Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

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Copyright © 2008.

In consciousness, where time is the signature of the observer, space is the signature of the actor, the doer, the mover. Both of which we are—observers and actors—often at the same time. Consciousness is the domain where these two aspects of the self work together in coordinating those sensory changes due to events in the world with those changes due to our own actions. If we don’t keep the two straight in our minds, we can’t tell ourselves from the world, and so get confused. Are you crazy, or is it me?

 

It’s snowing in Acadia National Park, with two feet already on the ground. I’m climbing Sargent Mountain on snowshoes. No blazes to show the way, no ruts in the snow, no familiar landmarks: I’ve mislaid the trail. Here I am in thick, sloping woods somewhere between the Hadlock Brook Trail below and Sargent South Ridge Trail above. If I keep going up, I know I’ll cross that ridge trail. Excelsior!

          Up through the storm, navigating among black stems of spruce. Rock wall; now where? Go left—blocked. Right—up and around the wall. Up, up winding between trees, making my own route. I could follow my tracks down if I had to. Being lost, I look with new eyes. Flying snow, sloping terrain, dark trees. Beauty all around me. Nature herself in ermine cape.

          After an hour, I top a ridge and see a single bare stone floating on a drift, its coat of snow blown away by the wind. I know what that is—digging down, yes, a three-foot mound of stones, a cairn marking the ridge trail. Beyond that line of spruce over there, I’ll bet the ridge falls abruptly into the Amphitheater. Past that, the western slope of Penobscot. I plunge through the trees, and there, the most awesome sight I have seen in Acadia—a ghostly mountain flank rising from a gulf seen through snow streaking horizontally, misting and mystifying the air, creating a scene of wild magnificence. Where is everybody? I’m the only one here.

          The transition from being lost to being found is so abrupt, the scene, though I’ve never seen anything like it, hits me with a rush of familiarity. I am found, indeed! Not theoretically, but in deed. Without a map, I know exactly where I am. X marks the spot on the chart I carry in my head.

 

Consciousness comes in handy when you are lost in the woods. When you’re turned-around and disoriented. It heightens your senses and helps you turn every sound, sight, and smell into a clue to your situation—what’s happening around you and where you are in the world. No need to panic. You’re having an adventure. That is, if you anticipated getting lost and come prepared (expectancy, judgment, and preparation are major aspects of consciousness).

 

Sense of place also comes into play when you know where you are, but some one (or some thing) else is missing. You can stay there and wait, or go looking for them. You start from their last known location, and, putting yourself in their state of mind, navigate from there. It isn’t easy replicating the consciousness of someone else—or of a member of another species entirely, as I discovered during the two years I spent tracking horseshoe crabs in Egypt Bay.

 

GPS unit and hydrophone in hand, I know exactly where I am in my boat, but where are they—the six male and seven female horseshoe crabs fitted with sonar transmitters last June when they came ashore to mate? I don’t know it yet, but I’m trying to think like one of those crabs—to enter its frame of mind in order to figure out where it might have gone after our last encounter. I go to the coordinates where I located one a few days ago, put hydrophone in the water, rotate it full circle, and listen for a faint series of clicks in my headphones to tell me it’s still in the vicinity. Total silence. Shut off the motor and listen really hard. Nothing. Scan the horizon 360 degrees. If I were a horseshoe crab, which way would I go? Novice tracker that I am, I haven’t a clue. Every heading looks the same. To me, their movements seem random.

After months of playing this game, I begin to develop a sense of horseshoe crab motivation. The first year taught me that the crabs in this bay (at the northern limit of their range) spend late November through mid-April hibernating in the mud among eelgrass beds, clams, sea worms, and mussels. Then they rouse themselves in response to increasing light and/or water temperature, eat a hearty meal, and begin their upslope climb from channel edges to gravelly shores where they gather to mate starting mid-to-late May. After mating, they stay in the warm shallows for a month, probably feeding, then make the return trip to deeper waters. Once I understand that cycle, I try to gauge the topography of the bottom, and pursue my quarry farther up or down slope, depending on the season. Slowly, I develop a sense of the routes horseshoe crabs might take at any particular time of year. Once I see that their travels are not random, finding them gets much easier. It’s no longer me alone in my boat. Now it’s me and the crabs and the wind and the waves and the current and the sun in this particular place.

 

Consciousness synchronizes sensory world-changes and motor self-changes, which, given the complexity of the situations we get ourselves into—like getting lost in the woods, or chasing after horseshoe crabs, or dancing for that matter—is a tall order. The cerebellum, one of the original parts of the vertebrate brain, used to be seen as fine-tuner of muscle control. But, too, it receives sensory input, so, with the prefrontal cortex at the opposite end of the brain, may well be one of the locations in our heads where world-changes and self-changes are distinguished in order that we conduct ourselves sensibly in a world we cannot control. Or put differently, that we conduct ourselves sensibly by acting in harmony with the world, not against it. We jump and catch the speeding ball in our mitt, never thinking we are performing a miracle. Never thinking of muscles and nerves and time and space. We just do it. Our consciousness at that moment is who we are.

 

We take it for granted we can walk through woods without crashing into trees, pursue quarry across almost any kind of terrain without losing it, or cross busy city streets at one rate of speed while cars and trucks bear down upon us at other rates. Yet these are examples of the kinds of extremely difficult feats our survival depends on day after day. More than goodness, we need to thank consciousness for such gifts, for it alone gives us the blessing of time and space which enable us to perform such complex operations again and again.

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Let us count our blessings. Happy New Year, everyone.