Monday, December 12, 2011


Body Language and Dogs

One of the great things about walking outdoors everyday is meeting people in the neighborhood, most of whom are walking dogs. Up until a few days ago I thought I got along fine with all but one of the dogs. Then I had an experience that made me rethink my own behavior and what I’m communicating to the various dogs of my acquaintance.
This particular Jack Russell terrier had been looking at me with what I interpreted as distrust and worry since I first started talking with his owner on my walks over the last few months. I thought it might have been because I took attention away from him. Then the other day a woman who obviously adored little dogs asked if she could say “hi” and when she stooped down he was so clearly delighted to meet her, licking her face and putting his front paws on her, I was amazed at the immediate bonding. I said something to his owner about Alyosha knowing a dog person when he saw one. He said, “He always knows” then added something about her getting down to his level. It took me a minute to digest this, but when we resumed our walk, I stopped and stooped down to greet him like she had done, and he immediately came over and licked my face like he was glad I’d finally gotten around to noticing him. I was pleased and touched by his generous welcome in the face of my months of bad behavior. By not going down to his level I was disrespecting him, maintaining my superior position and not recognizing him as a little being in his own right. To be “beneath notice” is painful and that was what I saw on this dignified little dog’s face. I realized that the looks I’d seen previous to this moment were his puzzlement at my lack of acknowledgment, which may even have hurt his feelings. I always said “Hi Alyosha” but a dog knows that’s not really taking him in. This is a big lesson. I can’t let my uneasiness around dogs make me impolite. These are behaviors associated with the cingulate cortex where social interaction is processed in all mammals. So it makes sense that the various ways we acknowledge and don’t acknowledge each other could communicate across species. It’s also is a reminder that this occurs preconsciously, but as humans, becoming conscious of it gives us a choice.
Though I may feel vulnerable getting down to eye level it communicates faith in the dog’s good intentions. And he was happy to come up to meet me. Face to face is where communication takes place. And Jack Russell’s are known to be particularly sensitive to facial expression and perhaps even more subtle social protocols.
Just like in my interactions with squirrels, I was inordinately pleased after finally meeting Alyosha. Communication is healing, and there’s a purity in the non-verbal exchange with friends from a different place on the animal spectrum. Interacting with animals is good for our health. An article in the mainstream health site WebMD cites studies showing that having pets reduces blood pressure and anxiety and boosts immunity. Relationships with animals are sensory, rich in touch, smell, vision and action that communicate with our right hemisphere and tune our own intuitive behavior. Because they’re not trying to name or symbolize and break down what they experience animals are better at seeing the meaning of the whole. They know when something’s wrong with the scene or out-of-synch with the pattern. So much of what we call intuition is the result of right hemisphere impressions of the whole picture unfolding in time and how it relates to us.
Like any good lesson, awareness of the implications of my behavior to animals gives me the chance to change a habitual pattern that was interfering with communication. Now I’ll be able to get to know them even better and enrich my perspective with their way of being.

Friday, November 11, 2011



Numbers like 11-11-11 demand attention. It’s a visual alignment that seems to signify without us really knowing what. Advertisers play on it, movies are released, armistices have been signed (though without that final 11). Sure, it’s easy to remember if you’re scheduling an event, but myself, I’ve always found beauty in numerical arrangements, with particular appreciation for symmetry. A palindrome on my odometer is a small moment of grace, a glimpse of order happening by itself, reminding me of the many changes unfolding all around me, most hidden from perception. Repeated numbers convey a unison, all in accord, and though this is personal symbolism on my part, it has the concrete effect of Zen’s bell of mindfulness in meditation or daily life. It brings me back to the present and for the time the number is present with me, until 3:33 turns to 3:34, I stay right there.
At the grocery store the other day the woman exclaimed “Four Forty-four” as she handed me the receipt. The correspondence gets our attention whether we ascribe meaning to it or not. And she was smiling. As visual form there’s a beauty that’s enhanced by its unlikeliness. If the receipt said, “forty-four, forty-four” it would be even more noteworthy. That underlying sense of the probability factor is the only real connection with mathematics itself, which often finds the right solution by its elegance. We experience our awareness of probabilities when we notice the rare coordinance of numbers or planets. And with both numbers and planets we know it will happen again, the numbers on the clock will do the same thing tomorrow and for the most part we don’t notice, but when we do it’s like we’re in alignment too and in that moment of awareness our perpetual motion, mind and body, slows down. Manmade patterns are built on the cyclic patterns of nature and like the pleasure of all beauty; it’s a pleasure of connection.
In the case of accidental alignments there’s also a sense of personal discovery.
As hard as it may be to believe, I just walked into the kitchen and the clock over the stove said 11:11. So it was 11:11, 11-11-11. So cool. I experience these moments as little blessings, am always surprised, so maybe my pleasure is not just the endorphins from beauty but also the dopamine of the unexpected. In any case the delight is a temporary release from the things that wear us down.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


The Personal Map

From the beginning, reading “Infinite Jest”, I’ve been fascinated by David Foster Wallace’s use of the phrase, “ eliminate his/her/your map” to refer to death. At first it seemed like a kind of slang- the obscure phrase that a particular in-group will use to define themselves with private language. But the more I thought of it, particularly in relation to all of the brain science I’ve read, the more it seemed like he had struck upon the one truly unique feature of every human being’s individual self. From the beginning we create our own inner map of the world that includes not just all we’ve done and experienced but also how we feel about it. And what we recognize in our surroundings, spring from memories seen in the places of our lives, which clarify the meaning of the experience that’s conveyed by the feeling. We map not just where we are, but all we know in time and space. Since my father’s lost so much of his memory, I’ve found that when we do discover remembered areas it’s always in relation to places. Talking this week about weddings, he couldn’t remember my brother’s until I mentioned Hiss Avenue. The reception was in the back yard of my sister-in-law’s childhood home and given the scene Dad’s memory came drifting back to what a great guy her Dad was and the boat her brother Woody built and their fish pond. This place in his map still had its connection to the sights, sensations and feelings of his past experience and I could tell he enjoyed remembering and re-experiencing his connection to life. He got his mind moving by finding a way into his map.
This map, primarily in the hippocampus, but riding up against the parietal lobes (where we are in space) on one side and the feeling centers on the other, establishes our sense of ourselves in space/time and personal meaning. Where we are forms the core of who we are. The brain is full of maps that correlate one kind of experience with another. The map is the hub of what we know, the hippocampus the trigger point of all the rich associations spread throughout the brain.
This is a concrete reality and not a metaphor, but as a metaphoric image it helps us comprehend the notion of an Akashic field, where all the information of all that’s happened and been thought continues to accumulate, enriched by our very own thoughts in the here and now. Though an ancient idea its appeal is growing. New experience adds to the field and enables us to tune to information already there. In a state of flow the field of information moves through us unobstructed, but filtered through our individual frequency. I used to resist the idea that what’s experienced by me as my mind is not necessarily all in my head. That the modification in my brain as I have new experience might be simply expanding the reception of my tuner. Like a radio filtering out a particular broadcast to pull in we receive information through our highly sophisticated personal brains. Likewise we send it out, add what we know to the field of information. This is the model proposed by Rupert Sheldrake. That even our own memories aren’t in our brains but are in the information field impressed with those experiences and the shape of the energy that rippled from it; this was an idea that was headbashingly difficult to take in when I first read it. In his book, “The Sense of Being Stared At,” Sheldrake writes, “Trying to understand minds without recognizing the extended fields on which they depend is like trying to understand the effects of magnets without acknowledging that they are surrounded by magnetic fields.” Broadening our idea of what constitutes mind will require images to shape a new model of how we conceive of it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chinks in the Cavern

