Archive for January, 2010

In order to move forward, we must first ask the question “How physical is physical reality? What are we coded with biologically which carries us into this world and allows us to interact fluidly in any given situation?” For our conversation, we cannot ignore the biological. Important note here is that I am not a scientist, so examples given here will be connected through strands of philosophy and abstract thought in general. So for all you concrete thinkers, I apologize. Bear with me as I move forward.

I was born a twin. An identical twin. My sibling has the same genetic code as I do and we even share very similar traits that, at first glance, have nothing to do with our physical reality. We have the same tastes in food, music, movies, etc. We also share a lot of the same tendencies as for mood. We are both quick to anger but have an ability to reason within that anger. We are very similar. Now, throw in the fact that I was adopted at the age of 11 and have not lived with him on even a part time basis since I was 9 years old and the conversation becomes much more interesting. Our similarities remain even though I was adopted by an upwardly mobile upper middle class family while he remained in a working class situation on the brink of poverty, even having to fend for himself on the streets for many years. When one looks at our many similarities, one cannot deny the power of what I refer to as “hard wired truths.” Yet our divergence has created two very distinctly different realities.

So what we think of as truth has a basis in the physical world. I was born with some sort of genetic code that later became a cognitive map for basic understanding. The reality I share with my brother allowed me to immediately understand, philosophically, that our coding and decoding of the world starts with a cognitive toolbox, which I like to think of as tools for establishing the foundation of the structure that we talked about last week called collective consciousness. It is in my reading of John McDowell, a noted philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh, where my idea becomes a grounded point of conversation. He talks about every object of the world having its own individual reality. Like we said last week, I believe every individual exists first in their reality and then they become exposed to numerous realities as they interact with individuals in the world. The point of this week’s article is here: that because we are physical beings (we aren’t angels floating in cosmic nothingness), the realities of our physicality, what’s happening in our brains, what happens when we are somehow born with an abnormality or what happens when we receive that abnormality later in life…well, that affects how our mind meets with the world. If my reading John McDowell is correct, and it may not be, everyone’s reality, every THING’s reality, has that same presence of physicality to measure against or work within.

In a biological model, in the Darwinian sense, I develop a new coping mechanism for the world as a response to my individual physical needs.

The idea of mind as I understand it is not a physical one. I am talking about something that does not directly refer to the brain. It may, in fact, be generated within the brain but it is something that exists independent of biology, except that (and I giggle as I say this) the mind is completely dependent on the physical world. I still think very much like my brother, but because of experience I am a different person. Now, this would even be true if we had lived together our entire lives. My perception of my mother and her actions in our childhood are completely different than any of my siblings, and this would be true for any one of you readers. If you asked your brother or sister to retell a story, they might not put emphasis on certain images that you would, but in fact they were in the room when you had said experience. Interesting, this building of reality.

So far we’ve asserted that humans are born with a basic toolbox of consciousness which allows them to explore their world. As I said last week, exploring the world is primarily about collecting experiences and then filtering those experiences into language forms. Now, I gave a clear definition of what a language form was last week (in the broadest sense). For this week, let me add that if we responded to the world with the simple toolbox I illustrated that my twin and I possess, we would be, I believe, wandering around in states of toddler-like perceptions. Our reactions to all things would be limited to gut response and extreme emotion. Civilization a we know it would not exist. This is why it is important that we do not simply rely on the toolbox to build small isolated structures, but we use it for all it’s worth and build cathedrals and wonders of complex language forms.

In order to build on reality, to extend our spheres of influence, we MUST interact in the world. It is through a sort of cognitive metaphor building exercise that we become more sophisticated and more capable within the world. I understand what a physically challenged person is because I see he or she interacting within that world. By what they are I mean their capacities in general: abilities, weaknesses, all of it becomes a vocabulary for the broadening of your perspective. Now last week we talked about the individual and his or her consciousness being the building blocks for a collective consciousness. Well, this week I am going to suggest that the mortar binding the bricks together is one’s physical experience. By physical I don’t necessarily mean of the soil, but I mean experience by classism, racism, sexism, and any other -ism you want to insert here. These -isms are physical truths. They have a bearing on our realities. My brother has a distinctly different reality in a physical sense than myself. We have unique challenges which we bring to bear on our own consciousness.

