Nothing matters. Everything matters. Both statements are true to equal degree. Clearly, our job as individuals is to pick and choose the engagements that are most meaningful to us. Which puts us in an awkward position because those around us want us to engage in ways that are most meaningful to themselves. 

It is the nature of mindfarers to occupy public spaces where such conflicts are out in the open. The only thing we can do is pay attention to the forces acting on all of us and select the issues we as individuals find most personally meaningful, letting go of the others to be dealt with by those who choose to do so.

We each serve as helmsman of our own ship, correcting our course as we go. The choosing of a course is why we are here, how our ancestors got us to this point by navigating under their own stars. We owe it to them to do the same under the stars that shine most clearly for us.

As to the relation between mind and brain: consciousness is not contained in either our brains or minds but in our engagements as they couple perception to meaningful judgment and on to purposeful action in nature, culture, community, and family. Our minds do not fit neatly into our brains but extend to include our sensory and behavioral engagements as well.

You might expect an octogenarian to issue generalities of that magnitude. But as a unique individual, I am at the core of my own generalities. I am speaking for myself, trying to use fitting, encompassing words to do so.

However you take my words, your unique person is at the core of those same words as they speak to you as you know yourself. I read them my way; you read them your way. The main thing is to maintain our intelligent judgement as we consider our own minds.

Those in the truth-seeking professions—philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, theology, forensics, and law, for example—already know this. Each person is primarily out for himself, and can justify whatever act she commits in the name of private (not public) service.

To simply act on our beliefs is not good enough. We must catch ourselves sharpening, emphasizing, distorting those beliefs for personal advantage. Throughout this blog, I have drawn attention to the self-serving nature of our mental processes. In rounds of self-reflection, it is essential to keep a neutral perspective.

Robert Bly advises us to follow our bliss. Thoreau says to follow our dreams and imagination. I say we should engage as we must the situations we get into as the ones having most to teach us, while remaining somewhat remote as if we were truly impartial, not agents of our own beliefs and opinions. It is that critical faculty that is essential to self-reflection. Without it, we become little more than lobbyists or apologists for our subjective beliefs.

As children we do as we are told because our parents are not only bigger and stronger, but also likely to be wiser than we are. We have neither the strength nor the wit to resist. But as adults, to do as we are told binds us to the will of others who have not lived our lives or thought our thoughts, so are addressing their own motives from their own perspectives, not ours.

Too, those others are likely to be dealing with situations different from those we face at the time. The problems we work on are best answered in the context of our unique repertory of personal options.

To ask what Jesus (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mohammad, et al.) would do assumes that we understand the situation he was in when he did what he did, and that that situation is the same as the one we are facing today. Which, given the vagaries of time and place, is a highly questionable assumption.

We learn most from situations we analyze and address as our own. When we make mistakes, as we surely will, they are our personal mistakes, leading to our personal learning. The essential thing is to engage our inner selves without subterfuge.

This post is the second installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

4. Walking Down Broadway. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from MIT to Columbia College, where I took up the study of the humanities in earnest during the last year in which that major was being offered. I studied cultural events in the city as extensively as books at the college. I needed a big dose of what the city had to offer.

On a spring night at a little past one o’clock, I was reading in my room, when suddenly I decided to walk the length of Broadway from 113th Street to the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. Just me and my shadow, my solo wayfarer.

The signs, curbs, venting manhole covers, streetlights, water-towers, few cars, buildings, and people I met have now blended into an impressionistic collage of that walk, all of Broadway compacted into a single image distilled from my moving perspective, largely visual, partly made of sounds and smells wafting my way as I went. That and a sense of great adventure is what I have left. And of belonging right where I was. I can’t recall specific details—they’ve faded away. I must have passed through Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square. I can’t remember how long it took. I know I got to South Ferry at dawn, and took the subway to 113th Street. When I got back, I thought of doing it again in daylight, but went off to class instead.

5. Walking to Concord. Thinking about my walk down Broadway reminds me of another walk I made with my younger brother, Peter, a few years later, a cultural walk of a different color because largely rural, not urban. I met him at his apartment near Kenmore Square in Boston at noon on a Saturday, and together we headed west to place stones on the cairn at the site of Thoreau’s cabin twenty miles west in Walden Woods near the famous pond.

Once past Cambridge, we walked back roads the rest of the way, immersing ourselves in the region as we imagined it had been a hundred years ago, and in some stretches still was in the 1960s. Narrow roads, stone walls, farm ponds, and apple trees, which went on for miles, are what I remember. Our feet may have trod the modern ways of Lincoln and Lexington, but our thoughts were with Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau in the Concord of their day. Time warps are available for the doing if you set your mind to it.

We got to Walden Pond at dusk, and I remember scrambling for stones to add to the cairn at Rolly Robbins’ reconstruction on the site of Thoreau’s cabin just back from the pond. Walking twenty miles to add a few stones to a humble monument in the woods seemed a sensible thing to do. We walked into Concord in the dark, sure we would find a bus stop somewhere along the way. Luck was with us, and we just caught the ten-o’clock bus back to Boston. Now that Peter is dead, that walk stands out as one of the highlights of our brotherhood.

6. Routine Engagement. In 1955, I worked as an engineering aide in the servomechanisms group at Boeing Aircraft in Renton just south of Seattle. I had a desk in a giant hangar of a building filled wall-to-wall with similar desks, an engineer seated at each one. That was in the days before cubicles and sound-absorbing tiles, just one big room with a sky-high ceiling. The only thing on my desk was a lever-operated mechanical calculator.

