(Copyright © 2010)

Two weeks ago I got a phone call from a colleague asking if I would give a presentation at the January 14 meeting of the Maine Wildlife Society. He and I have worked together for over eight years on common projects, and share similar environmental values; I said I’d be glad to. He made a couple of suggestions about what he’d like me to cover, basically present a capsule history of projects we’ve worked on together in Taunton Bay estuary. I said I’d like to address the issue of trusting consciousness as a guide to how projects should go, and he said fine. Combining my interests with his, I came up with a rough sketch of a presentation, then set to work bringing it to life or, more accurately, bringing my life to it.

Day before yesterday, after wrestling for almost a week with what to include and what to leave out—ending up with a Rube Goldberg contraption that just didn’t work—I was extremely frustrated, and went to bed in low spirits. Next morning—yesterday—I woke up knowing exactly what I had to do to make it fully my presentation, not an awkward mockup of ideas from two different minds. I took the contraption I’d heaped together, got rid of thirty slides, rearranged the remaining slides in a wholly new sequence, added a few slides to emphasize points I wanted to make—and every slide fell into place. Eureka, I’d done it! Best PowerPoint I’d ever made.

What I’d actually done is trusted my unconsciousness to do the job for me while I was asleep. I showed that trust by paying attention to what was in my head when I woke up yesterday morning. It’s that first fifteen minutes of consciousness each day that I want to talk about in this post. It is precisely then that the actual connections between neuronal groups in my brain show what they’ve been up to during the night. In those first fifteen minutes when consciousness dawns each day, I have a unique opportunity to learn what is actually on my mind as a result of recent mental activity. If I set an alarm and rush to get ready for school or work, I don’t have time to pay attention to the most crucial messages I am likely to get all day. Messages from the parts of myself that make me the intuitively guided person I am meant by nature to be.

If I allow my consciousness to be steered by directives and reports stacked in my in-box at work, or a sequence of e-mails from other minds, or other people’s agendas, in such cases I lose touch with my own mind—and end up leading a life that is not fully my own. We’ve all been in that place, particularly rearing young children, and having to work at jobs largely for the paycheck and benefits. Those days behind me, I feel lucky to have the luxury of lying in bed listening to my own mind at 4:30 in the morning. That’s the most valuable part of my day that I don’t want to waste because it heads me into my day, a day of my own making under the existential circumstances I actually live with.

What came to me yesterday morning was a clear overview of what I’d been doing for the last twenty-four years of my life so that it actually made sense. Not as a random series of projects and events, but as a slow and steady working-out of what I have done in order to be myself in the particular place on Earth I have chosen to live. There in full sense-surround within my mind was revealed for the first time the saga of my being the person I am. It was my story and no one else’s. That’s what a few morning minutes of quietly attending to my own brain had on offer. My PowerPoint was to be an outward and visible sign of that inner vision, which I will summarize here as briefly as I can.

In keeping with my theme, I remember lying in bed in earlier days (before moving to Maine), my body sunk so low I hardly pushed up the covers—I barely existed, even to myself. I was the wrong person leading the wrong life in the wrong place. I couldn’t breathe; I was dying. I had to get out before the life was sucked out of me. [This was well before I knew I had celiac disease, and had had it my whole life.] The upshot was my fleeing to Maine—my mother’s homeland—to write my great book. I lived on a thirty-acre island my parents owned in undivided shares with two other families, in a cabin I’d built in the 1970s, and struggled to reinvent myself.

On Easter Sunday in 1987 I rowed across Taunton Bay to investigate the cloud of smoke I’d been watching for a week, every day shifting a little farther north. It looked like slash (piles of branches from felled trees) was burning, and I wanted to know why. I sensed that circumstances made me the only person who could see the smoke moving north—toward a productive eagle nest that had sent one, two, or three fledglings a year out over the bay for many years.

