cavities in the teeth of the wind

The following is an essay I wrote recently about what I think are compelling interventions — I had a 1500 world limit, so it by no means exhausts my thinking on the subject.  I’m posting it because of its relevance to the freehoodship mission:

Compelling interventions today create cavities in the teeth of the wind.  Let me explain this elusive definition with an example.  Some years ago, I founded Waste And Vice Elimination Squad (WAVES), a rapid-response garbage mitigation collective or community service club for high school students.  It’s more or less rubbish collection as interventionist art.  We dress in jumpsuits with our logo (a crushed aluminum can with a golden halo) on the front and motto (“Live on the face of the earth, not in earth’s face”) on the back and pick up garbage at schools and parks, by the American River, and every so often, at outdoor Malls or in front of Big Box stores.  I chose jumpsuits for our uniforms because I know that when people see groups of teenagers in jumpsuits picking up garbage, many can’t help but think of juvenile offenders fulfilling court-mandated community service – it’s one of our habits of mind.  In the above elusive definition of an intervention, these habits of mind correspond to the “cavities in the teeth.”  When, however, people discover, in various ways, that these teenagers are picking up garbage not as punishment but because they want to, the habit of mind or in this case, stereotype, is challenged; often I’ve felt in those who inquire into who we are and what we are doing a little reversal of attitude – the cavities are no longer “in the teeth” (bad), but “in the teeth of the wind” (good).  Such an intervention is intended to open a space (cavity) in our habitual streams of consciousness (wind) for new eddies of reality to be cognized.

           

This space or cavity is not created through coercive, in-your-face – to echo the WAVES motto – intervention, but through a subtle invitation to reinterpret an event based on its inner reality (the reasons the adolescents are there).  These subtle invitations or cues to go deeper are partly the jumpsuits with a logo and motto, which of course are not standard juvenile justice issue, but mostly the attitude of the adolescents – they’re having fun; they’ve chosen to be there.  The central goal of the WAVES intervention, besides cleaning up the environment, is to promote, in those witnessing the event and therefore a part of it, an intensity of consciousness that values, and even insists on, more than face-value.  In my years as a teacher, coach, interventionist artist, and alternate reality game designer, it is clear to me that in order to promote, encourage, and cultivate such intensity, one must promote, encourage, and cultivate it in oneself.  The social innovation leader Bill O’Brien is no fool when he says that “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”  A relatively simple and conventional intervention, such as teenagers in jumpsuits picking up garbage in public spaces, becomes more “successful” when the interior condition is leveraged.  Entering the space of the intervention to produce merely an interesting spectacle is different from entering it with the intent of creating an opportunity for people to interrupt their habits of mind.  And experimentation with the interior condition during interventions is infinitely fruitful.  Recently, in thinking about why certain people happen to be there for my interventions or really anyone’s interventions, I’ve been substituting the concept of “chance” with a concept more along the lines of “destiny,” “opportunity,” or “serendipity.”  I’ve discovered that “chance” becomes a feeble explanation when one looks in retrospect at the series of events that can often unfold after an intervention.  How feeble the concept “chance” becomes I may perhaps even begin to us as a rubric for determining an intervention’s success.  Anyway, even when I’m feeling particularly skeptical, I like to play with the idea that everyone at an intervention, including the unplanned participants, have been for weeks or months angling toward it and are even ripe for it.

           

