the evolution of consciousness in real time

A high school English classroom, that bastion of standard usage and hackneyed “man versus nature” hermeneutics, is not often confused with a cutting edge research institute.  And yet, in my fifteen years of high school English teaching, I have felt myself to be at the cutting edge, privy to some of the freshest phenomena in language.  At the moment, the most interesting of these phenomena has been the gradual replacement of the term “based on” by “based off of” or “based off” in not only student speech, but in student writing as well.  The first few times I heard or read this new usage at the beginning of the new millennium, I figured these particular students had merely misremembered the common turn of phrase, not in itself very unusual.  However, as I encountered the new usage more and more I realized that it could not be dismissed as some mysterious and semi-annoying anomaly.  Though I still, like any self-respecting English teacher, correct this “nonstandard” diction in essays, I have come to believe that I am witnessing a moment in the evolution of language, an evolution that could, in the not so distant future, render “based on” an archaic and nonstandard form of “based off of.”  I have also come to believe that this change is a symptom of a more fundamental shift or reorientation of consciousness, as grandiose as that might sound.  As some of you may know, I am not alone in considering changes in language indicative of changes in consciousness.  Owen Barfield and Jean Gebser, among others, have shown with iconoclastic brilliance the fruitfulness of this line of research.  Much if not all of what I will say in this essay is based on and based off of to their work.

Notice that I didn’t say based on or based off of their work because I don’t consider “based off of” just another way of saying “based on,” which is to say, I don’t see them as synonyms.  For instance, when my students declare that their work is “based off of” a particular source, my sense is that they are implying a relationship between themselves and the source that is different from the one that others imply when they use “based on.”  The traditionalist might lament that the first usage displays a troubling infidelity, as though the writer employs the source simply as a springboard into freer and more promising waters.  Such a writer does not sufficiently acknowledge the debt owed the source.  Like a wayward jazz soloist, perhaps, such a writer improvises too far towards newness, a newness which the adherents to “based on” would find much too associative, centrifugal, and incidental.

Though I am not a traditionalist, I understand the fear of the traditionalist: he or she doesn’t wish to see centuries of meticulous and responsible scholarship implied in the words “based on” superceded by a couple decades of shoddy student scholarship implied in the words “based off of.”  Such a fear, however, blinds us to the potential benefits of this shift in usage/consciousness.  Rather than seeing this shift as an inevitable minus mutation, to use one of Gebser’s terms, we could see it as a plus mutation, another one of Gebser’s terms.  The minus mutation, as Gebser characterizes it, occurs when one trait replaces another: “B” replaces “A” or “based off of” replaces “based on.”  A plus mutation, on the other hand, leads to a complexification, not “B” replacing “A,” but “B” in addition to “A,” “based off of” in addition to “based on.”  Obviously, seeing by itself does not make something so.  Therefore, for us to make sure this particular shift in usage/consciousness is a plus mutation, I don’t think we can just let it happen to us; rather, we need to be more active in making sure we don’t lose varieties and subtleties of consciousness within it’s unfolding.

In the work of such 20th Century philosophers as Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer, there is the understanding that our non-dualistic, direct, and unmediated experience of reality has the quality of both a discovery and a creation.  These two aspects of experience are distinct, but not separable, like a wave and its medium.  If one were able to distinguish an experience of reality that had more the quality of discovery from one that had more the quality of creation, one might get the sense of how I see an important difference between “based on” and “based off of.”  With “based on,” the percipient (the one who experiences) brings less to the reality moment, so to speak, whereas with “based off of,” the individual creativity of the percipient is more involved, in a way that’s not necessarily simply subjective, in constituting reality.

My feeling is that “based on” has been a usage and habit of consciousness more in service of the status quo and has therefore tended to add epicycles and eccentrics to that status quo rather than overturn it.  It is also my feeling that my students’ use of “based off of” heralds some sort of “sun-centered” reorientation, not in a spatial sense, that is, of representing an outward reality differently, but in a more ontological one.  What I mean by this is that when my students use “based off of,” they seem to be both more individual and less individual than the preceding “based on” generations.  They are more individual in how they use a source more as a catalyst for their own personal work and less individual (from a “based on” perspective) in how they seem less attached to the products of their creativity.  Therefore, they don’t mind subsequent work being “based off of” their work; in fact, I would venture that they would be more uncomfortable with others’ work being “based on” theirs.  I suspect that the hierarchical world implied by “based on” is becoming more and more uncomfortable or problematical for them.

