(Copyright © 2009)

For her birthday, I gave Carole an all-expenses-paid trip to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, about 25 miles northwest of Portland. That is, we went in her car, both brought our lunches, and I paid for gas, tour and museum tickets. From Bar Harbor, it was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive; I drove down, she back. Neither of us had ever been to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village—now down to three members after peaking at some 180 in the 1840s—sole surviving Shaker community in the U.S. of the 19 main villages that once thrived from Maine to Florida. We visited the museum, took a guided tour of the village, ate lunch, and purchased seven books about the Shaker experience.

I have never spent a more profoundly moving four hours than those that passed so quickly in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. I had no idea what to expect, but intuition told me it was time to find out. What we discovered was a working model of what a human community could be if it set its collective mind to living sustainably and cooperatively on the land with dignity and spirit made possible by skilled craftsmanship and hard work. Patterning their lives on Jesus’ example, Shakers knew how to live sustainably on the land with a modest carbon footprint long before peak oil and global climate change were conceived in the human mind. Sustainably, that is, except for one thing: Jesus was celibate and so were they. Going forth and multiplying was never their way. They relied on personal convincement to bring in new blood, which worked from 1776 until before the Civil War, but failed to replenish their numbers after that. They took in orphans and children placed with them, giving young people a choice upon turning 18 to rejoin the world or become Shakers. If they stayed on, then they largely retired from the world to embrace a life of celibacy, confession of sin, pacifism, communal activity and ownership, and handiwork without end. 

Which by modern standards would add up to an extreme way of life. But through strict communal discipline, Shakers created joyous and highly productive lives for themselves. Their priorities were clear, their efforts devoted to expressing peace and love in everything they did. One Shaker catch phrase says it all: Hands to Work and Hearts to God.

Shakers were renown for their handicrafts, well-tended farms—and the enthusiasm of their worship. Like every other aspect of their life, they put themselves into it. Apparently it was something to see; Sunday mornings, people came from miles around to witness Shakers singing-dancing-marching in praise of the Lord. But what got to me in the four hours I spent at Sabbathday Lake was the undeniable evidence of Shaker consciousness. Most of what they accomplished required elaborate hand-eye coordination, a sure outward sign of deliberate consciousness and attention to detail. The tour, for instance, covers:

  • bonnet making
  • dressmaking and tailoring
  • shoemaking
  • basket weaving
  • woodcarving
  • chair making and caning
  • broom making
  • spinning
  • weaving
  • rug-hooking
  • needlework
  • quilting
  • herb gardening and drying
  • pickle and catsup making
  • beekeeping
  • apple harvesting and pressing
  • painting and drawing
  • photography
  • candy making
  • not to mention agriculture and animal husbandry, and  other activities I have forgotten.

It was not the various craftsmedia themselves that got my attention so much as the design and overall simplicity of individual pieces turned out day after day. Consciousness cannot be random or chaotic and turn out Shaker furniture, gift drawings, rugs, tins of herb teas, or even fudge for that matter. It was how individual details fit together that mattered in almost everything they did. The simple elegance of Shaker tables, desks, chairs, cupboards, and boxes speaks of the minds that designed, cut, and put them together. Collectively and individually, Shakers give the impression of being a together people. Which I see reflecting the internal discipline required of them in becoming Sisters and Brothers. Each was valued as a decided individual, and the ways they found of respecting and valuing one another bound them together—like the separate straws making up the business end of a Shaker broom.

I felt a strong rapport with this tradition with its people being wholly who they were under what must have been stressful conditions. Survival takes full concentration, particularly in rural Maine in days when there were no big boxes to mar the landscape, no imports from China. Everything had to be done locally by hand. Most of us in the U.S. today wouldn’t last a week if we had to produce what we ate and used from scratch by hand labor. When life depends on conscious activity, a certain gladness shines through every task completed, every new beginning, every tool, every mending job. Evolution did not create Shaker furniture, but it did create human consciousness, which created cultural evolution, which created Shakers, who did create furniture by putting their minds to work on the challenge of day-to-day survival. The whole saga is on view at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, and at other Shaker villages as preserved because we can’t stand to lose them as examples of what human consciousness can achieve.

For myself, I choose to find a message in the behavioral idiom Shakers created for themselves. I see that idiom addressing many of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Evolution equipped humans with strong appetites for sex, food, personal possessions, wealth, and social status. But it did not have the foresight to equip us with an off-switch so when appropriate, we could squelch our drives and coast along with what we had. The Shakers took it upon themselves to manage their drives by adopting a code of celibacy, communal living, moderate (but healthy) diet, few personal possessions, no personal wealth, and invention of a new kind of social security—all labor intensive—all extremely rewarding because of the skill and discipline required. Without genetic engineering, the Internet, cellphones, pesticides, superhighways, international trade, or big government. What did the Shakers know that we don’t? That hard work and imagination can solve problems if you really put your mind to it. Shakerism is a lesson in locally applied consciousness based on personal initiative and cooperative living, not massive infusions of cash.

