So, to continue my journey in this brand-new year along the loops of engagement cycling through my mind: after perception and judgment by my situated self comes the realm of planning and action, leading to my playing my role as wayfarer making my way through the serial adventures of my life.

Once all options have been compared and judgments cast, the issue then is to make and effect a plan of action. Goals are set, decisions made how to proceed, projects designed and implemented, teams and relationships formed, tools selected, skills developed and practiced—all leading to decisive moments when I act in keeping with the judgment cast so many milliseconds, hours, days, or years ago.

By the black box image, where perception treats the energy input to my mind from my surroundings, my deeds and actions direct my life’s energy output into those same surroundings as shaped in spacetime by my mind.

The transformation of that flow of sensory energy by my experience and intelligence is situated in a set of active dimensions assembled on that particular occasion in my mind. Those dimensions might include a varied mix of memories, values, emotions, impressions, meanings, motivations, understandings, imaginings, thoughts, beliefs, and so on, all as aroused on that psychic occasion within the confines of my personal black box.

As reshaped by my situated intelligence, that transformed flow of energy is directed across the gap or discrepancy between incoming perception as realized and outgoing action as intended to meet and respond to that flow in an appropriate manner.

As the link between perception and action, my conscious mind is the seat of that discrepancy, and of the judgment intended to adjust or correct it.

Our actions and doings are the most familiar stage of our loops of engagement because they are the culmination of our native intelligence doing its thing to find meaning in, and give direction to, the stream of consciousness that makes up what we can know of the parade of events in our surroundings.

Those actions and doings are the means of our wayfaring. Whether for pay or not, they are how we make our living, such as it is, as an expression of our response to the flow of energy passing through our minds.

Whether we receive pay or not tells whether we are acting primarily for ourselves or for our employers, furthering our own journeys or helping them along on theirs—or doing both at the same time. The art of living is to find a balance between the two that is mutually agreeable to both.

Other people have no direct way of reading our minds and intentions. They have only our deeds to go by in engaging us from a distance and forming a response. To an experienced observer, however, our mental processes may be partially told by what we do.

What we “do” includes speech acts, facial expressions, gestures, bodily postures, dress, grooming, poise, vocal rhythm, presence, style, and all the other signs we give off when we act. Which are the same signs we interpret when forming impressions of those we engage.

Our actions flow in several channels at once, many being largely unconscious, yet all originate in our mental processes nonetheless. In that sense, all human activity is to some degree expressive of the inner states within our personal black boxes, whether we send such messages deliberately or not.

 

 

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Actions (including speech) are how we get out of our heads and make ourselves known to the world. To reach the point where considered action becomes possible, we must shift our attention from the felt situation that motivates us to judging what kind of act would suit that situation. Once in that place, we can set goals for ourselves, engage in projects and relationships meant to lead us toward achieving those goals, and then implement them by acting within our projects and relationships to make our situated selves happen in the world, which is as far as we can go on one particular run of conscious activity. We then start on a new run by paying attention to incoming sensory impressions as shaped by expectancy and arousal, which redirect us to a revised understanding of our situation, and on to a further round of mental activity.

So runs our loop of engagement, from expectancy to arousal, attention and sensory impressions; on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import in the form of an experiential situation as an extension of our personal history; and then on to judging the significance of that situation, setting goals, planning projects and relationships, and finally, implementing them in terms of intentional actions in the world.

Consciousness doesn’t circle so much as spiral because every round is different. Details get refined, skills improved, awareness enlarged, goals more closely approached—all heightening the sense of engagement. Two things escape our attention because we cannot attend them: 1) the working of the brain in supporting the mind, and 2) the working of the world in formulating it’s response to our individual projects and relationships as enacted, which remains to be sensed and interpreted during further rounds of engagement.

In summary, our loops or spirals of engagement comprise formation of sensory impressions, construction of felt situations from those impressions as interpreted, and taking appropriate action in light and fulfillment of key situations. Round by round, consciousness streams by as it does on a journey or in games of tennis, baseball, chess, or charades. The play’s the thing; our engagements are ongoing. If we take a break, we simply engage in other ways, as in dreams and reveries, or while on vacation.

