During my early encounters with psychology, that word held strong connotations of either animal experimentation or pathology and mental illness. Stemming via Latin from two Greek words meaning roughly “breath” or “spirit” (Latin psyche) and “talk” or “thought” (Latin logos), the two roots add up to something like spirit talk or mind lore.

Early on, breath was taken as a sign of life, absence of breath a sign of death. Breath was what we acquired at birth, and surrendered with our last gasp—what some thought of as “spirit.” It came to stand for the non-physical element that seemingly animates our bodies.

The negative connotations of psychology were laid on in the nineteenth century when attention was directed by medical doctors to what might go wrong with a mind in contrast to its right and proper functioning.

Much of my early reading in psychology was given over to discussion of mental disorders. You couldn’t read psychology texts without wondering how crazy you really were. Now, my interest in the mind is directed more toward its normal, everyday performance. I think we need to understand what’s right with the mind before we can properly deal with what’s gone wrong.

That difference itself says a great deal about how our minds work. We pay attention either if our minds seem to work exceptionally well, or if they do poorly. Idiot-savants combine those extreme states of mind. The state of normality in-between is taken for granted without comment. That’s why the connotations of psychology are so often negative, suggesting our minds need mending or healing. If they work as they should, there’s no need to seek out Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung.

The meaning of “mind lore,” then, commonly leans toward the negative polarity, as just owning a car has strong implications of a good garage being available to keep it in good running order.

My preference is to consider the human mind in its everyday mode of wellness and not sickness. For that reason, I now introduce a series of posts dealing with the mind in the context of baseball, our national pastime; Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus, found lying around somewhere in every writer’s workspace; and the stars above, which, remote as they may be, affect our inward lives more profoundly than any creation of mankind ever has.

And now a plug for engagement. The prevailing attitude is that mind puts a consumptive drain on the brain’s physical resources, so cannot be visualized as a kind of spiritual entity operating independently of the brain. But as I have been trying to point out in this blog, engagement is a stimulating activity that, for good or ill, arouses and focuses attention, serving as a kind of on-off switch that directs the brain’s physical resources to mental activities in an extremely efficient manner precisely because of the synchronization it enables between perceptual and physical activity.

Notice how all else falls away when we are fully engaged. Engagement isn’t just a drain, it gives the brain a needed boost as a coherent and smooth-running engine at peak performance. Engagement assures the biggest bang per unit of neurological exertion. When disengaged, the brain is at sixes and sevens without a sense of priority. Each module putts along doing its own self-maintenance chores. When engagement kicks in, the brain comes to life like a dog about to being taken for a walk. Now it can truly show its stuff and not just lie around the house. I would say the brain exists to sharply and deeply engage, as the dog exists to run, leap, and frisk.

Here I will maintain that the mind not only exists, but exists to engage in the play of baseball, of looking up words in the Thesaurus, of celebrating the lights in the sky overhead. As a hint to what lies ahead in this series of posts on baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and human concern with the stars, just imagine the skilled and passionate engagements of those thousands of medieval craftsmen who built Gothic Cathedrals. They might have claimed to be doing God’s bidding, but out of professional pride, they put their hearts into the work of creating the most imaginative, attractive, breath-taking, and durable structures since the fall of the Roman Empire. Those cathedrals were direct expressions of human minds working in collaborative and passionate engagement on the most important projects in a thousand years of human endeavor. We gasp when we look upon those buildings today, monuments to the men who conceived and constructed them stone by stone, window by window, with their hands and eyes engaged in precise coordination.

Baseball. Abner Doubleday (later a General at Gettysburg) is said to have invented baseball in 1839 as a means of keeping his military academy students in good physical shape. Another tradition traces the origin back to the base-running game of rounders in eighteenth-century England. Doubleday did stipulate the dimensions of the playing field, size of and distance between bases, rules governing defensive play by the team in the field and offensive play by the team at bat.

The game itself serves as a metaphor for the battles that make up a military campaign, without the killing. Its very structure flows from the polarity that underscores awareness of events good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable, won or lost. The rules of baseball impose the ideal of fairness on every contest, giving both teams an equal chance at winning the game.

We watch baseball because many of us find it thoroughly engaging. It speaks our language, and we speak its. It’s as if we are born to play and watch baseball. Or so it seems. Actually, we are born to engage with what captures our attention, and baseball is designed to do just that.

Baseball brings out our best at throwing, catching, running, sliding, leaping, batting, playing as a team, and displaying our skills at offense and defense. All of which requires extreme concentration every step of the way. Baseball does exactly what Doubleday intended it to—keep us on our toes while striving to do our best. Even if we’re in bleacher seats, we are aroused, paying attention, and on our toes nonetheless.


(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


(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 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! 



Reflection 8: Blogosphere

October 16, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Insofar as they are immediate, thoughtful, coherent, and honest, blogs hold promise of creating a cooperative, synchronized interaction between individual worlds of consciousness on a scale far grander than one-way broadcasts in the mass media have ever achieved through dominance and brute force.


