Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

If, as I claim, wildness is subjective (phenomenological), so, too, are happiness and its pursuit. Feelings and values are not in the world but in our minds. In fact, the world, insofar as we can be aware of it, is in us, along with everything else we can experience. We are not born to a world so much as born to ourselves.

What the world does supply is patterns of ambient energy, many of which we come to recognize as familiar, and to which we give names. And not only names (to single them out), but meanings in relation to our memories of personal experience, so we come to understand (stand under or support) those familiar patterns in personal ways. We lay meanings on the patterns we associate them with, making it seem as though that significance came with the patterns (as information), but actually the patterns elicit it from our memory of earlier patterns we have experienced and named in particular situations. Which is why someone speaking to me in Russian, say, or Arabic may believe she is telling me something, while I (a speaker solely of English) hear only the sounds she makes (the patterns of energy issuing from her lips) without the meanings she associates with those sounds.

Learning a language means learning to associate personal meanings with particular sound combinations directed by members of our culture at us on specifiable occasions, which we translate or construe as personally meaningful situations. It is how we understand those situations that is mapped onto the recognizable sounds that we hear, so that the situation conveys the meaning we come to link to the speech sounds we hear on that occasion.

Speech, that is, is made up from both a public and a private component, one a patterned flow of energy as speech sounds, and the other a sense of the currents of mental activity within us that accompanies our hearing of those sounds. Putting the public and private components together, we “hear” meaningful speech.

How wild is that? Unruly or whimsical enough that each person present when a certain utterance is made may take it differently (that is, personally) although each assumes they all speak the same language.

Only by smoothing the differences between our individual streams of experience through rote repetition and iron discipline do we ever approach speaking and understanding somewhat similar languages. It is far easier to assume we all speak the same language than to accept the idiosyncratic nature of the language-learning process. Which is why there is so much misunderstanding between us, because we don’t hear what is said to us in the same way it is spoken, much less speak truly for our inner selves.

Nothing is wilder than the nonsense we spout when we don’t monitor our own efforts at speech. We often seem to say one thing but mean something quite different, particularly when we try to please our audience by saying what we think they want to hear. Hard as it is, sticking to the facts of personal experience is best, along with listening carefully to what others say in response.

The problem is that so-called facts are a blend of public sounds and personal meanings, so are seldom as clear as we want them to be. One approach is to say what we said again in different words, then to be open to whatever response comes back, and to keep trying in the spirit of true dialogue between equals.

Wild words often miss their mark if the passions behind them, the fears and desires, are suppressed or lead to unintended consequences. If we were the rational beings we claim to be, we’d speak the true every time, but we aren’t and we don’t. Rationality is a myth, or at best an ideal we aspire to but seldom attain.

Instead of blaming others for the troubles of the world, we do better to get clear in our minds what we want to accomplish, then remake the world one person at a time, one engagement at a time. When words are involved, we have to remember that words don’t contain meanings so much as suggest them to other minds having unique habits of speech. It takes time and effort to reconcile differences in personal outlook and understanding in even the simplest situation. “Hi, how are you?” opens onto a spectrum of possible responses. The color of the reply is not ours to predict.

Interpersonal engagements are not set pieces so much as voyages of exploration and discovery. We send our words into the world to see where they take us. Life has but one destination; the route we take in arriving there makes all the difference.

It is good to remember how wild words can be, especially in tense situations. On that note I’ll sign off for now. Y’r brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

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Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2009)

The “It” in the title refers to my understanding of my personal consciousness as made up of various processes which I am able to identify through self-reflective experience. In the order they come to mind (not the order in which they kick in), they include:

1. Arousal informs me I am more awake than asleep, definitely not in a stupor or coma.

2. Alertness seems to be an attitude preparing me for paying attention. I sense something’s up—or might be up.

3. Attention is a kind of outreach I direct or extend via my senses—looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, touching, or heeding what my body has to tell me. Attending to comes before consciousness of. That is, expectancy precedes its fulfillment in perception.

4. Expectancy is a kind of pre-viewing or pre-engagement made possible by my point of view at the time as informed by my values, interests, concerns, and feelings. Expectancy is situational in that it arises from what has gone before, in either the immediate or remote past. Memory is clearly involved in projecting the familiar onto the current scene of the now. Expectancy is largely abstract (less detailed than actual perception) and conceptual, that is, derived from a set of earlier perceptions, but lacking the concrete particulars of any one of them.