Though I have been distinguishing between the exterior and interior aspects of an intervention, my goal all along has been to get beyond an exclusively dualistic worldview.  If we look once again at my definition of a compelling intervention, we see that the word “teeth” works, both in the definition and in the English language in general, on a literal and figurative level. Likewise, the interior and exterior aspects of an intervention are two expressions of one phenomenon, distinguishable, but inseparable.  There is an extraordinary passage from Helen Keller’s autobiography that illustrates my point.  In the passage, Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, has come up with an idea (an idea for what I would call an intervention) to help Keller discover the word for “water.”  Sullivan proceeds to guide one of Keller’s hands under a stream of running water while in the palm of Keller’s other hand she over and over again spells W-A-T-E-R with her finger.  If one were to predict what happens next, I imagine one would say that Keller eventually connects her concept of water based on the experience of water running over her hand with the word “water” spelled into her palm – a nominalistic sort of explanation.  But Keller describes what happens very differently.  In her experience, the thing (water), concept, and word do not arise separately, but instead appear simultaneously as an indivisible gestalt.  She perceives no concept, without word and thing, no thing without concept and word, no word without concept and thing.  The appearance, for her, of water is disclosive. a sort of revelation.  Keller experiences not just what appears but the coming to appearance of what appears.  It is only afterwards that we can divide such experiences into separate concepts such as inner and outer.  It’s obvious from reading Keller’s autobiography that Sullivan’s pedagogical interventionist art enriches Keller’s reality.

           

When I as an interventionist artist began to realize more concretely the non-dualistic nature of reality and experience, that specious divide between inner and outer, I began to design some interventions that were for the most part invisible and rooted more in the interior pole, though still with a goal of interrupting habits of mind and reversing attitudes.  One such intervention involved taking on the dehumanizing culture of the suburban Mall.  As many have experienced either subliminally or more obviously, entering a Mall is like entering the language of advertisers where we are either “targets” or “waste” and where we too often turn others into “targets” or “waste.”  Here we feel reduced, parsed, and objectified.  Here I realized the mission of the intervener was to personify these targets and waste back into persons, and then these persons back into individuals, and then these individuals back into Sarah and Jack, so to speak, thus returning them to subjectivity.  In this intervention, I and a group of friends and fellow interveners went to a local Mall where each of us chose a stranger who we felt we too-readily judged based on “target and waste” criteria, and then proceeded to imagine a rich story for this individual, going into as much detail as we could in the time allotted.  We thought of their issues, their beliefs, their thought processes, their reversals of fortune, as well as some lessons they had learned.  Our intention here was to transform our superficial judgments and antipathies by creating detailed stories for the people we had chosen.  That the stories were pure fictions did not matter – their function was to generate real warmth and interest in another human being, one we didn’t know.  And anyway, only the details were fictional because we all have our issues, beliefs, thought processes, reversals of fortune, and lessons learned.

           

What’s not, however, a fiction is that the trajectory of human consciousness at least as far back as the Scientific Revolution has been more towards objectification and control than towards warmth and interest, more towards separation than integration, more towards competition than collaboration.  Our habits of mind have been deeply informed by this trajectory.  For me, the compelling interventions today must be designed to address this reality as fully as possible.  Better yet, they must be designed to query, tickle, hug, and expand and deepen it.  They must write W-A-T-E-R in its palm.  To do all these things, the interventionist artist must cultivate a radical love (of the non-sentimental sort) for people and the world, and see every intervention as an opportunity to unlock an infinite potential, what Gilles Deleuze calls the “virtual.”  Also, a sincere I-don’t-take-myself-so-seriously willingness to risk awkwardness and silliness as I have tried to do by leading off this essay intervention with my elusive definition will assist this love in creating the necessary “cavities in the teeth of the wind.”

psychic space and world space

Tension and anxiety or anxiety and tension — I’m too tense and anxious to choose, I mean, too anxious and tense to choose, I mean, I mean, both, neither?  Isn’t it amazing how even having to make the most trivial choices can upset the sensitive soul.  Shoot, the sensitive soul doesn’t even need to be facing a choice to be tense and anxious.  More and more of us, I have noticed, have souls like this.  I see it in my students.  I see it in my colleagues.  We at The Freehoodship seek to strengthen our sensitive souls without dulling their sensitivity.  Sensitive is good, but it helps for sanity’s sake if the sensitivity can distinguish between the self and not self, which is to say, can I know when I’m sensing something in someone else as opposed to in myself.  All missions that are designed to take psychic inventory or to investigate the estuary-like interaction between psychic space and world space work towards this sort of objective sensitivity.  The mission at Sunrise Mall was a preliminary effort at this sort of mission.  There will be more to come.

