By Paul

Even though I’ve been retired for several years now, every so often I have occasion to think about work, and what it takes to be successful in the world of work.  Having said that, I suppose I should add that all of my professional experience has been in an academic setting, specifically higher education administration.  Even so, I wonder if some of the things I have discovered during the course of almost forty years could also be thought of as having a measure of applicability in the wider world of work.

The topic came up most recently when I happened to have lunch a few days ago with an old colleague, and a good friend, who recently retired from an administrative position at a well-respected research university.  We were speculating about what it takes to rise to leadership positions, and if there might be skills that could easily be learned.  It led me to think about work more generally, and what it takes to be, and to feel, successful at work, no matter what the job may be. 

I’ll start off by saying that a long time ago as a young man, when I first began working, I never expected to be particularly successful in life. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but it is.  And so, it came as something of a surprise to me when, years later, I began to rise in the ranks and ultimately became an Assistant Vice President at a large public university, where I worked for almost twenty years.  How, I wondered, did that happen?

Pondering these questions over the years, and occasionally discussing them with good friends, I have in the end come to a few conclusions.  For the most part, I believe that there are at least three essential qualities that are needed in order to be successful at work, as well as possibly to go on and provide a leadership role involving others.  I will elaborate by saying a few words about each of these qualities below.


It cannot be emphasized too strongly that you have to have goals in mind while at work, and you’ve got to focus on those goals in a laser-like way.  Depending on the job at hand, often the goals are already given to you either by your supervisor, or simply by the structure of the job itself.  The very nature of virtually any job requires all of us to meet certain expectations:  there are programs which have to put into operation, products to make, projects to complete, reports to write, tasks to fulfill, people to see or who need assistance, and so on.  It may sound overly simplistic, but I have seen time again over the years that some people do not concentrate on what is expected of them.  Instead, they loll about, surf the web, waste time and bother others by chatting endlessly with them, make repeated private or personal phone calls etc. Believe it or not, as a supervisor I occasionally even had to tell people that they were expected to arrive at work on time, and to stay the entire day.  I recall, for example, commenting to one individual, “Job one is not safety.  Job one is showing up!”  For the most part, if you don’t come to work, you cannot do your job.  And then, once you are there, you have to focus your energy, such that whatever cares and burdens you may have brought with you from life are temporarily put aside.  I am speaking of the routine of work here.  Obviously, there arise in all of our lives occasional times of extraordinary emotional stress, serious sickness in the family, the death of a loved one, or some other unexpected tragedy.  I am not talking about that.  I’m talking about the grind – let’s call it what it sometime is – of getting the job done on a daily basis.  Do your job, do it well, do it very well, and in so doing make yourself proud of what you have accomplished.  It really does not matter if the thing to be accomplished is big or small.  Again, it may sound elemental, but a multitude of small things often add up to one big thing.  If you have occasion to supervise anyone else on your job, you must treat those people with respect.  They are not slaves or automatons.  Tell them when they have done well, and thank them for their good efforts.  It does not have to be over the top.  A simple “thank you, that was well done,” is sufficient.   All of us like it when others, our supervisors in particular, take notice when we work hard and do a good job.  On the other hand, it is also important to let people know, as kindly but as directly as possible, if and when they are not doing well on the job.  Don’t save things up for a yearly evaluation.  Try to help them see on a more regular basis exactly what they can do in order to perform better on the job.  Let them know what your expectations are.  This is all part of setting goals and accomplishing them.  As Lewis Carroll said in “Alice in Wonderland”: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” 


This is not as easy as it may sound, but it is also not an impossibility.  You may think that your job is composed for the most part of any number of routine tasks, and that surely is the case with most jobs.  So, how do you go about expressing creativity within the routine?  I knew a woman once in my office whose job was to enter information on incoming students into a computer program and to determine the number of units we would accept from the academic institutions that students had previously attended abroad.  It sounds routine, and in many ways it was.  But each of these institutions in other countries represents a totally different system and ways of measuring academic progress and scholastic success.  She was able to devise a slightly different way for us to make reasonable judgments about such questions, at least in certain cases.  It may not have been totally revolutionary, but it did help us, and it helped students a great deal, and she was proud of her accomplishment.  She showed intelligence and creativity, and it made a difference.  When I first took over one section of the office which I eventually headed in its entirety, I suggested a new program whereby both domestic and international students who already had a year or two’s experience on campus would serve as volunteer mentors for newly arriving students from abroad.  As a group, we spent a weekend in a big cabin in the local mountains, learning about culture and doing hands-on intercultural kinds of exercises, which made students more open to and aware of the cultural differences that new students would have to deal with.  It was fun, it was a bonding experience for the volunteer mentors (some are still close friends with each other decades later), and it assisted incoming international students get settled more easily and more effectively.  No one can tell you exactly how your own creativity can make a difference on the job you do.  That’s in a sense where the fun comes in; and it is fun, and extremely energizing, to be creative.  I have never in my life met a person who has no creativity, although I have met many people who have shut their creativity off.  Don’t let the routine of work deaden your spirit.  Every job, no matter what it entails, has certain routines that must be met.  The trick is to do them as consciously and as carefully as possible, while at the same time thinking, wondering, imagining if there is something else that could make it somehow better, or easier, or more efficient.  Most employers very much appreciate this kind of initiative and creative energy shown by employees.  Even if, as frankly all too often happens in these days of recession and economic retrenchment, we are not necessarily rewarded monetarily for our ideas and creativity, in so doing at least people feel and know they have made a difference on the job. 