As children, we grow into ourselves, learning how to engage within the intimate circumstances of our rearing. As a result, there are as many styles of engagement as there are childhoods. For instance, as adults, those who learn to fend for themselves without empathic support often end up being out for themselves alone, or solely for their sort of people, and don’t worry about the general well-being or self-fulfillment of others so much as hitting the jackpot or scoring points for themselves. They can be highly competitive, even thriving on the misfortune of others, on making a killing, inciting violence, or waging wars of aggression. Cooperative or diplomatic engagements are not their thing. They act as if they were alone in the universe, so worry only about what they can get out of it, not what they can give to or share with others. Their game is king of the mountain, which pits one against everyone else, a stark parody of Darwinian evolution. “One for one, all for none,” is their cry, the source of a great deal of poverty, suffering, and human misery.

No, engagement with others is the key to survival, starting with being on good terms with yourself through introspection and self-understanding, moving up to satisfying and respectful engagements with others (often unlike yourself) through play, working together, cooperating—each identifying with all as multiple variations on a single theme. If you can’t see yourself in others, you are missing the point of why each one is unique. Which is to to add to a whole through individuation, complementarity, and cooperation. So do we all fit together in forming one human family within one earthling family, which we are in both cases.

No man and no woman is an island (Donne’s metaphor), entire of itself. We all may be unique, but we are not alone, and never have been. We are made to engage again and again—our minds are proof of that.

Each man and each woman is one piece of the puzzle (my metaphor) of humanity, and of all earthlings beyond. After 299 posts, that is my message. As ever, I remain, y’r brother, —Steve from planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Our minds hop from one to the next, situation-to-situation, like islands in an archipelago. From one instant of focus and feeling to another, that is our grand adventure, coming to clarity here, then moving on. Setting new goals, starting new projects, entering new relationships, one engagement after another like pearls on a string, event after event, adding up to a life.

There is an organic logic to this progression, like a sequence of base pairs serving as code for particular amino acids, which add to a particular protein, which folds to a particular shape, which performs a particular role in the life of a cell.

Every situation serves as the basis for the one after that. Awareness flows instant-to-instant, minute-to-minute, event-to-event, day-to-day. All adding, as I said, to a life.

Such are our loops of engagement. We reach for sensory impressions, interpret them, fit them to our understanding, then construct situations which we judge according to our fears, needs, and desires. From there we decide what action is called for if we are to be true to ourselves. We set realistic goals, channel our energy and skills into doable projects, seek help and support from those we trust, and make ourselves happen in the world in fitting response to the situation as we have constructed it from the evidence of our senses

After getting clear on a situation, we shift attention from perception to action—to what we are going to do about it. We set goals and get down to work. So does the life force—the urge to make ourselves happen—drive us to keep up with our situations as they develop.

Getting up, washing our face and combing our hair, walking the dog, fixing breakfast, getting the kids off to school, we prepare to take on the new day. We check the news or headlines to see how the situation has changed overnight. Then we schedule ourselves to get done the jobs we feel called to do, and do our best to meet the expectations we set for our daily performance. At the end of the day we review all we’ve done, and get set for the day after.

So goes the mind, the day, the life: situation-to-situation, with us at the core providing the energy, each doing his or her share of the work. All organic: body, mind, and life. The grand adventure in which we each play our part.

Organically, I remain, y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things can always be improved.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

If the future is all in our minds, that is equally true of distractions which keep us from looking ahead. To write a post I have to clear the decks of litter that will distract me from the topic I want to reflect on. Sounds from a radio or TV coming through the walls of my apartment, for instance, drive me nuts because my mind tries to make sense of what it’s hearing. The same for voices coming from the hallway, or shouts in the street. But most of all the enemy lies within the conflicting thoughts that flit like static electricity through my brain. With so many internal goings-on, I don’t know which channel to turn to, so end up letting them have their way with me, focusing on none, getting nothing done.