As a teacher, I feel it’s my role to ground my students in all that is best of the thinking revealed in “based on,” and yet, at the same time, facilitate a conscious engagement with and development of that thinking revealed in “based off of.”  Nothing less than this twofold approach – and hopefully something much, much more – will do justice to the new structures of consciousness that are appearing in and being created by each one of us.

on becoming a co-creator of reality

Whenever I teach about the nature of the imagination, I almost always start by presenting a particular kind of image, a gestalt image, to illustrate how we as human beings perceive the world.  It’s one of those sorts of images that seemingly change their appearance while we look at them.  Most often, I use an image that first appears to be an oval composed of a hodge-podge of bigger and smaller black splotches – no splotch ostensibly more or less important than any other.  However, while one is looking at the splotches, the splotches quite suddenly and seemingly magically reveal the image of a giraffe head, almost as though they reorganize themselves independently of the perceiving subject, which of course they don’t – nothing on the sheet of paper changes; rather, something within one’s seeing does.  The philosopher and historian of consciousness, Owen Barfield, calls this change in seeing or the process of making giraffe head out of splotches “figuration.”

The point I try to make with this particular exercise is that the act of perception is formative; one does not in fact see a reality that is already there but instead helps to construct it.  Unfortunately, when we look at the world apart from the special case of gestalt images, we are not aware of our figuration in constructing that world and therefore come to the conclusion that our seeing has no impact on reality.  Though we may concede that one whose imagination is more developed can see more variety in the world, we would be unlikely to admit they see more reality.  We are over and over again asleep to our own figuration and its radical, world-creating potential.

We are also over and over again recreating the same world for ourselves, mostly unconsciously.  We are each of us expert at doing this.  Ever since I first had the experience of seeing the giraffe head, I have been unable to not see it each time I look at the image.  I have been unable to return my consciousness to the time before I saw giraffe head.  Quite literally, I have been unable to un-see it.  Now imagine the world we see is the way it is because of a habit of mind, because we can’t – and haven’t even thought that we could or needed to – un-see it.

All of this points to the importance of the inner life in perception.  Who’s to say that the giraffe head is the only image really in the oval of splotches?  And who’s to say that the world as it is, even down to our very perception, is the only world that could be?  I’ve heard my students say they’ve seen witches and other creatures in the oval.  Have not there also been those among us who’ve pointed to other expressions of reality?  These would be hallucinations only if they never became a shared reality.  What one realizes as one cultivates an inner life of imagination, is that the outer world seems less outer, and the inner less inner, and each seems less fixed, more mobile, and strangely enough, more ethical in the sense of being subject to ethics.  One begins to feel more responsible for the world and more capable as a co-creator of it.  It’s high time we take up this work.

the expert novice

I don’t know whether it was during the reading of the five-thousandth or five-thousandth and first magazine article telling me directly or indirectly how to live my life that I realized for the first time we live in an age of experts – if you haven’t already noticed (and for the longest time I hadn’t), they seem to be everywhere giving advice on nearly everything.  At about this same time, which is now a few years ago, I came to a second realization.  I realized that if, starting tomorrow, everyone on earth suddenly began paying attention to the experts and living by the fruits of their expertise, we wouldn’t have immediate world-wide utopia, in fact, we’d still have more or less the same world we have now.  We’d still have those fracking and those fighting fracking.  We’d still have genetically modified foods and those fighting genetic modification.  We’d still have blah, blah, blah, and those fighting the terrible blah, blah, blah.  Unfortunately, merely ignoring the experts wouldn’t improve the situation either, a situation I’m assuming most thoughtful people feel needs improving.  So, with the same urgency as the writer of a manifesto or like someone who has contemplated the unflattering judgments of our age by future historians, I believe more than ever that the time has come for us to finally wake up and pay a new kind of attention to the experts.  We should do this because, whether we like it or not, these experts are the embodiments of our best thinking, and when we pay attention to them, we are indirectly (and therefore more objectively) paying attention to ourselves.  This is true whether these experts be those touting neuro-science as a way to develop protocols for clearing our minds of confusion and fear or those telling us how to save the environment or raise children or even those who instruct us on how to place our tongue firmly in cheek – indeed, for my purposes, nearly any kind of expert, serious or otherwise, will do.   I hope that when we really start to pay a new kind of attention to them, unbiased, open-minded attention, many of us will be surprised to discover that we’re more fascinated and dismayed than convinced and reassured by what they have to offer.