I spent six months making charts and plots on graph paper, a task I was used to from my year of mechanical drawing at MIT. One day my supervisor explained that one of two prototype B-52 airplanes was showing a tendency to veer (his term was yaw) to the side, and he wanted me to plot fuel consumption of all four engines to see if one engine was burning more or less fuel than the others.

The fuel consumption records consisted of a series of actual photos of dials taken during each test flight. I was told which flight to check, and sent to the large hangar where the records were kept. I got the photos in a thick file, read the dials for all four engines during that particular flight, went back to my desk and plotted the hundreds of points I had read from the dials. My graphs showed that all engines were burning the same amount of fuel.

What I remember is the bleakness of the days I spent on that job. Doing the duty I was assigned in a mechanical frame of mind. I was engaged to the extent of doing what I had been asked to do, being sure of my accuracy in reading, writing down, figuring, and plotting long series of numbers. But beyond that I was not personally engaged, just pulling the lever on my calculator again and again. I set up a routine to get through the day, effectively renting out my brain to help solve someone else’s problem. I was in a room full of people, but hardly talked with anyone all day, punching my time card when I left.

At the end of six months, I was drafted into the Army, and left Seattle for basic training at Fort Ord near Salinas, California. Ever since, wayfarer that I am, I have made sure to choose my engagements from among those that appealed to me as much as walking down Broadway at night.

 

356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

When my family moved to Seattle in late August of 1947, I was eager to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. As we drove west through flatlands in eastern Colorado, I expectantly peered from the back seat through the windshield, but saw only low clouds blocking my view of any mountains. The clouds grew taller as we approached, and for half-an-hour I grew more desperate to view the Rockies. At last, when I began seeing trees and valleys among the clouds, I realized that I had seen the Rockies all along, but their being snow-covered in late August prevented me from recognizing what I was looking at. Had it been winter, I would have seen them sooner. My summer expectations got in the way of my seeing.

It’s not so much that seeing is believing as just the reverse: believing is seeing (or hearing). “It’s true if you think so,” says Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. We see “what our prejudices presume to be there,” says Thoreau. Travelers on Cape Cod once reported a black man holding a white man at knifepoint by the side of the road, a scene that turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station holding a microphone to the lips of a man he was interviewing. In going through old National Geographics from the nineteen-teens and twenties, I have come across photographs of bare-breasted African women nursing babies under the title, “Black Madonna,” suggesting a verbal veil of social acceptability to make the image suitable for a prudish and mostly White middle-class readership.

(Copyright © 2009)

Extreme sports are the norm among those who feel they have to prove themselves. These days, walking is about as boring as weak tea or rice pudding. But in his time, Henry David Thoreau made walking the equivalent of an extreme sport. In “Walking” in his posthumously published book of essays, Excursions (Houghton Mifflin, 1893, originally published 1863), he says this: 

We should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (Page 252f.)

Bungee jumping or hang gliding off a cliff, maybe—but walking? What these activities share if Thoreau could have compared them is freedom. People in every age have made sacrifices and taken risks to be free in living their lives. We all know the feeling of getting away from our troubles, duties, and responsibilities for a time. Freefalling through the air can take you there, and walking through the right terrain can as well. Not walking to reach a set destination, but walking with a free spirit, which is what Thoreau had in mind:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. (Page 254.)

That kind of walking frees consciousness to follow its own course without distraction. To engage the landscape out of interest and excitement, not necessity. Being free opens the way to adventure and discovery, which is what Thoreau sought on his jaunts:

Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey [in western Africa]. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (Page 259.)

Here walking is used to expand consciousness by exploring the limits of personal experience in such a way to achieve resonance with all that the landscape has to offer over the course of a lifetime. That, now, is walking. Walking as an extension of the mind, as a mutual engagement between consciousness and its place on Earth in its time. Can anything be more exciting, demanding, or rewarding than that?

One Saturday in June, to make a point of walking, not driving, I joined two friends in walking a little over a mile and a half along Norway Drive to reach the site of a day-long retreat—and then back again that evening:

We pass by Hamilton Pond where we meet three snapping turtles digging nests in roadside sand. Lupine, buttercups, iris, and daylilies bloom all along the way; cow lilies are just coming on. A female black duck crosses the road heading for the pond, followed by a single duckling; they sail off through reflections of pine, spruce, and birch across the cove. In roadside marshes, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds pour out liquid duets. Three turkey vultures sweep circles through blue sky. On the return walk, we gape at a bald eagle atop a tall spruce. A pair of flycatchers alight on a pondside bush. Slanting sunrays on green foliage, flowers, light winds, clear air, birdsong, good friends—all add to far more than an experiment in cutting our carbon footprints: it is a celebration of ambulatory life itself. What are we doing driving along listening to CDs or the radio when we could be coursing along the footpaths of the Earth!

We commonly believe we have to be fully employed to survive. Every act must contribute to the economy—our modern-day god. But Thoreau’s point in Walden is that the human economy is an aberration of nature which turns life into drudgery—as if drudgery were a virtue. No wonder he steers clear of the cultural wonders of his day in taking his walks.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (Page 260.)

Freedom for Thoreau, then, is freedom from distraction by what many take to be the essence of civil affairs. Imagine being free from the news of the day, from All Things Considered, say—from stock prices, political posturing, the fraught lives of celebrities, from glamour and glitz and hype and spin and the rest of the distractions we waste our lives attending to in great detail so we can achieve the required degree of emptiness in time to die. If I really want to scare myself, I think of the horde honking and waving to get my attention so I can devote precious energy and awareness to their concerns and not mine. I’m with Thoreau in his take on walking: 

In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man. (Page 261.)