To See Or Not To See

With seeing as the most common metaphor for understanding, it’s not surprising that there would also be many different metaphors that describe ignorance as what interferes with it.
Originally put on horses so things on the side of the road wouldn’t distract them, “blinkers” had a useful function. The metaphor “blinkered vision” could be seen as a positive, a focus on the goal that ignores everything else. It suited the verbal, linear, single cause and effect view within the twentieth century idea of progress and propelled its machine. With the field of variables pruned so far down, the illusion of control is created. But any realistic view of a situation includes variables in all directions. Though excluding things to learn more about a single area can have value, does what is learned have any meaning without the role of that area in a larger context?
My blog community (those that visit this site) is from all over the world, from the Ukraine to the Philippines, India and Germany, Sudan and China, people joined by ideas. And one of the central ideas that weaves through visual philosophy is the value of a bigger picture. A larger perspective is the route to the wisdom necessary to change the world. When the camera pans over the demonstrators on Wall St. there’s more variety of individuals than I’ve ever seen at a protest. Those interviewed all have different angles on what’s happening that give dimension to our understanding. So many kinds of lives have been damaged by the blinkered vision and unchecked greed that’s ruining this country. A few people hoarding all the money will lead us back into a technological feudalism. When work can be done anywhere we’re almost always working. Making profits as the only goal means not caring who gets trampled on the way. When we keep from seeing the impact of our actions we can convince ourselves we’re not responsible. Seeing changes our view. Tightly held views are threatened by the challenge of open eyes.
Words are blinkers. As we walk the street the word “beggar” keeps us from seeing the specific individual. The word “fool” or “dupe” keeps us from being the compassionate human we could. We find “enemies” to be responsible for our dissatisfactions and make demons and “bad guys” out of people who see the world with different blinkers. We build the words into creeds and the blinkers get bigger, enable more damage to be ignored, more people not to see, for the sake of a bunch of words.
Scientists suggest that blinking when lying represents a minute retreat from what’s about to be said. Finding this out made me start counting blinks when politicians were speaking on camera. In slow motion it was like some had their eyes shut the whole time. I started watching in slow motion after learning about Paul Ekman’s work on microexpression. He said we could control our primary facial expressions but that underlying motives and attitudes would show in the transitions between them. Watching presidential primary debates in slow motion showed an entirely new persona in some cases, underlying psychology that was sometimes scary in it’s zealotry or condescension. Without the words to distract me their stance toward the world and other people could be seen as far more complex and enlightening.
We can see more and better without the screen erected by verbal language. Turn off the sound and wipe it clean to perceive more of what counts.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Material Dimension

This is a detail of a brand new drawing I started in 2009. Graphite and paper with two layers of duralar.
It's now on display in the Faculty Show in MICA's Decker Gallery until October 16.

The Appeal of Symmetry

Recently NPR reported a new study that looked at babies’ preferences for different artists. Given the choice of Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and Picasso, they consistently preferred Picasso. When it comes to taking interest in the outside world, nothing is more important to babies than facial expression. A balloon with a smiley face will hold their attention until the face is turned away. Other recent research showed that caricatures that emphasize certain features elicit a stronger response than the face itself. The exaggerated expressions in Picasso would obviously be most appealing. The information given by a face is the most important early information we learn because it enables us to see how others are feeling. Mirror neurons fire in simulation of the expression inside so we feel the state we see. A contempt face on another person will make our heart race whether acknowledged or not. It may be that the appeal of symmetry in the human face has more to do with the expression than the features. We’re all pretty symmetrical in the arrangement of our features when we’re relaxed or happy, content and focused. Negative emotions tend to twist the face out of shape, the sneer that raises one side of the mouth, disgust that pulls one side down. Faces that are critical, skeptical, angry or sad each twist the natural symmetry of our features. Thich Nhat Hnan wrote, “Whenever anger comes up, take out a mirror and look at yourself. When you are angry you are not very beautiful…Hundreds of muscles in your face look very tense”. He advises us to breathe and smile mindfully to return to natural beauty. Often when I talk with a class about this, pointing out that negative emotions are what make people unattractive because the tension in those muscles pulls the face out of symmetry, someone knows a person with the features to be beautiful, but isn’t, because the person was mean or paranoid or some other unpleasant characteristic that pinched up the face. Pain also distorts our symmetry. I was intrigued to read in a “Scientific American-Mind” magazine that early pleasure in symmetry connected to health. What is too much off symmetry and out of balance is associated with disease.
The approach to symmetry underlying my recent work begins with the intersection of wave fronts that create interference patterns. Thinking about vibrations and formative influences as much as I have over many years I’ve come to think of matter as a very condensed and complex interference pattern. A picture of a swimming pool during the earthquake showed waves that form at the sides meeting in the middle and becoming an interference pattern of standing waves where they appeared to hold still, frozen until the energy pattern that stimulated it changed. Like the eye of Jupiter maintains its shape even though it’s a clot of churning gases, so we humans could be a constant flow of energy not as solid as we think, a density in the continuous field of energy that includes everything.
We humans and most organic life are slightly off symmetry, but balanced around an axis that holds its shape until the supporting systems break down. If something is too ordered it stops moving. Excess in any area will throw off the balance. Playing with that tension is a way of exploring what may be a primary principle of visual philosophy. The symmetry in our bodies is a model for the mirroring of external expression. Accurate internal mirroring of what we see is the essence of understanding and foundation of communication.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Spatial Intelligence

