(Copyright © 2009)

OK, so we wake up in the crazy house of our minds. Trusted institutions are falling apart, making us feel like we are falling apart. The world we thought was so real and reliable turns out to be only the shaky fantasy we chose to believe in. Now we get it: the real world is the natural world, the one we have turned our backs on to make it easier to dream the American dream. We’ve never been good at checking our facts—must have been sick the day they taught that in school.

The hardest of all lessons is that minding your own store—your personal consciousness—is a job that cannot be outsourced. Personal judgment is just that, a responsibility each of us must meet for herself. The buck for directing our own outlook and behavior stops with us. Which is the reason for seeking the deepest, broadest life experience we can get, whether through hard knocks or a good education.

It is not enough to stand before the mirror peering at our exteriors. The problem lies within. Self-knowledge is the key to each of us improving our share of the world situation. But how do we get it? Amazon doesn’t stock either Self-Knowledge for Dummies or the CliffNotes study guide. Yet if we want to avoid an even worse institutional collapse in the future, we’ve all got to rip off the blinders and take a good look at ourselves—from the inside where our attitudes and actions originate, not the outside we’ve grown so accustomed to.

The good news is that gaining self-knowledge is really less daunting than it might seem. And doesn’t require going to school; it’s something you can do for yourself. My suggestion is to take the idea of a personal interpreter seriously (see Reflection 86: Interpretation, about Michael Gazzaniga’s proposed left-brain interpreter module) and go looking for it in your everyday experience.

What it takes is curiosity and persistence in pursuing details of your personal makeup no one ever told you about. First, consider how much of what you do and say is based on your own integrity as a person, and how much is based on the authority of someone else. What others advise you to do reflects their interpreter—their spin—not yours. Take a look at the advice you give yourself. That is a direct route to your personal authority—your very own left-brain interpreter. 

Yes, it may sound crazy, but no crazier than the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into by not attending to how we make meaning of our lives—as if it was just common sense.

Our respective left-brain interpreters can be in only one mind, so each functions independently. Its job description was crafted through eons of evolution to make sense of the many situations it finds itself in—suiting its actions to them as appropriately as it can.

The second stage of discovering the interpreter is to keep asking yourself, “Now, why did I do (say, or think) that?” Whatever answer you find in yourself will probably be told in the interpreter’s voice. Keep asking; keep listening for a response. If you question yourself because you truly want to know, you will eventually hit upon answers to your inquiries.

Which is not to say that there’s a resident homunculus in your head, a little imp who does your mental work for you—or an infinite regression of such imps monitoring one another. No, this is your one and only mind in action, its various facets working in concert to present the outward and visible impression that you are utterly sure of yourself in any situation (even when you’re not).

Your interpreter is the heart of the consciousness your genetic heritage has bequeathed to you. There is no airspace between you and your interpreter. It is with you always. Monitoring your interpreter is the key to self-knowledge because it is what makes you who you are. When you ask a question, your interpreter wants to know. When you answer one, it is your interpreter that comes online to promote your personal wellbeing in any given situation.

Having become acquainted with your interpreter, you can begin to watch your own consciousness in action making sense of its inner world in different situations involving different actors, issues, locations, goals, and rules of behavior. One of the clearest views of the interpreter is provided during game-playing behavior. Games are always situational, and we always (sometimes) play by the rules, rooting for our personal or home team—the one we identify with. In doing so, we adopt a certain perspective which the interpreter in us staunchly defends. If we switch teams, it makes an adjustment and just as surely defends our new perspective. You can catch yourself in the act of making sense under novel circumstances which emerge during games.

One thing you can learn by keeping tabs on your interpreter is that it doesn’t always play fair. It makes sense the best it can, which sometimes doesn’t meet a very high standard because it is subject to inhibition from other quarters of consciousness, such as the boss standing behind you, or your mother showing up. The interpreter is only human just like you. Its foibles are your foibles. It sometimes tries to make a good impression without putting its heart into it. It flatters, it tries to impress, it pretends to know more than it does.

Getting to know your interpreter is getting to know yourself. All it takes is watching yourself being yourself. That way lies hope for a better world in that you can see yourself playing games, and so watch for self-deception. Then you can be on the level with the world when you act without having to cover up your hidden motives. All this will be revealed when you get on familiar terms with the interpreter module in your brain.

You will get to know yourself in a new light, which can be endlessly entertaining (if sometimes shocking or embarrassing). Take a look at your resume, for instance, to see if your interpreter might have had a hand in it. Or watch yourself come on to a person you find attractive. Listen to yourself tell your children where babies come from, why the dog ate the cookies left for Santa, why you didn’t get the report in on time as you promised your supervisor, why Harvard has no record of your attending classes, the Army no paperwork on your service in Vietnam.