This may be the hardest of them all.  What I mean is, how to deal with other people, whether they be clients (however they may be defined), co-workers, and of course supervisors.  In one sense, the client may be the easiest to deal with.  I say this because in the majority of cases that I know of the relationship between the person doing the job and the client is fairly well defined.  For the most part, clients are to be served in one form or another.  Some product, some service, or some information is to be developed, or made, and then passed on.  The client then receives this information, or this service, or this product, and is or is not satisfied with it.  If they are happy, they most often do not even say so, but merely accept it as if this were the normal order of things, which it should be.  On the other hand, it they are not happy, they usually say so, and they may or may not return for more.  One way or the other, if things go awry, there is often a fairly clear path to follow in order to set things right again.  It is another matter entirely when it comes to dealing with co-workers, with those whom we supervise, or with those who supervise us.  And I believe that it is at this juncture, this crossroads, where all of the elements of what it means to have a job come together, that things are most difficult to deal with, but also where the mystery lies and where it can be most rewarding.  Can we still do our job, by which we usually mean “providing the product or service to be delivered,” while at the same time being creative and treating those around us well?  Much comes down to what we really think both of ourselves and of other people. And I am definitely not suggesting that anyone ought to be a doormat for others, either.  Quite the opposite, in fact, if by the opposite of a doormat we understand an individual who sees within at some deep level his or her own unique qualities and singular worth.  If we, any of us, have a profound and meaningful grasp on own value as a person, then two things follow quite naturally.  One is that we have no fear of others, no matter who they may be or what their status or position in life is, and two, we understand, we “get,” at a very deep level that each other person has the same humanity as we do, the same rights, the same spark of life.  In other words, there is a recognition that, as a human being, we ourselves are neither better, nor worse, than any other human being.  I am not talking about skill levels, or education, or experience, or even motivation, all of which vary tremendously from person to person.  What I am talking about is a simple, shared humanity.  What follows from this recognition then is that we must treat others, at no matter what level of capacity or interaction, with the same courtesy and dignity as we would expect, and hope, for ourselves.  In the end, this is what so-called “personnel policies” ought to be about, not some listing of legal minutia which we are forced to follow and abide by.

Not everyone has the same need or desire to rise to the top in a work setting.  And not everyone rises who has the desire to do so, even if they believe in and follow all of the above ideas.  We have to admit that politics are never far removed from most places of work, as are such simple factors as natural likes and dislikes, especially involving those in power.  Even so, I believe that these principles, these ideals, which may perhaps be the more appropriate word, apply to all of us, and not just in the world of work.  Focus on what needs to be done, work creatively, and treat others with respect.  These cannot be bad things, no matter who we are, and no matter how we interact with the world at large.


By Paul

What a fascinating and mysterious painting Kevin uses to accompany his piece below entitled “Being and Consciousness!”  And how appropriate an illustration of what it may mean to be conscious, at least in some larger sense of the term.

We have to wonder if the painting originates in the unconscious mind, either personal or collective (to use Jung’s term); or does it specifically depict the conscious mind of a gifted artist, which may be different from the consciousness most of us operate on as we go about our daily activities?  My guess, and my view, is that it is something else yet, something above and beyond either of these, associated neither with our normal everyday consciousness, nor with the unconscious mind, but instead with some higher level of awareness.    

Let us look a little more closely at the painting itself.  The two figures in the center are locked in a passionate embrace, a kiss that brings them as close to union as two beings can normally get.  They are male and female, I think that is clear, but not necessarily “man” and “woman.”  No, they are beings seemingly of some other time and place, representatives if you will, archetypes of maleness and femaleness, that each of us carries within.  They appear to be staring into each other’s eyes, and at the same time staring out at us.  That is, they are lost in each other (i.e. in oneness), but also cognizant of the otherness of the world “out there.”  In other words, they who were two have become one, while still rooted in the daily world of what the Daoists call “the 10,000 things.”  This is the realm of endless multiplicity that we see constantly surrounding us all the time.  However, through the union of their male and femaleness they have become enlightened, and they are now able to perceive the singleness of the One among the many.  They also appear to have a single nose to share between them; and so we assume they breathe as one.  This, I think, references the kundalini force, as the yogis call it, the spiritual, mystic energy that comes down from above (figuratively), rests at the base of the spine (in chakra one) and then rises, uncoiled, snake like, in yogic meditation until chakra seven, that of the Thousand Petal Lotus, has been achieved.  This is the energy that flows through the One, who otherwise appears to be two, because the state of consciousness they have reached is one wherein the duality of subject and object no longer pertain.   They – or no longer they – neither male nor female (because such duality is no longer pertinent), can now be called Enlightened.    

