Oh, good! We’re at the “meaning” part of the book

So, I’ve been chugging along with the rest of my life, leaving the posting to this blog on autopilot, while I launch some other ventures. I’m starting to teach college students (and others who may be job seeking) how to connect effectively with recruiters, so they can get the work they want… and avoid the work situations they don’t want to get into.

More on that later. Now, dear reader, we’ve arrived at a section of the book that’s near and dear to my heart. Let’s talk about meaning!

As I said in my last post (and my book):

I think of “meaning” as a sort of master pattern that we piece together from the past to help guide us into the future. It’s a conceptual road map of our world view that puts the full range of our experiences and observations in the context of a larger pattern, explaining the past, putting our current situation in context, and pointing us in directions that are consistent with the ways we think the world works. Meaning helps us make sense out of our world, both literally and figuratively. It orients us in life. It shows us the way. It adds logical predictability to our thinking and creates palpable sensations when we engage with our world. In order to have means, we need an end, and meaning shows us the ends toward which we are (or should be) moving.

So, yeah, yeah, whatever. That’s nice, Kay, but what difference does that make?

Actually, it makes a lot of difference. Think about it. we’re living in strange times. Absurd times. And all the roads seem to lead either to nowhere, straight off a cliff, into anticipated danger, or in some indeterminate direction that could take us either to paradise or the brink of destruction.

A lot of of literally have no map of the road ahead. Who the heck has a map? Tell me, because I want to talk to them.

Meaning is our map. I can’t stress this enough.  Each and every one of us has our own way of finding meaning in life (don’t get me started about how life is supposedly meaningless). And when we lose touch with the internal map we use to guide ourselves through life, well, our lives can seem meaningless. They’re not. But we think they are. And that’s a problem.

A couple of posts ago, I defined “meaning” as

the significance we give to the ebb and flow of our lives in this confusing, overwhelming world. Meaning is hugely important to us, and according to Merriam-Webster, “mean” is one of the top 1% of words looked up at their website. We usually think of it in terms of significance or importance, direction or purpose. What something means is central [to us]. It leads our understanding down a certain path and lets us “design for . . . a specified purpose or future”.

You see, in certain contexts, the word “mean” indicates someone heading in a certain direction. A few examples jump out at me.

  • A means to an end… where something provides a kind of bridge from where we want to go, to reaching our ultimate destination.
  • Living within your means… is about living in harmony with the resources that make it possible for us to achieve our goals.
  • A person of means… indicates someone with the resources to get from where they are to where they plan to go.

So, “means” has a tangible, practical significance to us. It’s what gets us from one point to another in our lives, in a material way. And we use the word and understand its … meaning… as if there were never any question. Because we get it, in those contexts.

However, when we look at philosophical, psychological, or spiritual Meaning, we pretend that it’s something ephemeral… otherworldly. But it’s pretty much the same as material means, conceptually speaking. Just like “means” can be about having the resource to make it possible to get from Point A to Point B (or C, M, X, and Z), “meaning” is literally about our mind having the capacity to see a future course for us, based on existing resources – i.e., the patterns we’ve seen in the past. 

Those patterns are more than just fanciful ideas we cling to for whatever reason. There’s a physical component to them, as well, that makes them every bit as tangible as a fistful of money, or a wallet full of credit cards. Whether we’re aware or not, our prior experiences are biochemically, emotionally, mentally embedded in our human systems. And based on those different signals we picked up along the way, we construct a veritable bridge to our future. Out of the minuscule biochemical building blocks that load up our systems, we pave the path that we detect ahead.

Having a sense of meaning adds purpose and direction to our lives. After all, you can’t have a purpose, if you can’t see an ultimate destination. And there’s no point in going in any direction at all, if you can’t detect which one will work. We make these judgement calls all the time – snap judgments that “just work” for us in the moment, which we assume are right on. Because they feel right. They fit. They confirm our biases or they widen the world ahead of us.

But meaning doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s something we construct. Out of our past experiences. Out of what we think are empirical data points. We observe. We process. We detect. We assign significance. And then we decide what it all means… where it’s taking us.

Now, I know there are some folks who say “life is inherently meaningless”. But I think it’s much more hopeful — and, in fact, more accurate — to say that “life is infinitely meaningful”. Because it is. It is full of patterns, full of choices, full of signals. And they can be combined and recombined in any particular way we like. Of course, they don’t arrange themselves. We have to do that part. But life isn’t stingy at all, when it comes to patterns or indicators or pointers to some distant destination. It’s overflowing with meaning.

We just have to pick the meanings that work for us.

Brought together from a distance

 

setting eclipse moon near a small mountain
The setting eclipse near Mount Wachusett

One of the amazing things about distance is how it can really bring us together.