On the one hand, I hope we’ll be fascinated by their continuing proliferation and penetration into every aspect of life, and by the nature of their expertise, its genesis and its practice and maintenance, while on the other hand, I hope we’ll be dismayed by the too often abstract or limited nature of the results of their expertise, as well as by our culture’s seemingly undying faith in the efficacy of those results.  And we’ll notice, I continue to hope, that even in those instances when we question the results, it’s the results we question, not the underlying logic or worldview.  In my experience, when one penetrates to the level of worldview, one discovers that almost all of the many experts are of one particular type.  In saying this, I’m conscious of adopting the precarious position of an expert on experts.  So mindful that I may be dubbed a hypocrite, though not I think by the historians of the future, I’ll carry on and say that this one type of expert invariably has an expertise that grinds a lens beautifully engineered for its particular narrow task and then, just as invariably, this expertise sees the world almost exclusively through this lens, and in so doing, prunes the world of much of its variety.  Perhaps the quintessential example from the 20th Century of this type of expert, the type we hear every week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday,” is Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA and a name you will most likely recognize.  Based on his extensive genetic research spanning decades, he came to certain conclusions, reductive in the extreme, about the human being and the nature of consciousness; he called these conclusions “the astonishing hypothesis.”  Ironically, he addresses each one of us personally when presenting his impersonal, mechanical model: “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”  Here, Crick takes two different but simultaneously occurring phenomena and, without considering other ways they might be related, links them as materialists have done since the Scientific Revolution: simple physiological cause begets infinitely various psychological (not to mention spiritual) effect.  Like a baleen whale, Crick’s mind expertly captures millions and billions of tiny zooplankton and then believes it has somehow eaten all of the ocean’s fauna.  And for this type of expert, this capturing of only a sliver of reality is not for the most part extensive, that is, having to do with what’s out there, but intensive, that is, having to do with how we conceptualize what’s out there.

Before I clarify this distinction with an example, let me say a little about what I think your mind might be going through as you’re reading this essay.  If you are anything like me, you are effortlessly making judgments about what you are reading.  If you begin to reflect on these judgments, not on their content, which is what we mostly do, but on how they arise in your consciousness, you’ll notice that they first of all, arise automatically, and that second of all, are some admixture of cognitive and emotional elements.  So, for instance, when I used the term “manifesto” near the beginning of this essay (or manifesto), you perhaps immediately thought to yourself: “Who the hell takes manifestos seriously anymore – this writer must be completely out of touch with our time and a bit too attached to his own perspective.”  Or when I proposed there are experts to show us how to be tongue-in-cheek, you may have thought: “This guy is undermining his point with lame and distracting jokes.”  For the moment, I just want you to briefly pay attention to these judgments as they arise. And to keep yourself from getting too caught up in them, I suggest you document them briefly in the margins, and then continue on with your reading.

Now I will attempt to clarify the distinction I made about how experts capture only a sliver of reality.  I said that it was not for the most part extensive or having to do with what’s out there, but intensive or having to do with how we conceptualize what’s out there.  Imagine, then, you are looking at a blackboard or piece of paper on which you have drawn a cube with twelve lines so as to feign three dimensions – as you are already marking up the margins of this essay, you could draw one there.  This cube is called a reversible cube.  Why?  Well, when you first glance at it, one of the two sides that are most perpendicular to your line of sight will appear to be closer to you.  However, if you continue to look at the cube, these two sides will eventually reverse their positions before your very eyes, the side that had appeared more distant suddenly appearing closer.  Clearly, the cube out there on the blackboard or page has not magically re-oriented itself; instead, something within your seeing has shifted.  You’ll notice that you can, with a little work, reverse the cube at will.  What this little experiment seems to say about perception is that our mind or way of seeing impacts and to some degree determines what we see.  In other words, we participate in our perception – it is not merely a passive activity.  This reversible cube, like all gestalt figures, has a particular ambivalent form that slows down this participation just enough so that we become aware of it.  However, if you begin to pay attention to how you perceive other things, you will begin to notice, at first only subtly, your participation in how you represent these things to yourself.  The philosopher and historian of consciousness, Owen Barfield, calls this subtle participation “figuration.”