I found a developer and his crew running a road for a thirty-four-lot subdivision. He claimed not to know the course of the road went directly under the eagle nest. I walked 200 feet along Schoodic Overlook, 1987 the surveyor’s line—and there it was. You couldn’t miss it. I showed up at the planning board hearing on Schoodic Overlook subdivision. Seventeen spaghetti lots (long and thin to have acreage adequate to a summer home, and minimal shore-frontage to squeeze in as many lots as possible) bisected by the road, doubling the number of lots. Several didn’t have soils suitable for septic systems, so down-slope lotsSubdivision Nest pumped sewage uphill—in one case three lots feeding into one septic field. The nest was in lot 11, and an alternate nest built by the same pair of eagles was in a tall white pine on the shore of lot 9. Two eagle nests, the one on the shore producing three fledglings the year before. With surveying and woodswork going on around them, the eagles didn’t produce any eaglets in 1987. I joined with my cousin in opposing the subdivision, and when she dropped out, I went on alone. The development was approved, so I went to the appeals board, which voted I didn’t have standing. By then I had a pro-bono attorney, who filed in Superior Court. On the day that court ruled I did in fact have standing, a deal was announced by which The Nature Conservancy bought the land, enabling the developer to find a parcel with no resident eagles farther downeast, and the land was donated in the first Land for Maine’s Future grant (December 1988) to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to maintain as eagle breeding habitat.

Adrenalin pumping for months, I called a meeting of local residents in August 1987 to learn about starting a local land trust. The many who showed up decided to found Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which is thriving in much of Hancock County today. In opposing the subdivision, I got the reputation as being anti-development, so the next major event on the bay was a Penobscot Salmon Net Pen deliberate stealth operation to keep below my personal radar. In 1990, without any public notice, net pens for Atlantic salmon appeared in the bay courtesy of Penobscot Salmon Company in Franklin. I and others didn’t even know what they were. The entire operation was in place by then, the town colluding with the company to keep the project secret until it was a done deal. The operator’s plan was to cut the time it took to rear mature salmon by siting his pens in the sunny, sheltered, and unusually warm waters of Taunton Bay estuary on an outgoing summer tide. First came a hearing before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, at which I raised several issues regarding impacts on the bay. Again, I was cast with the opposition. The aquaculture operation was subsequently approved, the salmon put in the net pens to hasten their growth—only to die at the rate of 700 a day, killed by receding midsummer tides. Gearing up for the hearing, local residents founded Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB) “to organize citizens for the well-being of the bay and for its protection from all forms of degradation.” Recognizing that eelgrass provides both food and protective habitat for a great many estuarine species, I began a series of aerial overflights to produce a photographic record of the spread and density of eelgrass over the years, which I now conduct on an annual basis.

In 1999, when a replacement for the “Singing Bridge” over Taunton River on Route 1 (the open mesh deck hummed when cars crossed it) was in the works, the then president of Friends of Taunton Bay feared larger boats rigged for bottom dragging would enter the bay, putting eelgrass at risk. The old bridge Singing Bridge had a ten-foot clearance at high tide; the new bridge twice that amount. FTB presented testimony at a hearing before the state Marine Resources Committee in Augusta, asking that such vessels be banned. I presented slides ostensibly showing effects of dragging on eelgrass beds years before. The Maine Legislature voted for a dragging moratorium to sunset in New Bridge five years, and assigned the Department of Marine Resources the job of evaluating potential impacts of dragging on eelgrass in Taunton Bay. That led to an intense program of research looking at eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, juvenile fish, and related issues. My role in the assessment was to track horseshoe crabs to determine their seasonal locations in the bay, and the habitats they occupied. I also initiated a pilot project in collaborative bay management to explore what a localized use-management effort might look like for Taunton Bay.

The report of the Taunton Bay Assessment recommended continuation of the prohibition on unrestricted bottom dragging, and development of a science-based comprehensive resource management plan to sustain the ecological workings of the bay. The man who asked me to present at the upcoming Wildlife Society meeting had conducted the assessment and made those recommendations. The assessment report was presented to the committee that approved the moratorium, and the committee approved the recommended resource management plan, which included provision for a local group to advise the Commis-sioner of Marine Resources on harvesting of marine resources in Taunton Bay. I am one member of that advisory group. As a result, local bay management is a reality in Taunton Bay, a first in Maine, and as far as I know, in the nation.