Each also has his or her own totem animal as a companion.  There is a long mythological tradition of enlightened beings having animal companions.  In Hinduism, for example, the Lord Vishnu is accompanied by Garuda, the golden bird with the face and wings of an eagle and the body of a man; Shiva sits astride his great Bull Nandi, and his consort (or one of them), Durga, rides a fierce tiger.   In Kevin’s painting, a serpent emerges from the forehead of the female figure.  This again refers to the great spiritual kundalini energy that has risen from the lowest level, and which is now at the sixth chakra, the Spiritual Eye.  In this state of consciousness, you see that all of creation is one with the Oneness of Spirit.  It is through love and intuition, the female “side,” that this level of awareness has been achieved.  On the male side, we see a strange creature.  It could be a dog, or a wolf, or a coyote, or some combination of all three.  The dog is the faithfulness of human affection spiritualized to that of Divine Love (bhakti yoga, the Way of Devotion), the wolf is the strength and braveness of truth and intellectual activity (jnana yoga, the Way of Knowledge), and the coyote, that great trickster of many an American Indian story, reminds us that delusion, maya, as the Hindus call it, is never far away, even when we have reached the highest levels of spiritual development, so long as one is still in the body. 

The last to appear (in my view) is the gnome-like creature below and beside the male figure.  Who is this strange fellow?  He appears to be part human, part skeleton, part dwarf.  In the old European fairy tales, gnomes are the guardians of underground treasure.  Here, the figure represents the lower consciousness of the male (i.e., chakras one through three), the part that once faithfully and even jealously guarded his coveted treasures of sex and power, but out of which the greater awareness of the unified figure has since emerged.  We can see his spine, or at least part of it.  This reminds us of and connects us once more with the kundalini power that has become fully manifest on the female side.  And his expression is both one of envy (in the lower aspect of his consciousness) of the ecstatic union that is emblematic of higher consciousness, but also of a kind of awe or prayerfulness, once he emerges more fully into human form. 

Finally, the colors in the painting are important, too.  The background behind the embracing figures is of deepest blue, as in the depths of the cosmic night. It is, however, studded with stars both golden and silver, reminiscent of the colors of the male and female figures.  They are the sun and the moon, the light of intellect and of love.  Interestingly, the artist has surprised us and switched the usual associations we have with these colors.  In this case, it is the male that is pale, moon-like, silvery-blue, a “cold color,” associated now (in my mind at least) with the precision and power of the active intellect.  The female is depicted as much warmer, with golden earth tones, associating her with the bounty of the planet, and the great humanness of the love that can and should very much be part of being in a body.  But in her case, her level of higher consciousness and enlightenment is such that even the body (i.e., in this case, her shoulder) “sees” with the light of spiritual discernment and discrimination. 

This is how I understand this lovely painting that Kevin has used to accompany his reaction to my earlier article on the nature of consciousness.  In it, and in a wholly different and, obviously, non-verbal way, he has taken the discussion to a very different level.  As he says later (in the verbal part), we cannot forget that there are many forms of consciousness, other than the merely human.  Animals, too, have their own awareness, as do plants, and even the great silent mineral life of Mother Earth. 

All of these things are reflected, and referenced, and depicted in Kevin’s painting, and in his thoughts on Being and Consciousness, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to extend so fully my own initial musings on the nature of consciousness. 




Kevin’s Interview 7pm EDT Sept 18: “Eco-Anxiety — what to do about it?”

“Eco Anxiety” is one of six posters Kevin created for the “HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity” (see our page on FaceBook) to help inspire ideation for local action.

Kate Loving Shenk will interview Kevin on “Eco-Anxiety — what to do about it?” tonight, Sept 18, 2012, 7pm EDT. Listen to the interview live today at

The interview will be archived for listening at a later time or day. Here’s how:

  1. Copy and paste (or retype) in your browser address box,
  2. When Kate’s page comes up, click on “shows & blogs.” You will see “Eco-Anxiety…” at or near the top of the list of radio shows.
  3. Click “Play” several lines below “Eco-Anxiety…” You may need to wait briefly for the recording to start with a musical interlude

For background information about the interview, scroll down within this blog to Kevin’s article “What Can You and I Do to Save the Earth?” as well as his essay “Population Explosion + Climate Change = THE END,” and other articles available on Two Old Liberals. While you are visiting our blog Paul and Kevin invite you to read our recent exchange of thoughts about the nature of consciousness, and other essays.

Being and Consciousness

by Kevin

Paul’s recent essay, “The Nature of Consciousness, or Your Tooth Has Already Been Pulled,” is brilliant, mysterious and fascinating. For many years I have felt that there is no topic more interesting than this one, and Paul has elucidated it beautifully. Consciousness, it seems to me, is at the root of “being,” but exactly what it is seems to be an ever evolving revelation. And the more one knows, the less one knows… or to put it another way, each flash of understanding about consciousness seems to light up vistas of inquiry, mystery and questions. Are there three levels of human consciousness as some people say — superconsciousness, consciousness and sub-consciousness? If so, what exactly defines those states? What is unconsciousness, and does it mean that we do not exist when we are in that state of being? What is “elevated” consciousness, and how can we get there?

What is the nature of the consciousness of animals? Surely they are conscious, but who among us can say that we can see clearly through the eyes of our beloved animal friends and know for sure what the reality of their being is like? What about trees and other plants? Do they have some kind of consciousness? There are empirical studies that produce convincing data showing how plants respond to music, pleasant talking, violence, unpleasant noise, and even prayer. What does this mean? Are they conscious on some level? Does the mineral world have some form of consciousness that we cannot begin to imagine? Do the rocks and boulders and mountains dream for thousands or millions of years? Is the planet itself a living organism with some kind of consciousness that we cannot fathom? After all, we call the Earth our “Mother.”