Watching the full blood blue super moon eclipse yesterday morning, and then watching rise that same moon rise last evening, I was struck by how that shared experience connected like-minded people — all because of distance.

Yesterday morning, my partner and I watched the moon as it sank in the west, as the upper left-hand side was gradually obscured by the earth’s shadow. We hadn’t realized that the moon would be setting at just same time when the eclipse was at it’s peak and the moon turned red. But as we watched it sink towards the horizon, trees hiding its descent, we realized if we didn’t do something, we were going to miss the full drama of the eclipse.

We were both still in our pajamas, and it wasn’t practical for us both to get dressed and rush out the door, so I slipped on my shoes, grab my coat and hat, and drove off in search of a good vantage point. There’s a high hill near our home where you can get great views of sunsets and moonsets. So I headed in that direction. Careful, careful, down the twisty, windy roads… careful, careful, in the morning commute time.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that in mind, either. The road, which is a secondary route that doesn’t see much traffic even during rush hour, had a line of cars all driving fast in the direction I was headed. It definitely wasn’t in the direction of work, and I suspected that the other drivers were just like me — realizing at the last minute that we couldn’t see the eclipse from our cozy home vantage points… determined to get up to the ridge for one last look at this awesome eclipse.

As we motored up the road, we would slow down a little bit at spots where we could see a glimpse of the moon. All we really wanted was to get one last good look — get maybe a picture or two and really enjoy the historic sight. After all, if something happens just once every 152 years, it’s worth enjoying as best you can.

I didn’t get all the way up to the top of the ridge, but I did find an overlook in a private drive with an unobstructed vantage point. And I wasn’t the only one. Somebody else I had pulled into that spot before me. We were both trespassing (just a little bit) and the other driver had her emergency blinkers on, as if to say, “Yes, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but bear with me for just 10 minutes until the moon sets.”

In my mind’s eye I could see lots of other people out on the road at just that moment, looking for the perfect space space to watch the moon make its final dramatic descent… all of us looking to the same point in the distance, some 225,000 miles away, a common point of focus for hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people all at the same time time.

This is the thing the distance can give us – a shared vantage point that’s far away, which has such a close and intimate association for so many of us. I don’t know anyone who dislikes the moon, and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t enjoy the silvery wash of full moon light on a cold winter’s night.

And come to think of it, the very reason that the moon can shine her light, is because she really is so far away from the sun. Being that far away, the moon isn’t occluded by the earth or other celestial bodies (except on special occasions like yesterday). Being over 200,000 miles away from the earth, and over 93 million miles away from the sun, the moon is far enough away to not get toasted to a crips by the sun’s heat, but it’s close enough to bathe our planet in light at night. It’s far enough away to be seen by billions of people, and close enough to be observed with the naked eye.

And now that the moon is waning (she’s 98.6% waning gibbous), and we settle into the next month of the new year, I wish us all enough distance to get some healthy perspective on life, and enough nearness to let us see our way through.

New Facebook group for Beloved Distance

open book with waterfall pouring outAfter initial resistance to the idea, I wrapped my head around starting a Beloved Distance Facebook group. It’s open. Feel free to join.

I must admit, I have a (bad?) habit of writing books and then setting them loose in the world without supporting them in their physical incarnation. But books aren’t like wood ducklings, which can leap from their nest in the trees and find their way to the nearest water and start growing into full-sized ducks. Books need support. They’re inert — unless they’re enlivened by the people reading them. A book without a reader is a collection of words on paper, a saturation of ink on pulped trees, neatly bound and wrapped in a glossy cover. Without reader involvement, they don’t amount to much, beyond the mind of the writer.

I was just reading a piece this morning by an author who was troubled by a classic writer’s situation:

…it’s also funny when you talk to someone about a story (you’ve been working on) for months and months, and when they’ve read it, knowing just how important it is to you, all you get back is a “it’s great. Loved it.” Inside me, I’m screaming “what else? what did you take away from it? … etc.” But no, no review… But still, it wasn’t reviews I long for, but human conversations, debate.

Beloved Distance is very much like that. It grew out of years of reading, thinking, reading some more, and thinking even more than that. And now that the book’s out, people can get hold of it, read it, react to it, and move on. Like we do with most things.

And yet… what else is there?

That’s what I’d like to find out in the new Facebook group – from readers, for readers, because of readers. The themes of the book have resonated very strongly with me for years, and the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve just scratched the surface. And in fact, while I was writing the book, there were so many instances where I realized I just didn’t have the time and the space to say everything that I felt needed to be said about the topic at hand.

So, I had to defer it till later… put it in the blog

That time is now, and as I await the final notice from Amazon that the paperback is available there, I consider all the different ideas that, like puppies in a basket, are clamoring over each other to get picked up and taken home.

