participation

Home Base

(Part One)

Way back in my childhood, when the world was still mostly photographed in black and white, I played tag with the other kids on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The tree in front of my house was home base. There wasn’t much traffic in those days, and we ran in the gutter, on the sidewalk, and around the parked cars, chasing and being chased like yipping and nipping young wolves. If the one who was “it” was gaining on me, I tried to get to home base. After an exhilarating and sometimes narrow escape, I’d cling to the tree to rest. As long as I was touching home, I was safe.

Joralemon Street
Where I lived on Joralemon Street. “Home base” was the tree on the left.

Home base is a feeling. There was nothing that distinguished the tree physically, structurally, from the other home-base-eligible landmarks on Joralemon or any other street. If the game of tag started in front of someone else’s house, we used whatever tree or post was available there, and had the same pure experience of home base. In comparison, the physical shelter that we call home—in my case, then, a low-rent apartment (that now would sell for half a million dollars)—is an environment in which many complex feelings arise, not all of them necessarily comforting, ranging from assuredly nurturing to lonely, sometimes mixing both, and with an infinite palette of emotional colors both in between and more extreme. Often, too, the physical environment changes wholesale, as we move from one home to another. How much we associate our floor-and-ceiling home with the felt experience of home base varies. We can discern each physical home’s degree of homeyness precisely because the feeling of being home, that feeling of safe harbor, is recognizably the same (i.e. self-consistent) regardless of where we are. We know the feeling of home base; different places evoke more or less of that feeling.

Mythologically—that is, in the roots of our human experiencing—home was the Center of the World, the World Tree, around which all creation revolved.1 This is the essence of the home base experience. Home feels like life’s Foundation Stone, immovable, stabilizing, the most trusted, secure place we can be. At home we are removed and protected from the whirlwind, perilous, dog-chase-dog street life outside.

For some people their childhood home feels like a refuge from the cares and turbulence of their daily lives. Worldly time seems to slow and recede into the periphery with each sip of hot chocolate. The first silverware they ever used is back in their hands; each bite of an old recipe reminds their bodies that this experience is reassuringly the same as it ever was. Remembering becomes an act in and of itself.

When a parent or grandparent serves me my favorite food, the special part is usually not the food itself; after all, excepting the odd secret family recipe, I probably can and probably do manage to eat my favorite food on my own from time to time. The special part is that my favorite food is known, and made specially for me without having to be ordered or made by me; it is freely given to me. A loved one knows what I like, cares, and goes to the trouble to make me feel good. I feel important to them.

Would that visiting one’s home of origin always conjured pictures like these. Going “home for the holidays” is for some people like locking themselves in a fun-house with a hall of mirrors (Egad! A fright around every corner! Multiple distorted images of myself no matter where I turn! ) Let us take a moment here to acknowledge, quietly, compassionately, those among us (even if this includes ourselves) for whom the old homestead is less a place of refuge than it is reminiscent of a refugee camp, in which enemy memories must vigilantly be held at bay.

Our original logistical home, therefore, can be a place of painful confusion. It is entirely possible to return to one’s childhood home and feel anything but welcome and safe. What makes this especially difficult is that the experience of home-as-safe-haven touches the child in us—whether we want it to or not. As the default location of shelter and nurture in our earliest development, we are conditioned to experience home as the most like a mother that any place can be. Our first home was the font of our existence, our umbilical origin point, primally innocent. Our mammalian instincts seek embrace and nourishment in the flesh of a warm, greater being (typically the mother): put a newborn on its mother’s belly, and, eyes still unopened, it will crawl toward her breast. That unconscious experience at the beginning of our life establishes the gestalt of home in our most primitive core. That gestalt is: the place where everything takes care of us; where we are sustained unconditionally and shielded in our barest vulnerability, even in deep sleep. This is our nervous system’s expectation. We desire an ideal home, where we can once again experience profound, rejuvenating rest, where there is nothing to guard against, nothing that doesn’t belong. Whether we think our desire or the possibility of fulfilling it is reasonable is entirely beside the point. Everything at home is supposed to be for us. The sense of home is thus a childlike feeling that doesn’t go away even when contradicted by hard experience in the cold light of day. When we’re children, we need everything to be for us. The great child philosopher Linus van Pelt had it right when he observed: “Every day is children’s day!”2 If our need is insufficiently met, it doesn’t wither. More likely it intensifies, even if it must retreat to our darkest recesses to do so.