Robert and I live with lots of animals here at the dead end of a dirt road, deep in the woods. I am constantly aware of their consciousness as we interact with them, and frustrated by the distinctions and barriers between our various kinds of consciousness, being, and communication methods. I often feel that they know things I don’t know, and wish I could “talk” with them and understand more about the world. Many times both Robert and I have felt that the scores of large colorful koi in our half-acre pond, each one with its own name and “personality,” were trying to tell us something. Sometimes when they see us by the pond, they begin to perform elaborately beautiful aquatic dances, tracing patterns in the surface of the pond water, as if they were trying to spell it out for us. Some of them leap repeatedly out of the water or scuttle across its surface like Flipper used to do on TV back in the 60s. I’d give a lot to trade my consciousness with that of one of our koi for just a few minutes and find out what it is to be koi.

I suspect that all living species may experience this same interspecies consciousness veil among our various groups. I’m thinking here not only of communication, but something greater — a sense of what it is like to BE the other — an understanding of each other’s consciousness. Living with lots of species, we frequently see interactions among them. While many of these interspecies scenes are violent and predatory, some of them are playful, and a few suggest a tangible sense of wonder between members of very different species. Two of our last eight dogs have been so fascinated by fish and frogs and anything that lives in the water, that they were happy to crouch by the shore and stare into that other watery world for an hour at a time.

Recently our white Cairn Terrier, Scrappy, experienced a week of interaction with a large bass in our pond. Every evening when we walked the dogs down to the pond, the bass came right up to the shore at the surface. Scrappy would run to the water’s edge and crouch nose to nose with the bass, each animal staring into the other’s eyes. If one of them moved along the shore, the other one followed, back and forth. They were clearly fascinated by one another, and I by them. The scene was such a poignant demonstration of the division among the species, each one living in its own world with its own form of consciousness, isolated from the other in its own way of being, wondering about the other.

Leaving aside the mineral kingdom and the rest of the animal kingdom for the moment, there is more than enough mystery on the unexplored frontiers of human consciousness to keep us occupied for eternity. Today I had the pleasure of watching a series of very interesting documentaries on the Science Channel (an all too rare TV experience) about the nature of consciousness as revealed in autistic savants and brain trauma savants. Some of these half-hour documentaries were about people who were born with brain anomalies. Others were portraits of people who had experienced strokes or accidents that left them with changed brains. What they all had in common were strikingly brilliant capabilities that we would normally expect from people we label “geniuses,” but these people were very impaired in other ways.

The stories of accident victims who immediately became excellent artists or musicians virtually overnight suggest particularly compelling implications. After surviving serious head trauma, one man who had never sat at a keyboard before suddenly became an amazingly proficient pianist, even though he could not read or write music. Another head trauma victim has become famous for his beautiful, prolific artwork, and yet another for his fine sculptures. These people did not exhibit such capabilities before their brains were altered. What does this say about consciousness? Doesn’t it suggest that the consciousness of a musician, an artist and a sculptor lay dormant within them before their accidents? Does it also suggest that perhaps we all possess magnificent genius and proficiencies in areas that we think are completely beyond our understanding?

I suspect that we are all much more than we know. There may be a sleeping genius within each of us. The stories of the trauma survivor savants suggest that our “consciousness” is only the tip of the iceberg and that we live in a constant state of self-imposed limitations.

As Paul suggests, memory seems to have a lot to do with our perception that we are conscious. Are we less conscious as we age and become forgetful? What if we could remember all the way back to our birth… and before that? What would our consciousness be like then? It seems likely to me that each of us has forgotten many orders of magnitude more than we remember. Is it possible that in some altered state of consciousness – some other state of being – we could access all of those memories? Is our forgetfulness and our limited consciousness itself just a temporary condition? How can we recover?

Perhaps the most controversial question about consciousness concerns whether or not it is necessarily tied to the body and the brain at all. There are metaphysicians and scientific researchers who claim that some practitioners of eastern meditation techniques are capable of entering into deep trance-like states of bliss during which their hearts eventually stop beating, their blood stops flowing, they stop breathing, and they appear to be dead. Even if they remain in this “living death state” for an hour, they come out of their meditations not only quite alive, but refreshed, rejuvenated and enlightened.

These reports may be very difficult for westerners to believe, but even the occidental mind knows that when we sit very still and enter into a state of deep contemplation or prayer or simple rest, our breathing and metabolic processes slow down dramatically, whereas our state of consciousness expands and our feeling of wellbeing improves. There is much more to learn and demonstrate about this phenomenon, but it clearly suggests that consciousness may not necessarily be entirely dependent upon the physical body or even linked to it at all in certain states of life and death. We are on the threshold of real empirical evidence that our “Being” does not depend on life or death, but is much more a matter of our “Consciousness.”


By Paul

Not long ago, I had the same experience that many of us have had over the years; I got a wisdom tooth removed.  Instead of my usual dentist tackling the job, he recommended that I see an oral surgeon.  I made an appointment, found her (the surgeon) to be excellent, and we set a date for the work to be done a week or so later.  It will be a long time before I forget what happened that day, not because of the trauma of the event, but more so because everything was so untraumatic.  Here is exactly what I remember:  sitting in the chair, the assistant hooking me up to some kind of tube, and waiting in the chair for what seemed like a long time.  During this period, I was totally convinced that I was conscious.  I kept wondering when the drugs were going to kick in, and when they were going to start the procedure.  I’ll admit, in fact, that I was anxious for it to be over and done with.  Finally, once I saw the assistant come back into the room, I said to her:  “When do you think the doctor will begin?”  She looked at me quizzically, and said with a smile: “But it’s all over.  The tooth is out!” 