Now imagine we have an expert whose expertise focuses on this twelve-line cube that feigns three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.  He thinks he knows all the important properties of this twelve-line cube; he can draw it accurately on various surfaces and provide you with all of its important proportions and measurements – his figuration gives him this one clear perspective.  However, imagine also that he is only able to perceive one of its orientations, that he cannot flip it or reverse it.  He’s an expert with limited expertise.  His cube exists fully out there, or so it seems to him, but he lacks the wherewithal to make it flip.  He can only see, so to speak, simple physiological cause begets infinitely various psychological effect.  From now on, I’ll refer to this wherewithal as imagination.  This expert without a functional imagination is something like what 19th Century philosophers called a naïve realist. A naïve realist believes the world exists fully formed out there without our perceiving or thinking participating at all in its coming into being for us – there is no such thing as figuration.  For the naïve realist, flipping the cube by definition is impossible or simply a parlor trick, an optical illusion that has no bearing in reality.  It is my experience that almost all experts are naïve realists, and it is precisely with these experts overwhelming and uncritical acceptance of the naïve realistic worldview that I take issue, primarily because I think it is one of the root causes of what ails humanity in the 21st Century, as grandiose as that may sound.  Feel free now to mark up the margins here if you need to.

Rather than begin by making a list of what ails humanity – many others have done that and done it well, and anyway, I imagine you have your own extensive list – I will try to explain in a more focused way why I think an uncritical acceptance of the naïve realistic worldview is a problem.   First of all, the fact is that the over-whelming majority of us are naïve realists and not because we’re stupid, but because it is the contemporary habit of mind.  Let me again illustrate my point with another example, once again a kind of experiment in attention, though this one you might immediately dismiss as unscientific, whimsical, and arbitrary.  So be it; just write your judgments down in the margins and carry on.  This time, instead of imagining a reversible cube, go to your bedroom and lie on your bed and look up at the ceiling with its randomly textured surface; let your eyes wander over its surface – you might have done this as a child.  At some point, if you look long enough, you’ll quite suddenly see – where before you saw nothing – an image or figure in the texture, as you would, say, in a fluffy cloud on a spring day; in my case, because I’ve been thinking about baleen whales, I see the head of a whale.  This example is clearly much like the example with the reversible cube in that it involves semi-conscious figuration; however, in this example, I don’t want you to focus on how you see the head of the whale or whatever it is you see, but on whether you are now able to un-see it, so to speak.  If you are like most people, you will find it difficult to look at the place where you saw whatever it is you saw in the way that you saw it before you saw whatever it is you saw.  In other, less torturous English, you can’t seem to return the ceiling to the pristine state it maintained before you saw the equivalent of my whale head.  For all intents and purposes, the whale head has become a habit of mind and we soon forget or, more accurately, don’t consciously experience, as naïve realists, that we participated in its coming into being.  It just exists out there like a tree or fire hydrant.  Environmental myopia and over-eating or any of our human shortcomings are no less habits of mind than said tree or fire hydrant, though their consequences are obviously more immediately of concern.

Near the end of his autobiography, Charles Darwin describes the consequences of habits of mind for him, though without completely believing his own reasoning.  He writes that after the age of thirty, reading poetry became an experience “so intolerably dull that it nauseated” him.  Before thirty, however, he assures us that he had enjoyed the work of a variety of poets, mentioning Shakespeare and Milton as well as many of the English Romantics.  Darwin then spends a good paragraph wondering sadly why he has lost what he calls his “higher aesthetic tastes.”  He describes how his “mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” but he is unsure why this particular disposition of mind, or what I’m calling a habit of mind, has made the enjoyment of poetry impossible.  He concludes the paragraph by stating that “the loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

What Darwin calls “higher aesthetic tastes” I am calling the imagination, the capacity to see both sides of the reversible cube, the capacity to un-see the head of the whale, the capacity to break a habit of mind, the capacity to have an experience of knowing that transcends naïve realism.  Darwin had enough imagination to guess at – I would say correctly – the consequences of his expertise: diminished happiness, a damaged intellect and moral character, as well as a weakened emotional life.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough imagination at the end of his life to do anything about it.  I think all of us, experts and non-experts alike, suffer now as Darwin once suffered, though perhaps it’s even worse for us because we are, in our habits of mind, the inheritors and not the creators of his legacy.  The point of this essay is not, however, to promote hopelessness in the face of habits of mind and naïve realism, they can do that quite well on their own.  The point is to show that like any habit, habits of mind can be broken, that we don’t just have to be old Darwins, that we can also be our own individual selves who, against steep odds, can develop a rich enough imagination to do something about healing ourselves (and here I include our consciousness) and the world, which are in fact, though naïve realism would have us believe otherwise, two halves of the same reality, not some non-overlapping magisteria.  For those of you who say “what unprecedented odds,” I say just take a stroll around a mall or surf the web, two human-made environments designed, by experts in Darwinian thinking, to appeal to our various un-free behaviors, which is about all they really think we are if they’re faithful to their science.  Indeed, in the minds of advertisers, we are either “targets” or “waste.”  You can also do your own experiment and reflect on how your capacity to reflect is affected by these two types of environments.  Are they engineered to create a citizenry of humane, creative, and self-aware people?  Are they engineered to appeal to us as free human beings?  I don’t think anyone would think so.