Exactly, we pride ourselves on blowing smoke rings as if we didn’t have worthier things to do with our lives. The most recent presidential primaries and campaign went on for two years! Two years in the lives of 300 million people represent a heap of Earth’s energy spent trying to affect the outcome of a single day of voting in one nation. We could have gone on a lot of walks in that time and ended up our own persons knowing exactly where we were and what we stood for, not mere constituents of one party or another—elephants or jackasses.

What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. (Page 265.)

That’s what I’m searching to discover in this blog, that “subtle magnetism in Nature” that provides proper guidance if only we would attend to it inwardly, not outwardly. That sense of direction wise men and women have steered by since beginning times. Every now and then I sense it strongly, that pull to pay attention to what is truly important. And do my best to follow that pull wherever it leads because it is the most important clue consciousness can provide about the meaning and purpose of life. Everything about us is “of” nature, after all. We are natural beings from a long line of natural beings. It is fitting for us to walk in nature to ensure our current state of nature can engage its proper companions.

We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does no yet exist distinctly in our idea. (Page 265.)

From my perspective, consciousness is not devoted solely to the ideal but is far larger in being experiential to the max. That is, besides cognition, it embraces every aspect of emotional, imaginative, and sensory life. I’d say here Thoreau’s transcendentalism may be getting in the way by crediting guidance to intuitive perception of “higher laws” as if they existed apart from personal consciousness. For myself, I believe the human mind is the great organizer and, given sufficient experience to chew on, is fully capable of finding its own way without the tug of external magnetism, so-called. When our minds are clouded, the problem often comes down to being distracted by other minds with other agendas made evident and insistent through the culture we live in. How are the greedy to profit if we follow our own star as our own man and woman? I love to travel through the fullness of my experience, as Thoreau did of his. He was a native explorer of two worlds at once, both inner and outer in balanced relationship. 

It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. (Page 266f.)

Into the wilderness of his personal consciousness, that is, in preference to the civilized world of the city other men had built for themselves. Walking, for Thoreau, frees him from “all worldly engagements.” It offers the journey of self-exploration leading to self-discovery and the hard-won freedom of being himself. In the city, this is sometimes painted as escapism into the interior. But look what came in Thoreau’s case from such a personal journey: works such as Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, Excursions, as well as The Journal. Only one person could have written them. We are fortunate he insisted on being free to walk his own path.

We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure (Page 267.)

If we do not pursue that adventure, whose life are we living? Not our own, surely. No, we live the life of the “good citizen.” The end of selfless living is working for someone else, which is a better bargain for one than the other. Are we here to support Microsoft, Coca Cola, General Motors, and various governing bodies, or to be ourselves to the hilt? If we drive, we will go where our vehicles take us on roads paved by the state; if we walk, we will end up making our way cross-lots and arriving as free men and women.

Make our own way—that’s exactly what consciousness has evolved to enable us to do. Note carefully: each of us has the equipment. There is no excuse for not using it. We are born navigators and walkers. If in wheelchairs, we are free to engage others in helping us travel. My conclusion regarding running low on oil is it is better we not search for substitutes but learn to go on our own at last. That is, to discover our own journeys and not follow the official map too closely. Consciousness and intuition will guide us, feet and legs go the distance. Cities will become human again, carbon footprints shrink. And the rewards will not go to others but will accrue to us precisely to the extent we move ourselves forward.

Martin Luther King Jr.-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

I am on the street watching a man and his dog. They are linked by a short leash. I can’t tell if the man is walking the dog or the dog is walking the man. They slowly move toward me—very slowly. Dog, from a distance looking like a white Scotty, goes off to the side, sniffing. Man stands and waits. Dog moves forward, man moves forward. Dog stops; man stops. Nose to the ground, dog moves to the side; man waits. Clearly a couple, every motion synchronized in mutual interaction. Two creatures with one mind between them.

Then I think of another such couple I’d seen ten years ago, the man definitely in charge, dragging a beagle across a small wooden bridge, man in front, beagle behind, leash taut between them. On separate missions, the man strides ahead while the beagle, not done sniffing, scrapes wood with drawn claws—I still hear the sound. 

Another flashback: me and Billy Ingram as kids trying to keep up with his swimming-coach father walking home after work. Walking isn’t the word—I am running to keep up, expecting my body language to slow the man down, but he goes even faster. It is dark, probably November. We’d been scouting the college gym after school looking for good stuff, just goofing around.

Then the biggest leap of all: to suicide bombers. Impatient with life here below, eager for rewards up above, not waiting to discover life’s secrets, they blow themselves up—striking down infidels by strapping explosives and shrapnel to their bodies. The more harm inflicted the greater the reward. Voluntary martyrdom is life!

That’s a brief sketch of my travels while eying man and dog for five minutes. Standing idly on the street, I was anything but mindless. Given free rein, my consciousness went its own way. The theme seems to have been states of mind told by how we conduct ourselves in the presence of others. That is, by how we telegraph our attitudes, fears, desires, and expectancies. Do we dance with or lash out at those we claim to love? When our companions prove mysterious, we can at least watch ourselves and discover what kind of persons we are.