Now, these observations are not meant merely to be reflections on dentistry, or on wisdom teeth and their removal, or even on pain and trauma (or lack thereof).  Instead, what struck me then, and what has been on my mind ever since, has more to do with the nature of what it means to be conscious.  Most of the time, we understand it to be some kind of direct personal awareness of ourselves, that is, of our person, our bodies, and what we call our personalities, as well as of the world around us with all of its usual component parts.  After all, we say we know when we are awake and conscious.  Or at least we think we do.  And we know the difference between waking consciousness and the unconscious state of dreaming.  When we emerge from sleep, for example, we say that we wake up, that is, we transition from the unconscious to the conscious state. Furthermore, all of us are familiar with what is sometimes referred to as the hypnagogic state, that twilight experience somewhere between full wakefulness and the state of sleep.  During this time, it is not unusual to “see” abstract forms or shapes or colors, or even to experience what appear to be faces or people or objects that may or may not be familiar.  So, at this point can we say that we are conscious, or unconscious, or merely in some sort of limbo in between? 

To a certain extent, there is a kind of circularity about our thinking when it comes to a normal understanding of consciousness.  In other words, it may not at all be unfair to say that we are aware because we are aware.  Remember Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am?  He might well have said “I am, because I think I am” (Sum, quia cogito sum).  And yet, it is also possible to be, and not to know it.  Otherwise, how is it that we come back to consciousness each morning upon awakening, after having been unconscious of the fact that “we are” (at least in our normal state) for seven or eight hours?   And how did I “know” that I was conscious in the dentist chair, and yet not know that the oral surgeon had yanked a tooth out of my head?  Consciousness, then, must be something more than mere awareness of ourselves, our bodies, our feelings, and our surroundings.  It must somehow “endure” periods of unconsciousness, that is, when we are not fully aware of ourselves and our surroundings, but when we are “somewhere else.”  As an old friend of mine used to say, “Where do I go when I am not here?”  Another way to think of this is to say that consciousness is not necessarily tied only to our being in a body.  I am aware that this is a somewhat controversial statement, and many a neuroscientist might want to rush in to prove me wrong.  Just as many a believer, or a mystic for that matter, would say, well of course that is the case. 

What is definitely clear is that we go in and out of consciousness.  This happens to all of us with a frequency that may be astounding, and which many of us may not at all be comfortable admitting to.  But who has not had the experience of doing something in an automatic way?  Did I put those car keys on the dresser, or on the kitchen table, or for that matter are they still in the car?  And here we begin, too, associating the notion of memory with that of consciousness.  What is memory, after all, if not a conscious thought in the present about a conscious action (or an event, or person or thing consciously experienced) sometime in the past?   But we can also remember dreams.  Therefore, it must be said that memory is bigger than that, and it can capture both conscious and unconscious events.  Without memory, our experience of ourselves (and our bodies, our feelings, our surroundings, our loves etc.) would be a paltry thing indeed.  We would have to reinvent ourselves from moment to moment, as we became conscious of ourselves in each new instant.  And what kind of life would that be?  Who would want to be conscious, if that were what it meant to be aware?            

And then there are also so-called states of altered consciousness.  Some of these may be alcohol or drug-induced (purposefully or not), or merely something that happens “out of the blue,” as with déjà vu,when we have a clear feeling of having experienced something or been somewhere before, but we “know” we have not.  Altered states can be experienced in deep meditative trances, as well, or again in the hypnagogic, or the hypnopompic, state (the latter occurring between the end of sleep and the beginning of full wakefulness).   And who has not occasionally had a dream so real as to be convinced we were fully there, just as in our normal state of wakefulness?   For the most part, reality is something we are convinced exists only when we are awake and aware, in other words, when we are conscious.  But does reality, itself, not have its own kind of existence?  Otherwise, what exactly do we return to after having been unconscious?  Is it merely our memories of earlier experience?  And is there nothing but this flimsy hope that we and others, our loved ones in particular perhaps, will have similar simultaneous memories of similar past experiences?   Is that the sum total of our reality? 

I think not.  I think that consciousness, and memories of consciousness, and the nature of reality itself, are all far more than our normal awareness of these phenomena.  That has been my experience anyway.  I think that it is quite possible to be conscious, while no longer being aware of, or even particularly needing, the body.  Reality, consciousness if you will, is so much more than our daily experience of it would lead us to believe.  I cannot offer proof of this in the sense of something empirically verifiable and repeatable, as is normally required by science.  No one can.  Neither can it, of course, be disproved.  All we can say is that we have now entered into the realm of belief, or of subjective, personal experience, and not that of unassailable physical proof. 

At least most of the time, we can all unequivocally agree that each of us also has his or her own perfectly acceptable and workable normal sense of what it means to be conscious.  And isn’t that enough?  The answer is, yes, at least for the most part.  Otherwise, life could become awfully complicated, and we normally need all of our energies simply to deal with the duties and requirements of day-to-day existence.  But then, every so often, we get a sense that work and play, and pleasure and pain, are not the sum total of all there is.  We see, or we intuit, or we experience something larger, something filled with wonder, with grandeur, with resplendence, something more than the tug and pull of the ebb and flow of everyday existence.  The tooth is out.  You were there, but you were also not there.  You were somewhere else not governed, not ruled by the laws of normal, waking consciousness.  Is it a dream, a wish, a fantasy?  Each person must answer that question for him or herself.  But, I would advise, do not rush to judgment.  Don’t assume too much, just because we have not devised ways to measure what cannot be measured. 