Aside from being fully myself in doing these things, I have acted according to my lights, strengthening actively used synapses, diminishing underutilized others, changing connections in my brain and the nature of my mind—all by putting my body where my values are, and paying good attention to what my body and unconscious mind have to tell me. Not in so many words, but the messages are there when I wake up, like glass milk bottles used to show up on the back steps when I was growing up. Open the kitchen door and there they’d be.

Living through Schoodic Overlook subdivision, salmon aquaculture pens in the bay, the dragging moratorium, the assessment, the comprehensive resource management plan, the Taunton Bay advisory group—has made me who I am. Preparing to speak at public hearings,  and to act effectively in my local world, I have reinvented myself as the man I am today. We are all unique to begin with, and further refine our uniqueness by the particular actions we take and lives we lead. All made possible by our conscious and unconscious minds as they not only enable, but keep up with our ongoing engagements with the unique life worlds we inhabit.

From early electrical and radio days, we use the metaphor of “wiring” in talking about the complex neural networks of our brains as enablers of our actions and our minds. But that is too rigid an image, suggesting soldered connections that never change, and can’t change themselves. The brain is a biological system—the most complex object in the known universe—which no corporation has yet patented (though I am sure those days are coming). Our neurons are living cells which respond to the circumstances of their existence by strengthening or weakening their myriad interconnections, or forming new connections—or dying off if neglected. And it is our activity that determines the state of our minds, which in turn reflect what we actually do with our bodies. It is no accident my PowerPoint for the wildlife folks is based on the particular events I have been involved in for the last twenty-four years. It includes images of 12 invertebrates, 14 fish, 16 mammals, 50 people, and 54 birds, along with others of settings, habitats, plants, and charts I have dealt with—such dealings as I have grown into and interacted with in the recent course of my life.

Growing and interacting are better metaphors for the way our electro-chemical minds really work. Our cells either stay in touch, or drift apart. Consciousness is a hands-on operation, a matter of axons working with dendrites where they connect at synapses, preparing the way for ionic and chemical flows more fundamental than copper wires allow. It isn’t done for us; we do it ourselves. Unwittingly, yes, but willingly and even willfully through what we do in daily life. In truth, we invent ourselves as we go, both physically and mentally, by performing what we actually do in making a life for ourselves. Where our body is, the routines we go through—that is exactly what we learn. “You are what you eat” is true only for those who dedicate their lives to watching TV, videos, films, and other passive diversions. For the rest of us, we are what we do because doing is what structures our brains and our minds to do more of the same in the future—only better.

Before we get distracted by other concerns, fifteen minutes a day paying attention to what our most recent brain activity has accomplished overnight is all it takes to stay abreast of ourselves. We springboard higher and higher based on our cumulative mental activity as told by the changing connections in our brains. Our looping engagement with this place where we are on the Earth is the master teacher. That inner guide is far more compelling and effective than any author or professor. Instead of hitting the books, it is more rewarding to learn the lessons from what we did yesterday as revealed in the thoughts that greet us as we wake to a new day. Then, getting out of bed, we enter that day as new men and women better equipped to improve the lives we actually lead, not the lives others would have us lead for their benefit.

Unfurl like a squash blossom

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Last Friday I watched the first episode in the TV series Charlie Rose is putting together about Understanding the Brain. Sit a group of experts around a table, all coming from different perspectives, and you get a poker game with each player being an expert on his own hand, striving to outdo everyone else and take the whole pot. One plays the memory card, someone else the neural underpinnings of consciousness, followed by the social underpinnings, or the genetic underpinnings, then on to brain pathology, levels of brain functioning, round and round, hand after hand. Who wins? It all depends on how you look at the brain, and talk about the brain, and bluff your way by trying to convince the rest that you hold the answer they’ve all been looking for.

