Seeing the Gorillas

I’m in the process of rereading Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos And Psyche as part of my ongoing research into the effects of world view and epistemology on alternate reality and social innovation game design.  Early on in his book, Tarnas identifies the two major Western paradigms of history: the first sees history as an “epic narrative of human progress” from ignorance to insight, to put it bluntly.  The second sees history as a tragic narrative in which human beings have progressively lost touch with the spiritual underpinnings of the world, have descended from an existence rich in innate meaning to one essential devoid of it.  Tarnas also writes of a third and more contemporary paradigm.  In this one, history has no intrinsic meaning, but only the meaning that human beings project onto it, a sort of Kantian perspective.  He concludes that all three of these narratives are only partial truths, and really, the three together give a fuller, though not even close to the fullest, reality.  In my mind, each of these world views is like an alternate reality creation technology that we continually and unconsciously employ and reify through our zombie-like performance of habitual missions of thinking, feeling, and action.

Yesterday, as I was trolling the contemporary zeitgeist by listening to NPR, I heard a segment on an “Attention Scientist” who studied how radiologists read x-rays.  He noticed in these doctors’  readings the whole “Inuits-recognizing-fifty-different-types-of-snow” phenomenon.  Cancer nodules which this scientist could not see, the radiologists quite clearly could.  This scientist then devised an experiment to test whether the attention of the radiologists was so focused on a particular perceptual field that it was unable to perceive very well or at all beyond that field.  In the experiment he superimposed a matchbox-sized image of a gorilla on a series of x-rays and asked some radiologists to look for signs of cancer on the x-rays.  As you might guess, 83% of the radiologists did not see the gorilla on the x-ray.  In other words, for the vast majority of the radiologist, the gorilla was essentially not there.  I bring up this example in the context of Tarnas’s explication of dominant world views to raise the following two questions, the first for everyone, the second more for myself:  Like radiologists, how much of the world are we missing because of our limited sphere of attention, our limited world view, our alternate reality creation technology?  And the second question:  How can I design, and here I’m coining a term, “expanded reality missions” that allow us to see the gorillas?

Missions #5 & #8

This weekend I planted trees (mission #8) with a Caltrans mandated hardhat, goggles, and reflective vest and also failed spectacularly for an hour at something I was guaranteed to fail to do successfully (mission #5).  A few days earlier, I had chosen to fail spectacularly at drawing a perfect circle, freehand.  The other option I had considered was to fail to write the Great American sonnet in an hour.  The more I think about it now, though, I might take a shot at the sonnet and do the mission twice — at this moment in my creative life, I’m desperate enough to do nearly anything to get myself to write, even a one-hour quality sonnet.  One of the stated goals of mission #5 is that those who do it can use it as an opportunity to learn to laugh at themselves.  I didn’t laugh at myself drawing circles, but I did at one point mutter “damn” and grin as the chalk in my hand set-off on a particularly wobbly and un-archetypal circumnavigation of the blackboard.  Next, I think I’ll take on mission #6, which has to do with discovering my superpowers, modest though they may be.

Integration And Segregation

Two days ago, on Martin Luther King Day, I read the obituary of James Hood in the Sacramento Bee.  Mr. Hood is remembered mostly for having been brave enough to be one of the first two black students to enroll at the University of Alabama in June, 1963.  At that time, George Wallace was governor of Alabama and a staunch defender of segregation who hoped to keep the University of Alabama a whites-only institution.  Wallace was famous for having said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”  Thankfully, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s did away with much of the segregation that Wallace so vehemently supported, but a more subtle and individual segregation, or what my earlier blog post called “compartmentalization” remains stubbornly effectual in human beings even today.  This is not to imply that strides haven’t been made; they have, but this more subtle sort of segregation still mars the life of the soul in surprising ways, ways that often have little to do with racial intolerance.  Interestingly enough, how the word “soul” rests in the soul provides a good example of one of these ways: you have perhaps noticed that there are some among us, many of a scientific bent, who find it difficult to allow the word “soul” (with all its mystical connotations) to be admitted into their segregated psyches.  In a certain sense, they are prejudiced against the word and the ideas it represents.  And imagine if I had mistakenly spelled “soul” as “sole” — there would then be whole other groups of people, English teachers and such, writing me off, excluding me from the VIP sections of their segregated psyches.   Of course, we are all one big happy family when it comes down to the obvious fact that we all possess varying levels of prejudice against all manner of things, which is to say, we all have “pre-1963-University-of-Alabama-like” campuses in our inner lives, places where we too often keep out what we ought to let in.  As I prepare for future missions on the novice hero’s journey, one of my goals is to do my best in letting more people, experiences, and inklings in.  Indeed, many of my thirty-eight missions are designed specifically to facilitate this outcome.  And hopefully, in achieving this outcome, I can develop even a fraction of the courage of James Hood.