Consciousness of reality is not necessarily limited to conscious reality.  To see has never been restricted to the physical eyes alone, to hear is not a function only of the ears, and to know, to envision, and to experience can be far, far beyond what any of us normally, in our everyday lives, allows it to be. 

There is an old Zen koan that asks “Where are you between two thoughts?”  Where do I go when I am not here?  The answer given in the Indian scriptures, the Upanishads, is as follows:  “There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind…Other it is than the known.  And moreover above the unknown.”* 

In the end, whatever consciousness may be, it is not restricted, it is not limited, and it surely is more than we can ever devise to say about it. 

*As quoted in Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By (New York: Bantam Books, 1972 through 1988), p. 132


By Paul

The word “values” is a term that you hear thrown around a lot these days.  When it’s used in the singular we seem mostly to be referencing its more or less literal meaning, having to do with the worth of something, as in the expression, “the value of a dollar,” or something (some thing) being of great (or of little) value.    But what I’m more interested in is the symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the term.  That may at first sound a little abstract, but the application of our values generally in life, and in the political sphere particularly, and the ultimate concrete results of that application in the real world, is anything but abstract.

Let’s begin by agreeing that everybody has values.  You cannot live in human society and not have values.  I don’t care who you are, even the worst, the most hardened, criminal has values.  His (or her) values may not be your values, or my values, but they are values all the same.  So what exactly are we talking about when we use the term values? They are an internalized system often unconsciously, if tenaciously, held, whereby each individual makes judgments about the world, how it works, or how it ought to work, and about people or things in the world.  Most of the time, our values are automatic, that is, we don’t stop and think about them.  We don’t have to.  We know them; we recognize them immediately. They are powerful and they are visceral, as if somehow coming from the profundity of our inner selves.  They are a system, essentially a kind of internalized ruler against which we measure things.  In so doing, we make important decisions about whether an action, a thing, or a person is good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, proper or improper, acceptable or unacceptable, advisable or inadvisable, some may even say sinful or virtuous.  They constitute one of the most important aspects of our lives, because it is essentially by and in accordance with our value system that we make decisions about how to lead our lives.   

Let’s take a simple, if admittedly mundane, example to begin with.  The other day, I was driving to the gym, when a guy cut me off on the freeway, weaving in front of me without so much as a flicker of a directional signal, so much so that I had to slam on my brakes in order to avoid him.  When, a few minutes later, traffic slowed enough that it allowed me to pull up beside him, I saw that he was texting something on his cell phone.  I was furious, and wanted to scream out the window at the guy, telling him what a jerk he was.  I didn’t have to stop and think, “Well, what are my values in this instance?  Am I in favor of following the law when it comes to driving, or do I feel as though it’s OK to ‘multitask’ by driving (more or less), while texting your boss, or you girlfriend, or your damn lawyer, for that matter?”  I knew immediately that he was wrong.  And, aha, as soon as you hear yourself use that word “wrong” (or of course its counterpart, “right”), you know instantly that you have entered into the majestic and hallowed halls of your own value system.  Even in such an innocuous example as this we see two important things about values.  One is that we recognize in an instant what they are and how we feel about them, and two, we often react with emotion.  I knew right away, without thinking, that this guy was wrong; and he really pissed me off!  So, there you have it: immediacy and emotion.  My values are such that I think it’s right, it is proper, it is appropriate for everybody’s safety to follow traffic laws while you’re driving around at 65 miles an hour, and his (apparently) were that it is perfectly proper, appropriate, and acceptable to send an “important message” as soon as the thought strikes, no matter where you are. 

Now, if such a small thing as being cut off on the freeway (it happens all the time, right?) causes such a reaction, what about the bigger issues?  Without getting into where our values come from (a topic of its own for another essay, or a book, or a whole library of books), what values do we hold related to the enormous questions that are facing our country right now?  It seems to me that the political conventions we have seen of late are very good indicators of the things that are valued by each of the parties.  Mitt Romney, for example, mocked the very idea of climate change.  He also spoke of letting people alone and allowing them to exercise their own creativity and make their own way in the world.  Americans act best when they act alone, and we don’t need any help from big government.  At most, we might accept some level of assistance from family, or from church, but government is almost always and everywhere a bad thing.  It was the classic “bootstrap” speech in modern guise.  As Mark Shields cogently remarked on the PBS coverage of the convention, using a baseball metaphor, “Mitt was born on third base, and thought he hit a triple!”  Michelle Obama, on the other hand, in her brilliant and human and very humane speech, and the President, himself, in his, espoused what I thought of as what is best about American society.  They both came out loud and clear for helping those in need (especially when those people don’t have a millionaire daddy, or if they don’t belong to a church that requires everyone to tithe 10% of their income).  They were for justice, for compassion, for service, for mutual assistance, and for inclusion.  In a word (and according to my value system anyway), the Obamas were absolutely right on, and Mitt Romney was dead wrong.  The President even went so far as to mention global warming, and said that climate change was not a hoax.  Most of  the speeches at the DNC may have been about jobs and the economy first of all, and then the so-called social issues secondarily, mainly women’s rights generally, reproductive rights specifically, and allowing (or not allowing) people to marry whomever they may love.  Still, any mention of human-induced changes to the environment has to be a very welcome (and very politically risky) thing.    