Every act is generated by the brain. To learn about the brain, study the acts—your own and those of others around you. Take a levelheaded look at what’s going on. How you act, how you react to the actions of others. Without editing, without judgment. Study how everything makes sense at the time with respect to your situation as you perceive or construe it.

On a trip with my wife over fifty years ago, we are walking down a street somewhere in London, me on the outside. A delivery truck pulls up in front of the restaurant ahead. The driver goes to the back to lower the tailgate. Two employees come out of the restaurant and wait at the curb—a man and a woman, the woman closer to the truck. Heavily, down comes the tailgate—with a blur of some kind of moving parts. Passing by, out of the corner of my eye I see the woman’s cheek ripped open in an instant, revealing white bone and broken teeth against red. I know immediately what happened. The tailgate is held by hinged iron struts on either side, which straighten like an arm at the elbow. The near strut is twisted so not only flips down but shoots out to the side as the tailgate is lowered. Toward the face of the woman just standing there, waiting. I keep walking, talking with my wife as if nothing has happened.

My rationale at the time was that I couldn’t have helped her. And I didn’t want to get in the way of those who could. That was long before cell phones and 911. I didn’t know what to do in such a situation, in London or anywhere. I was out of my depth. So I pretended I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I protected myself by not reaching out, not getting involved. I could have changed my mind as I walked, but I didn’t. I kept on. And never told anyone—not even my wife—what I’d seen until now, when it’s too late to do anything.

What kind of man am I? Callous, weak-willed, fearful. Self-centered. Those were the judgments I made then, and have carried with me ever since. I have often wondered what happened to the woman, and how her injury worked out. How nice, that I should think of her. That’s me on the sidelines, with my standard-issue brain, getting by in routine circumstances, but just barely. I’m the one in the window watching people get mugged or raped on the street.

That’s as near as my mind came to imagining what it’s like being a suicide bomber. Having people blown apart right at your elbow. I got there by paying careful attention to a man and a dog, which reminded me of seeing a dog dragged across a wooden bridge, which took me back to trying hard to keep up with my friend’s father, which led to the tension a bomber must feel to rig herself with explosives in a crowd she despises, and that led to seeing a suddenly shattered face on the streets of London half a century ago as if it were now. Association isn’t a strong enough word to describe a mind’s headlong rush to construct such a scenario from shards of experience stacked helter-skelter in old boxes beneath the eaves of memory. 

Blogging about consciousness is one step up from being a couch potato. I’ve found my level of engagement with life, and that’s what I do. It’s better than dashing off heated opinions about what other people are doing with their lives. When rats come to a new place, they freeze and sniff the air to see what’s going on. That behavior is called mystacial sniffing, which is meant to get the lay of the land in terms meaningful to rats. Me, when I see a man and a dog, I check out my inner experience, sniffing and waving my whiskers at my own consciousness to find out what’s going on in my head. Not everything I find is that pretty. But I’m old enough to treat the good and the ugly with equal interest and respect.

I began this post by considering a man and dog leashed together in my living awareness, and explored where that image would take me. In seconds I was far afield, but the route made sense because my inner workings are connected by paths I myself have cut through the hills and dark woods of personal experience. When consciousness suggests a pattern is to be found there, I pay attention. As Thoreau wrote in his posthumously published essay “Walking,”

There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

I am out to discover as much order or harmony in my inner landscape as I can before I die, so to familiarize myself with it and offer my findings to the world for the sake of comparison with its own. What better starting place than closely observing the image of a man and dog going their own ways to see what I can make of that? As always, I am amazed by what I find.

 crescent moon

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The coherence of consciousness is tended by our left-brain interpreter whose job is to make sense of the data available to it from different parts of the brain. If those data are substantial and add to a piece, the interpreter has an easy job characterizing and making sense of the current situation. If they are spotty or contradictory, it must stretch what it knows in producing a plausible account based on what data is available.

 

Each of us is responsible for making sense of the current situation on his or her own. Therein lies the source of our personal integrity. We are more-or-less attentive, detailed, complete, patient, imaginative, and timely in coming up with our take on what we think is happening in our world. In interpreting a poem, for instance, if we attend to every word and punctuation mark, carefully weigh the emphasis given each detail in the sequence of events, and incorporate them in a narrative of what it all means to us, we have a fair chance of understanding what the poet is trying to convey. If we seize on one phrase as meaningful in the context of our personal experience while playing down the rest, odds are we will do violence to the poet’s craft and intent in overlaying our interests on top of her words.

 

Interpretation is a craft in its own right, and rises to an art when we must chose between rival interpretations supported by substantial evidence. Interpretation involves judgments best acquired through deep reflection and long experience. The integrity of our interpretative abilities is important because it represents our preparedness for dealing with life situations in which health and survival may be at issue. If we can bring all aspects of consciousness to bear on such situations, we improve the likelihood that the outcome will prove successful.

 

All manner of habits and behaviors affect our judgments, interpretations, and integrity. Pain, hunger, distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering drugs, alcohol, anger, lust, mood swings—all detract from the cohesiveness of our mental processes, and the suitability of our actions to any and all situations we are engaged in at the time. Each of us must confront his own demons in a trial of strength and integrity. That is, he must employ every aspect of consciousness in rising to such challenges, or not, as may be the case.

 

Life installs many such gates along our path, some at set milestones all must attain, others as random obstacles we must meet on our own. We either pass through—or our journey stops at one gate or another. Integrity helps us make it through as many gates as our physical and mental powers will allow. The last gate is our undoing; none of us possess integrity sufficient to getting through that one. Which, if we have done our best to learn what every gate has to teach us, is no defeat.