To end, let me offer this for reflection in preparation and anticipation of next week’s article: John McDowell asserts that the reality, the consciousness that all things have (consciousness is my word), plays itself out in the action of individuals and or things. This makes me reflect that an individual IS his or her actions. That reality, the mind, the true self, reveals itself in the action of the individual/person/thing/etc. For what it’s worth, a tree is a tree because it acts as it does. Its reality is defined in these actions. The same may hold true for humans. Until next week!

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“L” is for Love

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For the next few weeks I have decided to write on the philosophical concept of mind and world. I inadvertently began this conversation last week, but I would like to write a full series exploring where the mind comes together with the physical world. I will be referring to writers on the topic, not in this first article but in future ones.

Here in America we have a magazine who’s focus is contemporary Buddhist issues. The magazine is called Tricycle. They also have a companion virtual community set up in the style of Facebook. I post a lot of these articles on my blog there. Well, last week’s article illicited some response and started a conversation having to do with whether I was arguing that you could literally, physically control emotions with thought or if I was saying that we had a choice behind the the response illicited by the emotion. Of course, the latter is what I was trying to say last week. This conversation on Tricycle led me to think about how a participant in life can craft their world. Can individuals, through thought and emotion, influence physical reality? To start, let me say that I believe that we can, but that this influence can only be seen through the filter of language. When I say language, I am not referring to the simple spoken word (if you can call it simple). I am talking about cognitive truths. The mind codes and decodes its reality through the filters of language. Filters is pluralized for a reason, because I believe art is a language, religion (all religion) is a language, math is a language, genetics is a language, and in fact all occupations have specific specialized languages so that it all acts to code our “individual” worlds.

Now, bringing it back to a more concrete understanding, I used to walk around Marshall University’s campus with a philosophy student from Japan, and we would walk in the many triangles over and over again for an hour at a time, often. I would say to him just as many times as we walked in these patterns, “I can isolate all language back to one action in human evolution.” Now of course I was quite young and pompous, and that statement was extremely flawed at the time, but I’ve done a lot of thinking about that topic from those days until now, to the point that I have a more mature understanding and can quite comfortably lay out for you, the reader, what I’m about to for the next couple of weeks. So bear with me because we’re going to start a grand adventure, and our jumping off point are those patterns rolled by me and walked by my Japanese friend more than ten years ago.

Patterns. Triangles. Simple squares. They appear on cave walls and rock facings all over the world, generated by an ancient people far removed from our modern understanding of who we are. Or at least we think so. The brain as we know it is the same as it was when our common ancestor walked into civilization as we define it today. And so we are operating with the same toolbox, responding to the same stimulus, in virtually the same way (at least at the hardware level as our ancestors did). If we understand that to be true, then the reason that we “communicate,” in any way that we do it, has been for the same reasons since time immemorial. We express things, draw, speak, sell ourselves in order to convey first a root compulsion to survive, second a root compulsion to primitively carry on our lineage, and third (but not at all less than the others) to ask questions of what is beyond us.

The “us” I am referring to in the above paragraph speaks of humanity as a whole, but for this conversation, for our understanding, I want to focus on reality as first being an interplay of all language forms, and second being isolated to individual experience except for occasional overlapping when it comes to interacting with other human beings. Of course, in this case occasional really means every other millisecond, not just some rare and random instance. In other words, in my mind, humans act within a singular reality that is wholly their own, and it is through the acquisition of languages as we have defined them that we become collective. Now, this collective reality is, I believe, a real thing. But it only exists for individuals if they buy into it on their own. So, imagine collective reality as a building built with bricks that are molecularly individual, but once bonded become a strong collective reality. We’ll talk about this more as the weeks progress.

This brings me to the example of the woman at Starbucks last week, where I said that I believed that “She’s clouded by an illusion of ignorance.” The response I got on Tricycle was quite hostile towards the woman, but it leads me into what we are discussing today; if what I say is true and humans develop a language (aka the thing that we code and decode our world with) through filters, then the woman from Starbucks I will assume for the purposes here has not interacted with a functional disabled person or any disabled person at all for that matter. Therefore, she has not and could not develop understanding/empathy for my situation. She has no language to express my reality, because we have not shared time, shared space. I cannot hold her responsible for not knowing. I can only acknowledge her ignorance and expand her vocabulary. For what it’s worth, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, he said that we cannot talk about anything outside of our direct experience without first building a vocabulary using the world around us. Until next week!

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FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: A ray of possibilities…

By Christopher Worth

Crisp blue sky as I bump and thud down the sidewalk. Preparing to write this article I throw open the doors of my cognitive organizer. I haven’t written in more than a month, and a lot of life has happened in that time. Christmas has come and gone. The stress that most people feel during that time has lifted like a fog clearing away from a mountain pasture…and life drones on.