5. Fulfillment of expectancy (or not, as the case may be) is a flash of recognition by which the object of my attention is identified as that which I was looking for, so that consciousness acquires intentionality in being consciousness of . . . one thing or another. Specific details in the now give substance to the abstract envelope of expectancy as if the two aspects of consciousness—abstract expectation and concrete perception —came together in a fulfilling, mutual engagement.

6. That engagement has a quality of salience representing the degree to which my motivated expectancy (hopes, fears, desires) is being met in the current episode of awareness—at an appropriate level of discernment. Enabling me to make a judgment confirming or disconfirming this is what I was looking for, or had in mind in the first place.

7. The comings together of concepts and percepts lead to a sense of understanding, of my self standing under (supporting) this new instance of consciousness, taking it in, reaffirming my grasp of (or relationship to) the world, conveying a sense of my being of that world, providing a strong sense of affirmation that my grasp is appropriate to my situation.

8. If my expectations are fulfilled in a new or surprising way, then surprise and novelty play roles in consciousness, stretching my understanding in order to accommodate or incorporate an instance I did not anticipate, challenging or perhaps enlarging my understanding. This gives me the option of fulfilling my expectations by habitual application of a tried-and-true response to account for, discredit, or dismiss this unanticipated episode of experience. Or, on the other hand, of opening myself up to new experience in such a way that expands my grasp of the current situation. (Note: This is what I was laboring over in my last post, Reflection 151: Error Signals, that effort prompting me to simplify the matter and place it in context in today’s reflection.)

9. All of which can culminate in new learning, or reaffirmation of my prior understanding. At this stage, clearly, memory is involved. Earlier synaptic connections are affirmed, or perhaps an effort to establish new ones as a basis for improving the effectiveness of my actions in the world is made possible.

10. All leading up to reaffirming or improving my being in the world through planning leading to effective action by equipping me to make myself happen more aptly in light of my circumstances, which is the point of being conscious in the first place.

In the order I present them here, that’s: arousal, alertness, attention, expectancy, fulfillment, salience, understanding, novelty, learning, and action. In addition, I would stress the roles of perception, conception, and memory as major players in consciousness, for a baker’s dozen of topics to whirl in the mind much as jugglers whirl Indian clubs in the air. Any scientist of the mind could probably double or triple that number, but that’s as many as seem particularly relevant to me today in keeping this reflection as straightforward as I can make it.

Consciousness as a Machine, by Rube Goldberg

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Medical care seems centered more on appointments than patients these days. Without an appointment you are without care, it’s as simple as that. You have ten minutes to state your symptoms. Hello, my name is Thursday at 8:15. Administrative concerns are driving patients right out of the system. Who cares about patients? The wellbeing of the system is all. That’s how it feels.

I have had three or four bouts with a dermatologist this past winter. Each time I’ve walked out of his office with names of new salves, lotions, ointments, emollients to buy and rub on my body—all to no effect. I bought two humidifiers to raise the water content of the air in my apartment, which made lots of noise 24 hours a day, but didn’t ease my eczema.

I asked what caused my rash. The dermatologist said he wasn’t sure. I asked what eczema was, and he said blood vessels under the skin get inflamed, making the skin red, hot, and itchy. Why do they get inflamed? He couldn’t say.

What he did know was how to prescribe expensive chemicals to rub on my body in an effort to treat the symptoms if not the cause of my trouble. It all sounded like peddling snake oil to me. One prescription for VANOS(TM) 0.1% cream cost over $400 (medical insurance cutting my cost to $92). This was to temporarily reduce the symptoms without curing the underlying cause. But the precautions that came with the prescription read (in tiny, tiny type) partly:

General: Systemic absorption of topical cortico-steroids can produce reversible hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression with the potential for glucocorticosteroid insufficiency after withdrawal of treatment. Manifestations of Cushing’s syndrome, hyperglycemia, and glucosuria can also be produced in some patients by systemic absorption of topical corticosteroids while on treatment.

Patients applying a topical steroid to a large surface area or to areas under occlusion should be evaluated periodically for evidence of HPA-axis suppression. This may be done by using cosyntropin (ACTH1-24) stimulation testing. Patients should not be treated with VANOS(TM) Cream for more than 2 weeks at a time and only small areas should be treated at any time due to the increased risk of HPA axis suppression.

