490. It May Seem Hokey

April 22, 2015

Life is not a given or a right; it is a process of building ourselves to our own specifications. And supporting others in building themselves to their specifications, not ours.

I am thinking of the life process as an opportunity for engaging the world around us, and inviting that world to engage us as we go. That way, both self and its world meet their respective requirements by making adjustments for the situations that come up along the way.

So do we grow into ourselves, by adjusting our steps to current conditions, here leaping hummock-to-hummock, there by stepping carefully stone-to-stone, crossing rivers when we come to them by whatever means we can devise while staying in touch with our minds and surroundings, engaging them, inviting them to engage us.

All that wrapped in one mental process that guides us on our way—that’s what I mean by mindfaring. Each finding and going her own way, as driven by a life force as a personal prime mover. Creating a sort of engagement based on an attitude encompassing both equality and fairness for all who go with us in our time and place. An attitude that promotes sharing, taking turns, and striving out of respect, along with a sense of personal responsibility for everything we contribute to a particular engagement.

That’s the state of mind I’ve come to by writing this blog up to this point. I did not have plans to say what I have just written. The words have flowed from the situations I’ve worked myself into day-after-day, from the day I started out until this minute, today.

I am a creature of this very moment. A creature with a past, yes, but building toward a future that will be an extension of the journey I have made so far. That is the upshot of what I now refer to as mindfaring, the process of living life with an attitude of trust, intelligence, interest, curiosity, adventure, openness to what happens, and striving to go beyond that.

Since all learning is essentially self-learning, mindfaring comes down to learning about self while being mindful of others. Other people, other creatures, other ways, other things, other ideas, other universes unto themselves.

What I’ve just put before your eyes is an example of the thought process I’ve been going through in real time in synchrony with my fingers typing on the keyboard of my computer. It may seem hokey that the word I was searching for was based on a word (wayfaring) I’ve been using all along, but the point is that my usage was based on a nonverbal kernel of thought, not the actual word, which I was using intuitively without a definition in mind beyond the cluster of felt meanings that I have suggested.

What I’ve been doing is putting legs under that kernel to give it a particular kind of flexibility and mobility in the situation I found myself in during the process of trying to depict the state of mind that has been driving this blog all along. The process of inner discovery I’ve put before you is what I’ve been getting at in trying to describe the workings of my mind.

So there you have it, Exhibit A of my mind engaging with itself in as concise a summary of self-reflection as I can put into words.

Mindfaring, I discover, requires engaging yourself and your surroundings at the same time. It is simultaneous an opening-to and a taking-in. In that sense, it means truly connecting with the world beyond your bodily perimeter while also connecting with your inner self.

The trick to engaging is being both attentive and purposeful at the same time. Attentive to what you are perceiving and purposeful in what you are doing. That way you set up a continuous loop of engagement so that input affects output, and output affects input, your situated intelligence and judgment in the middle position maintaining an exciting and effective relationship between the incoming and outgoing parts of your mind.

By my black box metaphor, engagement is told by both input and output terminals being active together in real time, not by matching set responses to signals coming in.

The genius of organized sports is in having players and teams show their prowess by taking turns at offense and defense, attack and protection, and in the case of baseball, batting and running, pitching and fielding.

The precincts for offense and defense are strictly confined, particularly for the team on offense. Batters are restricted to a home plate and two rectangles, one on either side of the plate, to stand in and swing at the ball; three bases forming, with home plate, a diamond ninety feet on a side; batters having a right-of-way to run the bases around the sides of the diamond.

The defending team occupies the much larger precinct that includes the infield within the diamond, together with the outfield lying between two foul lines meeting in a ninety-degree angle at home plate and extending for a minimum of 250 feet beyond the infield diamond out to the fence defining the far edge of the outfield.

As attackers of the defenders’ territory, batters come up in specified order one-at-a-time until three of them have been put out of play, at which time the teams trade roles. The batting order is based on players’ records for hitting the ball or getting on base.

The defending team, however, is on duty at their respective stations for the full time they are in the field (half of each inning in a string of nine innings). The pitcher throws from the center of the diamond, sixty-and-a-half feet from home plate. The catcher crouches behind the plate to direct defensive play by giving signals with fingers held between his legs to suit the next pitch to the batter’s prowess and situation.

Three basemen stand near their respective bases, with a shortstop to back them up. Three outfielders spread themselves between right, center, and left field, at a distance governed by their expectations of where the batter is likely to hit the next ball.

The essence of baseball is the duel between the defensive pitcher on his mound and offensive batter at home plate. Pitcher and catcher form a tactical team on the axis of play trying to outwit the batter at each throw.

The batter, as lone member of the offense (unless others are on base) tries to outwit the pitcher by carefully selecting the pitches he elects to swing at. Three swings and misses and he’s out, unless he fouls the ball after two strikes, in which case he keeps on until he either gets a hit or third strike.

If the pitcher throws four balls outside of the strike zone (over the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders), the batter gets a pass to first base, and any runner at first base gets a pass to second.