A new batch of students become subject of my churning thoughts as I think of them and what kind of help they might need, and the cogs turn and the wheels roll and life passes. Now, I want to go back for a moment to Christmas. Note that this commentary isn’t about Christmas, but I want to start there because I think it’s quite interesting that the holiday calls many people into being the child that they so dread to face. What I mean by that is that when we come upon our parents within the holiday, we’re not entering their life from the point in which we drive up into the driveway. We are the person that we were in their eyes when we first left home to strike out on our own. Now, some of you readers will argue that you have a perfect relationship with your parents and/or children, but even that perfect relationship calls us back psychologically.

To begin, I love Christmas or whatever label you put on that grouping of weeks and time. I truly felt like an outcast and have for years because I venerate the idea that this is a chance to come together and even with very rank, dirty laundry, we can sit down and find a new starting point, because we are put in a position where we sort of cognitively are forced back in time. I see it as a way to address issues. Maybe this is because I fully embrace all the selves in me. I embrace my seven year old. I embrace my fifteen year old, I embrace my twenty one year old, etc. In my mind all of those psychological milestones are alive and well and if I understand that my problem with them or my problem within that span of time is and was an illusion, I can better embrace it as a positive milestone. Even in it’s negativity!

Allow me to assume what you’re saying as you read this. “My life is an illusion? What kind of drugs has Chris picked up off of Huntington’s street?” I can assure you that I am not drugged in the present moment. What I mean by illusion is simply that whatever emotion you’re feeling towards a situation, whether it’s extreme elation or oppressive negativity, we allow ourselves to feel those things, to feel that way. Note that I am not putting people who need medication for depression or anxiety down. I am simply saying that if I take medicine because I recognize depression within myself, that is recognizing that there is something within me that needs adjusted. That’s a physical reality. The emotion that I’m putting forth even after being put on antidepressants is not created by the chemical within the pill that I swallow. It is created by me and in that, I can decide whether I have that emotion as a response to stimulus. It’s all an illusion in that we can control it to a large extent, barring extreme mental illness like schizophrenia. I can decide whether to react to situations. My reaction can totally change the outcome of the situation, therefore giving birth to a new situation. So where did the old one go? It’s no longer existent. It was an illusion.

For example, the other day I was sitting at Starbucks (as I often do). Many of you can see me there on any given night. I was sitting with a friend and I was wildly discussing something, throwing my crippled arms about and flailing like a fish out of water. The lady at the table designated for the physically challenged directed a comment in my general direction asking if I would like her to get up. Or at least I thought she was asking me. But when she asked again the very same question, after I responded, “No, we didn’t need to use the table,” I knew instantly that she did not recognize me as a human being, or at least as a functioning human being, and she was waiting for the friend of mine to give her the response she called for. Now, I could have gotten very angry. And for a moment, I boiled over…but the moment quickly passed as I decided to take a deep breath and to ignore great ignorance. Now because I barely acknowledged her I was able to say, “She’s clouded by an illusion of ignorance,” and if I were deeper in my practices, or deeper in what I’m trying to preach here, I would not have reacted at all, thereby canceling out her very actions. If I had been quicker in thought I might have redirected her words and explained that I am not mentally retarded and/or do not need a translator. But either way, the situation would have and did change. It lifted like a fog clearing away from a mountain pasture.

We have a unique ability, which may or may not separate us from any animal…we have the power to craft our reality. You can exist in the fog or you can be the sun that you know you were born to be and burn away negativity. Burn away ignorance. Be the light for the world that individuals are called to be. People ask me every day, just about, how it is I do what I do. How can I get up in my wheelchair in the morning and trudge out into the snow? Well, it’s because I wake up with a mantra. I wake up with a prayer. “Allow me this day to be the possibilities, to embrace the possibilities, and to know that I can be a force for change in this, a good world.” And for what it’s worth, that’s the truth.

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ONCE when I saw a cripple
Gasping slowly his last days with the white plague,
Looking from hollow eyes, calling for air,
Desperately gesturing with wasted hands
In the dark and dust of a house down in a slum,
I said to myself
I would rather have been a tall sunflower
Living in a country garden
Lifting a golden-brown face to the summer,
Rain-washed and dew-misted,
Mixed with the poppies and ranking hollyhocks,
And wonderingly watching night after night
The clear silent processionals of stars.
-Carl Sandburg

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