I have a game like that floating in my head all the time. Writing my blog or teaching an adult ed class, I have to decide what’s really important to know about consciousness, how it all fits together, how it relates to the brain, to behavior, to childhood development, to life experience, to evolution, to genetics, and so on. How do I lay my understanding of conscious out for others to grasp and compare with their own? Blogging and teaching, I have to engage my audience, not stuff my particular views down their throats. It all has to make sense, or if not, at least point in a direction that seems plausible.

When your conscious mind looks at itself—at its own hand—and is not at all sure what consciousness is, or even what the possibilities are, then the problem is doubly compounded and the best thing to do is fold to cut your losses. Sure, know thyself, but don’t try too hard because it’ll drive you nuts. That’s the feeling I had watching Charlie Rose and his panel of brain experts. Which is similar to the feelings I sometimes have while blogging and teaching about consciousness.

Fortunately, one aspect of consciousness is its flexibility, which allows for improvement and self-correction. Old synapses can be abandoned or strengthened, new ones encouraged. So when I feel I’m not getting my point across, I review my situation and try to see how I can do better. After posting 154 essays on aspects of consciousness, together with teaching my recent adult ed class, I offer a few thoughts intended to unclutter and refocus my mind so in future games I can play similar hands better.

Resolved 1:  Put consciousness in a context of alternative ways to bridge from sensory input to action in the world; that is, show how reflexes, habits, rote learning, and assumptions offer other paths to action with more immediate results at a cost of much less mental effort than required to sustain full-blown consciousness.

Resolved 2:   Remember, since the point of consciousness is effective action in the world, the mind must be seated in the brain somewhere near where sensory inputs connect to motor planning areas—between, say, an incoming pole on the lower side of the temporal lobe near where faces and objects are recognized, and an outgoing pole in the lateral prefrontal cortex where working memory translates sensory inputs into motor responses—an area encompassing cingulate and entorhinal cortices, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, midbrain reticular formation, and mediodorsal thalamic nucleus. Though the entire cerebral cortex may contribute to consciousness, the mind seems to comes together between the two poles I have mentioned.

Resolved 3:   In everything we do, our values, feelings, and past experiences (memories) moderate the tension between the poles of perception and action. Reflexes, on the other hand, produce hardwired responses that would be slowed and made ineffective if we had to think about it when, say, sand or liquid is thrown in our face. Consciousness develops over time, so is much slower to produce a bodily response. Values come into play, that set of salient priorities which promote our adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Feelings give a positive or negative tone to the occasion, alerting us to reach out or be on our guard. And memories of past occasions suggest what we might do (or avoid doing) in light of our history of past successes and failures. Where perception and motor planning intersect, values, feelings, and memories are in the vicinity, ready to influence our judgment.

Resolved 4:   Neural correlates of conscious (NCC) aside, the mind is situated in the brain, the brain in the body, the body in a family within a community within one human culture or another, and that culture within the habitats and ecosystems constituting a region within the biosphere of planet Earth. It is often hard to tell which combination of our several layered environments influences us as any one time. It is safe to assume that, one way or another, all of them are impinging on us all of the time. We are creatures of the whole—of Earth, our region, our culture, our community, our family, our body, our brain, and our mind. How we treat any one of them always comes back to us as a sure sign of how we regard (or disregard) ourselves.

Resolved 5:  It is good to remember that consciousness is autobiographical. The history of any one person represents the history of a good portion of the Earth, including plants, animals, watersheds, and cultural communities.

Resolved 6:   Too, our every conscious act reflects our state of mind, which in turn affects every layer we are embedded within. In acting for ourselves, we act for our families, communities, and the living Earth as a whole. We are made of Earth stuff, and can’t help enacting it every day of our lives.

Resolved 7:   Where consciousness is, unconsciousness is not far away. In a very real sense, the goal of consciousness is twofold: 1) to solve problems that affect our survival, and 2) to build facility in solving similar problems so we don’t have to work so hard next time we face a similar situation. That’s why high school English teachers assign term papers, so in college and at work we don’t find writing reports as daunting as we did the first time. In that sense, the role of consciousness is to convert the stages of a complex project into an automatic (that is, unconscious) routine in order to save time, energy, and a great deal of worry. As William James put it in 1890:

We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work (Principles of Psychology, page 122, italics deleted).