So I hail the Democrats for their values.  I also understand that you get elected mostly because you’ve talked believably about the things that people want you to talk about (i.e., what people value).  And I may think that climate change ought to have been front and center in the president’s speech, not merely mentioned.  Still, I get it that no parent is going to spend much time worrying about the future of the world’s climate, if tonight what is most pressing is whether or not there will be enough food on the table for the kids to eat.  I understand that this is a huge problem, and a very human one, and that there are lots of other enormous problems facing this country right now.  Maybe there always have been, but they somehow seem even more numerous and more ominous these days.  Everything from jobs for the millions of the unemployed, to healthcare for those without it, to a staggeringly burdensome public debt that will sooner or later weigh down the entire economy and grind it to a halt, to overpopulation of the globe, to – finally, once again – the warming of the planet to such an extent that it may someday extinguish life in its entirety. 

It’s all so huge, in fact, that it may sound like a job for God, or at least for some kind of superhero, but for the moment I’m afraid all we have to deal with these problems are fallible human beings, and their attendant values.  As such, I for one am in favor of people taking a close look at those values because, believe it or not, it is possible to change them.  You shouldn’t do so without a great deal of self-scrutiny, and some very serious introspection, but it can be done.  I’ve known people who have done so, as no doubt we all do. 

I only hope that whatever changes people make will be for the good. After all, I know that my values are proper and advisable and appropriate, and that those who disagree with me for the most part have values that are improper and inadvisable and completely inappropriate.  I know this because I know it.  I feel it deep inside.  And don’t tell me that I’m wrong either, because, damn it, I know that I’m right!  But then, so do you.  And that’s the problem with values.


by Kevin

On the final night of the 2012 Republican Convention, just before MR spoke, (MR WHO?) 82-year-old actor/director icon Clint Eastwood walked on stage and delivered the only unscripted moment (actually 11 minutes) of the otherwise stultifying 3-day event – an imaginary conversation with an invisible President Obama, sitting in an empty chair. People have not stopped talking about it since, and Clint Eastwood has walked away with the biggest headlines and the most memorable clip of the 2012 Republican Convention.

News teams were shocked and embarrassed by Eastwood’s unscripted, improvised skit. They couldn’t believe that the convention officials would have been so stupid as to turn over such a significant chunk of time, immediately prior to the most important speech of MR’s life, to an obviously senile old actor who embarrassed everyone. Kerrik Lang of the Associated Press called the performance “kooky and long-winded.” Roger Ebert tweeted, “sad & pathetic.”

Two days later on my current fav, MSNBC liberal political commentary talk show, “Up with Chris Hayes,” the moderator, incredibly brilliant and articulate Mr. Chris Hayes himself, ranted that Eastwood’s performance was “disrespectful, vulgar, gross and insulting” – a criticism that might have been more deserved had it been levied against the Republican Platform or the ticket itself, rather than aiming it at 82-year-old creative artist Clint Eastwood. Almost nobody has noted that while the actor/director is indeed a fiscal conservative who clearly likes the idea of electing a businessman to the presidency, he also holds left-leaning attitudes regarding gay marriage and environmental protection.

On his HBO show Bill Maher also commented on Eastwood’s unscripted sketch, starting with the disclaimer that it makes him sad to see a talent he respects so much supporting the Republican campaign. But then Maher pointed out that as a stand-up comedian himself, he had to give Clint Eastwood major props for walking onto an empty stage and improvising a comedy routine with no script, no teleprompter, and nothing but a simple chair for support. “And he KILLED!” said Maher.

I heard Eastwood’s bit live, and Maher is right. “He KILLED!” That audience went crazy. They LOVED it. He held the total attention of not only the convention attendees, but the entire TV audience and every “journalist,” and my five dogs, in the palm of his hand, as he extended it to an empty chair where we all visualized President Obama squirming for 11 full minutes. Eastwood woke up the masses and thoroughly entertained and delighted them without a script or teleprompter, and the consummate actor/director accomplished all of this at the advanced age of 82, alone on stage.


Give me a break! The last time I can remember the nation’s full attention being riveted on anything for 11 whole minutes was on 9-11 when the towers fell. To listen to some of Eastwood’s critics, immediately following and ever since he brought the house down on Thursday night, you’d think he had just succeeded in delivering the next major terrorist attack on American soil – at the Republican Convention, no less, and on national TV! He is apparently guilty of an unforgivable sin: Free Speech.

The only crime Clint Eastwood committed to bring down this wholesale condemnation upon his poor old head was to violate the unwritten modern-day law that the major party conventions are required to be totally fake, boring and scripted. But Clint Eastwood and I can remember the days when conventions were real, fermented, exciting events, chock full of drama and surprises. I miss those old political conventions, and apparently Mr. Eastwood does too. There were smoke-filled back rooms, where unexpected deals were made. There were demonstrations, and reporters were strong-armed off the floor while on camera. Battles raged about platform content. And the votes were really consequential and suspenseful, because nobody knew how they would turn out. I’ll bet Clint remembers and misses those conventions like I do. So, he had the audacity to speak from his heart through the very gutsy and risky creative vehicle of an improvised solo comedy sketch. And “He KILLED!”  Of course he did. He’s an 82-year-old master actor/director. He knows how to do this.