In the interests of full disclosure, I declare that almost the entirety of this blog has been whispered in my ear by my personal interpreter trying to make sense of what it can know within its own theater of activity. Mohamed gave similar credit to the Angel Gabriel, his pet name for his interpreter. Almost the whole of philosophy, psychology, and theology have been scripted by interpreters inclined to justify themselves to the world. Some clever people make a living by turning their interpreters to the writing of fiction informed by doings in the only mind they have privileged access to. There is more than ample precedence for conducting a study of your own conscious mind.

Give it a try. It’s the only route I know that might help us all contribute to making a better world. Humility comes first, then vigilance, then action within our true sphere of competence!

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Reflection 24: Population

November 17, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

At the moment I start to write this blog, the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,025,062 (POPClock, U.S. Bureau of Standards, Population Division, 3:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, November 10, 2008).

 

The world population reached some 300 million in Y0K (that’s a zero representing the millennial turn from B.C. to A.D.), reached its first billion about 1830 or earlier, its second billion in 1930, third in 1960, fourth in 1974, fifth in 1987, sixth in 1999, and is predicted to hit its seventh billion by 2017.

 

What makes these numbers so scary to me is, 1) the human population has more than tripled since I was born, 2) in my lifetime per-capita material consumption in the U.S. has shot up by a factor of six, 3) average life expectancy in the U.S. has stretched from 60 to 80 years over the same span, and 4) we have achieved all this at the expense of the Earth. I am mixing apples and oranges here, but only to make the point that during my brief tenure on Earth there are vastly greater numbers of us living much longer and consuming far more than our human ancestors did from the origin of our species to the 1930s.

 

We know all this. We also know that this horde of hungry hominids (namely, us) is eating away the habitats that give it a homeland on planet Earth. We are depleting the very species and ecosystems we depend on for life support. The forests, wetlands, grasslands, waterways, estuaries, oceans. We are changing the climate, the acidity of the seas, storm frequency and intensity—there are few aspects of our planet we haven’t impacted and destabilized to our peril.

 

Yet we do little about it. Red lights are flashing, sirens wailing, klaxons honking, flares igniting, bulletins alerting, headlines glaring, seas rising, bluffs eroding—and it’s all business as usual with us hominid types and our lifestyles that are fast turning into deathstyles.

 

Consciousness is given us so we can make appropriate responses to unprecedented life situations. So why aren’t we doing anything? Is it because we aren’t really conscious of what’s happening? By way of a contrasting example, I offer the time in Nespelum, Washington, when I went into the bushes to urinate, met a rattlesnake crossing the path in front of me, turned, walked away, and I no longer had to go. I was fully conscious and as a result clamped my bladder tight for over an hour. That’s consciousness leading to appropriate action.

 

But now we act like we’re in a deep sleep or coma: Let them take care of it, whoever they are. I didn’t do it. Besides, I can’t fix it. So individually and collectively we do nothing. Or worse than nothing, we keep multiplying, consuming, growing older and older, depleting the Earth. Every day we wake up and the problem is worse. In the past twelve years, more than a billion more people have been born than died. Consumers have rampaged through markets and malls, going deeply into debt, having their way with the Earth. And still we do nothing.

 

What’s wrong with our consciousness? With our exploring our options? With our prioritizing? With our acting and following-through? With our using our know-how and experience to get us out of this fix?

 

Like, we don’t have to live our full span of years, splurging the bulk of our life-long medical expenditures on a terminal spree during our last six months of life. Living for a shorter time has the same effect as cutting the population. We consume less, and yet enjoy ourselves more because we are in better health. Check that: no heroic efforts to gain a few extra months of “life” hooked up to expensive machines. No, not even if the medical establishment entices us (after all, they make a killing on forlorn hopes and end-of-life theatrics). Not even if our loved ones don’t want to let go.

 

A few years ago, my beloved cousin fell and injured her hand. Which got infected. Sending a clot to her heart, then on to her kidneys. Her lungs were already kaput from a fifty-year career of smoking to keep herself thin. Now it was quadruple bypass surgery, dialysis to detoxify herself, lying in bed for a year because standing and walking were too much effort. She and her daughters believed they could will her kidneys to heal themselves. But it didn’t pan out. After a year with no lifestyle at all she died, leaving a portfolio of unpaid hospital bills as her legacy. Is that how we want our loved ones to go, with a stifled (and costly) whimper, not a bang?

 

Conservation is the key to squandering fewer of Earth’s natural “resources.” I mean using fewer resources, not developing alternative technologies to sustain us at the same level of consumption. We can contribute to the resolution of our predicament by restraining our appetites, reusing what we do take, recycling, sharing, and weaning ourselves from dependence on petroleum-guzzling machinery by slowing down and relying more on our own labor. Think what that would do for our epidemic of obesity.

 

But then there’s the trail of toxic pollution we dribble behind us as we consume our merry way through life. Water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pet waste, farm waste, industrial waste, military waste. We keep facing ahead so we can’t see the puddles swamping our footprints. The wasted soils and aquifers. Or the dead zones downstream.

 

Nothing new here. We know all this. But “knowing” a fact in the abstract is not the same as experiencing it in full frontal awareness. There’s a great pit opening at our feet, and we pretend it’s not there. I don’t see anything. Me neither. Let’s keep our eyes closed and run as fast as we can.