The art of countering distractions is to listen to them all, prioritize their urgency, then concentrate on each one in turn. That takes willpower, but somehow it works. The main thing is to acknowledge each item so it doesn’t keep nagging. If I give it a place in the queue, then it waits quietly until its turn comes and I can give it my full attention.

Easy to say, hard to do. For the past month I’ve been working on two PowerPoint presentations, one on what I’ve learned about eelgrass in the past twenty years, the other on granite quarries and quarrying around Taunton Bay. My goal is to have two shows ready for the summer series of talks I’m putting together for Taunton Bay Education Center. I’ve already got four speakers signed up, have yet to hear back from a fifth, and am working on the two talks I plan to give. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep up with my blog. That is, stay ahead of the Monday and Thursday schedule I’ve set for myself in order to get anything done at all. If I don’t plan ahead and work ahead, I find I am always off-balance playing catch-up, doing a poor job of everything because I can’t focus my mind on any one thing.

I’m also involved with the issue of rockweed harvesting in Maine, which I’ve handled by making it the topic of three or four posts to my blog. In a crunch, that strategy sometimes works—putting two things together so I can deal with them as one item. That helps me organize my thoughts so I can actually get something done. But if there isn’t a true connection between disparate items, then it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to force them together.

I have other things on my mind from the senior housing unit where I live, from Quaker Meeting, from the state of the world such as it is, from family, friends, and random acquaintances. All of which leave traces in my mind, requiring me to sort and prioritize them if I am to get anything done at all. They all have the same common denominator in taking up space in my conscious mind. The buck for organizing my concerns stops with me, Organizer-in-Chief of my own thoughts, Head Payer of Attention, Chair of my own Planning Committee, and Works Committee to boot.

I think I blog to stay sane. That is, blogging for me is largely a process for sorting my concerns so I can work on them one at a time. Nothing is more important than getting my act together, and blogging is a way for doing just that. Today is the day for taking up distractions. Yesterday it was the tree that fell in the park, before that Peter Roget’s amazing mental Thesaurus, rockweed harvesting, differences between religious and scientific thinking, and so on, back through the recent history of how I’ve been steering my consciousness and my life through the maze of things as they present themselves (actually, it’s my consciousness steering me). No one can do that job for me, or if they try, then I no longer feel like myself. I’m their employee, their servant, their pawn. Which I have come to see is the normal state for a great many people. Signing a job contract is truly selling a big part of your soul because you pledge to deal with your employer’s concerns, not your own. Or as I’ve mentioned, trying to fit the two concerns together so you can act on them both—getting paid for doing the work your supervisor assigns you. Leaving you hollow in one sense, but well-fed in another.

This post rises out of a list I made of things I’ve been putting off in order to concentrate on blogging on various themes as they occur to me in order to be my own man:

Call Emery about access to Franklin Historical Soc.

Call Debbie about granite used in BH PO

Get back to eelgrass PowerPoint

Plot eelgrass, wasting disease, and salinity on one chart

Read Fred’s two papers on wasting disease

Look up tidal dam story in 1965 Ellsworth American

Find source of 100 hanging name tags

Call Mark about granite sculpting talk

Settle on title for Robin’s talk

Meet with Andy and Jonathan about CSF

Write up summer talks for newsletter

It’s these kinds of things that natter at me from inside my head. Once lodged there, they keep making sure I’m paying attention. But not so much attention that I actually do them and check them off. Just enough to unsettle me as if there’s something I ought to be doing. A whole lot of things. By force of will, I suppress them—most of them—most of the time. But they keep coming back, tugging at my pants leg, reminding me they’re still here, still waiting.

The art of cutting granite is to follow the natural stress lines so it breaks neatly into two pieces. If you go against the grain of the rock, it will shatter. So that’s how I work on my to-do list, by paying attention to the tensions between items, figuring where to make the first cut, second, third. Or as today, to write this post first of all and disregard the entire list. So far, so good. But just thinking about the list gives it a toehold, and I can feel my attention draining away, leaving the distractions high and dry in full sunlight. Am I keeping my metaphors straight? See, I’m losing it; I can’t even tell.