 

The flip side of integrity is respect for others we meet along the way. We recognize how hard they have worked to get this far, so their integrity deserves our highest regard. Like passing ships, we hail each other and sail on. There is a dignity to the process, an appreciation for what it takes to come on the scene, to struggle, to develop some degree of competence, to keep on and ever on.

 

Integrity casts an aura about itself, prompting others to aspire to its level. It sets the standard of what can be achieved—and gone beyond. I remember the day Roger Bannister ran the first under-four-minute mile. It was an accomplishment for humanity (at least in the Western World). It was as significant an event as Charles Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic in his day. The training, determination, endurance required raised the bar of integrity another notch higher.

 

Integrity can be inspiring, even contagious. First one individual achieves it on her own. Then its influence radiates outward to show what can be achieved. First within a family or small group, then into the neighborhood, community, tribe or nation, unto the human population. Mahatma Gandhi set a standard of integrity for all people. Inspired by Thoreau, he in turn inspired Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Martin Luther King. As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” Integrity expressed on a global scale would set a new standard for every individual, spurring a revolution in cohesive consciousness.

 

Integrity, that is, develops in response to stressful situations. Everyone I know who has it, earned it by surmounting significant crises or obstacles in her path. She had to summon all her conscious resources to get through one time of trial or another, more likely a series of trials. You don’t acquire integrity by going to school, you can’t buy it anywhere, and nobody will simply hand it to you no matter how nice or attractive you are. Integrity has to be earned by pitting your all against a challenge worthy of your will to overcome. People with integrity always bear scars. They get them by doing more than anyone could reasonably expect—giving their utmost when others stop far short rather than surrender what little ease and comfort they might have.

 

At the Pachamama Symposium I attended in April, I led a discussion on personal integrity. The stories people told of their struggles to achieve integrity were highly personal yet equally moving. Going beyond addiction to recovery, disillusionment with friends or community, being oppressed, breaking free from a stifling relationship, seeking reconciliation by confronting the truth—in every instance integrity was achieved through sacrifice and hard work. Each story told of a life improved by summoning unsuspected resources under stress. That is what it takes to bring integrity within reach.

 

The biggest challenge to integrity is facing certain death. Every day brings us closer to having to undergo that trial. Walking away from a car crash, a bullet flying by the ear, a close call in the emergency room—there are many reminders that none of us is immune to death. For every one of us, the end is certain. Ambiguity about what form it will take in our case makes it seem remote because we can’t picture it. But we delude ourselves if we think denial will help us avoid it. The true test of integrity—in the sense of the true proof that it exists—is the stance we take in preparation for death by whatever blow, whenever it comes. Which may be this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now.

 

Facing death puts a special premium on the days that are left compared to those that have been spent. Every morning we wake up has a special quality. How can we make the best use of such a gift? How can we be most generous with gifts of our own? What tasks fall to us because of our unique qualifications? How can we make the most of ourselves by participating in this special day of all days in Earth’s history? How can we best deploy the many dimensions of our consciousness in living purposefully and deliberately?

 

Whatever answers we give to such questions will be a measure of our integrity. Of our conscious being at this given time in this place. We have earned the right to do anything we want. What will it be on this day? We can decide about tomorrow when we wake up, assuming we do.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Stop in your tracks and watch those around you striding purposefully about their business. It always amazes me how driven we have become, how earnestly we push on without glancing right or left. We drive the kids to school, to violin practice, to soccer, to ballet, to rehearsals. And then pick them up and drive home. Busyness is our business, the exact opposite of the broad margin Thoreau sought around his life.

 

Having read most of his writings, including the Journals, I have long admired Thoreau for the evident integrity backing up every word. Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly, his own way. Uniqueness and integrity go together because no two of us are the same. But being busy cuts through our uniqueness, as if routines were more important than personal passions and judgments. What would happen if we stopped and smelled the flowers along the way? We’d be late, and everybody knows it is a sin to be late. Bosses know it, teachers know it, sergeants know it, theatergoers know it, entire corporate hierarchies know it. Lateness can lower your grade, your pay, your IQ, and probably your sex drive.

 

Adopting cultural mores and routines means you have donated part of your brain to your culture for the sake of being accepted. That’s a tough bargain because you are no longer fully yourself. You’ve become a political animal, living part of your life for the effect it might have on others. Wanting to please is one thing, doing it for personal gain is another. Selling your personal integrity is a form of prostitution (from Latin prostituere, expose publically, offer for sale). In our culture, it is an obvious good to watch TV, invest, buy, patronize advisers, consume, and generally go along with the crowd. How do we know? Because that’s the gist of many of the messages beamed at us in modern life.

 

But to take a stand against the onslaught takes integrity—being whole, entire, intact, untouched, or undamaged. Thoreau had that quality, as did Emerson and Walt Whitman. They were their own men, out to be true, not to please. Giving them the biting edge of independent thought, a quality shared with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to name but three exemplars from each sex.

 

The competitiveness of our culture is meant to fracture the integrity of those who oppose it. Backed by wealth and the power of law, corporations will do their best to beat you into a pose of submission, to have you bend at the knees, throw up your hands and cry, “Enough, I’ll go along!” Dominance is claimed to be a synonym for masculinity, submission for femininity—obvious myths in a world requiring both men and women to be strong to survive. But for political and commercial purposes, the claim has a certain weight among those who please by doing what they’re told.