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia discussed a syndrome some are born with where even with fully developed frontal and temporal lobes, considered primary to intelligence, and often with extensive vocabularies or outstanding musical skills, were unable to take care of themselves, to perform simple actions like tying shoes. The undeveloped part of the brain was the parietal lobe, home of our understanding of ourselves in space, our sense of where we are, our position and direction in our surroundings. Parietal intelligence is the intelligence of Einstein. (That was the part of his brain that was discovered to be bigger than other people’s.) He said his ideas came to him as images and indeed, much of our own use of language depends on metaphors based on moving in space. I think of parietal intelligence as “deer consciousness”; precisely aware of distance and speed, the vectors of movement, that when abstracted and symbolized at the human level become higher mathematics. At the visual level, a broad awareness is attuned to every shift and change in the surroundings. Assessments of ongoing change are the business of daily life.
Spatial intelligence reaches its pinnacle in tennis. The level of focus combined with alert awareness, heighten by anticipation, application of everything observed and known, into spontaneous response crafted by years of dedicated effort is a heartening thing to witness.
Listening to the TV commentators I started to realize how much of the language they were using was also the language you might hear from a coach in the practice of Zen. They talk about the virtues of taking it one point at a time, use phrases like “Staying in the Moment” that illustrate the present-centeredness true of a genuine spiritual state. And it’s easy to see how the mental chatter in the mind of any player is what defeats them and not usually a failing of the body. Throughout the game the unreturnable shot is called a “winner”. Winning is not something reserved for the result but happens throughout the game. Perfect placement and execution is a triumph in every instance it’s achieved. Attention to the moment, acting at the height of personal capability is the state of involvement we call flow. In the language of sports, to be in the Zone is to be continuous with the game, purified of the self-doubt and inner narration that keep us from doing what we can.
Watching Donald Young, a player I’d never seen before, I had so many opportunities to say “Wow!” and “Yesssss!” I was feeling really good, what with all the dopamine and endorphins flowing; when another outstanding shot was hit it left me laughing with pleasure. Our mirror neurons, following high quality action, stimulate the same brain chemistry ( to a lesser extent but still, we’re sitting on the couch). David Foster Wallace put it this way in one of his essays on tennis. “Great athletes are profoundly in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate, but televisable.” I can’t help thinking about Roger Federer when Wallace writes, “There is, about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man.”
The embodiment of ideals and the privilege of being able to watch their peak moments is an elevating experience. I don’t think Wallace overstates it. Incarnation is manifest spirit. There can be no charlatans. You can’t get there unless your dedication is genuine. All the training and hard work, perseverance and focus culminate in the championship moments that we get to share. Human beings need these models of human possibility to remind us of the power of attention to whatever our being in space is doing. It is this full attention that makes an activity autotelic, a pleasure in the doing itself. Pursuing excellence in anything feels good because we’re increasing our power, focusing on the action in the world through our embodied being. Emulating what we admire is how we become what we want to be. The qualities that make a great tennis player demonstrate virtues useful to any attainment.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


This is a detail of an earlier image that changes the emphasis.

Picture Power

The old adage “One picture is worth a thousand words,” understates the case. There are so many levels of information conveyed by an image that the linear trickle of words can’t begin to approach. Not just the facts of what’s there, but the relations between them, the state of balance that leads us to expect motion or stillness, the feeling tone our processing of the image creates within us. We are always in a picture complete with weather and the psychology of other people; a complexity that no theory created with labels can touch. Looking at the videogame “Halo” with my nephew, I felt I was seeing the future that young people fear, the dramatic scenery of a long gone technological civilization that left behind demons for the survivors. The training of visual responsiveness offered by games and the “look and choose” nature of the Internet are leading us away from verbal dominance. Just in time. Power uses labels to create enmity, divisions that can be exploited and strengthened by repetition and careful choices of inflammatory pictures. The big world of cyber connectivity, and interactive challenge, could neutralize old word-based power because future generations will simply stop paying attention. The practical ways that images contribute to understanding is leading the growth of infographics with sites like showing budgets and financial relationships as a 3D nested pie chart. I expect a cascade of innovative applications coming as the visual thinkers raised on sophisticated video games come of age.
Recently, I participated in an “English as Second Language” class at MICA. The discussion of self-portraits they had done clearly showed how much meaning was communicated by each image. They suggested stories, worlds changing, the passage from childhood to this transitional state of independence, attitudes, feelings, so much that is truly beyond the power of words to show so specifically. They may not have felt confident with the language, but because they were being asked to say what the picture did for them individually, it offered the opportunity to use the language creatively and find words that could reflect their own take on each image. With a range of different life experiences there was a rich variety of associations to each, and different sensibilities picked up on different qualities. The structure of the image resonates with similar structures within each of us and we were free to use the words that best show where the image took us. Jung’s statement “Image is psyche,” emphasized the correspondence between archetypes and visual structure. We can see stability or upheaval, dominance or submission. Images convey the depth of us. When we talk about them we discover how the differences in the specifics of our lives connect in the pattern beneath the surface. This particular discussion was a clear illustration of how the communication that happens in pictures transcends words and connects people around the shared understanding of it. When someone made an observation the rest of us hadn’t seen, the reaction was usually pleasure. We saw it once it was pointed out and the comment enlarged our understanding. Offering the aspects of a picture that we respond to enlarges the perspective for everyone. It’s this unifying aspect to visual communication that is most needed now and in the future. People are unnecessarily divided by labels. Our natural state is embedded in our environment and the flow of events around us.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Ongoing Change

“The Book of Changes” was the translated title of the ancient Chinese book “I Ching” that first attracted me. In my twenties at the time, it seemed like the scale of uncontrollable factors in the churning world around me overwhelmed the strategies for living surrounding me in the culture. Taoism and I clicked instantly around the foundation understanding that movement and change and adapting to shifting circumstances while in motion myself was the only useful image for balance. Being aware of patterns of movement is far more helpful than the names and definitions of things. Labeling and weighing numbers of things, though useful in certain spheres of life, can’t be an image of life itself. Every category and box one is sorted into comes with an attached judgment that, if one is dependent on thinking with labels, takes the place of the actual, in-front-of-your face reality. Naming something is a way of controlling it and creates an illusion of knowing that can be highly destructive to making real contact with the world. One of the benefits of video games is the degree to which it uses sophisticated instinctual visual assessment and banishes verbal thought. And because it depends upon complete attention, all the time, it can be an exhilarating involvement we have lost the art of in the real world. Because we’ve substituted labels and judgments and the spill of theories that grow from them we’ve built walls of ideation that limit our capacity to pay attention to the movements of life. When walking becomes fitness, a treadmill and set of numbers, we miss the relation to outdoors, the fact that every day is different, that we are always responding to the wind and temperatures, a bird or squirrel. The automatic part is there, but the narration of life in our head, the piles of verbal thought all around us keep us from seeing the life in which our body participates. Make a game of the walk, note how many changes you see in the same neighborhood every day. Our bodies are always doing this. We just aren’t paying attention. Our response to the world is a dance, a natural adjustment to the movement around us that makes us part of it. Paying attention is the key to enjoying it.
A book that gives advice about how to handle the different states of change is better than a list of unchanging rules. It helps us see the overall dynamic in which we’re embedded and see realistically what can be done in such a state. Handling the situation well always emphasized cultivating character and virtue. Today’s research shows that the reason it feels so good is because we stimulate endorphins when we are virtuous. It’s good for our survival because it harmonizes us as a collaborator with the moving world.
Looking back on my recent posts I realize to what degree the philosophy in the “I Ching” pervades my thinking. Seeing the world as a dynamic whole, it uses the imagery of nature to express the cosmic intelligence that underlies all phenomena.
A mechanical view of the world leaves out contextual pattern. We don’t learn that much more about life by stripping away all the variables that make it life. A world of multiple variables needs a philosophy based on adjustment, metaphysical homeostasis based in the understanding that the metaphors of striving for balance can apply to any living system. In the midst of so many uncontrollable changes it makes sense to “not be led by hopes and fears”. Like the yang-yin symbol, each contains a bit of the other. Our ideas about them are what make us suffer.
More than thirty years of regular reading in the “I Ching” has created an underlying approach to life that invigorates each moment of being. Names and labels reduce the richness of continuous being to desired points along the way, where we can only enjoy results and not the pleasure of doing. Erich Fromm wrote about the many ways that an attitude toward life based on having- possessions, accomplishments, problems, a body, a life, a goal, was less satisfying than an attitude based on being- living, doing, feeling- participating in an unfolding process. We are what we do. We do it better when we’re paying attention.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Building New Structures