Time to take a break.

This is where projects come up as a means of aligning multiple tasks toward a common end. Which is really what I need to be doing—group related tasks together, figure the sequence, and work on one at a time till it all falls in place. Eight items on the above list are related to the summer talk series, so I’ll make a project of that. Which leaves tidal dam story, name tags, and CSF (community supported fisheries). OK, that simplifies things. Thank you, consciousness, for being there when I need you. I think I’ll try a post on projects next, to see if that leads somewhere interesting.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the mega-distractions I think of as big-ticket items because we all pay for them every day of our lives. I’ll leave such issues as overconsumption; poverty; corporate personhood, free speech, and spending; campaign finance reform; gridlock in Washington and greedlock on Wall Street; global warming and the need for clean energy; the flaws inherent in capitalism; U.S. militarism; and bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—all on my list of things to attend to—but such distractions will have to wait until I can make a project of them on another day.

Granite pavings cut one at a time.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72

(Copyright © 2009)

On the evening of July 9, 2009, I handed a CD containing a PowerPoint presentation to a colleague from Taunton Bay Education Center in Hancock, Maine. The simple act of passing a compact disc from one hand to another ended one phase of a project, and opened way for using the contents to further understand the vagaries of eelgrass growth in Taunton Bay. The CD had been more than a month in the planning stage, based on a framework laid down 18 years earlier when local eelgrass monitoring was begun. The nature and significance of the small plastic disc was not evident in its physical form; it existed solely in the mind of one conscious being, namely me, the one who had made the PowerPoint based on 128 digital photographs taken that morning on an overflight of Taunton Bay. Phase one of the eelgrass monitoring project for 2009 was concluded; now on to phase two and beyond.

Which sounds like pretty dry stuff until you realize how powerful human consciousness is in freeing evolution from reliance on what worked in the past to enabling ideas in the mind to come to fruition in the future through projects based not solely on past success but on anticipation of what future success might look like. Evolution is based on the profound truth that what worked once is likely to work again—that successful adaptation breeds more of the same. But in a rapidly changing world, that truth is merely a possibility, not a guarantee. Once a genome is in place, that’s it for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Consciousness, on the other hand, is more adaptive to changes within a lifetime, so can can alter its prospects by planning ahead. That way, it extends the reach of evolution by taking current and projected states of local variables into account—that is, by knowing what evolution cannot predict on the basis of past success.

Compared to lean and agile consciousness, evolution is slow-footed and cumbersome. It can’t anticipate events; it can only react after-the-fact. Consciousness possesses imagination where evolution has none. Evolution is stuck in the past; consciousness can think ahead and bring about a future that does not yet exist. For evolution, what works works; for consciousness, anything is possible.

A project is a throwing ahead of the mind (Latin pro- forth, ahead; iacere to throw). No feature of consciousness is more powerful than thinking ahead. Planning. Working towards a goal. Heading out. Designing. Implementing. The whole concept of work is based on directing energy toward making something happen. Where evolution cranks out more of the same old pattern, consciousness strives for improvement—something better. One is evolutionary, the other revolutionary.

Evolution came up with consciousness through physical adaptation, but consciousness transcends the physical and biological by enabling states of mind: dissatisfaction, doubt, questioning, imagination, planning, design, implementation, and follow-through. Unifying them behind a common purpose, the mind proposes projects. Leading on to execution by a series of stages to achieve the desired result. Shazam, the world is changed!