OK, so they sacrificed sex to get there, but if the human population is a problem in itself, that could be seen as a good thing. Sustaining bad ideas and sorry institutions is not necessarily a good thing if they are in fact the source of the problem. There is deep wisdom in Shaker madness, wisdom I think we should emulate insofar as it is appropriate to our current situation—which I maintain is a fairly close match to that of their day. Hardship unto the threat of death was always at the gate of a Shaker Village. Yet they persisted by making the most of what they had in the time available to them. We, on the other hand, are more profligate, doing precious little with our vast stores of wealth, wasting much of it on gadgetry, glitzy trinkets, and empty entertainment—as if spending money gauged the meaning of life.

Where Shakers made the most of their conscious hours, we seem to pride ourselves in taking as much time as we can to do as little as possible. Worker productivity is said to be up, but productivity of what? Most of it turns out to be nonsense rebundled in tinsel to bilk investors of their retirement funds. Our consciousness is spinning its wheels, seeing if there’s anything good on the tube or the Web when, all the time, what counts is what’s in us already: consciousness, evolution’s gift to us all, which we can’t seem to get the hang of.

Removing themselves from the vanities of the civilized world, Shakers staked their lives to the soil, not to fashion. We have chosen the other road, preferring vanity over nature—to sorry effect. Our world runs on image and influence, not energy coursing through the seasons, which Shakers knew how to harness. Yet we thrive and Shakers shrivel. Our world is surely powered by irony, that of the Shakers by simple self-knowledge. Which seen in the right light is our failure, not theirs.

Shaker barns, Sabbathday Lake

 

 

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Overwhelmed by life? That’s a sure sign that your consciousness is on overload. Too many issues are calling for immediate attention. You can’t do everything at once, so you turn in on yourself and do nothing at all. We’ve all been in that place, hoping the storm will pass, but when we stick our heads up and look around, we find our situation more calamitous than it was before. We’re stuck. Can’t do anything, can’t get away. The tension is unbearable.

But not hopeless. There are things we can do. Like face into the storm. Jot down every complaint screaming for attention, every job requiring immediate response. Which ones are most urgent? Which can wait? Prioritize, making sure to put first things at the head of the list. Then gird for action, start at the top and work our way down. Prioritize other claims as they crop up. Being sure to take care of ourselves so we don’t lose it. Eat, sleep, take a lot of deep breaths. . . .

Sound like an advice column in a newspaper? They all say the same thing a thousand different ways. Collect yourself. Keep calm. Walk, don’t run to the nearest exit. Take one thing at a time. Concentrate. Do what you can, then move on. You can’t be all things to all people. Stay centered. Be yourself.

Moderate stress keeps you going, but high stress can unravel you. If you want to meet other peoples’ needs, you really have to put meeting your own need to reduce stress at the top of your list. Delaying or denying only create more stress. What can you do for yourself right now that really helps you get yourself together—your consciousness all in one piece so you don’t feel so frazzled?

Voice from above: “Simplify.” Who said that? You did. You felt it all along. To simplify your life, there are two obvious but opposite approaches you can take: 1) move to a higher plane of consciousness by concentrating on generalities, not nagging details, or 2) narrow your focus to fit the amount of energy and attention you can spare for emergencies. That is, act locally not globally, personally not universally.

On the higher plane, you can afford to enjoy a sense of ironic humor by dealing with such empty generalities as peace, hope, love, kindness, generosity, and happiness. What me worry? If people would only be nice to one another. Love is the answer to all questions. Flower power! Everything is simple when you view it from a distance. Throw your cares to the four winds. See how tiny they look scattered around the horizon like that. Stress begone! It’s all in your mind. Let the universe take control while you read your book. Think cosmic thoughts. Grand thoughts. Huge, momentous, significant, meaningful, eternal thoughts. There, you see, nothing to it. You can make it happen by rising above the plane of woe to attain the plane of conceptual indifference.

On the other hand, you can zoom in close to the details of what really counts in your life. A hobby, say, your pet, or maybe your collection of baseball cards. That way, you screen everything else out—all those troubles that stir up so much stress. Zoom in really, really close. Go to the hairdresser. Watch the game on TV. Do today’s sudoku puzzle. Trim your fingernails. Eat a bowl of Rice Krispies. Walk the dog. Find a fault. Sharpen a pencil. Empty the trash. Wash dishes. Sort your penny collection. The main thing is to clear you head of all but the simplest, most basic thoughts—the ones you neglect in the busyness of everyday life. Go for it. Tend to trivial affairs. Be petty through-and-through. Think inconsequential thoughts. Pay close attention to minute, detailed, insignificant affairs. Simplify, simplify, simplify down to almost nothing, and then some. Let go of everything but the whim of the moment. Forget duty and responsibility and caring and work. Play. Have fun. Life is not a sack of coal; see, you had it wrong. It’s a bowl of cherries. Here, have another. Make the big, bad world go away. We’re all just motes of dust anyway. Be your mote to the hilt!

