Trust, love, play, loyalty, and relationships are all subject to rules that almost everyone concerned can agree on. I think of them as rules of engagement, of linking action to perception, self to other(s), individuals to society. Community is a web of interactions, always changing, never twice the same two days in a row, but promoting engagement nonetheless.

Reduced to a concept, community sounds like a fixed thing, but it is alive because each of its members is alive, and the exact configuration of events is unpredictable. The Fourth of July Parade comes around every year, but, too, it is different each time. Different personnel, different bands, different floats, different fireworks, different weather, different watchers along the route—but the same, enduring communal institution so that we refer to it as a fixture of communal life because subject each year to much the same rules and traditions. We are a year older each time, with another year’s experience put away, but we are the same people engaging much as we always have with others, who are also different but look much the same to us.

It is the differences within the envelope of sameness that we pay particular attention to, and differentially respond to. We don’t want this year’s parade to resemble last year’s too closely. We want to be pleasantly surprised, excited, involved—engaged in our minds. Otherwise we lose interest and turn away, or don’t show up at all.

We need the stimulation that differences provide us or we don’t even notice what’s happening. The same-old, same-old shuts us down, turns consciousness off, fails to catch our attention. Dullsville, Inc. Change the channel; find something better to do. Make new friends. Buy a new dress. Get a new drill bit or new App. Order something new at that restaurant that just opened.

Novelty promotes engagement because it takes us beyond where we were toward where we want to go. We are wayfarers precisely because we’re en route to somewhere we’ve never been.

We hunger for novel experience to break up the essential routines we depend on in getting through the day. Finding something to wear, packing a lunch, getting the kids off to school, going to work, eating lunch, coming home.

Yes, we need the stability provided by such familiar routines, but at the same time we want those engagements to be special in being particularly noticeable because they stand out from the background of everyday routines.

So we acquire a repertory of tricks to spice things up as if they were new. This time we make our own Valentine’s Day cards, knit a new scarf, pack a surprise in the lunch box, put in a row of scarlet runner beans, eat with chop sticks, fast for a day, read a book instead of watching TV.

We don’t want to rock the boat, just shake it enough to sharpen our attention. Do enough to spark up a long-term relationship. To keep things from running down and getting dull. We do this in so many ways—getting our hair cut, trying a new stud, tattoo, or shade of lipstick, telling a joke, this time bringing flowers and a bottle of wine—it barely needs mentioning. Except these are reflections of our minds in action. Stimulating lagging relationships. Avoiding being taken for granted. Staying perky, bright, and attractive so the right people will notice and stay as engaged with us as they were in the old days.

There is a whole layer of unwritten rules beneath the familiar rules of the game to keep consciousness alive and well by being well-fed on novelty. Things our mother never taught us because she thought they were obvious and didn’t need saying. Things we missed because we weren’t ready or weren’t paying attention.

Communities are built by sustaining a host of ongoing engagements that don’t turn sour because of casual indifference. Active communities promote engagements between their members; they don’t just sit and wait for something to happen. The movers and shakers in a community take turns making it an exciting, inviting, and enjoyable place to live. A place hospitable to consciousness.

 

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It is not by whim or accident that I visualize loops of engagement with nature as fundamental to mind and consciousness. Our every cell requires water and nutrients if it is to perform its biological function. We are some seventy-percent water, after all, not as self-contained ponds, but immersed in a lifelong flow that requires continual replenishment, each cell drawing its share.

In turn, our conscious minds flow from the engagements of such cells one with another. That flow is not limited to brain or body, but extends into the ambient of our surroundings, the natural medium to which we are born, as one-celled organisms are born to and interact with the fluids that sustain them and dispense the wastes and chemicals they secrete.

The story of nature is simply this: One thing leads to another. And another. And another. There is no stopping it, as I learned from building dams of sticks to divert meltwater when I was much younger. What I could not do was stop the flow.

And now I cannot stop my mind from running on from one thought to another. Sleep provides a brief respite, but each morning I awaken to those streaming thoughts. Our brains are not self-contained, any more than the stem of a plant is self-contained. We are all caught in the middle between input and output, as between dark, damp soil and sunlit air.

As our one-celled ancestors were caught in the middle of what they took and gave to the ocean around them. Two-way engagement is the essence of life, including mental life. Insofar as we are natural beings, our engagements with nature are of the essence.

All life forms, including fungi, plants, animals, and others, take part in ongoing engagements with their natural surroundings. Those with mediating selves that influence the transformation of perceptual input into behavioral output in response to the controlling influence of their inner states, whether consciously or unconsciously, I would say are equipped with minds of varying degrees of complexity and sophistication.

Any such creature that can direct its sensory attention selectively to one thing and not another in a given situation—and behave accordingly—meets my minimal requirement for consciousness. In that sense, consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.