Resolved 8:   Regard the history of human works as a reflection of the history of human consciousness. Every work of the human hand is a work of the mind before that. We are revealed to the world, not by good intentions, but by what we plan and bring about. Action suited to our life situation is the goal of consciousness. Nothing can have more survival value than that. Growing rice, corn, wheat, and other grains is an act of will. Milling them into flour is an act of will. Baking bread is an act of will. All so we can break bread together and be grateful to be alive and receive the gifts of the Earth. Poems and songs serve the same end.

Resolved 9:   Beware the powerful, for they are out to shape our endeavors and our minds to their advantage. Buy this, they tell us; Do that; Vote as we tell you; Trust us, we are your friends. All the rest of us need to do is retire our minds and let them make our decisions for us. Those who control our culture create an infrastructure allowing them to think for us and control our minds. Their goal is to be alive in our stead, to steal our life’s energy so that we must work for them, not ourselves. Free will is the prerogative of the arrogant. Our job (they tell us) is to obey. When the infrastructure of our minds bears their trademark—and it amazes me how often that is true—we are lost to ourselves. Freedom is freedom to think for oneself. To surrender that privilege (it is no inherent right) is to surrender to slavery on behalf of The Controllers, who are happy to co-opt our privilege. Fox News, for example, is not just standing by but actively reaching into our brains to implant its alien new world. As Eric Alterman writes in The Nation of November 9 (page 10):

Fox is not a news organization; it is a propaganda outlet, and an extremist one at that. Is it any wonder that according to survey after survey, Fox News viewers are among the worst informed Americans when it comes to politics, despite their obsessive interest? A recent study by Democracy Corps finds that this audience believes “Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives,” with the ultimate goal of “the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.”

The scary thing is that in our own little world, we are the powerful, and it is ourselves we must beware lest we mistake the way the world seems for the way the world really is. Irony of ironies, our own values determine what kind of world we discover around us. We paint that world to our liking, or more often, disliking. Cultural values—religious, political, economic, military, social—make us who we are and set how we act and react. Yet our values are invisible to ourselves and, instead of reflecting how we were raised and our earlier experiences, seem to be properties of the world itself. This tragic error is the root cause of the misjudgments rampant in today’s world. We blame others for our disaffection, and determine to eliminate them as the “cause” of our discomfort.

Resolved 10:   In order to understand consciousness, look to the culture in which it is immersed. And vice versa, to understand culture, study the consciousness of one who is embroiled in it. It is difficult to tell where culture leaves off and consciousness begins. The language we speak is the one we are born to. The gestures we make, the tools we use, the work we do, the manners and ways we take into our personal selves as our very own—are cultural in origin. Every member of a particular culture or subculture shares in similar repertoires of values, and is apt to express some variation on those values. The ways we prepare food, eat, dress, dance, entertain ourselves, make love—are ours largely through imitating or learning from others. We are distinctly ourselves, yet at the same time suppress our uniqueness in order to resemble our companions. We personally exemplify the ways of our culture in almost everything we do, think, and believe. At the same time, we contribute our uniqueness to the texture that makes our culture what it is. It is of us, we are of it. Loops of engagement carry us into the cultural world, and the cultural world into us. The reality we find is an extension of our conscious life; the two feed into each other as if parts of an endless Mobius band feeding into itself. Religion gives us our cultural god, who we then make responsible for creating the natural Earth, which clearly emerged billions of years before anything like culture existed in the human mind. Strange business, yet business as usual because we don’t discriminate very well between the cultural and the natural—between what we make happen and what makes us happen in the first place.