With a history of skin problems (I have celiac disease which showed up as a persistent rash that lasted for years), I told both the pharmacist and dermatologist I felt I would be an idiot to spread that stuff on my body. The pharmacist said it was the accepted treatment for eczema, and had been for 20 years. He wouldn’t take it back.

In the end, with help from Wikipedia, I cured my eczema by myself. When first diagnosed, I’d looked eczema up and found that entry shed no light on my problem. But after seven months I tried again, and found the whole section had been rewritten and greatly expanded. Reading through it, I found a passing mention that nuts could cause a skin rash diagnosed as eczema. Allergic to peanut butter, I had taken to cashew butter, but at $10 a jar, I looked for something cheaper. A pound of unsalted, organic cashews cost $3 less, so I went for those. During the winter, a pound lasted me a week and a half. In seven months, I accounted for a heap of cashews. So the instant I read that article in Wikipedia, I gave them up. In three days my rash was gone.

What does this sad little story have to do with consciousness? It highlights the difference between my consciousness of living with a painful rash night and day for over half a year, the pharmacist’s consciousness of making a living from the suffering of people like myself, and the doctor’s consciousness of being a go-between with the pharmaceutical industry on one hand and the suffering public on the other, a public whose symptoms he is happy to treat, as long as they meet him on his terms in his office and don’t pester him between appointments. Me, I felt like a rat running an electrified maze to see how long I could stand the shocks.  

It is my nature to try to understand why things are as they are. To me, eczema, God, the universe, and human consciousness are all the same: mysteries to be investigated and—as far as possible—understood. I don’t know very much about any one thing, but I do have an inquiring mind. And once I get on a case, I stick with it until it makes sense to me. Everything that runs through my mind for whatever reason is an opportunity for greater understanding. Even the quirks of my own body and mind. Especially the quirks of my own body and mind. I am the single aspect of the universe I have the best opportunity to observe, and through observation over a long enough period of time, to understand.

I had a somewhat similar experience with an earlier rash that claimed my body 20 years ago. I went through the same routine, going to various doctors, finding a dermatologist in Bangor, rubbing an assortment of lotions and ointments on my skin—all to no avail. My rash had a will of its own. After years of ineffective treatment, the dermatologist removed a chunk of skin for a biopsy, and the diagnosis came back: Dermatitis herpetiformis. What causes that? An irritant that collects in the skin. And that was it. Now I had a fancy name for my ailment. To learn that secret Latin name cost me three thousand dollars, the price of joining the fraternal order of jackasses. But as an initiate I got no privileges beyond the right to flaunt those two words.

Which paid off ten years later when I got access to the Internet in 1997, the Web was being developed, and search engines offered the perfect interface between jackasses like me and those in the know. Working part-time for the National Park Service, I had a computer on my desk. When that computer got connected to the Web, I typed the magic words into NetCrawler—which hooked me up to a site at St. John’s University that said in effect, Dermatitis herpetiformis is caused by celiac disease, and celiac disease is an immune response to the gluten content of wheat.

I’ve been gluten-free for 12 years now. Ingesting gluten caused the villi in my intestine to lie flat so they couldn’t absorb calcium (among other minerals and nutrients), which caused all kinds of havoc in my bones, teeth, and nervous system. The human brain runs on calcium ions crossing membranes in every neuron, making action potentials possible, letting the brain get on with its work. Until I was sixty-five—the year I retired—my brain never worked as I wanted it to. I had inklings what it could do, but it just laid down and died when my expectations were too high.

Is it any wonder why I put my working brain out in full public view on the Web in this blog? I have used the Web twice to find answers to serious problems. There are answers to be found if you hit on the right source. It took me a lifetime to find that out, so now I’m trying to shorten the wait in regard to questions about consciousness that introspection can explore. Not that I have answers, but I do have a drive to pursue questions, and I’ve still got some days of hot pursuit in me yet.

As I see it, the world is not so much a monument to humanity’s great accomplishments as it is a great big question mark. And our job is not to flaunt how great we are but to get down to the hard work of answering important questions—especially those nobody has thought to ask till now because they weren’t in a position to ask. Such as diagnosing and treating the world’s ills, which are becoming more evident every day.

If our numbers and appetites are a problem not only for ourselves but for Earth itself, we’ve got to do something about them. I don’t see us making any headway until we ask the right questions in the right way in the right place. I am here to suggest that all problems that evade conscious scrutiny will remain problems until we engage them deliberately in full-frontal conscious investigations and deliberations.