I hasten to add that I did NOT agree with very many of the messages in Mr. Eastwood’s creative theatrical performance. I disagreed with most of its content. But there were two exceptions. I couldn’t help laughing when he somehow managed to lead the entire Republican Convention audience into screaming approval for the idea of bringing the troops home from Afghanistan tomorrow! Talking to the invisible President Obama in that empty chair, Eastwood said, “I think you’ve mentioned something about having a target date for bringing everybody home. You gave that target date, and I think Mr. Romney asked the only sensible question. You know, he says ‘Why are you giving the date out now? (Applause) Why don’t you just bring them home tomorrow morning?!”  The audience unwittingly rewarded this masterful manipulation with a raucous ovation of approval! Shouldn’t we give Mr. Eastwood some credit for putting the 2012 Republican Convention on record as supporting an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by spontaneous acclamation?

How could anybody dislike the way Eastwood ended his sketch? Speaking directly into the camera and to the audience he proclaimed, “We OWN this country! We OWN it! It’s not you owning it, and not politicians owning it. Politicians are employees of ours!…” Yes they are, Mr. Eastwood. Yes they are. Thank you for asserting the power of authentic creative expression over the stale, stilted, scripted restrictions of today’s conventions. Thank you for showing us how it’s done. You made my day! You inserted 11 minutes of real, authentic creative expression into an otherwise lifeless convention. I sincerely hope your example will encourage others to practice creative free speech too.

Now… turnabout is fair play, right? So I have a suggestion for Barack Obama’s upcoming nomination  acceptance speech: Wouldn’t it be totally cool if President Obama walked out onto an empty stage, carrying a straight-back chair, and started talking to it as if Clint Eastwood were sitting there: “Oh!… Hello Clint… (applause) I didn’t see you there. You look a little pale. Are you okay?… Need some water or anything?…” Imagine how wild the response would be from the Democratic Convention audience! President Obama would have the rapt attention of the entire world as he answered Clint Eastwood’s charges, one by one, AND he’d KILL! Nobody improvises better than Barack Obama.

Sadly, we all know that the president’s handlers and the convention planners would never allow him to do such a thing without a painstakingly written script on a teleprompter. And of course, that would throw ice water on at least 50% of the impact. But we certainly cannot risk authentic creative expression of deeply held beliefs! That would be crazy. And anyone who would dare to risk such a real, unscripted form of creative communication at a political convention would have to be senile or crazy.

While writing the rough draft of this post for Two Old Liberals on the back of an envelope and 3 Post-It notes, I was listening to Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry moderating their Saturday morning liberal political commentary shows – my favs, as I admitted earlier. Both moderators, for whom I hold the highest respect and admiration, and their panels, continued to mock and condemn Mr. Eastwood’s improvised comedy sketch, creatively expressing his criticism of the president (with which we liberals disagree) to the wildly enthusiastic response of his audience. At the same time, they complained throughout their commentaries about the lack of truth and authenticity in the Republican Convention.

Come on, Chris and Melissa! You can’t have it both ways! Isn’t it the MESSAGE in Clint Eastwood’s creative performance that we object to, and NOT the METHOD? In fact, aren’t you insinuating that Eastwood is senile and that his comedy sketch was awkward and eccentric precisely because it was so effective in bringing down the house in support of his critical message about President Obama? Please tell me, oh revered liberal commentators and moderators, that you are NOT afraid of creative expression itself – just offended by the content of this sketch. There’s a distinction between content and process. Please acknowledge that. Don’t condemn all oil paintings, or the painters, just because you happen to see a masterfully done satirical portrait of someone you admire.

Just ask yourselves, Chris and Melissa, what you might want to say next weekend after the Democratic Convention, if a similar creative comedy sketch is offered on stage by an American actor icon. Let’s imagine, for example, that Betty White walks on stage and talks to an empty chair as if MR is sitting there. Let’s say her monologue is an irreverent, hilarious, risky expose of the hypocrisy, reversals and aristocratic paternalism of MR. Her performance brings down the house. The entire Democratic Convention audience goes wild, leaping to their feet and giving dear Betty a thunderous standing O. Immediately, Fox News labels Betty White a sad and senile old lady who has clearly embarrassed herself with this eccentric, awkward, disrespectful, vulgar, gross and insulting spectacle.

What would you say then, liberal critics of Clint Eastwood?… Oh… You say THAT could never happen at the Democratic Convention?… Exactly my point. Why not? Why couldn’t we allow an improvised comedy sketch on our stage? Are we really that afraid and uncomfortable with authentic, unscripted, brilliantly delivered creative expression? Are we that insecure?… that lacking in humor?… that wary of creativity?

Come to think of it… this idea of inviting National Treasure Actress Betty White to talk to an invisible MR in an empty chair at the Democratic Convention is not bad… not bad at all. She’d KILL! Let’s try it! What do you think, Betty?… Are you willing to KILL for President Obama?… Oh… You say you’re afraid the press would kill YOU after seeing what they have done to Clint?… I don’t blame you… Well, what if we provided two highly trained body guards and a white steed to see you through the ordeal? Would you agree to do it then?

Under these terms and conditions (hunks and horse) Betty says she’ll agree to talk to an empty chair at the Democratic National Convention next week. We’ll see you there, Betty!