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

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

The art of introspection is in watching what you pay attention to in engaging your sensory impressions. In becoming conscious of the streaming process of ongoing engagement itself, your mind shifts it’s focus from events assumed to take place outside of yourself to processes going on in your head, the true home of your awareness.

Abruptly, you become aware of elements of consciousness you may have missed before by underplaying them as if they could be taken for granted. By following your own mental engagements as they happen, you immediately see that feelings accompany them at every stage of their development. And not only feelings, but values, memories, expectancies, interpretations of sensory impressions, all leading to an understanding of what a given stage of engagement might mean in light of previous episodes of experience.

The thing to remember is that we make ourselves happen as we do; the root of our behavior is inside each one of us, not in the world. We are responsible for directing and shaping our personal attention, which in turn leads to awareness and subsequent action.

Consciousness is the panorama of what’s going on in our heads from moment to moment. Introspection is our personal visit to that panorama here and now.

Elements that can be depicted in that panorama include personal expectancies contributed by memory, sensory impressions (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, aches, and bodily positions), interpretations of sensory impressions, values, positive and negative feelings, hopes, understanding of what’s going on, dreams, thoughts, imaginings, and so on. A lot is passing through our minds at any particular time, all available to scrutiny through personal introspection if we will but engage ourselves.

The reason we often play down all this mental activity (as if it weren’t taking place) may be that no one else can be aware of it because they’re so distracted by their own mental panorama that they seldom think to inquire how it’s going with us. So we tend to dismiss our own inner life as being trivial and unworthy of notice when, in fact, it’s the core of our existential being.

Introspection is all about acknowledging the unique mental life at the heart of our outward and physical presence in the world.

(Copyright © 2010)

With this post, I am laying my blog to rest—at least for the time being. I intend to go back over what I have written so far with an eye to rearranging the content in less hectic order, better to convey my cumulative understanding of conscious experience. And to reveal gaps that need filling-in. Maybe a book will result, maybe not. I invite you to explore and ruminate on what is on offer. Check out postlinks (above) and look around.

In Reflection 121: Spirituality, I wrote of witnessing over the years a cartwheel display of northern lights, two dancers atop Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, a male goldfinch singing, and an aurora seen above an island joining with its own reflection to form a cosmic green eye. Of these sorts of experiences I wrote:

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble space Telescope.

Yes, that intuitive feeling of connectedness is a big part of what I call spirituality—but it is not all. An explicit feeling of thankfulness at being fully present to such moments also contributes to spirituality, a giving of self in gratitude for being alive to participate in yet another memorable instant of existence. Beyond feelings of thankfulness, often food and sex serve as vital dimensions of our relationship with partners, family, friends, and community. Without such driving values as food and sex, we would not be alive to enjoy the fruits of consciousness.

Lately, I have been trying to imagine myself crawling into a cave—say, Altamira or Lascaux—to witness images of animals such as bison, horses, lions, and mammoths painted by upper-Paleolithic peoples some 30 to 10 thousand years ago. My search is for purely visual patterns of experience so that I can stand before them without laying any preconceived meanings upon them, determined to claim the experience of uninterpreted (uncategorized) sight as if for the first time. How would it be to hold a dim, tallow lamp close to the walls of a cave to discover those hand-drawn animate forms? In my own era I am jaded by having seen a thing many times before so that I know immediately what it is, seeing more with my conceptual memory than my eyes. Recognizing a sight as representing a class of similar sights is not really seeing.

So I picture myself entering a cave in my mind, watchful over my little lamp, led by one who knows the way, stooping, crawling, expecting, yet not picturing what I will find. My hope is to see something so strange and wonderful that I am forced to reinvent myself to take it all in. Categorization makes me no bigger than I was; I want to live a life that grows larger every day. I need fresh visions and discoveries to feed my hunger for sensory experience, understanding, and to whet my curiosity about what might yet be possible. Celebration is what I’m after, of my fleeting self on my winding, serendipitous path through the universe. But that is an idea; I’m not after ideas: I want sensory evidence as proof that I am fully alive where I am, when I am.

In a grotto, by the glow of my tallow lamp, I am awestruck by what I find. It is nothing I know or recognize. The patterns are intuitively familiar, but like nothing I have seen before. There are no landscapes with grasses, shrubs, or trees. No sunlight beyond my little lamp. No clouds in the sky. No trickling streams, no birds. Not even rock walls. Nothing is moving, yet the scene seems to gallop through my head. I am sure I hear hooves rushing by, snorts, whinnies, growls. Startled, I look around, but quickly return to the scene just inches in front of my eyes. The essential core of the animate world is here, and I am connected to it and part of it. This is my world. Yes, I feel it, my little life depends on this scene, on these particular beasts—woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, reindeer, bison, bears, stags, lions, ibexes. Without them, I wouldn’t be here in this cave—or anywhere. I never realized it before, but now I climb above my daily grasp of things and join the higher life beyond. These forms give shape to a transcendent grasp of reality, which I can only call spiritual because it is not of my everyday world. I owe every thought and experience to the scene that opens before me deep in the cave of my mind. This, truly, is where I live. In this scene, with these animals. Nothing else matters. This is the ultimate vision, seen by my ultimate self. I have risen; now I can die.

