A good start. Possibly.

My most recent reading material is The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio is convincingly on the neurological/evolutionary trail to recognizing how consciousness operates and why we have developed it, though he allows for mysteries we do not yet and may never understand.

Damasio is clearly not a dualist who thinks the consciousness can exist separately from the body (one of his previous books is aptly titled Descartes’ Error). He doesn’t address the “soul” in The Feeling of What Happens, but argues that reason requires feeling in order to operate effectively, that feeling is a more “conscious” form of emotion, which is “unknowing” in the sense we call consciousness and is founded upon core consciousness, which is reliant upon the physical organism…a vastly complex array of cells, nerves, you name it, generally self-regulating and not by nature in particular need of a conscious mind.

So next time someone tries to explain why a situation happened and just says, “It’s complicated,” maybe you ought to accept that. Because, apparently, it’s really really really complicated!

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gifThat does not keep people like Damasio from trying to track down what goes on in the minds of sentient beings.

Having just read Flow, I immediately thought of what Csikszentmihalyi says about the way true flow experiences depend upon deepening levels of complexity–that’s how we keep from becoming bored by routinization of a task. Dennett suggests that consciousness consists of layers: “multiple drafts,” and Damasio calls the human brain, and the brain-body unit, a series of “systems within systems.” But there is no little self, no metaphorical or actual homunculus, at the very bottom of the system, or at the very top. There are only more and varied connections, he asserts–with profound respect and amazement at what biology has wrought.

I also thought about Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a life project. Some years ago, I began a journal devoted to exploring my poetic project and learned that I do not really think about my writing as a project per se, at least not in the formal sense of poetics. [Here’s Dorothea Lasky harping on the whole concept of a poetic project, in a bit of refutation aimed at poetry critic David Orr.]

What I think I was doing, in fact, was trying to figure out my life project, in the way Csikszentmihalyi defines that concept. What is my life’s philosophy in terms of guiding tasks, principles, goals, projects, challenges? Is teaching part of the package? Motherhood? Gardening? Writing? Human relationships? Learning? Speaking of human consciousness, do I have a conscious path or goal?

Maybe my goal is to keep on amid the complexity and to relish it as much as possible, since it is unavoidable. And perhaps by accepting the complications, I will find my life becomes simpler. That could be a possible outcome–right?

I think of Reineke writing on Marcel Proust’s narrator and his struggle with status, jealousy, conformity, and desire. I read the Proust novel(s) when I was in my early 20s and found his narrator frustratingly neurotic but also a little too familiar, as my life experiences in many ways mirrored his. Eventually, he learns that the way to cure the pain of desire is to discipline himself to let go of desire itself; (and no, neither Proust nor his narrator were Buddhist).

And what happens when he gains this recognition is that he can write the novel. He develops flow, and a life project.

I am past 50, a good time to establish more consciously what my life project is. I know it involves relentlessly and joyously learning new things. I think it will include poetry in some way. And discipline of some kind, conscious effort. For now, those things constitute a good start.











9 comments on “A good start. Possibly.

  1. Sigrun says:

    A wonderful post!
    I love the idea of “my life’s philosophy”, sounds such a lot better than “a life project” – philosophy makes me think of openness and uncertainty and respect for all we do not yet know, project sounds like a plan one has to fulfill according to something already given.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and a poetic project–same thing. I think of making art as very open-ended. But I suppose some artists and writers, etc, do prefer to think of results? In which case, for them maybe project works.
      But not for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sigrun offers this link to a talk with Damasio: http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16432. Thanks, Sigrun!


  3. KM Huber says:

    “Maybe my goal is to keep on amid the complexity and to relish it as much as possible, since it is unavoidable. ” Wise, wise words, Ann. This one sentence sums up my life of late. For what it is worth, I have found accepting the complexity does simplify a great deal. This, I have come to believe at 62 as my life project moves in directions not previously considered, and in this, Sigrun’s comment regarding a life philosophy applies. Wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Many people who interpreted what evolution suggested went off the deep end one way or another, which is what happens with ground-breaking ideas. Both critics and supporters misinterpreted Darwin and the implications of his work, as well, all of which means he accomplished something truly significant. Why not, therefore, examine fundamental human traits to see whether evolutionary currents can be discerned? Certainly Darwin and a few of his contemporaries speculated that altruism might have an evolutionary basis, a concept that was taken up, debated, and temporarily dismissed in the 1960s-70s; recent neurobiological and genetic studies have brought the possibility of a biological basis for kindness back into discussion (see also Damasio). […]


  5. […] great post by Ann Michael made me curious about the work of Antonio Damasio: Here is Damasio in a recent […]


  6. […] of her enterprise to suggest that pain is the ultimate test of the mind-body problem (thank you, René Descartes). The experts Thernstrom interviews disagree on how much we do know or can know about the human […]


  7. […] the foregoing passage, Zimmer cites Damasio, M. D. Lieberman, and an academic-philosophical article by Endel Tulving (2001) titled […]



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