I’ll step off my soapbox now – though some might think I step immediately onto another – to propose a solution, and to my mind the best sort of solution always remains enough in solution, so to speak, to remain dynamic and therefore more broadly applicable.  I don’t propose the abandonment of experts, but a new kind of expert, one that I call the expert novice.  This expert novice promotes engagement and action based on her own direct experience in all the realms of her life, not just in one particular realm.  Individual and direct experiencing becomes the expertise.  Growing more and more conscious of and beginning to participate in the act of figuration as I defined it earlier also becomes the expertise.  The expert novice seeks to make this expertise more flexible, penetrating, and ethical by developing the capacity to perceive and think holistically, artistically, and non-dualistically, which is to say, imaginatively.  The goal of the expert novice is to, and here I paraphrase the philosopher Jesaiah Ben-Aharon, more fully actualize the virtual.  The virtual, for Ben-Aharon, is the spiritual sphere (don’t think of religion here, but of a region that’s both created and discovered by higher levels of thinking) imminent in the physical.  The expert novice seeks to access this sphere by means of the imagination as I’ve described it.  Whereas the traditional expert replaces lived experience with dopamine receptors, molecules, autism spectrums, and other abstract models that we as a culture overlay on the world, the expert novice directly and concretely researches the actual experiences of joy and sorrow, social isolation, indeed, all human experiences and their multivalent expressions.  With rigor, not dilettantism, the expert novice struggles to see through the general laws that blind us to the infinite unique attributes of the world.  This is a science of participation, not separation, of wholes, not abstractions, of experience, not hierarchical models of experience or what I’ve earlier referred to as habits of mind.  The expert novice paddles his canoe in the estuary where concepts and perceptions intermingle in full reality, a full reality that is better thought of as a verb in the present progressive tense.

It of course will come as no surprise to anyone who fancies himself an expert that I am not an expert in the traditional sense, though I have, in my academic life, fallen in love with my own fair share of mental models, the ones of physical anthropology and evolution, most specifically.  Their simplicity first drew me to them, but it later made me doubt how they could fully explain the totality of my experiences, not to mention all human experience.  Thus began my search to better understand this totality, not to mention, expand it and deepen it.  Like the historian of consciousness, Jean Gebser, I’m not seeking to replace one way of thinking with another, but to expand the human being’s ways of knowing reality.  Like a novice, I am hoping to cultivate humility, openness, and the ability to learn.  Like an expert, I’m looking to do it systematically, rigorously, and responsibly.

At the moment, it appears to me, and a growing number of others, that the world is withering on the branches of our knowledge because, just as our interior condition affects the wellbeing of people around us, so the nature of our knowledge affects the wellbeing of nature.  When we treat nature or another human being like some convergent test with one true answer that can be committed to memory for all time, we get a static reality reduced to the point of death – really, an unreality, a habit of mind.  Because of our habits of mind, it’s clear we don’t know how to think in a living way or as we currently like to say, ecologically, and I include in this “we” all ecologists who unconsciously cling to naïve realism, particularly those who imagine the world better off without human beings, as if human beings were some inflamed organ like the appendix (which we are now beginning to realize has important functions) and not the stage on which full reality makes its appearance.  For my own all-to-frequent habits of mind, I also include myself.  Thinking ecologically demands we become more conscious of how our minds and the world are one dynamic and integrated system, and when I say minds, I mean our whole inner life, including our life of feeling and volition.  Without a life of feeling, Ahab, for instance, sees only a whale like the ones I’ve mentioned, not Moby Dick, and we get a not-very-interesting novel: no drama, no morality.  What I mean to say is that our life of feeling is an essential part of this system, this ecology; it gives it value.  We can’t imagine human experience without it.  But instead of being slaves to our feelings, like Ahab, we must do what the poet and philosopher, Robert Hamerling, insists we can’t do.  Perhaps he was right for his time, the 19th Century, when he proclaimed that we can’t want as we will, but that’s exactly what we need to learn how to do today.  How do we do this?  How do we systematically change how we feel about someone or some thing?  Confucius recommended we expand our knowledge and be sincere in our thoughts.  To achieve this change more consciously (which is necessary in our age), I would add that we expand our knowledge not haphazardly, but in areas where we have no interest or even for which we have a natural dislike.  Instead of looking in journals of psychology or sociology to discover whether the experts think Confucius’s advice is sound, I suggest you test his advice as the expert novice would, that is, by personally following the advice and then, by means of direct experience, studying the affects in your soul (I use this term to denote the inner life in all its richness and variety).