Even if those choices are decided by trial and error, and for a time exert an influence on subsequent behaviors, I see them spread across a range of mental abilities that I would welcome as mindful. I see apes as being more mindful than monkeys, monkeys more mindful than dogs, dogs more than cats, in turn more than birds, more than fish, more than worms (which I rate as about on a par with plants).

Our respective repertoires of behavioral options—and the shadings between them—tell the world who we are. How we choose among them in given situations reflects our situated intelligence.

A good part of the world we claim as a resource for ourselves has a mind of its own and sees the world very differently than we do. Our careless and heavy-handed method of mountaintop removal to get at seams of coal is an example of human abuse of native Earthling intelligence. Fracking to get at buried oil and gas is another. Burning the products of such efforts to generate heat and power is a third. Blinded by our commercial appetites so we can see nothing else, humanity is at war with its planetary habitat as well as with its own judgment and intelligence.

Our collective engagements with nature are a tragic shambles. Yet we keep blundering on as if our blindness and insensitivity didn’t matter. As if we didn’t have a choice. As if we were mindless.

Many of our sorry engagements with nature aren’t engagements at all; they are brutal, bullying assaults—the antithesis of sensitive engagements. As a species, we are ending as each of us begins, in that dark space below the level of worms.

This is my cantankerous self talking, my inner curmudgeon, voice of the baneful discrepancies that overshadow my personal engagements with nature. Nature is the First Big Thing. It will also be the Last. If it isn’t the Next Big Thing to prove that humanity is on the road to recovery, we won’t make the cut. Lowly horseshoe crabs will outlast us all. They don’t foul their nests as we do, and they have lived in nature hundreds of times longer than we ever will.

In truth, wild nature is dead. Starting with the advent of agriculture and deforestation more than seven thousand years ago, we have killed it off. What’s left is nature managed by humans for human benefit alone.

In Maine, the mountain lions are gone, the wolves, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, great auks, Labrador ducks—like woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers before them. Now spruce-fir forests are being driven north by a warming climate, hardwood forests moving in to replace conifers with maples and oaks.

Changing habitats mean changing lives. Within a human lifetime, Maine will have a climate like South Carolina has today. Instead of facing into the challenge and taking responsibility for our collective impact on our home planet, we talk of technological fixes, artificial intelligence, and fleeing to Mars. So much for science, philosophy, religion, art, and our other notable accomplishments. So much for nature. So much for us.

Life is a matter of sustaining a continuous two-way flow between our embodied minds and the outer worlds they inhabit. I refer to such streams of exchange as loops of engagement. Those who have the luxury of writing such thoughts as these are a dying breed. When our native intelligence is replaced by machine intelligence—as I see is happening all around me—who will be left to write the critique?

And that brings me full-circle to considering the so-called rules of our natural engagements that I began early on in my posts on engagement with nature (Reflection 415). To continue the list I began there, here I will add other proposed rules as drawn from the thoughts I have had since raising the issue.

Proposed rules for engaging with nature:

  1. Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe.
  2. To discover the Earth, first know yourself.
  3. Judge what is good for you by what is good for the Earth.
  4. Ask yourself: What is Earth’s situation with a throng of humans on board?
  5. Think: You are built on the same plan as the worm—a hollow tube open at both ends, with a brain at one end but not the other.
  6. If you want something to believe in, try sunlight, air, and damp soil.
  7. What if we split Earth like an avocado so we could mine the iron at its core?
  8. Engage without depleting or spoiling, that is the art.
  9. Earth is here for the long haul; what about us?
  10. Our first duty to Earth: Do no harm.

With my next post I will turn to consider the second level of our engagements with the outside world—those with the cultural setting to which we are born.

415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

Beyond serving as citizens of four great worlds at once (nature, culture, community, family), in the end each of us stands on her own legs as his own unique person. So many factors make up our identities, no other person on Earth has a mind like the one in our private, mysterious, and, yes, figurative black box.

In that sense, each one of us is an experiment to see what we can make of the gifts the universe sends our way. Since evolution cannot predict what fixes we will get ourselves into, it gives us the makings of a mind we can fashion into the very one we need to serve our widely varying purposes.

It is hard to tease out the separate influences of nature, culture, community, or family, so it is easier for us take responsibility for ourselves as agents in charge of our own perceptions, judgments, behaviors, and engagements as a result of the lives we actually lead. We can apply this approach to whatever level of activity we are operating on at the time.

This does not make evolution into some kind of genius with universal forethought. Rather, reliance on personal consciousness works for us today because it was the only thing that worked in earlier stages of our species’ development. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Those who fit the former case will survive, the latter die off. Evolution is that efficient, and that blunt.