The Phenomenon of Self-Tracking

Two days ago I think it was, I was listening to “Talk of the Nation” on NPR as I was driving home from school and heard a snippet of a conversation on the growing popularity of self-tracking or self-monitoring, which, for those of you who don’t know, involves using smart phones and other electronic devices to gather data on our activities, physiological states, and habits.  Self-tracking is mostly used as a tool to modify behavior for the better.  I had heard of self-tracking before, but when I heard it spoken of on the radio, it brought to mind the self-tracking nature of my own Freehoodship project/adventure.  Mine, however, does not seek to quantify behaviors as a means to modify them, but instead to deepen experience and my capacity for self-reflection and to help me, hopefully, become a better human being.  To illustrate the difference as I see it, a self-tracking mission would be to down-load an app that tells you whether you’re getting enough sleep so that you can get enough sleep.  A Freehoodship mission would be to investigate the feeling of being tired and why it is no longer a clear enough signal that one ought to get more sleep; not only that, but a Freehoodship mission would involve the development of that feeling for tiredness so that the app becomes unnecessary.  It seems to me that these devices do less to improve self-knowledge and more to alienate ourselves from ourselves, which is not to say that these devices can’t be useful in certain situations, though I can’t think of any right now.  But anyone who has spent even a little time thinking about the self knows that we are not going to quantify our way to self-knowledge or to health, psychologically or physiologically speaking.

Today’s the Day to Complete Mission #3

It’s freezing this morning!  The newspaper says the low last night was well below freezing, well below, that is, for us sensitive folks in the Sacramento Valley who are impressed by four or five degrees below freezing.  I’m hoping the cold doesn’t keep people away from helping me pick up garbage in and around the Oak Grove this morning.  I love the place!  It has been a wonderful host for my American Transcendentalism class for years, now.  One of its more spectacular moments was when it conjured a spotted hawk just as I was reading out loud to a class the beginning of the last section of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in which he writes:  “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering….”  The hawk swooped low over our circle just as I mentioned it — of course, I stopped mid-sentence; we were all speechless for a long moment.  Thanks, Oak Grove!  We will try to keep our “gab” and our “loitering” to a minimum as we do our waste and vice elimination activities this morning.

Mission #3 Nearing Completion

I’ve just finished my week of gratitude — the first part of mission #3: each day, I have documented, on the freehoodship facebook page, three things for which I’m grateful.  The second part of the mission now demands that I do some action in the world that supports one of the things for which I have been grateful this past week.  I have chosen to organize a trash pick-up on Sunday, January 13, in and around the Oak Grove, a beautiful spot and place for which I was grateful on the American River Parkway near the Sacramento Waldorf School.  If you want to participate, see the Freehoodship facebook page for details.  This Freehoodship event is co-sponsored by Waste And Vice Elimination Squad (WAVES), North America’s greatest practitioners of the humblest of arts, trash pick-up.  Their famous motto: “Live on the face of the earth, not in earth’s face.”

Games That Transform Culture

At the moment, I’m multi-tasking with my Freehoodship activities: I’m performing Mission #3 of The Freehoodship Adventure and last night I met with my “Games That Transform Culture” class at Rudolf Steiner College.  It’s not really a class in the normal sense, which is to say, I’m not mainly functioning as a teacher downloading a particular content, but I’m more facilitating a process to develop a Freehoodship-style alternate reality game in and around Sacramento.  At our first meeting, we decided we would spend our time in the coming months developing a series of missions by having each participant in the course take the lead in developing one.  When we are not taking the lead, we serve as a support staff and brain-storming crew for the lead developer.  And as an aid to our brainstorming in the coming months, we will be reading and studying selected texts from the work of Rudolf Steiner and others.  For next Monday, we are reading the third chapter of Steiner’s The Spiritual Foundation of Morality.  I leave you with a teaser from page 61 of this chapter: “Right interest, right understanding, calls forth from the soul the right moral action.”

integration trumps compartmentalizaton

Just before the inauguration of the new year, I had a great conversation with my friend, Marlies, about how human beings are less and less able to compartmentalize, that is, live double, triple, quadruple (you insert the number) lives without suffering.  To be healthy and not just normal (to play on the title of Georg Kuhlewind’s seminal — in my own life — From Normal to Healthy), we must begin to integrate all our compartments, concretize all our abstractions.  When I became a high school teacher, I quickly realized that the life I lived outside the classroom was at least as important as what I did in the classroom, that really, there was no outside the classroom.  I conceived of the Freehoodship as a lab and altar to experiment with and consecrate this new integral reality.  Tomorrow, I begin mission #3!