But before I do, I want to register my own presence. I have no votive offerings. Only a small piece of charcoal. What trace of myself can I leave? I have no sense that the patterns before me are drawn by human hands. They are primeval, here before the people came, here after we go. But one before me has made an appropriate gesture in response. A handprint to show he was here—and is still here—has become part of the scene. Intuitively, I bite off a small chunk of charcoal, grind it between my molars, mix it with saliva. Raising my free hand against the cave wall above the back of the horse, I blow black pigment around my pressed hand, leaving, when I take it away, a silhouette of my presence—my hands-on contribution to this magical scene.

Spotted Horse and Handprints

That mental excursion suggests the state of my mind this week when my son and his wife returned from New Mexico and gave me a gift from Bandeliere National Monument near Santa Fe. It was a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing a Native American design which the park service adopted as the emblem of Bandeliere: the four directions (suggesting their totem animals, such as golden eagle, mouse, bear, white buffalo) placed against the face of the sun, with a small handprint in the center—extending toward—as if to touch or bless—the bright solar disc.

Bandeliere Sun with 4 Directions & Handprint

Suddenly I get it. Reaching out in gratitude for the gift of radiant energy that supports life on our planet. No matter in what form it is made manifest—animal, plant, mineral—it is the same energy. Solar radiation. The gift of sunlight that feeds almost all life on Earth. Certainly the life forms we are familiar with, especially those we depend on as our life-support system. 

Cut to Jesus at his last Passover meal breaking bread and drinking wine with his companions. What was it he said? According to Matthew 26.26-29 (New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition):

During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: ‘Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

This is my body, this is my blood. These words are in keeping with the symbolism of vegetative renewal that is at the core of the Jesus story. Bread from grain; wine from grapes. Both  miraculously renewing themselves about the time of the vernal equinox and the Passover feast held shortly thereafter. In the rites of Dionysos-Attis-Adonis held at that time of year, seeds were buried in soil held in small baskets, sprinkled with water, and when in three days they sprouted, celebrants cried the local equivalent of “He is risen, he is risen!”

“Palestine is a fertile land,” writes E. O. James in From Cave to Cathedral: Temples and Shrines of Prehistoric, Classical, and Early Christian Times (Praeger, 1965):

Having a temperate climate . . . agriculture flourished, and . . . the people for the most part were peasants with an agricultural economy, dependent largely upon the seasonal sequence as in Mesopotamia.

. . . . Normally in April the hillsides in Galilee are decked with a profusion of wild flowers with the green corn waving in the cool breezes on the fields below, the north especially being ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills . . . a land of oil, olive and honey.’ . . . From the end of May there is constant anxiety about the condition of the grain during the dry season, especially when the seasonal rains are pending. This found expression in a Canaanite myth and ritual of the Tammuz type and a seasonal drama (page 167).

Over thousands of years, Paleolithic hunters morphed into latter-day agriculturalists. Again, in the words of E.O. James (Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, Barnes & Noble, 1961):

As food-gathering dropped more and more into the background until finally it was abandoned, . . . the fertility of the soil and the succession of summer and winter, springtime and harvest, together with the associated pursuits—tilling and ploughing, sowing and reaping—became the centre of interest and of the ritual organization. . . . Nature was no less precarious for the farmer than for the hunter, consequently at the critical seasons an emotional reaction to the prevailing tension called forth a ritual response to ensure success in the food-producing activities at their several stages, and overcome the unpredictable elements in the situation outside human control by natural means. . . . Around this cultus a death and resurrection drama in due course developed (pages 33-34).

The union of Sky-father and Earth-mother symbolized the sacred marriage of spring rains with fertile soil, resulting in the birth of the divine child—manifest in the crops that sustained human life. As W.K.C. Guthrie tells the story in The Greeks and Their Gods (Beacon Press, 1950):

The young god who stands primarily for ‘the whole wet element’ in nature, as Plutarch describes Dionysos—that is, not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants—meets us under different names all over the nearer parts of Asia and in Egypt, as well as in Thrace, as Dionysos, Zalmoxis, Sabazios, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris and many others (page 156).

Whether based on the historical record or the mythic tradition, Jesus-as-portrayed is one representative of that distinguished company. As other gods did before him, he at first symbolized the hope of seasonal renewal to early farmers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Very much an essential link in the chain from upper Paleolithic cave art to today’s fascination with the one-time offer of eternal life, Jesus was swept into high office on the reputation of his distinguished predecessors. But the organized church wasn’t satisfied with merely seasonal renewal. It wanted an all-time guarantee of life everlasting so that all we need do is die—and we will be born not just again but forever. Nothing short of eternity will do. No problem—as long as our indulgences are paid for in advance.