If the narrow scope of human consciousness is the problem, then the solution depends on expanding the reach of consciousness until it embraces our human activities and impacts as a whole. One thing I am sure of, collectively we and our ways are the source of the problem. Until we can consciously deal with our unwitting complicity, we are shielding ourselves from questions that need to be asked.

Consciousness begins with a good challenge—a good question. After that, it will serve us well as long as we stay focused. Our cultural witch doctors can’t do our work for us. Let us examine ourselves firsthand so we can find our own cure!

?

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I live in one of the most beautiful stretches of the East Coast, the kind of place people move to when they retire. Here be mountains, lakes, woods, trails, streams, pounding surf, and wildlife. Here I live among eagles, purple finches, beavers, white-tailed deer, coyotes, snowshoe hares, deer mice, porcupines, harbor seals, and a host of other native inhabitants. My drinking water comes from the watershed of Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park, a watershed about as undeveloped as any this side of the Mississippi River. Intuition tells me this is a good place to live.

 

A great many others think so as well. They come from all over—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts—all seeking the promised land of their dreams. They sell their houses in the Land of Away and move to Maine. But then a funny thing happens. They become very sensitive to any sprawl or overdevelopment that might threaten their values and privacy. The feeling is unanimous: Pull up the drawbridge; Let no others trespass on this sacred ground.

 

There you have it—territoriality. I’ve got mine, but you can’t have yours! Not here, not now. No Trespassing signs spring out of the ground; motion detectors rise in every yard. This attachment to home turf is one of the most prominent features of consciousness. It even floods over into the games we play, many of which are territorial contests between those eternal rivals, the Home Team and aliens from Away. Think football, basketball, soccer, Monopoly, backgammon, chess, checkers, and many others. To win is to rule the field, the course, the board—all stand-ins for what really counts—the territory.

 

Robins define their boundaries, singing from the treetops, along with scarlet tanagers, mockingbirds, and every other bird, declaring, “I’ve got mine!” Which translates either as “Come and share it with me” (directed at females of the species), or “I’m warning you, keep away!” (directed at rival males). Coyotes mark their territories, as do wolves, foxes, dogs, cats, otters, and a great many other territorial animals. Including humans. We clean our houses, mow lawns, plant hedges, put up fences, and so on, all marking this one place on Earth as distinctively ours.

 

The whole concept of ownership, the basis of much of our law, is territorial. Our concepts of justice and fairness are based on territory—what’s mine and what’s yours. When we get paid for work we do, that paycheck belongs to us. We stash it in a bank account that is legally ours. Even when we go shopping we are claiming our own. Personal consciousness is at the forefront of such territorial issues. We are always alert to the need to defend what is ours against roving bands of light-fingered hooligans. Even street gangs are territorial. No, street gangs especially are territorial because their members have no real property to call their own; they have the conscious lust or urge to possess real property, but not the wherewithal.

 

Getting married, who does not have the thought, “Now I’ve got mine!” That first baby may arouse a similar feeling. The roots of slavery are much the same: I can’t do this on my own. So other lives are co-opted or taken by force, much as cattle are branded as private property. Many of our so-called human rights center on issues of property or territoriality. Right to life. Right to earn a living. Right to be free. Rights are claims that, when you make them, the state or community will back you up. So states are in the business of implementing and defending the dictates of consciousness. The drive to band together for mutual benefit is powerful magic.

 

When rival claims are made to the same territory, all hell is apt to break loose. It is on the basis of no whim that Palestinians and Israelis are locked in conflict, Palestinian consciousness and justification versus Israeli consciousness and justification. In Iraq, Kurds are fairly settled in the mountainous north, while Shiites and Sunnis have at one another over the issue of territory. These issues will never be resolved satisfactorily until each party holds sway over its own turf.

 

Sovereignty is at the heart of conflicts around the globe. Such conflicts erupt from personal consciousness when individuals act on the basis of their need to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level. As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The only solution is to reduce the human population in each territory to a level that it can provide for sustainably. Otherwise, the territorial struggle will go on. War will go on. Starvation will go on. Neglect and brutality will go on. Injustice will go on.

 

World violence is situational because human consciousness is situational. The battle is built into us. We can sing, “This land is my land, this land is your land,” only when the singers are a small group in a big land. When the land’s capacity to support life is neared, the singing will cease. The drawbridge will be raised, guns purchased, rockets aimed.