Camera in hand, I am in a small plane flying from Bar Harbor Airport toward Taunton Bay, on the lookout for eelgrass. We took off at 8:40 a.m. to be over the bay at low tide. The pilot’s name is Eric. We both have headsets and mikes so we can talk over the noise of engine and wind. I’ll tell him when to make a loop. Flight time costs $289 an hour; I want to keep this short. I know where eelgrass meadows have grown in the past, so we’ll fly loops around those flats, keeping me on the inside of the turn, lens pointing down. Starting at Tidal Falls, we head up Taunton River, loop around the basin between Route One bridge and the falls. I unlatch the window on my side and let the wind hold it open. I’m also looking for kelp beds, so get shots of those along the Sullivan shore. On to Cedar and Evergreen Points where the bay opens up. Cross Havey Point, then swing a big loop around Burying Island Ledge. Not much eelgrass here, though it used to be thick. Along the west shore of Egypt Bay—where it’s really coming back since the 2001 dieback. Loop around Egypt Bay, getting a good shot of horseshoe crab beach and the eelgrass both sides of Egypt Stream channel. Cross Butler Point to West Brook Cove, get three shots of spreading eelgrass. Loop Creasy Cove to get shots of the three groups of boulders called Seal Rocks. Then on up the shore to Round Island and Shipyard Point, making a loop at the entrance to Hog Bay. Along Saltmarsh, Hog Bay the north shore to get shots of the salt marsh (bright green from weeks of rain) and do a loop around Hog Bay to show eelgrass coming in where the channel is cutting a new course through the mud. Down mid-channel to Hatch Point and the land-based aquaculture operation, then loop the flats there, and on further to Evergreen Point with its mussel bar and eelgrass bed. Turn down Taunton River to the bridge, then head for the airport. Touching down, we’ve been in the air exactly half an hour—$125 worth of flight time.

I never imagined on my first flight in 1992 I’d still be doing the same thing in 2009. But eelgrass growth is different every year, depending on seasonal conditions of sun, rain, salinity, Eelgrass in Egypt Bay_2009 temperature, disease organisms, and so on. With eelgrass you never know. It died back in the 1930s, made a comeback in the 1950s, peaked in 1973, eased off in the 1980s, came back throughout the 1990s, almost disappeared in 2001, and is now making a gradual comeback. One large meadow at the base of Butler Point thrived in 1955, was half gone by 1985, and went missing in 1993. That’s a worst-case scenario. Eelgrass is habitat for fish nurseries, crabs, and all sorts of estuarine life. An underwater flowering plant, it is one of the primary producers—including rockweed, marsh grass, kelp, other algae, and phytoplankton—on which all life in Taunton Bay depends, including predators such as kingfishers, ducks and geese, ospreys, and eagles. Without eelgrass, Taunton Bay wouldn’t be Taunton Bay. So Friends of Taunton Bay (one of which I am) pays close attention to eelgrass. Which explains the eight overflights I have made through the years.

Watching over eelgrass has turned into a real project. This most recent flight, for instance was in the planning stages for six weeks. The weather in June and early July simply didn’t conform to my wishes. My garden is slug city from all of the rain. I’d consult my tide chart to see when the tide would be low (exposing the eelgrass) during early morning with slight wind, add two hours to compensate for the lag between Bar Harbor tides and Taunton Bay, and call Maine Coastal Flight Center to give them a heads-up. And call back later when the rain didn’t let up or the ceiling reach the minimum 1,000 feet required for takeoff. I tried the weeks of June 8, 22, July 6—and finally had got a go-ahead on July 9, a day with blue skies and no wind. I put a lot of thought into all those weeks of doing nothing. I checked my flight plan, and kept thinking of simpler ways of getting in the loops I wanted to make. In the end I let my loopy map sit in my lap and decided to rely on intuition in telling Eric where and when to make a loop. That way—and by making every shot count—I cut five minutes off last year’s flight time.