transforming “knowing of” something into “knowing” it

Two days ago, I did mission #13 with my friend and Oracle, Robin Hill, and her students in an art practice class at U.C. Davis.  Before we began by crossing a pedestrian bridge over Highway 99 into Oak Park, I talked to the students for an hour about The Freehoodship and my hero’s adventure project in 2013.  I began by explaining how it is that a imaginative consciousness can participate in and create (in subtle but important ways) the real world out of its virtual, that is infinite, potential — I use the term “virtual” here as it has been used by such philosophers as Deleuze.  The point of my art, I told the students, is to consciously actualize as much of this virtual realm as possible, a process which by no means leaves one unchanged.  I also showed them the website, gave a brief definition of alternate reality gaming, and finally described the mission we were about to do.

For me, and I believe, the students, performing the mission was a great experience.  My goal in doing it was not only to expand my boundaries of experience, but to create real, heartfelt connections to a community I did not really know, but had “known of” for years.  In recent times, I had grown tired of “knowing of” it and had wanted to know it without the intrusive and intervening preposition.  With this mission, I felt like all of us began the process of removing this preposition.

And to assist in this removal process, I added another layer to this mission only hours before it began.  Just as I did in the mission I performed at Sunrise Mall (See blog post: “perennially neglected reoccurring ideas”) to get beyond my objectification of strangers, I wanted to work contemplatively with images to encourage a more imaginative and real integration into the fabric of Oak Park.  Therefore, while I walked through the neighborhood, I took a number of digital photos of whatever caught my attention.  In the two nights since the mission, I have used Dennis Klocek’s issue transformation methodology (once again, check out “perennially neglected reoccurring ideas”) to more fully cross the threshold into Oak Park (I had determined that one of my many issues was crossing the threshold).  I will be continuing to employ this methodology for the next few days and seeing what happens.

too much understanding around

We don’t have enough understanding in the world; we have too much.  Look at ourselves: our understanding just standing there to the point of under-loitering, and in the same junior high caliber cliques and around the same old mini-marts of meaning.  Do you understand?  Of course you do, but do you under-walk or under-saunter or even under-dance out of your comfort zone, out of your cliques, or indeed across any thresholds at all?  Too often, I don’t.  Therefore, I’ve designed mission 13.  It asks one to cross a threshold in hopes that crossing a threshold can be turned by the imagination into “under-crossingathreshold.”

Learning like a Druid

Mission #12 on my 2013 adventure asks that I learn something from nature.  For the American Transcendentalists, nature and the soul are the two great teachers of the human being.  In my case, I think I’ve gotten most of my lessons from the soul, and not enough from nature.  Is this because my soul has just been a better teacher than nature?  Have the soul’s lessons been for me more compelling or attention grabbing?  To some degree, my soul has been a more insistent teacher, at least those parts of the soul that like to “get all up in your grill” and exactly in that colloquial style.  These parts bend us all out of shape, either visibly or invisibly, depending on our underlying disposition among other less enduring factors, of course.  These parts we normally call feelings.  The philosopher Georg Kuhlewind, however, calls these sorts of feelings “emotions,” because for him, there are two primary sorts of feelings and he likes to keep their differences foremost in mind.  The sort I’m referring to he describes as self-feelings, as feelings or emotions that are automatic and self-centered.  The other type he describes as cognitive feelings, as feelings (not “emotions”) that turn outward to sense the “inner” and “outer” world and other human beings.  These feelings are form-free in that they can take on the form of what they feel, so to speak, or take on the form of what they are felt by as weird as that sounds.  Self-feelings are definitely not form-free.  My soul’s most memorable teachings have been with the blunt instrument of self-feeling.  But I would be stuck in a situation of being eternally pummeled (corporal punishment is most definitely not against the rules in the soul) without any learning if the soul had not also offered a more expansive pedagogy.  For along with the blunt instrument and its concomitant suffering have come more subtle lessons.  If the former sorts of lessons are like pressure and coercion, the latter, like suction and invitation.  These  latter lessons inspire one to activity and cognitive feeling, to death — of a soul sort — and transformation.  Today I realize with a bit more clarity that this second sort of lesson is the sort that nature offers me as well.  In fact, it is in this manner that soul and nature teach together and remind me that “spirit” and “wind” used to be one word.