The time is more than ripe to question our habits of thinking, our habits of feeling, and our habits of doing – no experience however strange and unprecedented, to echo Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet, can any longer be reflexively dismissed without doing damage to the human being – growth demands that we enter these experiences, and be awake.  In fact, it demands we cultivate these experiences, though not like some hallucination, but rather like some elucidation.   We have too long touched merely the surface of things, and we have done so with such a tentative, unconscious, and fearful touch that everything under the finger feels as it always has, whether the plastic, wood, and steel of a manikin or another human being.  We must now feel more deeply and more diversely and with all our senses.  And when I say that, I mean our feeling must take on the quality of cognition and our cognition the quality of feeling.  This, to me, is the beginning work of the expert novice.  This, to me, demands we come into our own lives with fresh eyes and an open heart and say to our old selves again and again: why are you thinking this, why are you feeling this, why are you doing this?  Then the real work of the expert novice, which is the building of a new self and world out of intent, not content, begins.

some benefits of contemplative practice

At some point in any long-term project most of us ask the question: Why am I doing this?  This question is not as simple as it may at first appear.  The question is not only about the obvious: if my project is building a house, then the question is about, and only about, whether I ought to be building a house.  Why not instead write a collection of poetry?  The less obvious implication of this question can be elucidated by rephrasing it: why am I doing this in this way?  Such a rephrasing – really a reorientation of perspective – led the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, to conclude so famously that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Of course, his long-term project in this instance was not building a house, but life, itself.

More than ever before, this less obvious implication of the question is important to human beings.  It is particularly important in the project of living life.  Many of us are no longer willing to endure distracted and habitual ways of being that seem to be reified by the uninspired, uninspiring, and fundamentally meaningless narrative of scientific materialism.  We long to take up life in a more self-aware and creative way, each of us as a being with a unique task on this planet.  The whole multi-billion dollar self-help movement is now a decades old effort to address this longing.  And the longing only seems to be growing.

In my experience, the only real way to satisfy this longing is to take up what is variously called inner work, contemplative practice, or a schooling of consciousness.  It is the challenging but necessary step you make after you have taken Socrates’s words to heart and have examined your life.  If you have been told that this step will be easy, you have been told a lie.  If you have been told that this step will make your dreams come true, you have not so much been told a lie as been underestimated.  What I mean by this is that your dreams before you take up a practice often see their fulfillment as more or less you projected unchanged into a future where all your outsized needs for recognition are met and none of your capacities for compassion and humility developed.  You have no idea what you can become before you take up a practice, mostly because you don’t yet have the imagination to see your own potential.

Development of that imagination is one of the central benefits of a contemplative practice, an imagination that not only sees your own potential, but also the potential in other human beings and in the world.  Such a contemplative practice must, however, be comprehensive, meaning that it most address our habits of thinking, feeling, doing, as well as take seriously our moral development – hubris and egotism, if not addressed directly, can lead very quickly to self-delusion.  Real contemplative practice is not a get rich quick scheme or some ego-stroking guru training.  Indeed, one of its other benefits is that those self-centered motivations are seen more and more for what they are: compulsions distinct from the one’s original longing to take life up more consciously.  Real contemplative practice, on the other hand, is about service, but service out of freedom and love for the ideas one wants to realize in the world.

the there there

In his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes three epochs of moral development: the pre-moral, the moral, and the extra-moral.  For the purposes of my freedom research I want to focus on the third of these epochs, the extra-moral, an epoch in which, according to Nietzsche, the unintentional behind the intentional, the unconscious urge beneath the motive, determines “the decisive value of an action.”  In Nietzsche’s estimation, the conscious motive – of decisive value in the moral epoch – is merely a “surface and skin” that hides the actual nature of the act.  It was Nietzsche’s firm belief that the extra-moral epoch was just beginning to dawn in his lifetime.