Resolved 11:   Finally, be clear that the basis of good and evil is in us, not the world. Our memories come in two sorts, those giving us pleasure and those causing pain. We have soothing dreams, and nightmares. Our feelings come in pairs of opposites: happiness/sadness, love/hate, confidence/fear, triumph/failure, and all the rest. Our minds color everything that happens either positively or negatively, making sure that whatever happens, we remember it for better or for worse. The world is the world, its seeming goodness or badness depending on how we seize it and take it into ourselves. Similarly, integration and differentiation are built into consciousness—putting things together or taking them apart. Induction and deduction are aspects of mind, moving from the sensory, specific, concrete, and detailed toward the conceptual, generic, abstract, and schematic—and back the other way. And we distinguish between chords and melodies because the qualities of simultaneity and succession are built into our sensory apparatus. Too, relative motions in the world are told by the brain, which for survival’s sake struggles to distinguish personal motions from those of others, the difficulty being that sometimes it’s ours, sometimes the others’, and sometimes both are moving at the same time. Dancing is possible because there’s a beat to the music, and both partners key their moves to that rhythm. Without such a frame of reference, the brain searches for clues to help it decide how to act when everything, for whatever reason, is in flux. We may think it trivial to distinguish our own motions from those of other objects and beings, but if you’ve ever sat in a railway car and compared the relative motion of your car and the one on the track next to you without being able to tell which train is moving, then you’ve had the giddy experience of (your brain) not being able to say whether you are moving ahead (without a giveaway jolt) or the other is silently sliding to the rear.

Reverting to my earlier metaphor, it’s not the hand we are dealt that determines our fate, but how we choose to play it. Consciousness is as consciousness does—as we make it happen. Up till now, those thought to understand how consciousness works have tended to use that knowledge for their personal advancement. Think politics, education, advertising, public relations—think John B. Watson, inventor of behaviorism. It is crucial that the workings of consciousness become widely studied and eventually known, so enabling people everywhere to act advisedly on their own—and their common culture’s—behalf.

Consciousness of Nature

Reflection 50: Cleavage

January 16, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I am walking up Holland Avenue in the middle of the road because the sidewalks have not been plowed since the last storm. A strong northwest wind is bringing arctic air down from Canada. I watch my footing because the road is so icy. Looking up briefly, I see a man’s back as he scrapes the side of the house at the end of the street, moving side to side, pressing his body against whatever tool he holds in both hands. I’ve done that when sanding. Cold day for that kind of work. Looking down, I pick my way between patches of ice. Fifty feet farther on, I look up again. The man is gone, replaced by a man-sized cedar tree blowing back and forth in the wind. It even has shoulders where its spire spreads out into branches.

 

From November through April, I love Bar Harbor. Just another small village on the edge of the bay. No cars to speak of, hardly any walkers. Schools and banks are open, the library, post office, and two movie theaters, but most stores and restaurants are closed. A few fly the snowflake flag declaring themselves open for business, but there are even fewer tourists to take them up on the offer. It’s just us locals, happy to have our town to ourselves for the duration.

 

The other half of the year is a different story. That’s when cars and buses and RVs and cruise ships flock to town. Everyone wears shorts, even people who shouldn’t even dream of wearing shorts. Varicose veins on parade. Pink, hammy thighs, Venus-of-Willendorf bottoms stretching the limits of modesty. And, too, breasts of all sizes, belly buttons, and cleavage come to town. Not only do they spill onto the streets, but they are displayed for maximum visibility. Guys tend to all look the same, cut from the same brownish-gray fabric, outfitted with sneakers, baseball cap, shades, ill-fitting T-shirt. Their function is to carry the money. The gals’ job is to make themselves attractive while they spend it.

 

But back to cleavage. What is it about cleavage that so sticks in my mind for a couple of seconds until the next candidate comes into view? My personal consciousness has special sections for wildlife, books on the brain, and cleavage. My mother had her cleavage, my partner has hers, as, to one degree or another, does every female of the species once her hormones start flowing. You’d think by now I’d have gotten used to it so my brain cells could move on to philosophy, say, or aesthetics. Which is the study of beauty, and that brings me right back to cleavage. There’s no getting away from it.