The book is going to mean different things to different people, and that’s the fun part of it. Some people may not care for it at all. Others may find it dramatically changes how they think about stuff that used to barely catch their notice. Others may be intrigued, then move on. But that “travel” from a state of wondering what others think to finding out… well, that’s yet another form of distance I’m looking forward to traveling.

On we go… on we go.

A world on fire… so much suffering… and questions we can’t help but ask

There's so much pain, so much suffering. What do we do? Why is this happening? It's natural to seek out root causes, and there are plenty of people willing to provide explanations. “It's the separation we feel from one another that's to blame,” we're told. And that sounds about right. Thinking of someone else as being separate and apart from you makes it possible to hurt them without regret. Looking at others as being, well, Other, makes it awfully easy to dismiss their humanity and do to them what we will, regardless of the downstream impact it has to future generations – or us. This is nothing new. Humanity has been divided over one thing or another since we first walked this earth. It's just that now, with repeat warnings about the fragility of our climate and our environment, a seemingly endless string of military conflicts flaring up, the divides between rich and poor widening with each fiscal quarter, and nuclear war actually being discussed as a distinct possibility, the coordination and collaboration we need to solve our global problems together seem more elusive than ever.
There’s so much pain, so much suffering. What do we do? Why is this happening? It’s natural to seek out root causes, and there are plenty of people willing to provide explanations. “It’s the separation we feel from one another that’s to blame,” we’re told. And that sounds about right. Thinking of someone else as being separate and apart from you makes it possible to hurt them without regret. Looking at others as being, well, Other, makes it awfully easy to dismiss their humanity and do to them what we will, regardless of the downstream impact it has to future generations – or us. This is nothing new. Humanity has been divided over one thing or another since we first walked this earth. It’s just that now, with repeat warnings about the fragility of our climate and our environment, a seemingly endless string of military conflicts flaring up, the divides between rich and poor widening with each fiscal quarter, and nuclear war actually being discussed as a distinct possibility, the coordination and collaboration we need to solve our global problems together seem more elusive than ever.

“We live in a world on fire”

The Sarah MacLachlan song from years ago keeps running through my head. There’s something reassuring about the enduring popularity of that song (she performed it at the 2017 Juno awards), but there’s also something distressing.

Because if we keep singing about this, and the lyrics of distress from 10… 20 years ago, are still as impactful today as they were back then… well, what have we been doing in the meantime?

Waiting for someone else to fix it for us?

Maybe. I mean, we’re all busy, right? We’re all occupied with our own concerns, our own dramas, our own direction. And the problems of the world seem so vast, so overwhelming, so out of our control, it’s almost impossible to know where to start.

But we have to start somewhere, right? Even if it’s just at a level of understanding. Even if it’s just at a level of the myriad day-to-day interactions that we tend to take for granted. Every single detail in our lives does matter, and how we behave towards a total stranger leaves an impression on both them and us… and it ripples out, like a pebble tossed in a pond, affecting everyone else they and we interact with at a later point. Even if it’s just a small thing (and who among us really knows just what’s “small” or “large”?), it still matters.

It all matters.

And nowhere is that more true than in our bodies. We’re constantly picking up on signals around us. We may not perceive them — not every piece of sensory data gets through — but they’re there. And they affect us on levels we can’t even detect, much of the time. It’s quite amazing, if you think about it. How the heck do we get through life, in the first place?

But I digress.

Here we are, on the brink of a whole lot of pain. It feels like we’ve been here for an awful long time. Between international conflicts, to political struggles, to class and race clashes… the list of turbulence never seems to end. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost too much to think about, and everyday it seems like more revelations are coming to light about what goes on in the shadows beyond the attention span/range of our distracted and otherwise-entertained population.

It may feel like too much to process, but we actually have the innate capacity to deal with it all. I’m convinced of it. Since 2013, I’ve spent a whole lot of time realizing just how well-equipped we are to handle it all — and do so with grace and mastery. We just seem to have forgotten that we can… we’ve lost touch with the qualities and capabilities that not only allow us to do it, but compel us to step forward, to engage, inquire, explore.

What we’re facing now, is (in my opinion) not so very different from challenges that past generations have faced. We’ve just forgotten some core truths about ourselves and what it means to be human and alive. Beloved Distance is all about reminding us that, yeah, we got this.

And here’s a chill remix of the now-classic song, for your listening enjoyment.


Beloved Distance - The Separation That Connects Us to AllNow Available

Beloved Distance – The Separation That Connects Us to All

Paperback 9×6″

168 Pages

$11.95 (+s/h)

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To understand our place in the world, we must consider both body and mind

The Thinker by Rodin
“The Thinker” by Rodin

If you’re reading this, you have a brain. You may (or may not) use it to the utmost of your ability, but if your eyes are following this text, as you peer at your device or laptop or desktop monitor, your nervous system is working overtime shuttling information through your system, which most definitely includes your brain.