In focusing on the mythic symbol himself instead of the vital seasonal renewal Jesus initially symbolized, the Roman church cut itself off from its roots in Earth’s annual cycles of vegetation, disparaging the worshipping of such cycles as pagan and heretical—even though they provided the experiential grounds of its own metaphorical teachings. The priesthood was looking St. Peter's Basilica, Romeafter itself by centralizing its authority in urban basilicas—great stone galleries much like caves built aboveground. It proved far easier to manage abstract symbols from such central edifices than to engage widely dispersed farmers tending herds and tilling rural fields—those on the forefront of belief, but who were not within easy reach from comfortable apartments in the city.

When Episcopal priest John A. Sanford wrote in The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (Lippincott, 1970), “We have . . . in Jesus of Nazareth the paradigm of the whole person, the prototype of all human development,” he makes clear that he is speaking of an idealized concept of a perfect man, not any person who might actually have lived. Leaving the faithful yearning to connect with the living force that provides for them in producing the crops and herds they actually eat to gain nourishment for bodies that sweat, get sick, grow old, and fail, not with some idealized exemplar whose body and blood they might pretend to ingest as a ritualized diet for the soul. No calories, true, but no real nutrients for the spirit either. Leaving seasonal renewal out of the picture, church dogma became a hollow conceit taken on faith, not in the light of actual experience.

Of lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, E. O. James writes of one deity who stayed in touch with the people, a deity who provided the foil of anathema to orthodox teachings throughout much of Hebrew and Christian scripture:

Once Prince Baal “became ‘the lord of the furrows of the field’ responsible for the rain and the kindly fruits of the earth, a series of temples were erected in his honour in Palestine and Syria in and after the fourteenth century B.C.” (From Cave to Cathedral, page 169).

In nearby Egypt, the ankh was a symbol of eternal life, as the cross subsequently became in Christianity. But one cannot eat symbols; they are food for the disembodied mind. The mind Goddesses of budding flowers, offerings, and happiness, bearing gifts of long life. Fifth Dynasty.embedded in its mortal frame craves a more substantial diet bearing, beyond flavor, both energy and nutrition. It is that diet I am trying to get at in writing this post because such food, indeed, sustains us and makes us who we are. That is the universal food humans require to keep going, no matter where they might live aside from their respective mental caves. Organized religions give us preinterpreted symbols when what we are starved for is raw sensory patterns most strange and wonderful—something to celebrate, not to obey.

It is the role of consciousness to guide us toward such a food supply that we may nourish ourselves—we who are minds in bodies with emotions, senses, thoughts, ideas, judgments, and capacities for action—to make ourselves whole, caring, and wise. That is, to conduct our day-to-day lives in such a way to transcend the limited vessels we have become in order to place our personal handprints as a mark of full witness and approval on life as we actually live it and not the pretend life others would have us lead for their benefit, or we would lead to please them.

I am talking here about leading an original life worthy of our personal uniqueness bestowed on us by our genetic heritage, prenatal life, early experiences, schooling, training, job history, native haunts, and the times in which we live. No two of us are alike. Yet our culture sorts us into crude bins (e.g., True Believers and Heretics) and expects us to behave as we are profiled and sorted by others, regardless of who we know ourselves to be. With the sorry result that we become creatures of our run-of-the-mill culture and not of our unique, individually conscious selves. Instead of consuming more and more goods, we do better to savor the sensory evidence that is ours alone, so to arouse a sense of connectedness with a beautiful world, to stir thankfulness that we are fully present to that world, and to activate primal values to prove we are fully engaged and alive. In short, we want to reach up and blow a handprint from inside our minds onto the only world that will take us just as we are, adding our personal energy and fullness to the universe of all being.

I am aiming for transcendence here. A jolt of energy-releasing transcendence lifting us into that true and higher life binding us to all that is—principally to the Earth, our only home in the darkness of space, and to all of Earth’s peoples of every tribe—that’s what I’m writing about. Is that too much to ask or even contemplate? In spite of our frailty, we can reach that high if we choose to enter the cave of our minds and keep trending toward that goal. We all know more than our credentials seem to warrant, in very personal ways that build on our unique perspectives instead of denying or denigrating them. Our value on Earth lies precisely in our gifts to one another of our personal uniqueness, not our assumed sameness with everyone else. Lives suitable to our heritage and experience cannot be bought off the shelf. We have to tailor them from the scraps we are given, and keep sewing for the rest of our lives. Transcendence is that easy—and that hard.

I will end with an item lifted from an e-mail my brother sent me today:

Re Time Magazine in the dentist’s office [see Reflection 198: Of Heroics & Aesthetics]:  I remember covering a symposium on Canadian art in Washington DC and hearing the director of the Innuit Gallery in Toronto say, ‘There’s a communications satellite in the sky now beaming down American television on them [Eskimos] and in one generation the spiritual content of their artwork is going to be gone.’ Perhaps no single sentence I ever heard in my entire life depressed me as much as this one. I did the only thing I could—bought a piece of Eskimo sculpture and two prints before that happened.

