, along with sensory images and the meanings with which you skillfully, artfully underwrite them. This election is a measure of the wisdom and connoisseurship of the electorate. Which does not necessarily bode well for the outcome. One thing is certain: there will be an outcome. The people will speak, and their voice will tell us who we are as a people.












Reflection 13: Wallpaper

October 27, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

Years ago I wallpapered several rooms in the only house I ever owned. I chose small colonial patterns in blue and rose. By the time I got to the last room, I was a pretty good paper hanger. I started behind the door and worked my way around. As I was climbing the ladder with the second strip all pasted and ready to go up, I saw that I had hung the first strip upside down. It was too late to remove it and start again. I suppose I could have put the second strip on top of the first, but I had just enough paper to go around once. I put the second strip up the right way and went on from there. For a week, that mistake glared at me every time I entered the room, showing me to be the klutz that I am. I retired as a wallpaper hanger. A year later I remembered my carelessness and compared the first two strips. Hung either way, the pattern looked the same. I had to put my nose to the wall to make out the difference. I stayed only a couple of years in that house, but, assuming the room was not repapered, I’ll bet that nobody else ever noticed it either.


Consciousness can be forgiving, even after being highly sensitized, unto turning a blind eye. Yes, we can see the world in fine (foveal) detail, but once seen that way, our consciousness tends to rest on its laurels and move on to new challenges. We do our best seeing with the fovea of our retina where light-receptive cells are packed closely together, giving us sharp color vision. We often reserve that sort of scrutiny for novel situations unfolding in new arrays of color, contrast, shape, and motion. Once they become familiar, we conceptualize them, turning particular patterns and colors from images into abstract ideas.


If we study it at close range in a gallery, a painting by Jan van Eyck, say, soon decays into one more example from the Northern Renaissance, just as the sensory nuances of the broccoli-cheese omelet I made for breakfast last Sunday—much commented on at the time—have gone to omelet heaven. A colleague once hung a large print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk. He told me years later he hadn’t looked at it since. Or if he had looked at it, he hadn’t seen it.


Wherever I work, I pile new papers on the old ones I was working with yesterday. I’m talking important papers, papers I have read and scrutinized in fine detail because they interested me. Then. This is now. My mind has moved on to new concerns. The old ones, for me, don’t exist. So I bury them, as falling pine needles deck the forest floor, eventually turning into duff, into soil, into their constituent molecules. Decay is a natural process. In consciousness we call it habituation. Getting so used to a thing we don’t even see (hear, taste, smell, feel) it.


My desk is a kind of mulch pile of clutter. It calls for a Heinrich Schliemann or some other archaeologist to dig through its layers looking for Troy. People visiting my two-room apartment notice the clutter immediately. I never see it. I build it—on the table, desk, sofa, floor, bed, every shelf in the place—but for me it isn’t really there. Not for my eyes or my consciousness. I live with it every day and wholly ignore it. As some married couples sit across the table as if they were dining alone. They’ve become wallpaper to each other.


If over-familiarity dulls consciousness, anticipation and novelty heighten it. Here’s an anti-wallpaper example from my experience on March 7, 1997, as recorded in my 1998 book on hiking the trails of Acadia National Park:


Being the first one out after a snowstorm is one of life’s greatest joys. With roads and walkways erased, there are no rules governing where you can go. The world has been made anew, and you are the first to witness its beauty. Usually, creatures of habit that we are, we get out the snow shovel and start remaking the world as it was. But if we resist that urge and give in to the wonder of the moment, we find ourselves made anew as well, as we were as children awakening to a day when school was called off because of a storm. I remember lying in bed without opening my eyes, listening for sounds from the outside world that would tell me what kind of day it was. Better than the scrape of shovels or the whump of loose tire chains clattering against fenders was the eloquence of a town muffled beneath a foot of new snow, the news conveyed by absolute silence. I did not have to look out the window to know a revolution had swept over the world in the night, and I had been dubbed emperor while I slept.