So what then have I learned from nature?  It’s hard to say, but I think the lessons taught me by my soul are at least as attributable to nature in that spirit/wind non-dualistic way of the imagination.  And because mission #12 calls for me to learn like a druid and not like an empiricist, I feel no qualms in learning in this way.

Reestablishing Momentum

There is nothing better for training the will and nothing more difficult for me than trying to reestablish momentum that has been lost.  These next two weeks — I’m on holiday — will be my time to get going on the missions again and write a few blog posts.  This one doesn’t really count because of its brevity, but I’m hoping it’s something like a key turning in the ignition.

Perenially Neglected Reoccurring Ideas

Part of my motivation in founding the Freehoodship was to provide a platform or context for me and others to finally pursue lines of thinking that we had over and over again allowed to dissolve like vapor trails in our souls.  I know that in my case, I have had ideas come back to me at various times in the course of decades even — and I’m still fairly young — without my having really taken them up and made something of them.  One reason I haven’t is that on a few occasions it’s taken a decade or two of incubation for the idea to become viable.  The Freehoodship, itself, is an example of such an idea.  Early on in it’s evolution, it had appeared to me more as a standard brick and mortar school, though with a non-standard approach and curriculum.  It didn’t seem to me viable in this form for many reasons, the most obvious of which having to do with financing — there wasn’t any!  The Freehoodship as it now exists retains some of the essentials of this earlier form, but it’s also now obviously quite different.  Most of the other reasons I never acted on these reoccurring ideas are less reasons than excuses.

Yesterday evening in the “Games that Transform Culture” class/project that I’m leading at Rudolf Steiner College, the participants and I took up, at Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights, one of my perennially neglected reoccurring ideas.  This idea has to do with the affects of one’s inner life on those around one as well as with how one can best connect with another human being, even a stranger.  In other words, does our active cultivation of a rich and non-judgmental inner life have an objective beneficial effect on us and all the people around us, and does it allow us to connect more deeply with them when a conversation with each of them is logistically impossible.  An important source of this idea is one of Rudolf Steiner’s self-development exercises.  In the exercise, the meditant is asked to treat her ideas and feelings as deeds that affect not just her inner world, but the world at large, even if she does not act on these ideas and feelings.  Like Steiner, I don’t believe this exercise is just some “What if?” scenario to purify an isolated consciousness, but an actual recognition of the more and more non-dualistic nature of reality.  The goal of the exercise is to begin to take more responsibility for the content and gesture of one’s consciousness and its influence beyond what are considered its traditional borders.  It is my feeling that we have to begin to take responsibility for the influence of 500 years of the scientific world view which has birthed in us the tendency to habitually objectify everything in our environment, even other human beings.  What I mean by this, is that we nowadays immediately move from the sense impression of an exterior reality — what the thing or person looks like, sounds like, etc. — to superficial judgment without often seeking to penetrate to a deeper understanding, to interiority.  What’s interesting is that commercial environments like malls actually seem to encourage these snap judgments.  It is for this very reason that we went yesterday to Sunrise Mall to challenge ourselves and experiment with this particular perennially neglected reoccurring idea of mine.

To some degree, I think I have so far misrepresented the principles and purpose of the experiment I designed for yesterday’s excursion.  I didn’t  mean to imply that it was an outcome based experiment.  In fact, we did this experiment to cultivate a non-outcome based consciousness.  To my mind, outcome based experiments are a form of control, and I was not looking to control, but to create.  Yesterday evening for me was about creating an event that involved the interplay of the interior and exterior worlds and that made, through our active imaginations, reality as big and diverse as we could possibly make it.  The experiment was based on the premise that all human beings are individually engaged in a mysterious and amazing process of becoming, that each of us is a worthy protagonist of even a Russian novel.  Last night’s research was into how we can, in this flux, generate more possibilities for loving the world and its people.