Creating A Little Context For The Freehoodship

(This post was originally an article in Lilipoh)

Almost a year ago, I read Jane McGonigal’s New York Times bestseller, Reality is Broken, published in 2011, not simply for its provocative title, but also for its insider’s take on the social phenomenon that is online gaming.  In her book, she argues that reality is broken most specifically because it appears, unlike video games and games in general, to have no design; in essence, it appears to provide no ready-made meaning:

“Reality is too easy.  Reality is depressing.  It’s unproductive, and hopeless.  It’s disconnected, and trivial.  It’s hard to get into.  It’s   pointless,                     unrewarding, lonely, and isolating.  It’s hard to swallow.  It’s unsustainable.  It’s unambitious.  It’s disorganized and divided.  It’s stuck in the present” (348)

Almost immediately upon reading this, the iconoclast and poet in me began to wonder whether reality, as McGonigal here defines it, might in fact have been designed as a sort of game and if it had been, what perhaps is its purpose?  If its purpose is exactly what it has achieved – we are naturally assuming hosts of good designers – and we know, with the help of McGonigal and thousands of social scientists some of what it has achieved (depression, hopelessness, isolation, etc.), why such a purpose?  And as I thought more about this vast game of reality, I realized that its achievements were less fundamental building blocks of experience than symptoms of something deeper.

This something deeper the founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, identified as human freedom, not so much its actuality, as its potential.  In Steiner’s estimation, the purpose of our time, which he located in what he called the Consciousness Soul Age, is to achieve freedom.  To allow for the development of human freedom, Steiner said many times during his life, that the spiritual world has ceased exerting direct influence on human beings – we have been left to our own devices, but not, as Jean-Paul Sartre claimed, entirely abandoned.  Indeed, the spiritual world is longing for us to reconnect with it and is indirectly supporting us to do just that.  It wants each of us to participate in and create a new, more full reality, but will not at all coerce us into doing so.  All of the symptoms that McGonigal identifies in her book Steiner and others, such as Owen Barfield and Jean Gebser, have used to describe the human experience during the Consciousness Soul Age.  In a certain sense, human evolution, according to Steiner’s conception, is a game of cosmic proportions designed to achieve, or allow for the development of, human freedom.

This past April I gave a talk on the contemporary hero’s journey at the Impulse Festival at White Feather Ranch in Placerville, California.  In my talk, I used the example of a young woman in England, Jessica Thom, who has created an alter-ego called “Touretteshero.”  The goal of her project is to celebrate “the humor and creativity of Tourettes Syndrome, without mocking or self-pity.”  Basically, she has taken her so-called disability of Tourettes and re-imagined it as her super-power, her verbal tics becoming an essential part of the performance art of her life.  One of her central aims is to help young people with Tourettes find a more empowering and creative relationship to their syndrome/superpower.  What Jessica Thom has achieved is to me the most important step on the contemporary hero’s journey.  She has taken a potentially depressing and hopeless situation, one in which we might think of reality as being broken, and transformed it into something wonderful and beautiful.  At some point in her life, she chose the Herculean task of reversing her relationship to a part of herself which I imagine she originally wanted to reject, and then she integrated it into herself, and continues to do so.  She realized, consciously or unconsciously, that it’s not reality that is broken but our relationship to it.  And to achieve freedom – not as I said a given – involves healing that relationship.  To reverse and integrate is the free work of today’s heroes.

This free work is not, however, only to be done individually and in isolation – it necessitates supportive communities of others doing their own free work.  On her website, Jessica Thom wholeheartedly acknowledges the support of her friends in launching and sustaining the Touretteshero project.  It is just such a supportive community that I am planning to launch in 2013.  My vision, embodied in The Freehoodship, is different from Thom’s, but includes the same goal of doing the free work of reversal and integration.  The grand plan of those of us in The Freehoodship will be to design a game for 2013 with a series of creative and fun missions that will best help us transform ourselves, our communities, and our relationship to the earth.  I imagine these missions will involve personal development and study, interventionist art projects, culture creation, as well as joyful service of many other sorts.  Participation in The Freehoodship will be entirely free, whether one functions on a given day as student or teacher, worker or artist.  I have chosen 2013 because I’m hoping The Freehoodship will be a sort of healing chronopuncture in the new cycle of time that begins then.

The Extra Challenges

  • the six continent challenge: involve at least one person from six continents in a mission.
  • the eight-decade challenge:  involve people whose ages fall into eight different decades in a mission.
  • the four kingdoms challenge:  involve all four kingdoms – the mineral, plant, animal, and human – in a mission.
  • the invisibles challenge:  involve at least one of the following in your mission: those who have died, angels and other spiritual beings, elementals (faeries, gnomes, et al), or mythological creatures or heroes.