Hunting FamilyWalrusesMary Igiu, People of the Sea 

 

 

Your Handprint in This space

(Copyright © 2010)

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Haiti was ruined by an earthquake in ten seconds. There were no winners, only losers. For nine years, the U.S. has been waging war against the very Jahadis it helped to create during the Cold War, and the Taliban who gave them a toehold in Afghanistan. Again, no winners, only losers. Looking ahead, in fifty years low-lying shores on every continent will bear scars inflicted by rising seas, upland areas suffer droughts and massive extinctions. Devastation will be the rule, not the exception. Over the long- or short-term, every unique life leads to the same end—in each case unknown. There is no way to evade personal ruin. Life will invariably cease, cells disintegrate. No winners, only losers, unless . . . .

For such minds as can grasp this inescapable scenario, there is only one way to respond: Act at all times in such a way to create as many islands and oases of order, compassion, and social justice as possible to offset the inevitable. Otherwise, the miracle of life has no meaning, or is at best a forlorn hope.

Beset by, and causing, devastation, we live fleetingly in denial, pretending we can sidestep our fate, believing in life after death, the healing power of personal wealth, that deeds can bestow immortality, that death can be deterred, outrun, or defeated. All of which sap our will for doing good rather than simply answering the roll for as long as we can when our name is called.

Living as long as we can is not a good in itself. It’s what we accomplish—what we actually do—in whatever time we are allowed that really matters. What we do for those we leave behind. The certainty of moving from the column of the living to the dead is, in fact, not only our fate but our greatest gift. The tragedy in Haiti is not that life is cut short but, in addition to suffering, that there is no pattern to which people are felled: children, adults, and the aged are equally susceptible. That, together with the violent nature of each death and the utter lack of help, produces chaos, the very opposite of social order. We saw lesser versions in the felling of the Twin Towers, looting of Iraq in the calm after the initial assault, and in New Orleans during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina.

In better days, mortality is our greatest strength because it frames each day as an opportunity, not a time to endure. It can motivate us to get off our butts and do something positive with whatever skills and energy we can muster on the spot. If death cannot be avoided, we are wise to make the most of what little time we have. Truism, yes, but a compelling one. None packs greater punch. Go for it, live each day to the max! Later is not good enough; now is my time to engage and to act. Not for self because self is invariably a dead end, but for those left behind. For the thread of life that survives us, not our narrow little life.

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, said, “Think globally, act locally.” I add to that, Shape eternity, act in the now. Those who look ahead to consorting with forty virgins in paradise, or sitting on a cloud sipping margaritas, are committing the ultimate category error. Death is the end of consciousness as we know it, the absolute end. All else is myth, fantasy, or delusion. The test of our deeds is the world that lives after us. That is basic Darwinism. The measure of our success is the life (in the largest sense) we make possible. Not only in our genetic line, but in the natural conditions within which it survives. If we steal Earth’s wealth for ourselves today, mere money will not provide for our descendants tomorrow. The meaning or import of mortality—the 100% certainty of our end—is gauged by the living potential we are to leave, not the resources we take unto ourselves. Money in stocks or the bank is life converted to dead notes. It stands for consumption and death, not survival.

Consciousness is a sure sign of life, the realization of biologically-derived human values (reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, safety, etc.) through actions appropriate to life-giving surroundings. For the self, life is a matter of giving away, not taking from others. That is, it promotes authentic possibilities for action—actions that do not limit life’s choices tomorrow, but maintain or expand them. Acting in the now with eternity in mind is called stewardship. The Na’vi in Avatar live (if fictional creatures can be said to live) in that realization. More accurately, they represent that realization in James Cameron’s consciousness. Jahadi suicide bombers do just the opposite by destroying the possibilities of even their own lives and as many infidels as they can ruin along with themselves.

Now is my time on Earth, my time to live, my time to build a future for all life consciously and deliberately. I don’t have answers to many of the riddles and contradictions life throws at me, but collectively, cumulatively, we can share some few of those answers among us. Each can contribute her coherent actions to the body of the whole, and all draw wisdom and appreciation from that whole as needed. Give-and-take is the nature of our engagement on Earth. An engagement that will come to a definite end. Period. End of life. Maybe eight minutes from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty-three years. The point is not to obsess over but to deal with that certainty by building a life for ourselves, for those we love, for those we don’t know, and all members of other species. Then, when smitten, we will at least have done our best by Earth and its passengers for the long haul.

Which is far different from the life capitalistic assumptions and thinking would have us live. Capitalism is a farce, a heavy-handed caricature or cartoon of how to get ahead in life. It is drawn by the asset-rich to lure the asset-poor into their employ. It is a class-based system, dividing rather than uniting us. We now think of our lives in terms of the jobs we are offered rather than how we treat other people and other species through our stewardship practices. Sure, we get good at what we do, and earn money in the process, but that is not why we’re here. We are not born warriors, mechanics, or seamstresses, we are born Earthlings who must steward their gifts if they are to survive. We are meant to accrue an understanding of Earth’s truths, not wealth in and for itself. We are meant to act positively on behalf of life itself, not negatively for self alone. We are meant to create organic order, not the mechanized chaos we do by waging wars around the globe—as if that furthered the interests of life in any way whatsoever. There are no such things as natural resources meant for our taking; that is a fundamental category error. Consciousness is an emergent aspect of life itself, a self-contained guidance system. That, our bodies, surrounding communities, and natural environments are what we are given to work with and make the most of where we are. Now, not later on.