So what was the experiment we ended up doing?  In actual fact, we did the experiment as a mission inspired by the work of Dennis Klocek.  Its first step was for each of us to walk through the mall and find, at random, five images, anything from a burbling fountain to a sign advertising “50% off.”  The second step was to document the images with a digital camera, pen and paper, or our memories.  The third step was to take each of these five images and link them, without thinking too much about it, with one of the following psychological concepts (they’re psychological because I’m designating them as such!): issue, belief, process, reversal, and lesson.  For the fourth step, we found a person in the mall with whom we could practice overcoming our nasty habit of objectifying others.  We were, however, to observe this person from a distance, as we do most people, without him or her being aware of our activities.  Naturally the goal is to do it without appearing creepy.  The fifth step asked us to imagine a rich fictional life for the subject.  We were to achieve this by employing the images and their corresponding psychological concepts just as a writer would a generative device.  For example, if the image that corresponded to “issue” was of an airplane taking off, we might imagine the subject’s issue to be the inability to get started on some important task, such as earning a degree or ending a marriage.  We could then, with the help of the corresponding images, imagine the subject’s belief structures related to this inability, the thought processes connected with it, the eventual reversal of fortune in relation to the issue, and the final lessons learned from the whole experience.  The goal of this fifth step was to construct a rich and vital interiority for the subject (“subject” being an unfortunate term because of its distancing and dehumanizing connotations) that would awaken in us a strong affinity for him or her.  That it was a fiction was unimportant.  And anyway, it was only the details that were fictional: we all have issues, beliefs, processes, reversals, and lessons to learn.

When I think about the mission now from the perspective of a day later, I feel it was most effective in teaching me how little I know about how our inner life wordlessly affects others.  I do, however, feel as though I established a more genuine interest in the woman who was my subject.  I hope none of this sounds creepy — it wasn’t.  This interest was built by my heartfelt active intention to connect with her and the tools I used to do it.  Ultimately, my intention was to take just a small step towards becoming a better human being, one more able to perceive and appreciate the genius of others.   I want to do more research in this area.  I’m surely going to do this mission again.

Overcoming Our Tendencies

We all, even the most balanced among us, have our tendencies.  I’m certainly more a dog person than a cat person, though I don’t mind cats at a healthy, non-allergy-inducing, distance.  I’m also more introvert than extrovert, though by no means a recluse.  Most of the time, I don’t give my tendencies a second thought.  The world they steer me into seems big enough to satisfy my needs.  However, there are other times, usually after an extended period of “most of the time” when this world of my tendencies is not enough, when it does not satisfy my needs, when it just down-right annoys me.  These other times have consistently been my ripest moments for growth.

A couple years ago, while perusing what was then the latest issue of Poetry at Peet’s, I suddenly became aware that there were some poems in the issue that I wouldn’t read only because of how they looked on the page.  I became aware that my avoidance was based on a half-conscious antipathy of which I had not, until that moment, clearly been aware.   I also realized that this experience was not particular to this edition of Poetry or Poetry in general, but that I’d been avoiding certain poems in this way for a long time.  When this prejudice became obvious to me, I felt inclined to do something about it.  That very day, if I recall correctly, I gave myself the task of looking through other editions of Poetry, as well as other books of poetry, and deliberately choosing to read those poems for which I had earlier felt enough antipathy not to read.  As I did the choosing, I became more aware of the contours of my antipathy, it no longer vaguely and blithely flew under my radar.  It’s still there, but now I know it’s there.