 

For myself, I believe the function of consciousness is to teach us integrity so that whether male or female, we can be wholly ourselves. In the Mind page at the head of this blog, I list various aspects of consciousness that might bear in varying combinations upon any given situation in awareness. These include: attention, feelings, various kinds of memories, motivation, sensory and bodily phenomena, understanding, imagination, intuition, judgment, planning, expectancy, and action (including language).

 

Integrity, to me, means these various aspects complement one another in contributing to any given episode of personal consciousness. They add to a whole greater than their individual shares taken separately. When we get it together, it feels good because it’s all of a piece. When our minds are at sixes and sevens, we know what that feels like—we can’t concentrate on action because we aren’t ready yet to decide what to do. But when the parts work in synchrony with one another, we are ready to make our move without hesitation.

 

Integrity is a sign that the famous binding problem has been solved in a given instance of consciousness. The problem “arises from the brain’s architecture, in which the outside world is represented by nervous activity in a hundred or more distinct regions” (Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness, p. 167). Yet consciousness creates the illusion that the mind is of one piece. Which is what integrity feels like.

 

My finest moments are those in which I am of one mind—not because my thought is so simple—but precisely because it is hard-won from so many sources yet presents itself as a self-made unity. Perhaps contributions from various brain assemblies are in synchrony with one another, which is what it feels like to me. Everything adds up without argument or discord, freeing my actions to be skillful, passionate, and wholehearted. I have served on a great many committees, so I know what it feels like to rub different parts smooth in order to come up with a compromise, always with a feeling of “it’s the best we can do.”

 

Today, a colleague sent an e-mail concerning the possibility of minds meeting in agreement when coming from different perspectives, I sent back this response:

 

Regarding two minds getting together. I agree with you, part way, but come up against the roadblock of personal integrity. I feel I am finally in a situation where much of my consciousness works cooperatively so that I feel wholly integrated as I write. I treasure that feeling because it has been so rare in my life. I threw out my TV in 1986 because it was such a distraction. I defend my turf, now living practically as a hermit (except for weekends). Now that I’ve got myself more or less together, I don’t want to give that up. It is exciting to think of meeting someone concerned with the same issues on the same level—but daunting, too. At least my mistakes are my own. My belief [is] that one life contains all the stimulation required in order to do good work and make a contribution. Am I wrong? Probably. But it feels great doing what I can with what I have. Still, I’m willing to consider—if not fully explore—the options. What happens if my well runs dry? That’s when I’d need help. So far, it hasn’t happened. In the meantime, I pick and choose in the light of my personal judgment. So keep writing and being your own person. Integrity, once achieved, is a priceless possession.

 

Yes, dialogue is possible between persons of integrity. I find it a waste of time between those whose opinions are threatened by dissent because they aren’t fully supported by every aspect of consciousness. That to me seems to be the state in which most of us conduct our everyday affairs. We generally wing it, doing the best we can under the circumstances, often unfavorable.

 

Which is why we play so many games. Governed by rules, they impose integrity upon us from the outside, and by simplifying the number of options we have in making legal moves. If we cheat, it’s too much like work to be fun anymore.

 

Society places so many pressures upon us to do this and do that, it’s a wonder we ever find quiet time for getting ourselves together. I know women who write poetry at the kitchen table during the fifteen minutes the kids take their afternoon nap. Every four days that adds to an hour of integrity, twenty-four hours of integrity every 96 days—almost four days of integrity a year. That kind of serial project may be the best we can manage during our working, childrearing years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am technically retired, but I’ve never been busier in my life. The difference is I do what I choose to do, not what I am assigned. The tradeoff is I’m not always informed about many of the things that other people talk about and seem to take seriously.

 

The juncture (we now say interface) between people of integrity is always the hard part. What good is integrity if you keep it to yourself? Which is the situation my colleague was asking about in his e-mail. Can integrities be shared so they add to more than the sum of their parts? I gotta believe. When we all achieve integrity in our consciousness, then we will act on the best advice obtainable internally and socially, and the world is bound to be a better place.

 

For now, I offer integrity as something to strive for. After that, we’ll have the dialogue that will save the world. Hopefully, some are having that discussion already, so we’re not as far behind as the nightly news would suggest.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

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Reflection 69: Values

February 25, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Acquisition of wealth is one of our values because it heightens the probability of personal survival. Not so much the survival of our physical person as survival of consciousness as we practice that art. That is, survival of those inner worlds we have been busy building for ourselves all these years.

 

Values are key concepts we derive from living our lives. They are envelopes for keeping life-enhancing experiences all in one place in our minds so they are readily available to us when we need them. Winning, justice, truth, beauty, freedom, love—these are names of a few common values. Just to say them stirs us mysteriously from within. They excite us, get our blood flowing faster to make us ready for intentional action.

 

Values are abstractions drawn from experience. As such, they are hollow, requiring new situations to give them substance in the here and now. Values are primal meanings waiting to happen, to be called to the fore of conscious judgment so we know which way to go and what to do in unfamiliar situations. Values are guides to the route by which the idea of the future can be realized in the actual present. Without them, what would we aim at? What would we work for? Who would we be?

 

Values give definite shape to the possibility of consciousness in specific situations. We are always on the lookout for instances of their embodiment, and perk up when we discover them. Much has been written directly and indirectly about values because blood has been stirred and even shed in their name. I here offer a few excerpts from my reading in recent years.