So here we are, standing on the shoulders of countless past survivors who in turn met the challenges of their times. As we offer our shoulders to those who come after us. We can’t necessarily provide the support our descendants will need, but at least we can offer what we have in the form of the lives we actually lead.

Which raises a question. What rules of engagement with the natural world might be appropriate for us to live by in working toward a more secure future for the extended family of Earthlings that will follow our faint tracks? Certainly Love your mother is good advice, but no one yet has found a way to forge that advice into a firm rule.

I’ll settle for: Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe. That ought to cover it. Don’t just do as I say, but do what you feel is appropriate in your individual case. And please note that in “our” I include every Earthling of all species.

Think in terms of a water cycle that includes rain and snow, wetlands, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, oceans, and ocean currents, not just your minute portion of such a cycle. Think in terms of watersheds, not political boundaries. Think in terms of natural processes, not products. Think in terms of habitats and ecosystems, not places on a map. Think in terms of quality of life for all species, not just your amassing a fortune in money or possessions. What you “have” is a life in progress, not what we now would call a personal possession. Life is one thing we may have but cannot own.

Could we ever learn to be conscious in such terms? I’ll put it like this: if we can’t, then we’re not long for this Earth. The signs are all around us. Ebola is a clear example of how infectious diseases will thrive among our overpopulated and overcrowded living conditions in the future. It will be with us from now on. ISIS is an example of what will happen if we base our behavior on selectively narrow cultural beliefs instead of a true understanding of the workings of the natural world. And AI (artificial intelligence) is an example of what the corporate-commercial parody of intelligence leads to as a substitute for the authentic intelligence we will need to guide each one of us as an agent of personal freedom and understanding.

My long study of my own mind leads me to entertain such thoughts. We are in this world together, each playing our part in preparing the future of life on Earth. The trends I have pointed to above suggest where we, together, are heading. Taking our planet hostage as we go.

I firmly believe we can do better. And that doing better is up to us as conscious individuals who take responsibility for the lives we lead, not as mindless victims of the most narrowly focused and aggressive among us.

As I said, each one of us is an experiment. Life is a test of our situated intelligence, such as it is.

People love to play games. My partner and I have enjoyed what must be thousands of bouts on opposite sides of a cribbage board over the past twenty years. And hundreds of games of dominoes. We move rival pegs and pieces about board and table in a state of total concentration as if everything hung on our progress as make-believe wayfarers.

Those games are a good part of our mythology as a couple, known only to us.

Such weekend games keep us sane by diverting our minds from concerns that occupy us during the rest of the week. Others play games of cards such as poker or solitaire, bridge or old maid. Many games feature fields, courts, or courses—marked-out territories occupied or traversed by opposing players or teams trading roles as defenders and aggressors. Mythological contests, again.

Humanity spends countless hours each day engrossed in nonviolent contests of skill, chance, strength, speed, and endurance. Ice hockey, boxing, and American football occupy niches close to the edge of being harmful and dangerous physical play, but for the most part sports and games, in their claim to being nonviolent, fall short of battles to the death.

Games are universally played by rules, and are officiated by umpires, referees, scorekeepers, and the players themselves. The essence of games is in the taking of turns so that players alternate in facing more-or-less equal opportunities and conditions.

I bring up sports and games in this reflection because, being governed by rules of play, they are examples of the kinds of engagement I am discussing as fundamental features of mind. Rules of play are rules of engagement are rules of thinking are rules of mythology are rules of the conscious mind.

Games are human activities in which our minds play themselves out in full public view. The game itself is what each player and spectator has in mind at the time. Here we see expectancy, attention, understanding, emotion, motivation, values, the life force, judgment, goals, strategies, and skilled action out in the open for all to see and take part in.

In films and TV programs the action takes place on a set that blocks our view of the chaos behind the scenes, so we are allowed a cut-and-spliced version that makes sense only from the camera’s point of view. That is, we are being manipulated by actors and directors and costume designers and producers and hundreds of others to see what they want us to see.

But in sports and games, we take the leading roles, so put ourselves—our innermost minds—into play, in the company of others who are doing the same thing. Which is fun because risky but safe, each side playing by the same rules of engagement. We are wayfaring in joint engagement together. That is, in friendship earned along the way during the journey at the heart of the game.

The apparent innocence of children is achieved much the same way—by being unreservedly themselves in translating thought into action. Lion cubs, ditto, when they roll about nipping each other’s ears and throats. They aren’t simply playing, they are being fully themselves at their level of development and understanding. Games are mythological enactments of the selves our children want to be.

We love them for being that honest and that free. Qualities rare among the rest of us in defending our private lives and innermost thoughts as we do so others won’t get too accurate a picture of what’s going on inside our private black boxes. In play it is safe to venture forth because we have rules to protect us.