What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

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As a team sport, baseball is all about relationships between members of two different teams playing against each other. There is a tension between the opposing teams, tension within each of them as plays unfold over time. And tensions in us as we follow along, gripped by the drama unfolding in our minds, and of which we are a big part. Without dedicated fans, baseball wouldn’t exist. It is made to carry us along with it. No wonder we watch.

Such tensions stem from uncertainty concerning what is about to happen. Our minds thrive on uncertainty because they are made to be certain in support of decisive action, so they have to stick with the challenge. From first to last inning, baseball is charged with uncertainty. As well as yearnings for a successful outcome.

What pitch will the pitcher deliver? Will the batter take the bait, and if so, will he swing for a strike, hit a fly ball, or send a bounder just past the second baseman’s glove? Will the catcher throw off his mask, crane his neck, then grab that high foul ball? Will the pitcher lob the bunted ball to first? Will the fielder reach the grounder in time to get the runner out at second? Will the shortstop cover second when the baseman shifts toward first?

The pitcher-batter confrontation can lead to so many possible situations, we are on the edge of our seats and edge of our minds much of the time, eager to find out how each play will unfold as players throw the ball from one to another: pitcher to catcher, outfield to infield, second base to first, third to home.

Each play depends on so much coordinated skill, strength, speed, and accuracy, there is hardly a moment when we dare take our eyes off the ball for fear of missing the crucial play that makes all the difference. Paying close attention to each play takes exertion on our part. We exhaust ourselves just by following along. But the adventure is worth it. There’s no other way to have such an experience than to commit to it in both body and mind.

We not only follow the game from our viewpoint, but we anticipate what will happen. And enjoy the thrill of finding out if we’re right or wrong. We live on the edge of our own excitement, thrusting this way and that, like riding a defiant bronco. Investing our minds in the game, we find ourselves being carried away. Commitment is what it takes, commitment to engage as best we can for as long as we can. Paying attention takes perseverance, dedication, stamina, and strength. Those are all forms of engagement that carry us along.

We find new dimensions of ourselves by losing our old self and giving in to the power and drama of the moment. We come out of it bigger than we were, stronger, more enduring because of the engagement.

Engagement builds strong bodies eight ways, all variations on exercising the mental skills and dimensions we bring to the game. I’ve already mentioned several of them: expectancy, imagery, feeling, values, situations, understanding, meaning, judgment—that’s eight, and I’ve just begun. The whole list adds up to a multi-dimensional engagement that takes concentration, but ends up in a generous serving of personal fulfillment by a game well-played.

Just as there is a quota of good in everyone, there is a quota of excitement in every engagement. And a quota of enlightenment if we truly put ourselves into it. When we get bored, that’s because we are not committing much energy to what we are doing. We’re not putting ourselves into it, whatever it is. So we draw back for lack of concentrating on something—anything—and that invites lethargy to descend upon us. Boredom is a declaration of our lack of curiosity, interest, concentration—in a word, engagement. Which takes a commitment of our attention before anything can happen at all.

Being bored is a comment on our own lack of reaching out to the world to invite the world to reach in to us. The world owes us nothing. It is not out there for our benefit. As individuals, all of us are in charge of that department for ourselves. Baseball offers us a release from the cell we lock ourselves into when we wistfully moan for something to do.

Watch two baseball teams in action, engage yourself, and rejoice.

When I read about school committees cutting music, art, sports, and skill-building programs to make room for more math and science classes, I groan inwardly at the thought of how we teach our kids to live conceptual lives in a conceptualized world, as if the world of detailed sensory-motor experience didn’t matter or even exist. As if test scores and right answers are the measures of a good education, not experience, engagement, fascination, or enjoyment.

We teach our kids to “know” what a small, select segment of the adult population already knows, not to lead their own lives and draw their own conclusions from their streams of unique experience. We train for entry-level jobs in favored industries as if we could tell the future, not for leading a life in unpredictable times, which would be closer to what is likely to happen. As once we trained farm girls to tend whirling spindles in textile mills through New England, jobs that no longer exist because we have automated them and shipped them overseas.

This is exactly parallel to our reaching out to new experience from the vantage of where we’ve already been, rather than taking pains to explore what is presently before us. Projecting our remembrances onto the now, seeing in terms of the past—how does that serve as adequate preparation for welcoming a future we cannot predict in advance?

We know that Steve Jobs would have been a misfit in the days of James Watt, Thomas Edison, or Henry Ford. We need to help our children live in a world we cannot see from where we stand today. The task facing every generation is to learn to be open to possibilities raised by novel situations, today and forever.

If we insist on clamping what we already know now onto the minds of the young, condemning them to relive the lives their teachers have already lived, how are they going to find the essential freedom, imagination, skills, and curiosity to lead lives of their own in their own times?

In truth, education must allow for a high degree of uncertainty in how it is to be put to use. Its goal must ever be teaching the young to experience and to think for themselves in the many unknown situations they will surely face. Some of those situations will be similar to the ones we have known, but they will also differ in many respects.