What I am trying to say is that ruined hope for a better future is a more accurate measure of any disaster than property losses or body counts. Hope lives in human consciousness as an urge toward a brighter light ahead. True wealth tells the capacity for hope based on possibilities for constructive action in today’s world. Husbandry and stewardship create hope; monetary wealth devastates hope through possibilities removed from the commons. Haiti lying in ruin from a shift in tectonic plates is tantamount to Iraq and Afghanistan lying in ruin from America flaunting its military might. We could not have prevented the one, but could have the others by holding eternity in mind. By making the most of our individual gifts rather than the least through flexing our military-industrial capacity for inflicting devastation and despair. Consciousness is given us as a gift; unfortunately the instruction manual—our living habitat or environment—is now largely made over by us, leaving us separated not only from nature but our own gift for life. With the result we are dead before our time, carrying on, true—but doing so ideologically, not weighing the moment and engaging the living Earth instead of our rote and sorry depiction of it.

Earth is rocked by enough natural disasters as it is without humanity inflicting additional devastation of its own devising. What we need is more compassion, sharing, healing, and hope such as are conveyed by our heritage of survival, and enabled by awareness of our common Earthling predicament. Taking the long view, keeping Earth’s evolving, biological eternity in mind, equips us to cope with natural disasters when they come upon us. That way we work with one another rather than against by taking more than our share, adding our small effort, heightening the possibility that, with or without us, life on Earth just may have a future.

Cannon

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I’d been a Signal Corps photographer in the Army. When I got out I went to work for a photo studio in Manhattan that took pictures for catalog houses like Sears Roebuck. The studio was really three studios, each with photographer (who adjusted lighting and clicked shutters), assistant photographer (who cocked shutters and changed 8×10 film holders), and stylist (who made clothes look good on thin models by taking tucks in back with clothespins). I learned early on that there were two classes of people, photographers and assistants; there was no way for an assistant to cross the barrier between them. Once an assistant, always an assistant.

Sensitive to such distinctions, I noticed that the janitor came to work in suit and tie, and carried his lunch in a briefcase. I figured he did it to show his kids he had an important job in the city. He’d arrive early, change his clothes, and get to work. What he really did was mop the floors. At the end of the day he’d reverse the process, put on the suit, and get on the elevator with an empty briefcase.

To simplify matters, I’ll say there are two kinds of people: doers and thinkers. Hands-on and minds-on. There are all manner of gradations in between, but the basic distinction still holds: labor and management, students and teachers, stage crew and talent. You can tell the difference by looking under fingernails, feeling calluses, noticing who shines his shoes, who wears overalls and who a tweed jacket. 

In Maine, there are fishermen who hold their catch in their hands, and then everybody else. Fishermen look like fishermen. They wear aprons, slickers, and boots, and get wet a lot. The others try to stay away from water and out of the rain if they can. Fishermen are doers. After all these years, they still work with their hands and speak basic English. Many of the rest of us type with our fingertips, work in cubicles, write endless reports, go to meetings, and speak jargon that sounds like a foreign language.

One of the chief reasons I am writing this blog is to figure out how hand workers and mind workers can come to a common understanding about managing natural resources (fish, clams, worms) to guarantee steady catches over the long term. I speak a lot about sustainability and stewardship, which are words labeling conceptual categories, not concrete items such as living lobsters or bags full of bait. Categories don’t smell like a mixture of herring, oil, and gasoline.

As kids we are all much the same, born with a few rudimentary skills centered on our mouths. We eventually learn to hold up our heads, look around, coordinate arms and fingers, and eventually walk. We all go through the play stage of learning how to use our hands. Then we go to school to learn how to use our minds, and that is supposed to lead us on the way out of childhood. Some of us end up putting everything into words and symbols, not coordinated motions. Or if we do practice fine motor skills, we take drum or violin lessons, color within the lines, and strive for neat handwriting. You can’t learn to fell trees in school, raise cattle, dig potatoes, catch lobsters or fish. And if that’s what you want to do in life, then you’re better off apprenticing to someone who does those things for a living. If you work hard enough, long enough, and pay attention, you’ll train your muscles to behave as you want to get the job done.

The classic put-down used to be:  If you can, do; if you can’t, teach. For some reason, our culture turns that around and puts a higher priority on teaching and mind work than doing and making things. While we know that the most important people in any school are the students, not teachers or administrators. The main thing with us seems to be not getting our clothes dirty, which is a sure sign of social status. No mucking out the barn for us. So we dutifully dress in blouses and button-down shirts, stand behind our counters or file into cubicles (much like desks in school), turn on the computer, and have at it, engaging our minds—and little else of our basic equipment such as muscles, senses, and personal judgment.

Broadly speaking, our culture creates two classes of people who can’t talk to each other very easily because their life experience is so different. What they do is so different. How they talk is so different. How they make themselves happen in the world is so different. How their minds work is so different. Either you’re a photographer or a photographer’s assistant, perhaps bringing your lunch in a briefcase or a brown paper bag.