Motion traces a path in the surroundings. The excessive focus on the identity of things obscures the importance of how we move among them. Over time our movements create an image of the intertwined pattern that is the clearest expression of the meaning of our lives. Alfred Adler first coined the word “lifestyle” over a hundred years ago to place the emphasis on the movement, the style of life and way of being in the world that builds our satisfaction or unhappiness. When I see someone clinging to their resentments, it’s not hard to see how that way of looking at things creates problems. So many have become confused by the messages of consumer culture that try to identify meaning with what you have accumulated. In the depths of the heart we know that we are meaningful through our actions in the world, the way we behave, how we affect others, the functions we perform and how that changes according to context. It is through understanding our own life-in-action that we understand others. Though the specifics are not the same, the structure of the pattern is what tells us they’re headed for trouble or triumph. We’ve seen it before. This is the basis for our attunement with the world.
So much of what we experience has parallels in other areas. We’re tuned to primary patterns that we can recognize in other areas to help us decode the unfamiliar. The gestalt psychologists of the 1940’s and 50’s used the word “isomorphism” for this structural similarity. That we can apply knowledge from one area to patterns in another is the essence of reasoning. The pattern shows us where to look for the next step or what might be missing from the whole.
The Internet is isomorphic to the brain. Every site (neuron) is the hub of many other connections. The web abounds in terminology of location. We create sites and navigate within them. These similarities may allow us to better envision the idea of consciousness as continuous, shared, something expressed through each of us. Since the structures are similar we can look at the evolution of knowledge on every subject like a wiki in the collective mind, where all views and life experience inform the development of the whole. The principle of life is growth. That’s why contributing to the store of knowledge gives us pleasure.
I would love to see a game experience that made me fell connected to the universe in exhilarating and insightful ways. Immersion in a game of pure beauty might be found to be far more refreshing than day-time naps, now being explored in companies hoping to decrease mistakes due to long days.
A game format could be used to develop our self-awareness of deeper level patterns in our psyche. Creating a range of places to explore we could learn about our inner world by seeing the choices we make about where to go. Imagining entirely new places to be may allow us to develop capabilities not even dreamed. The acts of identifying and classifying chop our true continuity into parts. Though it’s a way of thinking that has its usefulness, it has wrecked our connection to all the wonderful different kinds of people who share our patterns as living human beings. We need to remember that our categories are tools and are not the reality. Eating and sleeping, togetherness and loss, being born and dying, are the patterns of being we share, isomorphic to each other, a reality deeper than the ideas, labels, theories and ideologies we mistakenly let divide us.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Holding to Center

Playing the Day

Living my day like a game has been fun, mindful and illuminating. I thought that after three weeks of giving myself points for behaviors I wanted to encourage and subtracting points for negatives, I’d have internalized the new habits and could leave the game behind. Not so. Bad habits and old thought patterns crept back, and without my imaginary penalties I had no weapons to fight them. This seemingly minor incentive was still a structure for accountability. Calling it a game pulled together all the different parts of my day so they affected each other. Working hard on my drawing all day, something that had always been among my ultimate values, wasn’t enough to get a high score for the day. I needed to include other things, other people, which I knew were important to encourage when I first set up my scoring system. I couldn’t let myself lose ground with nervous habits. I would have to think twice before expressing irritation. After paying such close attention to every little thing, by evening I would feel excited about the day, vitalized. In fact it occurred to me that what I’m measuring and stimulating in the act of accounting is the flow of life force through me. I often think of myself and others like tubes through which the life force flows. We are happy to the degree that the flow of energy is unimpeded. Life problems clog our ability to let it flow so my scores are aimed at keeping the passage clear. Dwelling on the sad past is a big minus. In the game, I don’t do it. Turning a negative into a positive is a big plus, and the times I’ve managed to pull it off it have been very satisfying. Taking something that upset me and finding a way to twist it into something else has been gratifying on many levels.
When I started keeping score again, I had a stretch of really low scores and wondered why. As I thought back over the day I saw I’d left out all of the small nice acts and even one big one that I knew should be rewarded when I set up my system. I took that part of what I do for granted. The game made me notice them again. The happiness of games is the fuller awareness, the full involvement in what we’re doing. The fact that our pleasure chemicals are stimulated for full involvement is because it’s the way we’re meant to be. We pay closer attention because it feels good. And any game offers that happy feedback loop. Playing the day pulls everything onto the screen, and time is experienced in its full richness.
My urge to evangelize is strong. Everyone could create their own system of points and penalties that push them to be who they want to be. Brains are malleable, our habits ours to program. In my game, there is always a way to score. When I’m not producing new ideas, I can refine labor-intensive parts of my drawing, or water plants, or write something in my “Book of Gratitude”. Creating a personal scoring system is a way of looking directly at what matters and equalizing the acts that make us more human with the acts that society recognizes as useful. Balancing what we want from our lives through our own values is like writing the score for the music of our day. To make your day into a game is to take a new stance in relation to it, to add another level, build in an overview.
Jane McGonigal is right. “Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential “. In “Reality is Broken” she cites a University of Rochester study tracking graduates. They found that “American dream” goals, which focused on money, sex appeal and fame, didn’t contribute to happiness at all. The graduates that had been working hard at self-development were happiest in whatever they ended up doing. Emerson wrote, “Our chief want in life is someone who will make us do what we can.” Playing a game makes you better at it. Playing your day may well do the same thing. To create a structure for our own coherence unified by our own values is to take back the power over our lives.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Extending Influence