 

Parker Palmer, 2005. z  The Dalai Lama, Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandella, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, and Thich Nhat Hanh, . . . . such people came to trust, not resist, the journey of heartbreak described by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Kahn: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Hearts like these have been broken open to a largeness that holds the promise of a better future for all, a “habit of the heart” without which democracy cannot survive, let alone flourish.

 

Terry Tempest Williams, 2004. z  The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of Power.

 

H. Maturana & F. Varela, 1987. z  The world will be different only if we live differently.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948. z  Become the change you seek in the world.

 

Leonard Joy, 2002. z  If we are to be purposive together, we must create spaces where we have conversations about what it means to be human on our planet.

 

Joy. z  Values development reflects a change in the nature of the relationship that a person has with self and other. When this comes from reflective self-awareness, I see the individual as being on a spiritual path and attainment as spiritual development.

 

Joy. z  Societal progress depends on self-reflecting individuals aspiring to higher values and finding resonance with others in this aspiration who together become an effective force for change.

 

Duane Elgin, 1993. z  Each person is a vitally important and unique agent in the process of planetary evolution.

 

Elgin. z  It is only through our individual awakening and creative action that the Earth will awaken as well.

 

G. Lakoff & M. Johnson, 1999. z  The environment is not an “other” to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. . . . We cannot and do not exist apart from it.

 

Lakoff & Johnson. z  We appear to be the only animals who can reflect critically on their lives in order to make changes in how they behave.

 

Fritjof Capra, 1982. z  Detailed study of ecosystems . . . has shown quite clearly that most relationships between living organisms are essentially cooperative ones, characterized by coexistence and interdependence, and symbiotic in various degrees. Although there is competition, it usually takes place within a wider context of cooperation, so that the larger system is kept in balance.

 

Capra. z  What survives is the organism-in-its-environment. An organism that thinks only in terms of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself.

 

Capra. z  Value systems and ethics are not peripheral to science and technology but constitute their very basis and driving force. Hence the shift to a balanced social and economic system will require a corresponding shift of values—from self-assertion and competition to cooperation and social justice, from expansion to conservation, from material acquisition to inner growth.

 

Michael Polanyi, 1962. z  Where great originality is at work in science or, even more clearly, in artistic creation, the innovating mind sets itself new standards more satisfying to itself, and modifies itself by the process of innovation so as to become more satisfying to itself in the light of these self-set standards. Yet all the time the creative mind is searching for something believed to be real; which, being real, will—when discovered—be entitled to claim universal validity. . . . Such are the acts by which [the human mind improves itself].

 

Henry David Thoreau, 1854. z  If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

 

Charles Gibbs, 2005. z  So what do we do? We might begin by seeing ourselves as citizens of the Earth and children of the abiding Mystery at the heart of all that is. Then . . . set out on a journey to encounter the other and find ourselves.

 

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Reflection 25: Lost World

November 19, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

In my last post (Reflection 24: Population), I tried to show how serious our situation is now that our cultural disorientation has become contagious and is affecting others around the globe, causing people everywhere to lose their bearings. Earth can no longer support our activities at the level we desire. We are too many for the planet to bear, too needy, too long-lived, and dwell at too great a remove from Earth’s natural systems. As a result, not only our economy and culture are in collapse, but Earth itself is becoming unstable, its climate and weather conditions exceeding their normal ranges. We haven’t seen such disruptions since the drought and depression of the 1930s.

 

Many blame the erosion of governmental oversight of the economy during the four most recent U.S. administrations for the current catastrophe. Always looking for root causes, I credit the cultural (it’s more than just economic) collapse to a widespread failure of consciousness, starting in America, spreading around the world. In essence, we are gaming the Earth, risking everything for the sake of personal gain. This is a failure of judgment. Some risks are too great to contemplate. Yet we wager all on going against our best judgment. We are told that there is no free lunch. But secretly we bet that somewhere there is, and we go after that lunch, no matter what. That what turns out to be utter disorientation. Now, we don’t know which way to turn to save ourselves.

 

Too many of us are living beyond our means, going into debt, using other people’s money to leverage our fortunes, sacking the Earth for personal gain. Periodic economic collapse has been trying to warn us for decades, but we keep looking for other sources of exorbitant wealth which will flow to us without tasking us overmuch—and in ten years the system collapses all over again. The common element in every decade is our unquenchable desire to “get ahead,” which always drops us off far short of our selfish desires. The battleground is neither Wall nor Main Street as commonly claimed, but the road to riches that runs through our heads where consciousness, such as it is, maintains its day-to-day operations.

 

In “The Village,” a chapter in Walden comprising but three paragraphs (long ones at that), Thoreau speaks to the issue of losing one’s way in the woods, and more generally, getting lost and disoriented. I think that passage carries a message much needed by those looking for ways out of our current predicament.

 

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. Often in a storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia. By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and head-lands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round,—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

 

We are surely so turned around now that we are in sore need of learning the points of compass again. Not just the economic compass, but the ecological compass that gives us our bearings on this living planet we call Earth. Without such bearings we are under the impression we can steer the planet by ourselves. That way nature won’t get out of hand, and we can run our affairs however we wish. Except every time we give in to that conceit, we run afoul of Earth’s displeasure and wash up on some uncharted ledge.

 

Which, Thoreau points out, may be a calamity, but can also be seen as an opportunity for getting our bearings again. As a chance to make a new start rather than an end to familiar life worlds from the past. But only if we become fully conscious “of where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” If we exclude these from awareness, then we are just as lost as before, and are sure to repeat our mistakes time and again.