So much for discriminating two sorts of people. In truth, even fishermen and cubicle dwellers are unique individuals, as are we all. The issue is, how do we learn to talk with one another in the spirit of democracy so we can work side-by-side for the good of all people and the one Earth we share in common? Where self-interest and competition split us apart, how do we put ourselves together again in order to deal effectively with dwindling resources, global warming, pollution, poverty, and overconsumption? Many of us seem to find it easier to stand apart, calling those we don’t agree with offensive names, than gather beneath a common banner.

That’s what language is for, but people on fishing boats and people in cubicles tend to develop dialects within their common language that require translation from one to the other. How do they make themselves clear when they meet face-to-face? How do they hear what the other is saying? That’s what schools are supposed to be for, but they are better at emphasizing individual differences than general commonalities. That’s because differences are concrete and recognizable while the commons is an abstract idea you can’t point your finger at. Differences are up-close and personal, while the commons is vague, fuzzy, and apt to be ideological or reduced to a caricature of itself (Uncle Sam, John Bull) or some kind of mascot. Where individuality is specific, unity is symbolic. It is easy to say, “No man is an island,” “God is love,” or “All are one,” but extremely difficult to put into practice. I know there are such places as Fiji, Timbuktu, and Ultima Thule, but I have a hard time picturing them in my mind; to me they are conceptual abstractions, like “objects,” “things,” “items,” “entities,” “geographical locations.”

If we learn and act best when we put our bodies where our values are, then when two people generally have their bodies in different places, to get along they have to shift their consciousness to the place where they meet in order to take the physical presence of the other into full account. If they speak from their customary locations (their respective Aways), they won’t get very far. It works better to acknowledge the other, and move on from there in small steps, always waiting for the other to catch up. Cooperating on a shared task or project makes a good beginning, both taking part in something they can do easily and well. I have seen women sitting in a circle, each spinning yarn or knitting, having a great time. Drinking coffee or eating a meal together might work, but I personally find it hard to talk and eat at the same time.

Once the ice is broken—and it may take some time—the real work can begin. Which is to include the other in your thoughts as you make yourself happen there and then in her presence. Inclusion is the first priority in any group process. Excluding the other is self-defeating if you have to work together toward a goal you both share. Such as sustainable harvests of natural resources, stewardship, or saving the Earth.

The trick is to identify a goal you both can agree on from your separate perspectives. The more specific a goal the better. It’s easy to say we are both human, or both love our children. It’s harder to bring it down to a personal level on which you can identify with each other in equally concrete and meaningful ways. Sharing your biological values might be one way to identify a goal you could work toward together, such as food, shelter, clothing, safety, health, companionship, community, cooperation, learning, and so on.

I once taught a summer workshop built around finding a common project that a diverse group of eighteen high school students (who had never met) could not only work on but finish together in six weeks. That was the summer Apollo astronauts first landed on the moon. Students decided to bring out a publication commemorating that event, each contributing to the overall project, in addition to being responsible for content and layout of one page. Within three days, animosity blossomed within the group, so I included addressing that in the lesson plan. I identified pairs of students who didn’t get along, and gave them the afternoon off, with the stipulations that they had to stay within five feet of each other the whole time, and report back how it went for both of them. Each of the nine pairs worked things out between them, many coming back best friends. Another exercise was for each student to do something with the class to prove they were alive (however they interpreted those instructions). One girl led us up to the roof of the three-story building, then left, locking the door. Being trapped together is a wonderful way to build group spirit. I can’t remember how we got down, but we were up there for several hours.

Thinking about how close those students were to one another at the end of the workshop, I identified facing a common challenge, humor, and respect for both originality and ability as key factors in binding the disparate students into a cohesive and productive group. Of course they were all volunteers, but there was no way they could tell what they were getting into when they signed up. The workshop was built around their unique contributions, but no one knew in advance what they might be.

How about having fishermen, researchers, shorefront property owners, wildlife watchers, and kayakers, for instance, join forces to produce a portrait of the part of the Maine coast they all share in common? Each could tell her own version of the story of that part of the coast as he knew it. Could that work? Not only would it provide a starting project, but it would serve as a reference ever after, a document of what actually happened. The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, does 15-week workshops in developing skills in writing, radio, and photography. As one student said: “15 weeks at Salt rearranged 80% of my brain. The person I was when I arrived at Salt was not the person I was when I left.” I think a bay-wide project of this nature could be a life-changing event, bringing people together instead of perpetuating the social divide between them.

Including the other in your loop of engagement with your personal surroundings seems an obvious place to begin working together toward a common understanding. Getting their body and your body in the same room together so you can interact in a safe location, engaging conscious minds with each other, starting to build a constructive relationship instead of trying to wear the other down. Two kinds of people? No, there are almost seven billion. Things happen only when a few gather together in mutual engagement. Then there is no limit to what they can do, no matter what the odds.

Two Lobsters

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.

 

Reflection 160: Of Two Minds

November 23, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Like mocha, human consciousness is a blend of two different flavors, natural consciousness and cultural consciousness. Our biological values, drives, and motives are inherently natural; our language, music, art, learning, and skill sets are largely cultural. Human behavior is an expression of natural values as shaped and calibrated by the cultural affiliations of the actors who perform it. We don’t generally distinguish between the two flavors contributing to consciousness—one the base, the other the medium through which it appears—making the study of consciousness more difficult than necessary because the coffee and chocolate that lend it character are so easily confounded.