Beauty in Sports

The theme from Wimbledon always gives me a catch in my chest. In the early years of my enthusiasm I would wear white and get up early singing along trying my best to sound like a fanfare trumpet. Long before I knew anything about endorphins giving us pleasure for what has survival value, I knew that watching tennis was good for me. Seeing something so well done is exhilarating, a stimulus to higher achievement. Mirror neurons get a healthy workout, reflecting the facial expressions of concentration and focus, the body language that pushes the envelope of physical capability. The positive feelings we experience show that we’re meant to push our abilities. We understand and participate in the international language of gesture. When players show frustration, it’s a sign they’re taking it personally, have lost the sense of their mission. It doesn’t take ESP to see that’s not a winning attitude. We know what it feels like and how it can drag us down.
Watching Wimbledon is a superlative visual pleasure, tennis in its most jaw-dropping beauty, on grass and framed by the elegant English aesthetic. With crowds gathered to witness the best tennis in the world, it is the level where sports can be high art. We’re drawn to the style of the player that expresses something our soul yearns to reinforce. Everyone has their own expression of excellence. I don’t tend to root for a particular player until they clearly deserve to win. The ones I like best have to do with their style and attitude toward the game, how they handle setbacks and the winning shots of their opponents, staying focused when things aren’t going their way. Marion Bartoli drew me in with her earnest determination, her movements both balletic and fierce. Then there’s the fact that she beat Serena Williams, a tremendous player who only a few years back inspired me to call people up and say they should turn it on immediately. She looked like sculpture in motion. Her sister Venus was even more graceful in her heyday. When sports becomes art there are no wasted motions, the grace and attunement can only be achieved with high level skills pushed to their limits. It has so many followers because of our attraction to what we admire. Not only does it show us what “the zone” looks like, but through our inner mirroring, what it feels like as well.
The enjoyment for the spectator is not just about the competition the but seeing the sport taken to new levels, to feel that heart swelling admiration for the hard work and intense discipline it takes to get there that stimulates the best in ourselves. It’s the mindfulness that a game requires that draws attention around the channeling of pure life force and makes us feel more fully alive. If you haven’t experienced what watching tennis can make you feel, give it a try this weekend. The Finals are Saturday (Women’s) and Sunday (Men’s), 9am, NBC.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Fondly remembering my month in France two years ago.

Making a Game of Self-Improvement

Almost by accident, but surely as a result of reading the book “Reality is Broken”,
I found myself assigning point values to the various things I do. What I valued the most I gave the highest scores, but everything I wanted to encourage from smiling to creative breakthrough was matched by a certain number of points. I was surprised at how much fun this was, comparing the relative values of not just the obvious stuff like taking my walk or doing an errand, but more nuanced behaviors like asking someone a good question or transforming a negative experience into a positive are encouraged by high scores. The highest scores are for creative breakthroughs, starting something new and doing something entirely different. Visiting my parents and getting my car’s emissions tested have the added satisfaction of contributing to high scores as well as feelings of satisfaction.
When I was in the hospital a few years ago, Union Memorial used a pain scale that helped patients put a number on the degree of their pain. A strip with faces numbered one to ten registering mild unease at the low end and screaming pain at the other not only helped me pinpoint the pain, it gave me a chance to compare and see how I was doing. It was satisfying to be able to measure my descent from nine to four over a period of days. Putting it on a spectrum, even though quantifying, gives a sense of perspective. Studies have shown we’re happiest when our left front hemisphere is active. That’s why the act of putting thoughts and emotions in words feels good. It’s encouraged by our reward system. Analytical abilities are there too, the good feeling is a sense of knowing what something is, a small act of pinning down the difficult to express.
Giving points to all the behaviors I want to encourage uses a game mode to fulfill the “I Ching’s” advice for being a happier person by cultivating my best qualities. Additionally I consider the modern happiness research and give points to whatever encourages a happy state of mind. Every smile counts. Negative points subtract from the total. These are for behaviors I want to discourage like mindless habits. Higher negative scores are given to anger and impatience, yelling at other drivers and careless accidents according to degree. The process of quantifying stuff like this is entertaining in itself. Living it through the day can be outright funny. When I forgot to put the whistling cap down on the teakettle, my husband called my attention to it when it had almost boiled down. After setting it right I came out of the kitchen and announced that I’d penalized myself five points. We both laughed.
In the time I’ve been playing this game it’s been especially effective with mindless habits. I have a few nervous habits of which picking at the skin around my fingernails is most intractable. At minus two points per instance, I’m amazed at the power of that little shift to make me more aware and resistant to the automatic. And when I do catch myself, I chuckle when I write it down and maybe the pleasure is partly in having some small penalty to exact. Looking at the day as an opportunity to beat a previous days score clearly adds mindfulness where it wasn’t before. I enjoy tallying up the previous days points when I write down my first scores the next day. Right now my highest is seventy and my lowest, twenty-eight. That shows how hard it can be. A day spent watching TV or daydreaming earns no points so would likely end up in the negative values after the nervous habits, angry voice and extra glasses of wine are added up.
One feature of happiness concerns how something becomes more meaningful when tied to a bigger picture. Putting separate routine actions into the larger score of my day, pulls together all the isolated acts that were difficult while separate, but became meaningful when tied to the whole. For a person not usually given to quantification, I think what I like best about playing this game with myself is that instead of counting up stuff- money, possessions and the externals of our lives, we’re counting our interior wealth, focusing on our actions, the behavior that creates our character. It’s a game that encourages us to live with the person we want to be.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


This is a still from one of the thirty different areas in my 2002 interactive piece "CAVE" which I'm in the process of modifying into a video.

Where We Are

A central metaphor applied to human life is the metaphor of where we are. We use descriptions of location not just for the physical place we inhabit, but as a metaphor for anything that might happen to us. We naturally express our state of being as a relationship to our surroundings. When someone says, ”I’m in a tight place” or “I’m in the clear” we get it. We understand how it feels to be in that place. What gives the metaphor substance is the way movement is affected. Being thwarted by obstacles, being lost or unsure which way to turn, are nuanced opposites of smooth passage. A clear unobstructed view is equated with understanding. The more we see the more we know. Universals of being human are constructed by our shared experience of moving in the world. These are the archetypes, felt patterns of being that guide perception. Having more space is generally a positive, equated with freedom of action, thought, emotions. Having less space tends toward the negative, less freedom of movement, less space on your calendar, less room in a relationship, less mental space when the mind is cluttered. Though we might like it cozy, we don’t like being confined and resist what binds our movement. We build our concepts with this shared understanding of what moving around in the world feels like and it’s mapped in our hippocampus, gatehouse to long-term memory. Memories are tied to where they happened. Whatever tools are used to interact with the world are woven into the patterns of behavior that build around that space. What scientists call our peripersonal space includes whatever we can use to explore the world, mapped as extensions of the limbs involved. Cortical space grows with whatever we do most. If you spend a good part of the day dialing your cell phone with your thumb you would likely see an enlarged area for your thumb in a scan of your brain. Whatever capabilities you’re using have corresponding parts of the brain that are growing with that use. And the presence of the phone is mapped in as the location of the behavior. The size of our space has increased in the age of computers. Now where we can be extends into cyberspace. Though virtual, as a new location for our minds to go, it is also mapped in our brain. Now the options of our various actions in relation to the computer and phone create an intricate network of branching connections, personal maps of growing complexity. Since the brain developed to its current size because it needed inner maps to move around, having an enlarged space for movement, even if virtual, could lead to another level of evolution for our minds. Our inner model of reality would broaden and deepen. When I created my interactive piece, “CAVE”, my hope was to create a psychological space where fears and anxieties could be explored and gently recognized without judgment. It was meant to encourage curiosity and reward it with surprises (dopamine). Video games offer so many possibilities for places that could encourage positive qualities. As the computer links with the wide screen TV, game channels could become as widespread and varied as the passive channels that mesmerize and offer no challenges. Real learning channels and discovery channels and think tank channels could combine multiplayer game learning with collaborative problem solving. What kinds of places can be imagined offers the potential for tremendous growth in the perceptual understanding that underlies wisdom. Where we are is at a threshold of unity.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dynamic Stillness