When stress hits, you have the option of filling your consciousness with thoughts big or small. That’s as simple as I can make the problem of coping with life’s stressful complexities. Live on the highest level of generality you can attain, and watch all problems morph into the few universal concepts you most prefer. Or reach for the deepest level of sensory detail you can achieve, and watch your problems disappear, never to distract you again. Choosing to live at one extreme of consciousness or the other is guaranteed to lower your stress level and make your problems shrink if not vanish.

Which sounds absurd, but that’s how a great many people choose to live—on the top or bottom edge of the awareness consciousness makes possible. Philosophers and holy men tend to inhabit the rarefied atmosphere at the upper limit of conceptual consciousness, while trash sorters seek the steaming piles of detritus at the lower limit, eyes peeled for unsuspected treasures. Either way, life seems simpler and more meaningful than riding out the tumult in the middle.

Having set up the foregoing framework, let me now come to the point of this exercise.  Whether we live with our heads in clouds of deep abstraction, or feet on the trash heap of what’s concretely possible in real life, how we choose to manage our personal consciousness is not a given but is up to us to decide. The more we explore the possibilities our minds offer,  the easier we can shape consciousness to our liking. If we wait too long, it becomes almost impossible.

High-enders tend to be those striving to see the big picture—people drawn to conceptual schools of thought, to religion, politics, and the like where abstractions are king and values are whispering advisors. Low-enders are those caught up in the details they encounter in leading a life—trades and crafts persons, accountants, bureaucrats, medical professionals, farmers, and other of a practical bent preferring to deal with nitty-gritty particulars. Here the senses rule the mind and the big issue is doing the job right.

Then there’s the vast middle ground I haven’t mentioned of simplifying consciousness by drawing support judiciously from both extremes. In my own case, I strive to connect my feet on the trash heap of particular details to my head in the mists of abstract ideas by bridging back and forth through the body of my personal consciousness in its fullness of both concrete experience and encompassing thought. My method in this blog has been to have each end respectively inform the other, linking rarefied concepts to particular details in each post—or at least as often as I can. That way, my feet are placed in line with my head, providing as much support as they can. Such is my goal. Which reduces stress internally through opposites seeking engagement with each other, not externally by one pole deliberately avoiding its opposite, as I have caricatured such a situation in setting up the framework I established at the start of this post.

What I’m saying is that consciousness offers more ways of being in the world than many of us witness during our formative years, and if we rely unduly on one mode or another because that’s what we see our teachers and role models doing, we sell ourselves—and what our minds are capable of—short of full realization. The danger lies in getting accustomed to using our minds in limited ways, which effectively solders the wiring of our brains to favor those ways, making exploration of alternative mental strategies unlikely if not almost impossible. Set in our ways, we come to believe consciousness offers no alternatives, so it ossifies in our case, restricting the breadth and variety of our mental powers. Thinking there’s no other way, we turn into simpleminded ideologues defending our views to the end. The longer we carry on, the worse our condition becomes. To get out of our ruts, we must radically retool our minds, a job that gets more difficult with age. In the end, we have little choice but to settle for the limits we impose on ourselves.

Those who follow these posts know that I have often drawn a distinction between two activities within consciousness, concrete sensory perception and abstract concept formation. I visualize concepts as being built up over time through exposure to a series of similar but not identical percepts, so retaining the similarities but excluding the differences. The result is a categorical envelope (mammal, airplane, person, tool) that serves as an idea lacking sensible content. When a percept is matched to an appropriate concept, form and content combine in a meaningful perception (a particular mammal such as that porcupine in that tree, a photo of a Ford Trimotor airplane, the actor John Wayne, the needle-nosed pliers I thought I’d lost but found in my pocket).

Between the limits of concrete and sensory consciousness lies the vast playing field of perception where the two terminal extremes combine in episodes of meaningful experience. That is where our personal reality is played out, sometimes closer to the conceptual end of the field, other times the sensory end, weighting consciousness toward one extreme or the other. Consciousness, then, is seldom a matter of strictly conceptual or sensory experience as I have parodied it here, but a combination of both kinds of experience as suited to the phenomenal situations in which they occur. There are occasions when concepts are called for, others when percepts are required to illustrate concepts. Some of us tend to lurk near one end of the field or the other, seldom venturing out to the midline where a balance between the two is called for. That is, we develop a mental style favoring either sensory images or abstract ideas, and don’t realize the full potential of the consciousness we are endowed with.

My goal in writing this post is to encourage others to explore and utilize the full run of the middle ground of their consciousness where percepts and concepts meet on equal terms to form a reality favoring neither one extreme nor the other. When the going gets tough, we don’t have to hide in our minds, we can deal effectively by employing the full range of our mental capabilities. In times of crisis such as the one we live in today, it is essential to review both the ideas and facts—policies and deeds—that got us into this situation. In the great game of consciousness, the aim is not to score more goals than the other guy, but to achieve the most balanced play of reality possible under current conditions. That is the true art of consciousness, combining two simple views to form a convincing and serviceable reality as a basis for appropriate action. When that happens, the crowd springs to its feet with a jubilant roar of approval.

Right on!