Every culture has sex, reproduction, caring, and nurture at its core. Without them, cultures wouldn’t exist. Any more than they would without food, drink, shelter, clothing, social companions, health, and personal wellbeing. These are integral parts of the base in any culture because they are of vital importance to every member, male and female, young and old. That’s the coffee.

The chocolate appears in the way individual cultures establish norms for expressing these vital drives so to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of their members (within the framework of social and natural conditions they all share in common). Such norms are intended to enable a diverse population to live in relative harmony by adopting particular ways of expressing their native values, drives, and motives as are deemed to be proper—that is, boosting the probability of individual survival in a socially acceptable manner.

Add cultural chocolate to a natural base of coffee—you get human consciousness with the overall character of mocha. Which some people like more than others. In some cultures women appear in public with their charms draped in dark cloth, while in others they strut their stuff in full view. Some cultures promote hospitality to strangers, others think it wiser to be suspicious of those you don’t know (which is one way of keeping other cultures at a distance).

On the Maine coast, there are a great many subcultures within, say, the fishing industry. Wormers talk to wormers, mussel draggers to mussel draggers, ground fishers to ground fishers, fish farmers to fish farmers, and so on, each staying much closer to the in-group than to outsiders. If you listen to representatives from the various groups speak out in public meetings, you keep hearing each group’s jargon backed by the same-old attitudes, everybody barking, nobody listening to anybody but himself. The problem is always the other guy—the guy you bark at but don’t speak with. It’s the same story up and down the coast as it is between isolated groups everywhere. Could be wormers and draggers, Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans. Once the differences between their respective cultures set into stereotypes, everybody poses as a paragon of the tribe, nobody says anything meaningful, nobody listens. Attitude becomes the whole story, communication is made impossible.

One way around the impasse is to adopt a symbolic medium of exchange to bridge between tribes. I may not like you, but I’ll take your money because money is neutral. I’ll scan your propaganda as long as I have a right to my own opinion. We may even attend the same movies, which our respective outlooks turn into very different movies in our minds.

In our broader American culture, because our currency is the accepted medium of exchange in every corner of the land, everything has a price on the same monetary scale. This speeds and simplifies financial transactions, but makes it easy to believe that money is the prime value in our culture—the only thing that counts—to the point that something without monetary value doesn’t really exist. If you can’t peg its dollar value, what good is it? Thus money becomes not only a medium of exchange but the only culturally acceptable one. That is, it discriminates between what is a socially expedient value and what has true value from the standpoint of personal survival and wellbeing. If clean air or water don’t have a price, they aren’t part of our value system. If ecosystem integrity doesn’t have a price, we needn’t consider it. If honesty or character can’t be priced, do they serve any demonstrable public good? That is, anything existing outside our system of exchange—that is, anything priceless—has no meaning for us. With the result that money becomes the sole scale of value by which we decide what’s important in our culture, and what isn’t.

Which is the root of the national tragedy we are playing out on the world stage. If it doesn’t have a price tag, it can be safely overlooked. Everything can be put on the auction block to see what price it will fetch. If no bids come in, by our scheme it is trash. That is, in settling the differences between us by resorting to the common denominator of cash value—in putting a price on our personal values—we create a system that overlooks what cannot be bought—the truly priceless. Instead of our values running the economy, the economy is now running our values.

Mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have no value other than as open-pit coal mines. Oceans are to fish, trees to cut down, skies and streams to pollute. That’s the level of value the economy’s bottom line has dragged us down to. In a culture where everything has its price, that price is the only thing we share in common, making every other value not only expendable but a possible obstacle to progress. The end is certain: Earth reduced to a forlorn cue ball orbiting in space, no mocha, no chocolate, no coffee—no life at all. Even now we mistake Earth for a globe, a manmade sphere—as if it met our specifications and not the other way around. We speak of the global economy, not the Earth economy, which would be closer to the truth.

In effect, by reducing their personal survival values to the one dominant cultural value represented by the economy, people are acting as if their culture is everything, their personhood nothing. Imagine a culture entire in itself with members so homogeneous you can’t tell them apart to determine if they even exist. All people reduced to consumers, all else reduced to goods. Only money is real. To settle our differences, that’s the world we have created for ourselves, the global economy in which we all play our role.

In that scheme, ecosystem services have a price. Fish have a price. Trees have a price. Bald eagles have a price. Energy has a price. Sex has a price. Mountaintops have a price. Music has a price. Art has a price. Yes, individual human beings have a net worth or a price. Everything is a resource to somebody, somewhere, so has its price. The highest bidder wins all. In the process, stripping the ultimate value—life itself—from the world household or economy.