The first book I’m putting on my summer reading list is a new book with the wonderful title “Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”. The optimism of the title was expressed enthusiastically by the author, Jane McGonigal, in a recent radio interview. She described how games can change behavior, treat depression and anxiety, and tap into skills that young people have developed through the games they’ve already played. Instead of just shooting, games can be designed that engage problem solving skills, creative thinking and shift emphasis from competition to cooperation. There is a realm of possibilities here that we probably haven’t begun to imagine. The author describes new games that develop our minds and abilities, and open better opportunities for learning in a venue where anything can be simulated. This raises the fascinating question of where we could go that we can’t in reality, and by the repeated training through technology, developing powers we humans don’t currently have. Anthropologists have pointed out how the brain jumped in size after we started using tools. They provided a new level of involvement with physical reality that included building, modifying, weighing and counterbalancing. Each new physical act brought with it new metaphors for thinking about building our future, modifying our plans, weighing our alternatives and counterbalancing risks.
Given the complexity of the new tools in our midst, it seems reasonable to expect another jump in the capacities of our brains. It might give us a chance to cultivate values that could lead to a more harmonious society. This may be the most important area where imagery can foster a more positive evolution in our human minds. We can reshape the foundation that guides thought from a model based on separateness and competing ideas and values, to one that shows the interconnectedness of everything and our participation in intelligent organization seen in everything around us.
Video and computer games offer the possibility of expanding human consciousness.
The entertainment goals of the industry have used most of the development dollars thus far, but in the realm of education there’s plenty to still be explored. Classroom games that feature collaboration could develop the sense of pleasure we get from working together. Rewards for discovery of what’s new can help people out of old mindsets that distrust what’s unfamiliar and cultivate instead a taste for difference. The brain is already designed to support novelty seeking, producing dopamine to stimulate even more interest. The visual nature of screen based media opens the way for development of visual reasoning that would build on abilities favored by video games, discerning the significant detail, the inconsistency in a picture, the anticipation of the next step in a pattern, which could lead to skills in perceiving deeper level more complex patterns. The military has long used simulation for training. It should be possible to use it to add sophistication to our ability to conceptualize.
Most video games now are spatially organized but can do all kinds of things that real space can’t. Since memory is spatially organized we might be able to introduce difficult concepts like multiple dimensions in a way that makes sense to the visual brain. One Superbowl commercial had a character walking from room to room and the wall becomes the floor in each successive room, regular gravity is ignored. And we adjust with it. There was a remarkable experiment at the end of the nineteenth century where the subject wears prism glasses that turn the entire visual field upside down. By the end of a week wearing them, the wearer saw the world right side up again, adapting to whatever it has to do to function in the world. This capacity could be used to understand deeper level interconnection in the patterning we participate in. What kinds of simulations would encourage a deep sense of interconnection to the world? Seeing everything as extensions of ourselves we would naturally care for it.
It’s a potential that can only be played out visually, finding representations that can help us see the linkages between complex systems and the constants in their functioning.
Today’s young people have been conditioned to the attitude that easy is good, robbing them of the pleasure of really getting lost in something that demands full attention. The state of flow in the peak experience occurs with the maximum challenge we can handle. Self-consciousness and time disappear in the ongoing response to feedback which keeps attention completely in the here and now of the action. When you’re deeply involved you feel most alive, experiencing the very best brain chemistry. Video games have provided a version of this experience for young people and are an ideal format for new kinds of challenges. With the rising popularity of playing with many others on line, it’s not hard to envision game designs that help us finally make the shift from a machine model of reality to an organic, multiple systems one that could in fact “change the world”.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Doing It Well

The conversation I just had with my brother ended with our appreciation of the care my mother got from the people at Union Memorial Hospital when she had her heart attacks. The first took her in and the second, that weekend; doctors came in and did extensive open-heart surgery into the night, saving her life. Throughout the hospital any of the staff would stop what they were doing to answer your questions and help you any way they could. Bill said whoever was training the people who worked there was doing an excellent job. I credited the personnel department for the qualities they look for in hiring. For both of us, it boosted our faith in human nature, affirmed the essential goodness that comes out in times of crisis. You could see that the people there were happy in their work in an atmosphere devoted to doing the best job possible. It’s something that applies to all areas of life. When your try to do your best in whatever it is, that means you’re involved, and if you’re involved it feels better. It’s how we’re meant to be, paying attention in the here and now. It feels good, endorphins flowing. As the Zen saying goes, ”The secret to happiness is to live your life as though you’re interested in it.” “Beginner’s mind” sees everything fresh, unclouded by preconceptions and the ideas about reality that we take for reality. Be in whatever you’re doing and the most difficult times can be important lessons. Over time we build skills in living, which are our reward for cultivating the right qualities. More skillfulness, with an instrument, a sport, any area of expertise leads to more pleasure in the doing.
Stretching our abilities is how we grow.
With the media too often focusing on what is bad in people, we feel uplifted when we see people doing it well, involved and attentive to what they do. The mirror neurons of satisfying action stimulate our own impulse to growth.
Seeing the spirit in action kindles the spirit within. Mary Baker Eddy reminds people to identify with the spirit because all good is of the spirit whereas pain and weakness are not. Identify with the best and you become it.
The fact that my brother and I are trying our best to do this well, working together to resolve some very complex life circumstances, is another comforting aspect of this time. Even when what’s going on is really awful, being present instead of running away, facing it honestly instead of hiding, is better than having it pushed aside in the unconscious, a demon to sabotage you later.
We give attention to what we care about. It’s the outer expression of love. Giving attention to every aspect of being let’s love flow through unhindered. Our culture encourages negative qualities that divert people’s attention from what might be truly satisfying, then provides pills to dull the ache of being someone you don’t respect. Doing something well is satisfying in itself, experiencing the life force connecting us to the web of being. It’s pleasure for all involved.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thorn Eruption