 

Cleavage is an outward and visible sign of vaginas, ovaries, and eggs—in a word, fertility. Cleavage, I learned in school, is a secondary sex characteristic. Seen that way, it is just another physical attribute, subject to a wide range of variation. But an attribute with a difference. Men don’t have cleavage, unless you count the gap between well-developed pectoral muscles. Men do have nipples of a sort, useless ones, proving they are a variation on the female body plan rather than vice versa. But men don’t have cleavage per se, up front and personal.

 

What men have is—no, not cleavage envy—but a lust for cleavage. Let me rephrase that: I can’t speak for anyone but myself. I have a deep appreciation for cleavage. Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sexist writing is politically incorrect these days, but I’m here to declare there are fundamental differences between men and women that need to be talked about since we have to live with them every day. Cleavage, cleavage, cleavage. There, I’ve said it. Long may it wave! Long may breasts wave, vaginas, ovaries, and eggs. Without them there’s be no babies because word would get out how much work, time, and money it takes to raise them to adulthood. As long as there is cleavage, however, there will be reproductive sex, and babies will be born. That’s one of consciousness’ main jobs. If it wasn’t, none of us would be here today.

 

In some cultures, women are hidden under wraps so their cleavage may be inferred but is never explicitly on view. Until it’s too late, that is—until the bearer is undressed and sex is precisely the issue. That creates a different form of consciousness, consciousness that must make the most of very few clues—such as an exposed toe or ankle, or a burqa pressed by the wind against the lithe body within. And leads to customs such as allowing temporary marriages for dalliances and on-the-job training.

 

Regarding sex, consciousness handles the aesthetics while unconsciousness tends to arousal and the details of execution. Just as, in the case of nourishment, consciousness enjoys colors and flavors while unconsciousness makes sure that food gets properly digested. Consciousness makes both food and sex appealing, setting the stage for unconsciousness to see to the biology of making babies and maintaining metabolisms. Centerfolds and cookbook photography appeal directly to the conscious mind: Doesn’t that look tempting! But it takes the unconscious mind to get bodily processes past mere enticement to the reproductive payoff that vertebrate genes have achieved so successfully for over 300 million years.

 

Consciousness is just the surface of a pond whose depths remain hidden and mysterious. Once allurement leads us to take the plunge, consciousness gives way to unconscious processes that accomplish deeds far beyond what we may have in mind. Which suggests that we belong to consciousness more than it belongs to us. The art of living is largely a matter of deciding how readily to do the mind’s bidding. Beyond that, connoisseurship (enjoying the view for its own sake with a certain detachment) requires learning how to stop short of taking that fateful plunge into the depths of the unconscious.

 

I’ve never heard it said, but any time of year, Bar Harbor is a great place for the human mind to witness its own consciousness in action. But so is every other town. Look at what Sherwood Anderson found in Winesburg, Ohio. There goes Doc, writing great thoughts on pieces of paper, stuffing them into his pockets, where he rolls them between his fingers into little balls as he makes his rounds, only to dispense them onto the side of the road like so many paper pills. Life is the story consciousness tells us as we make our rounds. It’s worth paying attention to else we might think we have to get somewhere special while the entire spectacle is within us the whole time right where we are.

 

¦

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I once spoke at a wedding, advising those assembled to lead an original life. I was addressing the happy couple, but spread the word more broadly. The couple had a child in short order, but she soon found out he was a druggie and of little use, so she divorced him. It is harder to be original when coupled with a demanding other than by yourself. Even so, it is never easy to deliberately and consciously live your own life.

 

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Which I wholeheartedly endorse. At first as well as last, your consciousness is your most valuable possession. Let others lead their lives while you tend to yours. They will be full of advice as to how you should go about it. Listen, but then trust your own judgment and inspiration. Yes, you will make mistakes, but the main thing to be sure of is they are your own mistakes so there’s no one else to blame. That way your learning will belong to you.

 

Which sounds like a retread of a moral tract worn smooth. But I intend it as a spur to creativity, not conformity. Our value to one another is in our originality, not our sameness. If we were composed of interchangeable parts, we would be robots and live interchangeable lives. But that’s not how it is. Each of us has something to add to the world. For proof, look to the blogosphere. All those voices in the wilderness, no two alike. Offering their wares, thoughts, opinions, feelings—whatever they care about. To dismiss them is to miss the point. They are trying to make it happen, whatever it is. Every blogger has his or her private agenda. Blogs are like sunspots: they erupt from the inside.