90,000 miles of nerves interconnect, both directly and through chemical synapses. They bridge the distance between our skin and our spinal cord, between our internal organs and our cerebrum. Our whole system is afire with electricity and chemical reactions, with our billions of neurons firing some 200 times per second. And all the while, the brain is “unconsciously” making sense of it.

As George Lakoff points out, an estimated 98% of thought is unconscious.

Lakoff embodied consciousness intro text
George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis Click the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuUnMCq-ARQ for the full video

If you think about how busy your “conscious” brain is, just imagine how much moreso is the rest of you. All that chatter and static between your ears is but a paltry 2% of the total thought activity going on. Right now. All the time.

Just let that sink in for a moment…

Okay, let’s come back now. The brain-body connection has been talked about for decades, now, very much in terms of mental health and physical health. A lot of us have reached the conclusion that of course the brain and body are interrelated. How could they not be? The brain is part of the body, and its processes are organic, as well as consciousness-related.

The thing is, we seem to lose sight of this, when we think about our “higher mind” activities. When we get into philosophy and try to understand the nature of reality and our place in the world, we especially tend to split the brain from the body, like a space capsule leaving the rocket behind as it propels into the outer reaches of our cosmos. When we think long and hard about things, when we’re rapt with attention on abstract concepts. the very idea of the body seems to fade away. We forget to eat, drink, use the bathroom. We forget we have a body at all.

But of course, it’s still here. It’s not going anywhere — especially when we’re wrapped up in higher thought.

I usually think of Descartes, when I think of the brain-body split. Mr. “Cogito ergo sum“, who surmised that since he thought, therefore he was. Well, that’s fine. And certainly, it’s true. But I think it can also be said that “We think because we are.” So much of our physical systems are involved in thought, and so much of our systematic functioning is analogous to our thought processes, that the idea of neatly separating out the body from the mind and treating them as separate and distinct seems, well, very 17th Century.

Of course, it feels a lot neater, if we can conceptualize thought as something that’s mind-based, rather than body-based. It’s neater, somehow. It feels… cleaner. But as we’re learning more (and more, every day it seems) how much of the body is involved in processing the information our brains work with, that sanitized neatness carries a significant cost to true understanding. And that costs weighs us down with the burden of ignorance — both passive and active — as we both overlook important considerations and also willfully ignore the physical facts right in front of us.

In order to understand the workings of our minds, we have to understand the workings of the body. We have to understand how our nervous systems work, how they react and shape us in relation to the world around us. And when we understand the principles at work on the microscopic level, it gives us an added frame of reference, a finely tuned lens, we can use to gain greater insight into our innermost workings.

Knowing the body first, before approaching the brain, has stood others in good stead. Freud, in fact, started out as a neuroanatomist. I had no idea, till I did some digging a few months back. Long before he turned to psychoanalysis:

He carried out pioneering neurobiological research, which was cited by Santiago Ramóny Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, and helped to establish neuroscience as a discipline.

See Freud was a pioneering neuroscientist at The Guardian to read the full (and fascinating) article.

Freud’s theories have fallen out of favor in recent years, from what I hear. But apparently some of his findings are being proven out, much as Einstein’s Theory About Gravitational Waves Was Just Proved Right. I have to wonder if maybe Freud’s understanding of neurology actually put him ahead of not only his peers but also his professional descendants, so much so, that it’s taken greater neurological understanding on our part to fully appreciate what he was talking about. It’s a theory…

And just as debunked theories sometimes need a closer look, our favorite concepts sometimes need to be called into question. Like the idea that the mind and the body are (or can be) separate and distinct from each other. Like the idea that you can disregard the body when you’re engaged in intellectual activities. Like the idea that the mind can completely rule the body, or that the body must be overcome and made wholly subservient to the mind, in order for the human spirit to rise.

All the undercurrents of hostility to the physique that trace through the Western tradition, seem pretty much like the product of people with some serious body issues. But of course, they weren’t alone. And their Körperfeindlichkeit (hostility to the body) filled a need in the Western psyche that didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the human body, until fairly recently.

Fortunately, the trend is shifting, as more and more people are connecting body and mind in philosophical terms, as well as world view. And I find myself quite comfortable within this trend, albeit on the margins, since I’m not exactly up to speed on all the latest thinking. It’s been a long time coming — and about damn’ time, if I say so.

From where I’m sitting / standing / working, it’s literally impossible for us to understand our place in the world or fully grasp the meaning of our existence, unless we factor in the body. It’s both a full partner in our thought process, as well as full of microscopic templates that can inform our macroscopic patterns. Our bodies guide us unconsciously, and when we engage with them consciously, they can enrich us even more.

And now it’s time to get a drink of water. My brain can use the hydration. And the walk to the water cooler will do my mind good.