The emergent properties of such a linked and energetic exchange could function as the collective mind of a world we yearn for but cannot yet imagine. (Neglect for now the global energy consumption necessary to give every creature a voice in such a mind, and the common language we would need to develop to convey personal and cultural nuances beyond the means of stock formulas of expression.)


As it is now, blogs add up to a clamorous Babel of noise and opinion. We select the few that speak to-and-for us, and shun the rest. That way, we reinforce our respective mindsets without running the risk of expanding or correcting them. There’s little rhythm to the whole indicating the slightest degree of synchrony. Even crickets manage that as you drive by a field with the window open—as if they were singing with and not against one another.


United bloggers stand, divided we fall into cacophony. How do we unite when we are all distinct individuals? By reaching for a higher order of consciousness tuned to our sameness more than our differences. Our differences are often minor variations appended to our commonalities. We are built to much the same plan, share similar concerns and aspirations, face comparable obstacles, speak and use gestures, develop along similar lines, need food to survive, along with air, water, shelter, companionship, humor, resilience, patience, strength, and so on.


Where we blog into trouble is in competing for world attention instead of complementing one another in promoting a dynamic understanding of world affairs. This pits blog against blog in selfish self-promotion, not synchronous cooperation. Which boggles the consciousness of most blog surfers, the casual and devoted alike. We can take in only so much, yet there’s so much going on and so much being blogged instant by instant.


Categories and tags are meant to cut the problem down to size. As I write, the top ten categories/tags on WordPress.com at this moment are: Politics, News, Life, Music, Family, Photography, Barack Obama, Entertainment, Travel, and Personal. Here is the mirror of our time on Earth. The problem of organizing it into meaningful topic areas is similar to what Peter Mark Roget faced in 1849 when he set out to sort words not by their spellings but according to the ideas which they express. That is, by their meanings. Which he accomplished in short order, producing his Thesaurus in 1852.


Imagine doing the same thing for human consciousness by taking on the blogosphere in similar fashion. Consciousness enables us to establish a meaningful relationship between the self and its life situation. What the blogosphere needs is a thesaurus of topic ideas to help bloggers blog in meaningful categories and surfers to locate (and choose between) the postings they are interested in.


Thus would be born the world brain, providing timely and orderly access to world consciousness concerning local and global issues on a scale that would benefit even old Earth itself, beleaguered as it is today by its pesky and overly abundant hominid inhabitants.


In truth, we are all creatures of our home planet, and are Earthlings in spirit if not in name. By whatever time scale you measure it, we have grown up together on this Earth. We are all members of the Class of 10-16-2008. Many of us were here yesterday; some of us will be here tomorrow. We have that much in common. Which gives us a lot to blog about in synchrony with one another.


I choose to blog about consciousness because many of us share that quality to greater or lesser degree. It is something we hold in common, even though we don’t think much about what it is that we share. Without it, we would live on the level of worms, toads, and jellyfish, dependent on reflexes to get us through the day. Consciousness is just one minor category in the theater of all blogs. It is not likely to make the top 100, much less the top ten.


We have much to learn about consciousness, and using it wisely to promote lifestyles and levels of consumption respectful of our homeland. Yet its study isn’t a vital part of the school curriculum. Our educational power structure prefers to take charge from the outside, thus overriding our native hunger for self-fulfillment. If we don’t pursue it ourselves, no one else can do it for us. I’m not talking about such theories of mind as are doled out in psychology class, but the real thing studying itself. In the true spirit of Apollo’s dictum, “Know thyself,” such study turns education inside out. With the result that we get beyond taking the world—and ourselves—at face value. The world, we discover, is what we make of it.


Consciousness is a high art which, performed with care, feeling, precision—and openness to feedback—leads to self-mastery and social effectiveness. Flourished covertly due to abuse or neglect, it leads us astray more often than not, and can be hurtful to others who get entangled in our self-wrought scenarios. There are lots of mean and angry blogs out there, blaming the world’s ills on others rather than seeking aid for the blogger’s condition.


Our bodies and brains have evolved to the hunter-gatherer stage. After that, our genes have had little time to track the growth of cultures which have continued to evolve at a far faster pace. What would a Paleolithic hunter blog about? Sex. Food. Shelter. Climate. Birth. Death. Family. Community. Joy. Sadness. Love. Survival. Same as us, without politics perhaps, or the economy. The point being that as far as my consciousness goes, I am essentially on the Paleolithic level. The evolved Earthling level. My take on my life situation is far older and more out of date than I realize. Me hungry. Me want satisfaction. Not later, now!


Whatever our claimed degree of sophistication, we—including all bloggers—are on the level of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Consciousness has gotten us that far, at least. Beyond that we are largely on our own, making life up as we go. No wonder the economy is in shambles. We have left it to rank amateurs, those who ride out their hunches and intuitions, taking our assets along with them.


Earthlings all, we have much to blog about. If we get our acts together, we can contribute to universal understanding of what it is we are doing. Which is always a matter of translating the sensible world around us into conscious phenomena, funding those phenomena with meanings and feelings, then contributing to the world through motivated actions judged to be appropriate to our immediate life situation. All else—including power and wealth—is hand waving and bluster.  ¦