Which is why we are a mass of damp protoplasm run through with strands of sinew and muscle wrapped around a core of consciousness and unconsciousness. We are here to make things happen in our current situation, the circumstances that in practical terms make up our personal world. The world that counts for us because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.

In a world where others usually make things happen to us, how do we do that—make things happen inside-out? By using consciousness to our advantage. By pushing our mental worlds as far as they can go in framing our projects, whatever they may be. That is, laying the groundwork. Starting with the known and familiar of firsthand experience and heading toward the unknown and strange. Then letting go, trusting our mysterious unconscious to show us the way from there.

That is how I have written every blog in this series. I start with a small hunch or smattering of experience, and head out from there. I seldom know where I am going. There’s no outline, not even a goal. But I am heading somewhere for sure; it’s just I don’t yet realize my own destination. By jotting down keywords and phrases, then concentrating on filling in the gaps along the way, I get somewhere at least. Then I back off and let my other half take over—my unconscious mind. It already knows where I’m heading and helps me along, extending and completing what consciousness has been able to do on its own.

Consciousness and unconsciousness are flip sides of the same self. We are familiar with one; the other we don’t know, even though they are both flesh of the same flesh. The two work together, one in full view (on camera), the other in the shadows. You know this full-immersion approach is working once your project bubbles over into your dreams and dreamlike thoughts at 3:00 a.m. You’ve got to consciously prime the pump by throwing yourself into the project. Then let your unconscious carry you from there. One of life’s greatest discoveries is that it always will.

Before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head in October 1962, JFK carried on a secret, frank—and very unofficial—correspondence with Russian Premier Khrushchev, the two leaders comparing notes on their visions for what amounted to the future of the world. It was the mutual respect and understanding generated by this exchange that laid the groundwork of trust for the solution to the crisis when Russia removed its missiles from Cuba in exchange for removal of US missiles from Turkey. Without those backchannel letters that, once made public, outraged the military-industrial power structure so beloved of the CIA, the crisis likely would have festered into World War III and an exchange of nuclear missiles. (The full story is told in James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable, Orbis Books, 2008.)

Our conscious and unconscious minds work as a team, exchanging data and feedback by channels we are completely unaware of—until a full-blown solution is announced. When I wrote during my island retreat in 1986-1988, I would often come to a block, which I took as a hint to go for a hike. Walking on snowshoes through the woods, my attention kept pace with the rhythm of my legs, but I stayed clear of the blockage that send me out. Until, after forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw through the obstacle to the landscape beyond. I just had to give my unconscious mind time to sort through the problem and come up with the answer that lay just out of reach. Which it did, invariably.

Consciousness frames the problem; unconsciousness works it through. If I (my conscious self) does its part, my twin (covert self) will finish the job. That way, I somewhat control my own output. I make conscious suggestions based on experience and research; my silent twin rounds out the whole. Both are in the same loop; I’m the one who knows only half of what’s going on. My unconscious half knows the rest. It’s a great feeling to discover the full picture spreading before me. After my hike, I pick up where I left off as if there’d been no break at all.

You don’t have to hike to give your unconscious time to work. You can listen to music, dance, stretch—any nonstressful activity will do. You can even take a nap or go to sleep. Your unconscious twin will stay at the helm.

The key to living an original life is doing your part the best you can, then trusting your shadow self to carry on while you do something else. You’ve got to prepare, practice, rehearse, mull, write drafts, and so on. There is no way you can avoid doing your share of the work. And doing it again, and again. This is your life; your task is to live it. After a while, you will so internalize what your are striving for that your unconscious self—which is as original as you are—will pitch in and give you a hand.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of the way. That is, forget what others are telling you and listen to what your mind and your body are trying to tell you. As Emerson put it in Self-Reliance: “Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

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