A number of years ago, while I was teaching a philosophy class to high school seniors, I had an exchange with a young woman about this dawning epoch.  I argued that we can get below this surface and skin through a radical sort of self-reflection, whereas this student, let’s call her Janet, thought that the layers of surface and skin go all the way to the bottom, that self-knowledge is never founded on bedrock.  In fact, she proposed – more as a thought experiment than anything else – that maybe there is no bottom at all, or as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there.”

For years, many prior to this exchange, I have been seeking to corroborate in my inward experience what has been a gut feeling at least since my early twenties, that all limits to knowledge, whether of the self or of the world, are artificial, are human made, and therefore, can be disassembled by anyone who takes the time — often decades — to do it.  The actor in this act of disassembly is the there there.  And this discovery that there is a there there is the beginning of freedom and truly moral action.


strengthening the “I”

Overlooked amid all the contemporary talk about how we can change the structures of our brains by consciously making new, healthier habits is the potential for a decisive reorientation of what we think of as the self.  When we look seriously at what this talk implies, and think it through to the end, we must concede that the “we” or “I” that can change brain structure seems to stand to some degree outside or apart from the natural, lawful processes of the brain – how else could a “we” or “I” change a brain that by itself would be happy to stay just as it is?  In other words, from this perspective, the self doesn’t appear to be entirely subject to the brain or, for that matter, the body.  We must either conclude this or invent some “intelligent” brain neurons or other such mechanisms that act in ways we don’t normally attribute to neurons or mechanisms.

The reorientation, however, is of an even more radical sort, in that we can experience it more directly, which is to say, on a more intimate and subjective level, on the level of our own consciousness.  Just as the self seems to stand to some degree aloof from the operations of the brain, so the self can stand aloof from all that unfolds in the life of the soul, aloof from such things as impulses and instincts at one extreme, and thoughts and inspirations at another.  Of course, in the same way that changing one’s brain structure is not a given – it takes effort, distinguishing one’s self, or I, from all that comes to meet it takes effort; it demands that one strengthen the I.  But let it be clear that in this age when we all but worship the physical brain and its functioning, it is not in the brain that we should look for the best leverage point.  If we did, we might end up believing the cellist is played by the cello, so to speak.  Actually, isn’t that exactly what many of us do believe when we think of the brain?

What we in fact discover as we begin to strengthen our I is that most elements of what we used to think of as the self – desires, motives, fits of anger, feelings of joy, and the like – are more like characters at a cocktail party that we are each hosting.  Some stand so near to us that we can’t at first tell their boozy breath from our own.  Others come to us from farther away.  Some seem to be only at our party while still others seem to have invitations to many parties and simultaneously attend each.  We also discover that our guests often invite themselves and aren’t well behaved.  The newly strengthened I soon longs to schedule other events – without the cocktails – during which it can invite the guests it wants to entertain.  Which is to say, this I longs to begin a schooling of consciousness or spiritual capacity development project.

Why bother, you ask?  Why make the effort to strengthen the I in the first place?  In his essay “What One Sees Without Eyes,” Jacques Lusseyran, a blind philosopher and leader in the French Resistance during WWII, describes how when he is angry, anxious, sad, or impatient, he loses his inner sight and “suddenly sees almost nothing” and bumps into what he would normally sense and avoid.  When, however, he is calm, joyful, and confident, he can see.  In his experience, “joy clarifies everything.”  He goes on in the essay to write how he discovered that his inner world was not just his own fantasy, but an objective interior complement to what we call the outer world, and that this inner world was also malleable.  In Lusseyran’s essay we can experience his strong and active I, one that knows how feelings both affect the self and muddle or elucidate the world.  He says that “joy clarifies everything,” but in fact it’s his I that does that.  To answer the question that opened this paragraph, we first of all bother to strengthen the I to begin to clarify everything.