I left the airport by car about 9:15 and got back to my apartment at 9:35. I loaded the photos into my computer, and began PhotoShopping each frame about 10:00 a.m. I changed the resolution of each image from 72 to 160 pixels per inch, the size of the long dimension from 22 to 10 inches (to fit the PowerPoint screen), adjusting brightness and contrast as appropriate. At noon-thirty I heated lunch, then transferred the photos to my PowerPoint-blogging laptop and got to work on the presentation. I finished labeling each slide with its location in the bay at 5:00 p.m., having spent an entire day on this installment of the project. I made a CD, ate dinner, then went to a meeting of Friends of Taunton Bay where I handed over the CD. I stress the minor details because that’s what a project is made of. If you attend to every detail, all will be well. There are no substitutes for loving what you do and getting good at it.

A day in the life, made possible by personal consciousness. Just like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Emily Dickinson turning her life’s energy into poetry, Hillary Clinton devoting her life to public service, or Beethoven putting sonatas from his head into music notation, here I am giving my all for eelgrass. At least for several days out of the year. The payoff of my paying close attention to eelgrass has been the emerging sense of understanding why the beds in Taunton Bay suffered such a sharp decline in 2001. Making a PowerPoint of photos from my 2007 overflight, I saw image after image pointing to dilution of the bay by fresh water as the key to the dieback in 2001. Or lack thereof, 2001 being the year of least rainfall in Maine in 111 years of keeping records. The year with the greatest amount of runoff from snowmelt was 1973—when eelgrass peaked in the bay. Photos revealed eelgrass recovering first in small stream channels draining freshwater across the mud flats. Maine’s eelgrass expert, Hilary Neckles with the USGS, told me that the dieback disease organism thrives under conditions of maximum salinity, and is held in check by brackish (less saline) waters typical of most estuaries. With only 20-some inches of rain in 2001, salinity rose in Taunton Bay, giving an edge to the disease organism, which attacked the eelgrass, causing the dieback. Putting the evidence together, my consciousness reached a new level of understanding of events in one little bay in Maine. I’ve long maintained that, as goes the watershed, so goes Taunton Bay. Eelgrass, being dependent on its watershed to an extreme degree for the desirable dilution of full-strength salt water, was done-in by the drought. In wet years such as we’ve had recently, it’s making a comeback.

Which is a long way of saying that projects not only get us organized, but can lead to new ways of understanding the specific situations within which we live. By focusing the mind, projects enable us to surpass ourselves.

If we would apply that logic to the many crises of under-standing we face today, I think we wouldn’t keep repeating the same old mistakes that, evolution-like, keep us tied to outmoded ways instead of reaching ahead to keep up with changing times. Did Michelangelo settle for what he did yesterday? Did Emily Dickinson, Hillary Clinton, or Ludwig van Beethoven? Is writing one string quartet the same as writing 35 of them? Not on your life! Through channeling our energies into specific projects, we sharpen our skills and comprehension both. The ultimate project of saving the world by making humankind safe for the Earth deserves the maximum talents we can develop in ourselves. Anything less under current conditions is an absolute copout. Let’s hear it for eelgrass, for projects, for consciousness raising in hard times! Let’s get our heads together and do the necessary work. If evolution can’t guarantee success, then the heavy lifting is now up to us. All it will take is directing our attention into projects that will make us as good at solving problems as, unthinking, we are at creating them.

My Wings

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Does the endless stream of consciousness add up to anything, or is it strictly momentary—this, then this, then this? Instant by instant, do we build a larger life? Or do we waste it second by second, day by day, year by year? If conscious life doesn’t add up, what is the point?

 

Blogging about consciousness is like sneezing into a paper handkerchief, then tossing it into the wastebasket. A dated blog is about as valuable as the contents of a trash bag bound for the dump. Useful once, perhaps, but who cares about it now?

 

Think of all those projects that seemed so important at the time. In recent years, I have given my life to studying eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, great blue herons, bald eagles, harbor seals, shorebirds—to what end? I have spent years writing up hikes on hundreds of trails. Before that, I spent more years tutoring students with learning disabilities, grading stacks of papers and exams, taking thousands of photographs. At the time, each moment at the leading edge of my conscious life was precious in and for itself. I couldn’t have done it any differently.