The umpire standing behind the catcher calls each pitch not swung at as a strike if it passes through the strike zone, or a ball if wide, high, or low.

The ball is in play from any given pitch until the ball is returned to the pitcher’s glove, thereby starting the next play.

The central drama of the game is played out by pitcher and catcher in setting up the play, and batter in making what he can of their efforts. They are playing to get him out; he is playing to reach first base or farther, or at least to help other runners advance around the diamond back to home plate, scoring one point for each round of the bases at the corners of the diamond.

It takes more time to write about the action than to see it happen in actual play. Pitchers these days can throw the ball at over ninety miles-an-hour, mixing fast balls with curves, sliders, knuckle-balls, balls that change pace or break one way or another, and other pitches intended to outwit the batter.

Batters are ever on the alert for balls that look like they’re headed over the plate, but take a detour in the last fraction of a second.

Fans divide their support between teams, and show strong reactions to anything that goes against their personal allegiance, particularly if it leads to a score by the “wrong” team. Hopes on both sides run high, and spirits droop when events or judgments go against the favored team. Odds seem to favor the nine defensive players strategically placed around the field facing only one offensive batter at a time, each needing only three strikes to be put out of play.

But in that small window of opportunity, batters can hit balls through the defense, over its head, or even out of the park. With a runner on base, the situation gets more intense for both sides. With two or three runners in position around the bases, a pitcher can still throw in only one direction at a time, so the odds shift to the offense, unless the next batter hits into a double- or even triple-play, the likelihood of which increases with the number of base runners spread around the diamond.

Or perhaps the next batter slams a home run over the fence, sending four runners across home plate (including himself), releasing pandemonium throughout the stadium and spreading far and wide into the radio and TV audience, echoing within millions of individual black boxes around the world.

More than a pastime, baseball is a state of consciousness to which humans as wayfarers (or base runners) are innately suited by the inherent makeup of their minds as the medium of engagement between their inner and outer worlds of awareness. That engagement between opposing teams is the issue in each game, which must be played out to determine which is the better team for the span of intense activity it takes for that particular game to play out.

 

To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

Our community engagements are not set in stone, they are ongoing processes that flow both ways in looping fashion from perception to action, action to perception. As such, they are constantly changing, depending on current circumstances and events. After several rounds, we come to count on them as if they were stable, or at least fit within our comfort range.

Trust in other people and institutions builds a sense of loyalty to them as reliable features of our community. We go out of our way not to offend them. We give them a certain consideration by holding them in our thoughts.

If we sign a contract, we are obligated to hold to its terms as a kind of commitment to duty. But communities hold together not out of duty but from a mutual sense of caring, liking, and sharing of experience. Except in extreme cases, they do not form around a set of obligations or duties.

During my basic training at Fort Ord, several of my buddies would sleep on guard duty because, as enforcers, they could excuse themselves in their own minds and get away with it. But trust and loyalty build a sense of mutual responsibility as if we were all members of the same extended family.

Communities, that is, are stabilized by networks of shared, positive engagements. They aren’t planned so much as lived in the details of everyday life. In people meeting on the street, in the drug store, the Post Office, the bank. Schools build communities around themselves because parents entrust their children to their teachers and administrators. Children become invested in schools because that’s where their friends are, and where, if lucky, they learn helpful skills.

It takes time to build a community around ourselves, often many years of engagements of all sorts. But if most of those engagements are positive, then we make a place for ourselves at the intersection of our individual traits with our larger society.

I consider myself a member of the southern Hancock County coastal community, Maine community, New England community, Eastern community, in that order. Last of all I admit to being an American with New England roots. I don’t think of the U.S. as my homeland; I reserve my loyalty for New England generally, and coastal Maine in particular. Go Red Sox; go Celtics; go Bruins; go Patriots.

I am a Yankee, a Northerner. Beyond that, I dub myself Steve from planet Earth because that identity emphasizes Earth’s claim on me. If it were not for my home planet, I wouldn’t be writing these words. First and last, I am an Earthling.

Rules, too, are essential to my sense of community. I carry three library cards, Maine driver’s license, several ID cards, Social Security card, Veterans Administration card, Medicare card, and a credit card. I do my best to take library books back on time, to obey traffic laws, pay my bills, and uphold my end of the several memberships I hold. When flush, I sometimes splurge on a ten-show Big Ticket to Reel Pizza, the local movie house. I get to meetings on time, play my part, and leave without dawdling. Towns have ordinances, companies have rules of employment, games have rules of play. Caring for our neighbor is not written down anywhere as a rule, but our communities would collapse if we didn’t do it spontaneously on our own.

One of the basic rules of any community is to give each person an opportunity to do her thing. Taking turns is the first law of community. Giving everyone a chance to have her say. That way we come to feel we have a place in, and belong to, our community, and our common community belongs to us as an extension of our caring selves.

In this sense, we are similar to one-celled creatures in establishing a stable relationship with the environments that meet our needs, becoming inhabitants of those environs in the process.

 

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.