Another tendency in me that I deliberately chose to address had to do with my consciousness more broadly.  As an introvert — or so say the personality tests — I spend more time focused on the phenomena of my inner life — feelings, impulses, ideas, and such — than I do on outward sense-perceptible reality.  Whereas I’m fairly deft at explaining nuances of the psyche, the details of the outer world often pass me by.  For at least the past decade, I’ve tried to address this deficiency by doing various perception exercises to strengthen my ability to see what’s right in front of me.  This past summer, I even worked through a chunk of Dennis Klocek’s Drawing form the Book of Nature, doing many of the drawing exercises he recommended.  Recently, I’ve had some subtle experiences with observing nature that seem to indicate that my years of effort have not been completely wasted.  The most compelling of these  experiences happened this past January at Kirkwood, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  I was up early in the morning before others had awoken and was looking out the window across the valley to a range of mountains as it was being gradually illuminated by the early morning sun.  As I was admiring the view, I began to notice the blue sky, the mountain peaks, and the wind blowing horizontal plums of snow from the ridge-line taking on a quality different from normal.  I had a sort of Aristotelian experience of the various conceptual elements of this vista surfacing in the appearances of their sense-perceptible counterparts.  I experienced wind and snow and blue and sky as realities both conceptual and perceptual, as fully real only when both were present.  The conceptual seemed actualized and concrete in the perceptual — and the vista took on more depth, though without more space, paradoxically.  It didn’t feel as though I was projecting some sort of Kantian categories; it felt as though I was seeing realistically.  In this blog I have frequently addressed the importance of integration on all levels for our time, to the point of even implicating my own sadly maligned colon.  This experience in the mountains felt like a first little step for me in overcoming the great man-made chasm between thought and things, like a wee act of integration on a most fundamental level.

By the way, certain elements of The Freehoodship project, itself, have been designed by me in order that I might stretch the boundaries of my tendencies to point of their becoming more like universal interests.  Today, more than ever, I would still rather fall short of the latter than continue as an expert at the former.

What Do The Soul And Colon Have In Common?

At the same time as I’ve been preparing for and doing the missions of this adventure, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a dark night of not only the soul, but also of — and here it’s okay to laugh because it is funny — the colon.  Yes it’s funny, but it’s also kicking my butt, pun intended.  The two dark nights, the psychological and the physical, are clearly connected.  With both, I’m having trouble eliminating indigestible substances; in the case of the soul, you might call them traumatic experiences, the earlier ones generally being the more potent.  There are things that I can’t let go of, in other words.  Since I was a child, my gesture has been to desperately hold on to stuff, to always keep it together, to not offend (such as with stories of my bowel habits) — a Freudian would perhaps point to some crisis during my anal phase.  I imagine such a clinician would also reduce my whole Freehoodship enterprise to some sort of anal phase compensation.  But it isn’t that at all or only that, it’s rather my finally exhaling after holding my breath for so long.  It’s clear to me that this crisis and my adventure are not accidentally sharing the same epoch of my life.  Its also clear to me that the whole Cartesian mind/body separation paradigm fantasy is dissolving in me before my very eyes — and painfully.  Just another manifestation of the integration I’ve been talking about!

confidence and insecurity

Having worked for some fifteen years as a high school teacher, I have an excellent radar for irony.  I, myself, enjoy healthy servings of the stuff, though I try to follow Rilke’s lead in not becoming too familiar with it in uncreative moments.  And of course, irony only really works if we human beings are sometimes in earnest.  It depends on earnestness for its existence in a way that earnestness doesn’t depend on it.  Also, I have never found the two together in the duct work of same utterance, mine or anyone’s, at least not until recently.

It was about a year ago that I first experienced someone say something that was both in earnest and ironic at the same time.  It was not a fully intentional or accidental occurrence, just as the utterance wasn’t fully sincere or ironic, but actually bigger and more compelling than both.  When I spoke to this someone, my friend Edgard, about it, he seemed to have been only half aware of what he was doing.  I guess I supplied the other half of awareness.

I bring this up because it provides some context to explain how I feel about doing mission #6.  In this mission, I’m supposed to discover my superpowers by asking at least ten people to weigh in on what they are.  I feel both confident and insecure, perhaps also sincere and ironic, in asking for this feedback, not wanting to come across as needy on the one hand or narcissistic on the other.  My goal is to do the mission, indeed, all the missions of this adventure, with as much equanimity and grace as possible, but an equanimity and grace that also admits frustration and awkwardness.

It has been my experience that we are entering an age when opposite motives and feelings can readily and consciously co-exist in the same utterance or action and in so doing, heighten the effect of it.