Staying In The Dance

“Whenever there’s some ax to grind or something to prove, there is no dance.”
Alan Watts
I always liked the dance metaphor for expressing the art in life, the pure involvement and pleasure in doing, but the way I thought about it was always connected with individual action and attitude toward one’s circumstances. It wasn’t until recently, when I felt under attack, that I realized the more fundamental, participatory meaning of being in the dance. Under attack, it’s easy to fall into “something to prove “ mode. Ignoring the attack can create an “ax to grind” later on. But the goal of the dance is to stay in harmony with the others, to be part of an overall flow of interlaced patterns in motion. To insist on pushing the personal dance is not the cosmic choreography. So when the unexpected adversary stomps onto the scene, new steps must be learned that respond to the truth of what’s now happening. Finding the steps that acknowledge and move with the changing rhythm is staying in the dance. Like with music, when the dissonant note enters, the important thing is to stay with the passage until it resolves.
Many times I’ve made the mistake of taking the most passive role when faced with conflict and thinking that’s being in the dance because it’s not fighting. But it also gives up creative participation and the chance to handle danger gracefully. It avoids learning the skills necessary to face inevitable conflicts in the course of life and the sense of accomplishment when they’re handled successfully.
A Japanese theatre group, Yoshi and Company was in Baltimore for a theatre festival many years ago, and the aesthetic power of its martial arts based dance/performance art has stayed vividly with me for decades. The dance of combat is a focused drama that when enacted artfully plays out to a satisfying end. Danger requires intense attention.
This level of attention is missing when you just go along and allow yourself to be led. Passivity is denial of what’s actually happening and the truth of your own reactions. Moves must match previous moves and use the energy of the attack to redirect the flow of events in recognition of the preceding move. It is creative because attacks are often unexpected and take unfamiliar forms. If it’s approached as something to win, the ego’s in charge and the dance is lost. Attentive response doesn’t fight fire with fire, enlarging the blaze, it fights fire with water in proportion to the fire, an act of balance that ends the destruction, cools the heat.
In his book “The Only Dance There Is” Ram Dass writes, “Honor everybody you meet as your teacher.” Respect the adversary as offering a particular kind of lesson. An attack is information.
We can’t get away from the many fibers of life, the weave of which affects our own direction. Anything that works against the overall pattern will look like a mistake, a disharmony in the larger design. Willful rebellion against the choreography adds to the friction. All that’s happening is the dance being offered. Participation is our choice.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Distracting Matter


She said, “ A lot of people are down.”
And I’m thinking,
Including myself.
I can tell from her face that it’s hard on all of us. Others agreed, blamed the quick change back to cold weather. But maybe it’s not a causal relationship; maybe we’re part of the same overall movement.
Riding the same field of being, we’re exhilarated on the crest of the wave, but apprehensive in the trough. At the top we feel we can handle everything, and in this dip at the not-quite-end of winter, every little thing threatens to overwhelm. Trapped in the gully we can’t see what might be coming and our fears rise to the surface. The climate of fear may have called up older thoughts and memories that resonate with it, and we often make the mistake of thinking an old drama or worrisome uncertainty is why we’re sad now. But it may be that we’re not depressed because of those reflections, but thinking about them and the mood associated with them helps us recognize the feeling we have in the present. A memory may serve as an image that helps clarify the current state of mind. Attributing a cause is a relative of blame and stokes embers better left to fade.
The cycle of tides, of dark and light, the seasons and the motion of planets, all are the movement of the universe. Why wouldn’t we be in accord with them? They are the large scale oscillations at one end of a spectrum with the vibration of subatomic particles at the other. Our bodies have a universe of rhythms that are measured regularly to monitor our health.
Oscillation could be thought of as a primary universal motion. So we should be more accepting of the yin with the yang. Times of darkness must be endured and examined. They turn us inward because we can’t see out of the valley. We’re deepened and softened by our dark times, become more compassionate and empathetic. We may have been weakened by the absence of light and are better off close to home until our strength grows with the length of the day.
Competition in today’s world puts too much emphasis on getting somewhere, and that “where” is never down. We want to speed across the tops of the waves, never synchronizing with them. Without knowledge of the trough we lose sensitivity to its presence in others. Too much focus on the goal obscures the rhythm of life and our awareness of the damage we may be causing along the way.
My mood began to shift toward the beginnings of the upward motion, when I recognized that we were riding the wave as a group, and could feel the bond of being in it together.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011



Of all the many wonderful ideas I’ve absorbed from Alan Watts, the one I return to most often is the way he looks at incarnation. In “Behold the Spirit”, a book he wrote while he was still an Anglican priest, he discusses incarnation in terms of full attention to the present moment. The complete attention of mind to the unfolding experience, unclouded by personal ideas, is the way we open ourselves to the flow of spirit. The divine is experienced when we get ourselves out of the way and allow the extended consciousness to flow through us undistracted. The conditioning we call self can be endlessly preoccupying, patterns of response, constructed by many years of personal life, tend to dominate our awareness. We worry about our plans, where we stand with others, why we feel a certain way, straining to understand this construction made from our body’s participation in life in our place in space/time. Watts and other philosophers speak of the pronoun “I” as referring to location. Each of us is a particular place through which consciousness flows. We identify with the story we narrate about who we are. Yet when we can focus on immediate experience as it unfolds, the One Mind of the mystics and quantum theorists is allowed unobstructed access to living human experience. We are a source of knowledge, which may be why we are happiest when we’re deeply involved in activities that direct our attention beyond our own person. Pursuit of knowledge is the highest pleasure as we participate in the growth of the whole. Peak experiences occur when we’re fully immersed in what challenges us to exceed our previous limits. We lose awareness of our personal self and are fully engaged in active being. Brain chemistry assures that this state is its own reward.
Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we’re mistaken to get wrapped up in the problem of self because there’s no self there. There is no more experimental evidence for an isolated consciousness than for a shared One. Neuroscientists have not found a pilot in the brain. We incarnate intelligent consciousness when we release the conditioned clot of ideas we think of as ourselves. All the drama and tension in the individual life story can be very absorbing and throughout history a central them of art. Even in religious art we’ve focused on the story, and though parable can be an excellent tool for making images in the mind, we lose the symbolic intent and become attached to the characters, miss the fact that it’s all within us, not out there. The challenge to the twenty-first century artist is to envision the incarnate spirit free of a divine protagonist. The reason we’re happiest when we’re most involved is because we’ve shed the narcissistic ego always evaluating itself. In full attention to immediate experience we incarnate spirit in awareness of non-personal intelligence.
The philosophical implications of quantum physics need images that show what it can mean for a new world view. Rather than a world of isolated objects and separate realities, how can we show being a part of an intelligent unbroken continuum, and the exhilaration of using whatever training our life has given us to participate more fully from the coordinates of our “I”.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Personal Torus