 

When you look straight at something and don’t see it, it’s called denial. Or suppression. Or blindness. When you look straight at something, see it, and don’t act appropriately, it’s called ignorance. Or stupidity. Either way, it bodes ill for survival. We have seen the damage a C-minus president can do once in high office by elevating party loyalty and secrecy above wisdom and justice. We put him there, and kept him there, so we got the president we deserved. He’s slipping out the door now, but we’re still here, doing our thing. Hoping Obama’s the man to make the bad dream go away. Will we do our part when he asks us to? Remains to be seen.

 

Consciousness, where art thou when we need you? As always, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Only our collective consciousness can heal Earth, its peoples, and our nation—along with our personal judgment, motivation, and ultimately our actions.

 

So what do we do now? As I see it, we’ve been on cruise control for too long. It’s become a habit with us. But we’ve come to a village and have to slow down—rethink our life situation. The trick to effective use of consciousness is to see it as a kind of time machine. The meanings we put on events all come from concepts and experiences laid down in the past. The sensory phenomena of today are the face of the present. What we’ve been doing is mapping past meanings onto present images, treating the now as an extension of the way things used to be. But that isn’t good enough because our life situation has changed. There are too many of us now, living too high on the hog, outlasting our dreams, abusing the Earth.

 

The question is, where do we find guidance to take us into the future? That’s where imagination comes in, providing a vision of the way things might turn out if we did things differently from before. Like slowing down when we drive through a village because of the risk of hitting a child chasing a ball into the street. If we don’t see the child behind the car, we have to imagine her there and drive accordingly. That vigilance is part of consciousness, too.

 

Let me give an example. I once snowshoed up Cadillac Mountain Road in Acadia the day after a big snowstorm. It was Saturday, and all the snowmobilers were out. That road is one blind curve after another. What I noticed was the difference between how solo riders took those curves compared to riders with their ladies sitting behind them. The young Turks all commandeered the center of the road and sped around the turns with no thought that unseen riders might be coming the other way. Those with ladies slowed, kept to the right, and watched for coming traffic they couldn’t yet see.

 

When judgment selects which of our options for action to support, it considers the likely consequences of each option and goes for the one with the highest probability of getting us where we want to go. That is, all things considered, consciousness recommends actions for their future effects, not their adherence to outmoded traditions, habits, or sentiments. When old ways no longer prove effective, consciousness takes a fresh look at novel behaviors.

 

Novelty is our key to appropriate action that will bring in the world of the future. In Maine, everybody stops at yard sales to scan the tables for good stuff, cheap. Not necessarily brand-new stuff, but stuff new to us. Shopping sprees are satisfying because they renew the human spirit with colorful, bright, shiny stuff. Think of the possibilities opening out of a box of new Legos in red, white, and blue. Dinosaurs. Skyscrapers. Robots. With enough of these building blocks, you can make anything you want.

 

So applying consciousness as a time machine for building a new future, we have to reconsider the meaning of our growing population, our level of consumption, our life expectancy, and our relation to the Earth. Old ways have gotten us where we find ourselves today. We have to learn to look around the curve ahead to see what may be coming at us. No more backing lost causes or forlorn hopes (think bundled mortgages). We have to fit ourselves more appropriately to the now situation rather than blindly keep on as we’ve gone before. I’m talking about finding novel ways of doing and living. About being ourselves differently—and loving it because it accords with our expanded awareness.

 

Throughout the industrial era, buying stuff has kept the global economy going year after year. Now we have to see such “stuff” as gifts from an Earth that can give only so much on a sustainable basis. Taking more than Earth can afford leads to collapse of natural systems which govern themselves. We see that now. Outdoing ourselves year after year in turning wealth into goods, we’ve managed to undo the source that keeps us alive. There are simply too many of us, living too long, consuming too much stuff, giving too little attention to where our wealth comes from.

 

Our goal now is to provide a truly sustainable situation for every person on Earth, along with each of Earth’s other plant and animal inhabitants. Our planet (we belong to it, not it to us) has a limited capacity to tolerate and support us. Collectively spending beyond our means has bankrupted the planet, our ultimate repository of wealth. The debt we owe is not to banks but Earth itself.

 

How many of us can live sustainably on Earth, at what level of consumption, for how many years, with what attitude toward our planetary host and benefactor? We must wrap our consciousness around these questions and come up with answers in short order. That is the challenge to which we were born, and cannot escape.

 

After writing for a spell, going to the post office and the store, after cooking dinner, after eating, after reading and listening to the news, as I finish this blog at 9:36 p.m., the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,076,770.

 

That’s 51,708 more mouths for Earth to feed than when I sat down to write five hours and thirty-nine minutes ago—over 152 added every minute. T i m e   i s  w a s t i n g   a w a y. If we forgot to set the alarm, let this be it. If we are the problem, let us be the solution as well. Sleepers AWAKE!

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