 

This is the brink of understanding to which the introspective study of consciousness can lead us. Must lead us if we are to work toward an effective solution. If there are too many of us consuming too many resources at too high a level of technology for too long a span, what are we going to do about the situation? For indeed that is the situation we have created for ourselves. No one did it to us. We are fully responsible. It is too late to blame anyone but ourselves.

 

In the current world situation, singing out “I’ve got mine!” isn’t good enough. Living on the backs of the helpless isn’t good enough. Winning the game of life isn’t good enough. Hogging resources isn’t good enough. Relying on conventional views of human consciousness isn’t good enough.

 

What needs to happen is that we’ve got to become conscious of one another so to release the inherent compassion we are capable of feeling for the tribe beyond our individual selves. The human tribe as one tribe among all tribes on Earth—all equally deserving of a fair run at survival.

 

Can we do it? If we can’t we are lost, indeed. We have no option but to heighten our consciousness and give it a try. We all know the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land:

 

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

 

But here’s the final verse:

 

In the squares of the city—In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office—I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me.

 

Now we know that the grumblin’ and wonderin’ was an early sign of the transformation in consciousness that is now so desperately needed. This land isn’t made for you and me, we are made to suit this land. That is what consciousness has to tell us, if only we will look into the matter. Stewardship—of our numbers, of this land, and of our claims to it—is the real issue.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.

 

In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.

 

Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.

 

Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.

 

The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.

 

“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”

 

Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.

 

Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.

 

Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.

 

I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.

 

Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.

 

The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.

 

Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.

 

In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?

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(Copyright © 2008)

Like Job, Samuel Pepys, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau would have been a blogger in his day if he’d had access to the Web. As it is, he took pencil and paper with him on his excursions through fields and woods, so logging the progress of his experiences from 1837 to 1862. As in Walden, Thoreau is ever witness to two worlds at once, both to his sensory world and his charged mindfulness of that world. On November 21, 1850, a month from the winter solstice with the sun shining at a slant to the landscape, he wrote:

 

Some distant angle in the sun where a lofty and dense white pine wood, with mingled gray and green, meets a hill covered with shrub oaks, affects me singularly, reinspiring me with all the dreams of my youth. It is a place far away, yet actual and where we have been.

 

In the next sentence he replays the image, trying to get it right:

 

I saw the sun falling on a distant white pine wood whose gray moss-covered stems were visible amid the green, in an angle where this forest abutted on a hill covered with shrub oaks. It was like looking into dreamland. It is one of the avenues to my future.

 

Which opens onto the following comment:

 

Certain coincidences like this are accompanied by a certain flash as of hazy lightning, flooding all the world suddenly with a tremulous serene light which it is difficult to see long at a time.

 

Perhaps he has been nibbling on certain mushrooms, but whatever the reason, on this day Thoreau’s consciousness is flooded as by hazy lightning, requiring great effort to couple the concrete being of the scene with the meaning he has to offer it as derived from his prior experience. Yet he is deeply moved. In fact, in the very next paragraph being and meaning become wholly decoupled and Thoreau finds himself at a loss for ready understanding of his world. He is wholly unprepared to stand under it on the basis of who he is. Which is not a bad thing because it leads to a profound insight into his relationship with the world.

 

I saw Fair Haven Pond with its island, and meadow between the island and the shore, and a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island, and two hawks, fish hawks perhaps, sailing over it. I did not see how it could be when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this. How adapted these forms and colors to my eye! A meadow and an island! What are these things? Yet the hawks and the ducks keep so aloof! and Nature is so reserved! I am made to love the pond and the meadow, as the wind is made to ripple the water.

 

I am converting Thoreau’s journal entry into a blog because it so clearly reveals the structure of conscious experience in balancing (or synchronizing) concrete sensory input with abstract or conceptual meaning supplied by the observer because that is how we are made. That is the essence of consciousness as selected for over the millions of years it has taken to evolve into the form we employ today. Indeed, each of us is made (has evolved) to understand the world she lives in precisely in terms of the life experiences she has accrued to this day. That balance, then, is the basis for extending our individual streams of consciousness into unknown tomorrows.

 

Above all, we are made to do all this with a strong feeling of love (or perhaps fear, yearning, hurt, anger, curiosity, etc.) that sets the tone for this particular excursion. In consciousness, it all comes together—sensory phenomena, personal meanings, feelings, and a sense that the coherent unity of these different elements represents a fitness to who we are as representatives of our people (tribe, society, culture, species) in this way at this time in this place.

 

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