Heading into the unknown with resources that can be brought to bear no matter what, that is the gift of the true education we owe to our children. Making them into copies of employees we need today in our workplaces—that condemns them to a life of frustration and inadequacy in falling short of becoming their own unique selves.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

My basic premise in writing this blog is that most people assume their consciousness gives them immediate access to the real world. Or put differently, that the world really is as their senses depict it. My aim in this series of posts is to test that hypothesis by examining a variety of episodes drawn from my own consciousness to see if they are consistent with such an assumption or not.

 

My findings up till now are that my personal consciousness is not a one-to-one replica of any world other than the one in my head, which is demonstrably one of a kind. As for the real world, I have no way of recognizing it by sight, sound, touch, scent, taste, or any combination of senses. It is always my world, that fragment of a world my consciousness presents to me at the time. Does that make it real? To me, perhaps, but not to anyone else. And even I have to test it by acting in that world to see how it accords with my expectations. Sometimes it might, but usually not.

 

What is real is that I have to ease into my world through a series of rough approximations of how I think it might be configured. My world is my current situation as I construe it. I make a move, and the feedback I get tells me whether or not I might be on the right track. Slowly refining my consciousness through a series of such tests, I arrive at an operational view of my situation that meets my standards of proof. For practical purposes, that serves as my current reality.

 

Beyond that, if others replicate my tests and come to similar conclusions, that adds some weight to my convictions. If those whose judgments I respect—my peers—tend toward consensus on the matter, that adds even more weight. But there are always rough edges that are inconclusive or surprising, so we have to investigate them before we can reach full consensus.

 

And so it goes. Reality is a moving target, a goal we can aim at but never attain because by the time we reach it, it has moved on beyond us. What is our situation now? we ask, as we run through the whole process one more time. 

 

What is our situation now? That is always the main challenge to consciousness. Unless we develop a feel for what’s currently happening, we can’t act appropriately—and survival depends on our fitness to our actual situation. Yesterday, it was this; what is it today? Think of how we try to assess our situation when we meet someone we know:

 

How are you? How’s it going? How’s business? How you doin? What’s going on? What’s happening? What’s up? What’s new? What’s the score? Who’s winning?

 

We ask newspapers, magazines, Web sites, blogs, and hundreds of TV channels to fill us in on the latest bulletins about the lay of the land. About the situations we are in, the ones our fate depends on. Which are invariably complex and fast-changing. So we need more and more details about what’s happening. Locally, regionally, nationally, globally, we want to know so we can anticipate what’s coming and act accordingly. This is not an intellectual exercise to stave off Alzheimer’s. This is a matter of life and death. My life and death. Of updating my personal consciousness so I can act appropriately regarding my current placement in the world I take to be real.

 

Gang wars, wandering bears, serial killers, terrorists, uprisings, bombings, stock prices, epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes—I want to know how these and other events might affect my personal welfare. I depend on consciousness to keep me informed. To tell me what’s happening, who’s winning, how business is going.

 

Friends are people we trust with the details of our personal situation; strangers and enemies are people we fear might misuse those details, so we reply with socially-acceptable conventions when they ask what’s going on. We practice sizing up situations by playing games or watching sporting events—rule-governed situations where we are familiar with the territory, know the score, and recognize all the players. Being on the winning side tells us we must be doing something right.

 

Trouble is, events in the real world don’t always follow rules. We track cyclones and hurricanes so we can predict where they’re headed, and listen to Earth rumblings to tell us where the next earthquake or volcanic eruption will be. But terrorist attacks, wandering bears, and stock prices, for instance, defy rule-governed predictions.

 

If the cultural world were a walled-off precinct within the natural world, it might be easier to understand in terms of natural law. But consciousness often confounds nature and culture, so it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, the admixture defying accurate description, much less prediction. Even the so-called hard sciences are disciplines within consciousness, so they are never as pure or reliable as their practitioners claim. Just wait a week and you’ll see. A given situation is usually more complicated than it seems at first glance, reality more elusive and harder to pin down than we think it should be.

 

Gauging reality is essentially a matter of soul searching. Of probing consciousness for clues to where we are and what is going on. It is more a matter of raising doubts and asking questions than mindless belief, which terminates exploration before it can get started. The real nature of the current situation is always a matter of conjecture, informed opinion, and judgment. All of which bear on the degree of conviction with which we feel we can rely on consciousness to tell the straight story.

 

The pursuit of reality begins with uncertainty, not surety. You’ve got to catch yourself being conscious of yourself being conscious, then ask why things appear as they do. To know reality, first you must know thyself. Which can only follow from a course of self-doubt (for starters, never take your senses or emotions at face value), followed by self-exploration, and endless self-reflection. Keep in mind that reality, should you come across it, is likely to be rigged (by yourself or someone you love or admire).

 

The first question to ask is: How do I know that I know what I think I know? If you get beyond that one, your judgment of conscious reality will improve remarkably. But in a world of hype, spin, illusions, lobbying, bribes, favors, payments, donations, traditions, strong opinions, public relations, and outright deceit, that is likely to be only the beginning of a life devoted to inquiry and the pursuit of reality.

 

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