Which observer is the true me, bumbling paperhanger or keen-sighted emperor of all I survey? As consciousness would have it, I am both. Either way, I focus on one thing at a time. Shifting my attention from the pattern on a strip of wallpaper to trying to hang it straight, I am apt to lose sight of the pattern and so hang the strip upside-down. Novelty, on the other hand—as in a snow-covered landscape—makes things seen a thousand times appear so various and so new that each cries out for my sharpest attention. In truth, I am emperor of bumbling paperhangers. Sometimes I see sharply and clearly with my eyes, sometimes conceptually with my mind. Experience has taught me it is important to tell the difference between these two modes of seeing.




Reflection 9: Creativity

October 20, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Consciousness is essentially creative. That’s why we have it, to solve problems we didn’t anticipate. If reflexes won’t get us out of our fix, nor habits, nor training, then we’ve got to come up with something else. Something we haven’t tried before. Something new. Consciousness to the rescue!


Imagine the difficulty early peoples faced in becoming conversant with the thousand points of light (Saint Exupéry’s phrase) in the night sky (which from his standpoint in the Sahara Desert, might be almost 2,000). Planets could be distinguished by their shifting positions among the fixed stars, and individual stars could be named (Altair, from Arabic, “the bird”; Rigel, from Arabic phrase, “left foot of the central one”; Betelgeuse, from Arabic, “hand of the central one”). The challenge lay in identifying regions of the celestial hemisphere that could be mapped into consciousness.


Constellations were invented to solve the problem of making the heavens meaningful to shepherds, travelers, sailors, and other early star gazers, not to mention the early astronomers and geometers who developed techniques for mapping the heavens onto the mind.


How did these pioneers tame the wild heavens? Easily, by mapping their minds onto the stars. They made the strange familiar by taking possession of it in terms of widely known and familiar images fit for the task. Nothing too ornate or complex, just basic outlines, like connecting the dots, in this case the dots being points of light. Here is the paradigm of conscious endeavor. We cast our minds upon the stars, and the stars give us back. . . our own minds! By casting old shapes and meanings onto new phenomena, consciousness brings us full circle. We domesticate nature and call it ours (when exactly the reverse is true—we are as wild as the stars because we are made of the same stuff).


The modern constellations (or asterisms, from Greek Aster, “star”) divide the celestial sphere into 88 conventionalized regions, each containing thousands of stars when viewed through a telescope. Many appear to us much as they did to the ancients who named them. Cygnus actually looks like a great swan flying overhead, Serpens flows like a snake, Delphinus leaps like a dolphin, Draco twists like a dragon. These creatures in the sky are all seen from the northern hemisphere. Southern constellations were named millennia later, when navigators were more mindful of the looks of their tools than of animals. They gave us Antlia, the air pump; Fornax, the furnace; Norma, the level; Sextans, the sextant; Pyxis, the compass; along with Microscopium and Telescopium.


To track the apparent positions of sun, moon, and planets, early astronomers designated their respective locations along the path they traveled against the stars (the zodiac) by calibrating it into twelve more-or-less equal constellations. Many early cultures made their own versions of the zodiac. The western tradition has given us Aries, The Ram; Taurus, The Bull; Gemini, The Twins; Cancer, The Crab; Leo, The Lion; Virgo, The Virgin; Libra, The Scales; Scorpio, The Scorpion; Sagittarius, The Archer; Capricorn, The Horned Goat; Aquarius, The Water-bearer; and Pisces, The Fish.


Clearly, these figures are not in the stars themselves but in our heads. Our ancestors put them out there to solve the very real problem of keeping track of the seasons, not only of the year, but of human life. Consciously deifying sun, moon, and planets, early astronomer-priests gave order to the trials of yearly survival in terms representing the will of the gods. Planets were designated angels (Greek angelos, messenger), messengers of the gods, whose decrees could be interpreted from their heavenly positions.


Thus casting their conscious minds onto the stars, priests put on robes of great magnificence, as if their words were backed by celestial authority. We still depict many of them with halos of heavenly light. This is one of the most profound examples of conscious minds turning the natural world to their own purposes. Which is exactly how the presidential election of 2008 will be decided on November 4th. Voters will cast their judgment on competing slates of mortal candidates as if one or another were truly qualified to lead the nation from its sea of troubles. Voting is an act of magical thinking, just like seeing lions and dragons in the stars.


That’s consciousness for you. Pure magic. Discovering our preferences and pretenses in the world as if they were external to us and we did not author them ourselves. We make it all up as we go along, and call it truth. What could be more creative than that!