Free Will

A new book on the neuroscience of magic offers many fascinating insights on how perception is put together. One of their conclusions however got me thinking about what William James once said about how we use our information to make theories that explain something we already feel. The authors saw the active brain pattern occurring in a certain region before we actually said we were making a choice as evidence we weren’t really making a choice and concluded that there’s no free will.
Does this mean that the unconscious is not us, that free will is only a product of conscious choice? The part that we are conscious of is a tiny amount of the neural activity at any given time and the fact that we can automate so much, including complex learned skills is one of the remarkable features of the interwoven processes that could be called “mind”. The whole brain/body complex is always adjusting and moving in directions that will balance us. Our friends can read our body language even while we’re unaware that we feel the way they see us. To say we think with our bodies as well as our brains is not just poetic. Pioneer neuroscientist Candace Pert in her groundbreaking work with endorphin receptors and expansion of our understanding of “information molecules” was surprised to find a large percentage of serotonin receptors in our stomach. We have gut feelings that get the attention of our rational minds. As neurologist Antonio Damasio showed, feeling directs thinking. Without the whole mind’s assessment of the big picture, we wouldn’t know where to turn. There’s too much there to sort through piece by piece.
The movements of the unconscious are happening on circuits built by the values of the individual. We shape our whole brain with our experience, and the overview it creates builds the stance we take in relation to what happens in our life. In the I Ching anyone can be the “superior” person by the choices they make in regard to what parts of themselves they choose to cultivate. Overall intentions organize the focus of unconscious decisions. Thus when I think about my intentions for the day before getting out of bed, I later remember that intention when a conditioned response begins that works against it. And then there’s the question of whether the awareness we really mean when we think of ourselves is really ours. Like if the television claimed to be the creative source of the programs. David Bohm used the analogy of separate cameras on the same scene for what we think of as individual consciousness. The different point-of-view feels like the identity shaped by the capabilities and position of the camera. Brain science has not yet found the knower that sees the scene through the separate cameras. Today’s metaphor might be the smart phone, much more connected and flexible in its ways of processing. Our brain is there to be molded. Free choice is the ongoing development of it. Throughout life we can add apps and increase its capabilities and as biological systems our reward system is set up to encourage that.
Nathaniel Branden wrote that awareness is the essence of morality. Once we become aware of something we feel more responsible in relation to it. Modern life has endless ways to escape from awareness, and where we aren’t aware we act according to our conditioning. The first choice in the exercise of free will is the choice to be mindful, to pay attention to the mind we create and condition future choices by conscious values and intentions.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clear Channel

Exchanging Looks

Some of the best moments with my nieces and nephews are the least concrete. The events that precipitate them are lost to memory, no words were exchanged, but for some reason a particular meeting of the eyes and mind can be recalled with all its initial vividness, rich solid moments of knowing. We’ve all had those times when a clear accord in understanding is communicated in a barely perceivable expression, yet it feels as clear and wide open as a billboard. Having nieces and nephews offers the pleasure of seeing growth through every stage, and the moments when that eye connection happens span the years. Part of the larger organism of the extended family, we are actors and audience in the play of family events, our roles determined by biology, so every moment of personal connection is a moment of grace, a transmission of understanding that can happen with any age since it relates to the ageless mind beyond the face.
It happens with my students as well. Something comes up that I know will have personal relevance to someone. I look at them and they see in my eyes that I know their connection to it. And it can be much more diffuse than that, but the moment of understanding feels true in the way that verbal statements never can. Graham Green wrote in his novels about how as we got to know a person better we couldn’t help but love them. Often people can have a long history of time spent together and yet grow in understanding. To really see how another reacts to something, what things attract and repel them, requires attention. Too often vision blocked by an inner narration that’s already decided who the other is and tends to see only what supports the ideas of the character created.
In the class discussion last night my students said their peers often preferred relationships at a distance to actual meetings, preferred Facebook friends to friends in person. It seemed clear that was felt as a loss. Though we may not recognize what’s missing because it feels so much safer, the visual dimension is where we really connect, not limited by the words at our disposal or prechosen images posted on a website. In the realm of embodiment, friends mirror each other. The more closely they pay attention, the more still they become. Endorphins are released. Understanding grows and is communicated through the eyes. It’s a realm both subtle and deep, more available to memory. Without physical presence, experience becomes less vivid. Like a personal fog, this loss of vitality is isolating.
Human beings recognize thousands of facial expressions. It may be the first knowledge we accumulate as infants. Once we’ve moved on to words we forget how much is communicated through the body and face. If we get too involved in our inner narration, too isolated within our technology, we may lose the most important channel for understanding we have. Seeing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cosmic Evidence

Expanding Knowledge

In our long-standing concept of knowledge there are vast realms of information that are not considered. Most education focuses attention on specific sanctioned bodies of information that everybody is supposed to know. Educational disciplines have their own vocabularies that signal the focus of that course of study. Success within any particular group is narrowly defined and staying within its boundaries is necessary to be accepted in that group. Boundaries between groups haven’t been very permeable. With the focus on external motivators and measuring up to limited standards, many cognitive capacities go undeveloped. The last two decades’ dramatic increase in the understanding of the brain have given us guidelines for how to develop our intelligence that it would be irresponsible not to use. This will involve a reconstruction of some core concepts.
The separation of body and mind is an illusion that restricts our growth. We think and understand through the body’s experience of living in its environment. Physical experience underlies our knowledge of weight and balance even philosophically. It’s the body that knows what weight and balance are. Our perception is constructed of expectations like gravity, and light from above, which we are unconsciously adjusting in relation to as we move through the world. The more we move, the more we educate our potential metaphors. Knowing the degree to which we think with our bodies, how much sense does it make to sit all day focused only on text based learning. Project based learning can reach into all disciplines making connections between them. Making use of the interests and predispositions of individuals enables them to align what they learn with existing knowledge and integrate it with their overview. Since so much of memory is spatial, having more varied learning environments wouldn’t ask so much of a limited visual space.
Even on a chemical level, specific kinds of exercise create optimum mental health. As John Ratey’s book “Spark” points out, physical education should be focused on fitness to improve brain chemistry and ability to learn. Cardiovascular activity improves mental and emotional health, not just physical. The dopamine stimulated focuses interest and attention. The research is there and all schools should be paying attention.
Our entire conception of what is considered knowledge should be overhauled to proceed by the understanding that, though we are structured on the same principles, each brain is a highly plastic structure with circuits constructed from the individual life experience. This means it grows and strengthens with use, just like the body, and more important, it means one’s own experience is the primary knowledge, mapped spatially in the hippocampus. Whatever adds to the map is useful information. Personal tropisms develop the natural ability of the individual and create highly specific circuits of reference. Pain and pleasure, fear and hope should be seen as knowledge. They are information about the state of balance in the body/mind in regard to what is happening to it. The culture allows only some kinds of emotional information even though the presence of feelings signals an unconscious appraisal that might be utilized. Repression of pain and fear disregards its information and potential for guidance.
Why are we stuck in the idea that everybody should know the same things? We can learn more from others with different backgrounds than our own. We benefit from their primary knowledge, the lessons of life particular to the individual. The enlargement of knowledge should include sharing what we learn and how we got there with others.
People with different perspectives are far richer in information that can enlarge our own sense of the big picture and how things work in it.
We’ve been held back by the fixation on a prescribed body of received knowledge that often lacks the inner context that will help the information stick. Having success in life determined by how well you learn the same thing as everybody else doesn’t make use of the wealth of individual capabilities in the human population. If knowledge can be allowed to grow organically, intelligence would be the birthright of every individual.