 

But aside from lost opportunities and entropy, what have I contributed to Earth’s welfare? Is this life a loser’s game? I went to work for the National Park Service hoping to protect woods, streams, ponds, and bogs from human encroachment—but what I really did was sit indoors at a computer for five years and put an endless stream of words on paper made from trees, words that few read and no one remembers.

 

We have all kinds of tricks to make our conscious efforts seem meaningful. Getting a paycheck for the time we put in is the most common. Even standing by the water cooler talking about last night’s Red Sox game isn’t wasted if we get paid by the hour. Putting our talents and energy at the disposal of others in exchange for money and favorable performance ratings can be cited as proof of our value to society. We are trained in school to this way of thinking, accepting praise and grades as true indicators of our personal merit. We learn early on that consciousness can be bought and sold—and should be put on the job market if we want to feel good about ourselves.

 

But does it add up? If our value is our usefulness to others, what do we get out of the bargain? That is, is money sufficient justification for selling our minds and bodies to others one hour at a time? Is that the highest and best use of our unique gift of consciousness? Can we truly be conscious on another’s behalf? That seems to be what society expects of us. We are supposed to convert our precious hours of wakefulness into enough money to keep credit card companies off our backs. That, in essence, is how the fine print reads in our social contract.

 

So we make ends meet by selling our consciousness to pay for food, housing, transportation, healthcare—which seems OK to us as long as there’s enough left over for CDs and videos, the latest high-tech gizmos, golf now and then, and a daily latte. Does that add up to a life?

 

Without being aware how we do it, sometime in our twenties, thirties, or forties we generally discover ourselves as conscious beings apart from the conventional world. Till then, we’ve just cruised along without giving much thought to managing our special gifts. We’ve probably taken some kind of job, gotten married, had children, and built a growing pile of questions. Reviewing those questions, we discover we have the option of reserving consciousness for our own purposes, or continuing to put it up for sale because we can’t see ourselves breaking free of the system.

 

This can precipitate a crisis, leading to estrangement from family and friends, a bout of self-indulgence, shopping binges, or even becoming a Buddhist monk going around in a saffron robe begging for a daily bowl of rice. Some people leave the city and move to Maine. That’s what I did. I spent two-and-a-half years living by myself on an island, throwing myself into nature, trying to gather my wits. That’s how I met herons, eagles, horseshoe crabs, and the like.

 

That was the smartest move I ever made. From a social or family perspective, perhaps the dumbest. Either way, I found myself dying in the life I was in, suffocating from lack of air because I had so walled myself into a cubicle to keep from seeing what life was about on the outside. Nobody but myself could save me from continuing to do the proper—the expected—thing. I’d backed myself into a corner, and it was clearly up to me to get myself out.

 

So, 22 years later, here I am, blogging about consciousness. Which puts me on the leading edge of my own life and awareness. And that, I feel now, is the right place to be. Risky, yes, even dangerous. But I maintain that life isn’t a living unless we use our native faculties to connect ourselves as best we can to the situations we place ourselves in. Dulling consciousness is not an option. I’ve been that route and it leads nowhere.

 

The land trust meeting is over about 10 p.m. I drive to the shore, get my rowboat, and head into the night. I strap a flashlight to the bow so I can see ice floes in time to dodge them. The tide is going out, bearing the floes southeast. I come to one so big that I can’t see a route around it. I don’t want it to push me into the tidal falls, so I head up-current to find a way past it. I row and row—does this ice ever end? It must be a quarter-mile long. Finally, the ice narrows, then gives way to open water. I row around it, only to find another floe in the dim glow of my beacon. I dodge that one, come to the ledge, which is at least stationary, and row around that. My light begins to weaken, then fades to black. But I know exactly where I am, and steer straight to the island from there. Well not exactly straight; first I have to dodge the mussel bank, that too a familiar landmark. Even though I can’t see it, I can feel my oars scrape on shells in the shallows. In another 100 yards I figure I’m at the mouth of the cove, and head in. I haul the boat up to the head of the cove, bungee a blue tarp over it, and that’s that, another adventure.

 

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