I’ve returned in 2014 ready to complete the freehoodship augmented reality adventure.  At some point I’ll have to update some of the outdated information on the website as well.  My personal little store of grit has brought me back to first of all write this particular blog post, and second of all, to continue performing (authentic, heartfelt performances, mind you!) the missions — this Sunday I’m off to the Buddhist Temple/Church downtown as part of mission #23 [did not happen].  Personal little stores of grit like mine are now considered important enough for psychologists to study.  One by the name of Angela Duckworth has even earned a TED Talk with her research into the importance of grit for success — grit here being one’s ability to stick with a task even in the face of challenges and set-backs.  In her research, Duckworth has been able to develop a short test to determine a person’s level of grit, but so far she has no real insight into how people can develop grit.

Actually, she has real insight, but has yet no data to support it.  Her insight is that the research on “growth mindset” of a fellow psychologist, Carol Dweck, may hold the key for people to develop grit.  Her hunch is that if people can be taught to believe that they can in fact grow, change, improve, and develop through their own efforts and even against extraordinary odds — Dweck’s “growth mindset” in a nutshell — than they can develop grit.  In other words, if you can move from being a victim in your story to being the hero of your story, and a hero who can create new stories like some freehoodship adventure, then you have a growth mindset and a personal little, but growing, store of grit.  From the data of my own experience, I think Duckworth should trust her hunch.

the mystery of the penny made clear by the dime

On November 9th I fulfilled mission #20 by helping my friend, Fedor, fulfill his dream of doing a week-long Street Retreat (organized by Faithful Fools) in San Francisco.  I spent the whole day, from 9am to 4pm on the streets, mostly in the Tenderloin, around the Civic Center, and in the Mission.  I talked to homeless people, took a nap on a picnic bench in front a Hastings Law School building, and when I wasn’t bumping into Fedor on a couple of occasions, I sent him good energy as he wandered the streets with his daughter.  Just before lunch, I also got it in my head to follow a homeless man who was screaming “murder” as he crossed a street by City Hall.  Because one of my goals for the day had been to develop more compassion for those I normally pay little attention to, I wanted to follow him and send him good thoughts to help him, in my own small way, to relax and be less agitated.  Just as I made this decision, I looked down and discovered what I thought was a grimy penny on the sidewalk.  I had been looking for pennies all morning because the Street Retreat organizers had told us at the orientation at the beginning of the day that we were to collect pennies for some mysterious reason that would become clear later.  I picked up the coin and discovered that it was a grimy dime, not a grimy penny.  I quickly put the dime in my pocket and set off after the homeless man.  I ended up following him all the way to Valencia Street in the Mission.  After the original screaming that had gotten my attention, he screamed no more, but instead looked in many garbage cans though he never took anything out of them.  On Valencia I decided to leave him and have some lunch.

After lunch, I thought I’d return to the Tenderloin and see what was happening there.  On my way up Market Street, I could see a woman approaching me who seemed be asking people for something but I couldn’t at first hear what she was saying.  When, however, she drew close enough, I heard her say that she was looking for a dime.  She was asking: “Does anyone have a dime?”  Of course, I had a dime, so I gave it to her.  If I had returned to the Tenderloin any later or earlier, I would have missed her.  I later wondered why on earth she needed a dime?  Was she a time traveler from a land of 10 cent phone calls in things called phone booths?  Anyway, I was happy I could accommodate her and for the wonderful grace and synchronicity of the event.  The mystery of the penny was made clear by a dime.


what is a concept?

This afternoon I gave a twenty-minute talk answering as best I could the question: what is a concept?  My friend and Freehoodship colleague, Leslie, comes up with these topics and I love her for it.  Highlights from the talk: “we should treat our concepts more like jungle gyms to be played on and less like nautilus exercise machines that only allow for repetitive motions.”  And: “concepts are like ice cubes in the water of thinking — they melt and reform in the flow.”  Lowlights: most of the rest of the talk.  It was one of those days when I felt a country mile short of eloquent.  I apologize to concepts everywhere for so poorly representing your extraordinary, world creating work.


more on creativity

Or not.  Unless, that is, we can first of all usurp the “thing kings” in our thinking, to paraphrase a poem of mine.  What does that usurpation mean exactly?  It means we must get beyond applying spacial or object thinking — “thinging” everything — to non-spacial realities such as concepts and feelings, which are not to be found somewhere in our brains, though certainly many scientists would like them to be!  Even our brain is not just to be found in our brain, for it is not fully a brain without our nerves, our body and all that supports us, in other words, the whole of reality.  If we can get that out of our thick heads, and the spacial bias of that expression too, we’ll be more likely to be creative in our thinking.  Exercises in creative cognition, found in various spiritual traditions, are all about achieving just that.