 

This time around, I have not heard or read one word written by anyone but myself about this particular collapse being caused by a widespread failure of human consciousness. Blame is widely cast about, many are implicated, but what has gone wrong is never clearly identified. Where some have fallen, others will rise up and carry on as before. With the result we are none the wiser and are sure to go the same route in coming years. Steering by the same sorry compass.

 

Rather than doling out billions of dollars to financial institutions to save their dignity, our government would do better to spur examination of the nation’s collective consciousness, the awareness (or lack thereof) that led us into this catastrophe. All along we were going for broke, and that is precisely where we ended up. The entire nation was risking its stake in hopes of bettering its situation—eyes solely on the promise, not the facts—and lost.

 

Leery of investing in savings and loans, dot-com startups, foreign stocks after the Asian collapse, and the too-good-to-be-true Enrons of the world, America put its hopes and money in real estate which, according to the brochure, always increased in value no matter what and never, never went down. Which is like putting your savings into a perpetual-motion machine. Or new wine into old bottles. Yet we’ve done it again. And now we find the machine doesn’t run, the bottles burst, and wine runs all over the carpet.

 

What can we learn from all this? More importantly, do we want to learn anything? Or shall we keep to our muddled strategy of hoping against hope, and so wander deeper into the woods more lost than before? I recommend a good dose of Thoreau at this point (see above). Bailing out the old system won’t do the trick. Having lost that world, we’ve got to find a better one. Rather, find ourselves anew. Or find our same old selves in a new system.

 

What kind of system might that be? We could do worse than seek internal guidance from consciousness itself, as if we had an owner’s manual or could press the Help button. What would consciousness reveal to us that we’ve overlooked before?

 

Consciousness operates on a complex balance between positive and negative feedback within the brain itself meant to sharpen contours and outlines, so rendering the clearest estimate of what it is dealing with. Which is never so-called reality itself, but is its best guess of what our life situation might be, subject to revision.

 

The interacting parts or modules of consciousness include: wakefulness, attention, feelings, motivation, sensory phenomena, body perception, concepts, episodic or autobiographical memories, working memory to keep relevant details on call as needed, judgment, thought, language and associated gestures, the ability to evaluate and prioritize, expectancy, planning for action, action itself, and refinement of action.

 

By listing these aspects of consciousness I do not mean to imply we use them all or use them well. These are some of the parts available to us. Our challenge is to integrate them and use them in framing a response to our present situation, which is where we have gone off the tracks, because our educational system does not generally include such skills in its curriculum.

 

Learning through trial and error, most of us wing it most of the time. Which is extremely arduous and labor intensive because we make the fundamental error of believing our consciousness opens onto the “real world,” when in fact the only sensory phenomena we have to deal with are concocted from the few scraps of sensory feedback available to us at the moment, and largely selected, shaped, and assembled as our brains see fit according to our habitual ways and customs.

 

We learn through successive approximations of what’s happening, and if we stick with it closely enough, long enough, we can get pretty good at sizing up the relevant details of a life situation. Which lets us apply our best judgment in evaluating that situation, and suiting our actions to it as appropriate to the demands of the occasion as we understand it, as well as to our personal motives and interests.

 

Recovering our orientation after a calamity is not as simple as consulting a compass. Do we trust anyone’s compass but our own? How do we know if the one we have is accurate? We need to calibrate our consciousness through a series of trials, preferably at periodic intervals throughout life. Right now, in the current situation, whose guidance can we rely on? The so-called experts appear to have brought the collapse on through their own activities and beliefs. It is doubtful any experts survive unscarred. All were blindsided because focused on too small a sample of what was going on. They saw only what they wanted to see. The collapse crept up in the shadows, unobserved.

 

To avoid getting out beyond our depth, our current attitude should be: Stop me before I invest again. Before I wager again. Sign a contract again. Before I go into debt again and cannot pay what I owe. All of which are matters of judgment requiring a good deal of practical experience. We can’t afford to commit ourselves too early in the game, before really understanding which rules apply in this particular situation.

 

All of us are saddened to have gotten into this mess. And wiser in vowing not to repeat our mistakes. The challenge now is to understand our conscious awareness so we can educate ourselves to avoid making similar blunders in years ahead.

 

And by the way, saying consciousness is the ultimate cause of this disaster doesn’t get anyone off the hook. “My consciousness made me do it,” just doesn’t wash. In any given situation, the self looks on from its perspective and makes what it can of passing events. The self is the judge and decision-maker, the executive of consciousness. That’s where the buck stops every time.

 

Which is what this blog is about. Learning to use our mental gifts wisely so we don’t get mired in the swamp of unawareness, lost in the deep woods of despair, or abandoned on the shoal waters of greed. This crisis, as I have said, is a crisis of human consciousness. Many of us aren’t very good at managing our own affairs. Which, ultimately, are Earth affairs because in living as we do, our lifestyles impact the Earth. It wouldn’t matter so much if we were butterflies, but being the top predator on the planet, it matters a lot.

 

In the blogosphere you have little idea who’s hitting on your posts unless they declare themselves. Even then you don’t know who they are. So I post neither for Wall Street nor Main Street but for us all as Earthlings, inhabitants of the one planet in the universe where we claim to have encountered conscious life.

 

My aim is to use my own experience of consciousness as a vehicle of exploration, and to share what I discover with those who might be interested. My hope is that we can all better understand and appreciate the wits we have been given, and so avoid getting as lost as we are now, as often as we have gotten turned around in days past.

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