Writing these words, I cling to the conceit that I am still of two minds. That my consciousness has not been wholly tamed, domesticated, or taken over by my culture, allowing me to stand apart as a wild-eyed observer capable of independent judgment, thought, and speech. If so, we indies are fast disappearing from the scene, along with newspapers, independent media, regulatory governments, mystics, disbelievers, oddballs, heretics, and skeptics of all sorts.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was breached, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of some twenty states in Eastern Europe and beyond as independent nations. America claimed at the time to have won the Cold War, and welcomed those revitalized nations into its sphere of influence known as the global economy. Now China, India, and Brazil are joining the club of our kind of thinkers—those driven by dreams of wealth and power based on free-market exchange of every world resource at a favorable price. With one economic system triumphant over its rivals, human differences are seen as irrelevant. We form a global community of exploiters having equal opportunity to mine Earth’s so-called resources. Along with businesses, pension funds depend on profits from those resources, as do art and religious institutions, universities, and every kind of “non-profit” organization.

Instead of seeing it desirable to achieve a balance between our two minds as in the past, we are fast becoming a single-minded world culture bent on converting the Earth into personal profit. Like Ayn Rand and other prophets of capitalism, we have dollar signs on our minds—and little else. No one seems to think it strange that everyone pictures himself on the owning side of the deal rather than on the working or laboring side. Few, indeed, side with the Earth, even though every benefit we claim flows from the integrity of its biological functioning. From, that is, the mountains and streams of Kentucky and West Virginia before we stripped and leveled them for coal to burn in our power plants, producing cinders, ash, and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Repent, the end is near! Or is it too late to come to our senses and restore humanity to full consciousness? That is, can we still discriminate values that are convenient and cultural from those that are biological and personal? In sacrificing all for our culture, we stand to surrender our individual livelihoods to an economic ideology dressed as the only way to live, forgetting that capitalism works best for the very few who are on top. The rest of us are workers in the vineyard who can’t afford to buy the wines we ourselves produce.

One thing I am sure of, even though I can’t prove it, is that there are no techno-fixes for what ails us because every one of them merely passes our current burden to the Earth in a form future generations will have to deal with. In its day, the internal combustion engine was a boon to mankind; now it is a curse. Before that, three-fourths of arable land was devoted to producing hay for horses, cows, and oxen. Think of the manmade chemicals in mothers’ milk around the Earth, the plastic bottles and can liners that diffuse into almost everything we eat and drink. Hydropower turns running rivers and streams into standing ponds, blocking fish passage and the downstream flow of silt. What do we do with all these electronic wonders full of toxic metals and chemicals when we no longer want them? Are we to assume the technological solutions of tomorrow will not have a downside? There will be no more radioactive wastes, superfund sites, G.E.-ified Hudson Rivers? They won’t appear on the planning board; once in place, the toxic flaws we choose to overlook will appear in due order.

Start to finish, it is better to be of two minds than exclusively one or the other. Having both cultural and personal aspects of consciousness is the original checks and balances scheme. Individuals need to counterbalance corporations lest they become all-powerful (as, in fact, they are now). Cultures need to instill communal values in the common man to remind him he is not alone and can’t justify using others for his personal gain. If I want respect, so does my neighbor. Extending it mutually to each other, we’ll get along just fine. If I lord it over him, he’s apt to set fire to my barn.

The truth is, when I act, I act for all as a representative of humankind. There’s no escaping the fact we are all denizens of the one planet Earth. What I do, I do for all and to all. We are responsible for and to one another. That I can horde wealth for my benefit alone is pure fiction. That I can borrow from others and have a third party pay my debt is a fantasy. That I can leverage other people’s assets to make a profit for myself is nonsense. We keep trying these ploys, but in the end we all pay. And in the last analysis, Earth pays. If we think we can get away with it, we are too clever by half for our own good. As surely as we are born, we will die. Period. End of our little universe. The ultimate sign of respect is to hold positive regard for all those other universes that will come after us, whether of our genetic line or not. And to live on their behalf as if they mattered—which as Earthlings they surely do. They are one of us, of our planet, the only one we know of where life exists.

The mocha image I began this post with is too light to bear the load I freighted it with. I wanted to ease into my topic, so presented it in terms of flavors I thought people could relate to. My personal attachment is through serving mocha sundaes in the Schrafft’s Restaurant on 81st Street in New York back in 1953 and 1954. But neither chocolate nor coffee is essential to life. Water and oxygen, however, are the basis of photo-synthesis, the process that, in feeding plant and animal metabolisms, sponsors most living things. Water stands for the culture we are immersed in, oxygen for the biological values that spark consciousness to life. Consciousness requires a steady diet of both. I offer them here at the end of this post as more relevant to biological systems than the flavors of coffee and chocolate I offered at the start. In combination, they are the beginning, not only of consciousness, but of everything, including life itself.

Air, Water, Sunlight

 

(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

(Copyright © 2009)

Enough words. Time for pictures. These are slides from the PowerPoint I showed on the last day of my adult ed class on consciousness at MDI High School in Bar Harbor. See for yourself.

1-Consciousness 2-Consciousness

3-Diver Ed

4-Quaker Ladies

5-This Body 6-Sensory World

7-Consciousness-Self

8-Loops of Engagement

9-Echo-of-thought

10-Engagement  

Steve Perrin

Reflection 69: Values

February 25, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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