As we approach a place or situation that our instincts respond to as home—that smells like home, if you will—we tend to become unguarded and ingenuous, often despite our better judgment. Even if we resolve to avoid certain subjects or behavior patterns, something in our inner being finds itself exposed. We are betrayed! This is supposed to feel like home, but it doesn’t. We set ourselves up to feel safe, but our security has been breached. Again.

And then we wonder: What’s wrong with me?

It’s not our fault; which is to say, finding ourselves emotionally prone regardless of careful self-fortification happens not because we do something wrong, but because it is inevitable. As we’ll see in a later chapter of this post, the home base aspect of home is most closely identified with the core self’s origins. Psychologically, the image of a house is most often associated with a person’s identity; it is also associated with the archetype of mother-as-container. When our youngest, most vulnerable inner being comes to the fore and reaches out for the feeling of home—like a child reaching for mother—it does so neither out of stubbornness nor weakness, but according to natural law.

For our own wellbeing it is crucial, then, to develop the faculty of distinguishing the inner experience of home base from any places or situations or persons that may proclaim themselves home but fail to inspire that inner experience. To do that we must draw the feeling of home up from its unconscious roots into conscious experiencing. The good news is that deep down we do know—can’t help knowing—what home feels like. And deep down we can’t be fooled; our very disappointments prove that. The feeling of home base is a truth that, once consciously apprehended, can ignite a warming hearth in the center of our being.

To be continued…


  1. Eliade, Mircea. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Torchbooks (1959). 12–18, 76–77. 

  2. Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts

What Is a Preposition? Let’s Go Inside and See

Prepositions—e.g. “over,” “under,” “before,” “after,” “in,” “on,” “of,” and dozens more in English—are words that denote relationship between things; things including people and places;—you know, nouns. When handling prepositions it’s especially important to remember that actual people, places, and things (including ideas and other non-material yet no less real things) are what we mean when we refer to “nouns.” When thinking about prepositions if we bring to mind the real things, places, and people that are in relationship, we can accomplish two things: (1) understand the meaning of the preposition we’re using, and (2) rediscover the living pulse of language.

But before we get into the woo woo stuff, let’s solidify what prepositions are and how they work. (For your reference, here is a handy list of prepositions.) It was first explained to me that prepositions are “Anything you can do with a mountain”1: you can go over a mountain, tunnel under a mountain, hammer your way through a mountain (if you’re John Henry), and so on. Over at the website Grammar Revolution, you can see a similar graphical representation of prepositions using an apple and a worm. So far these mountain and apple examples are showing relationships of space: if you’re under a mountain you’re either a skilled spelunker or you’re screwed (like Jonah, when he found himself buried under a mountain), but in either case the mountain is spatially above you and you are spatially below the mountain. But it’s also possible to use prepositions to show relationships of time, as in the question, “I wonder what was here before this mountain rose up from the earth?”

Indeed, the apple and the mountain might be prepositionally related in various ways. The apple could be of the mountain (or of a tree that is of the mountain). The mountain existed long before the apple (and yet, should a meteor suddenly flatten the mountain, it’s possible that the apple might continue to persist after the mountain is gone). The apple might be rolling down the mountain. The apple might be thrown at the mountain. The apple might be formerly of the mountain, have rolled down the mountain, been picked up by a girl who lives in a cave of the mountain, been rejected because it is wormy, and at this very moment be poised to be thrown at the mountain in disgust.

Most of the prepositions in the previous paragraph show relationships of space, and a couple show relationships of time. The preposition “of” (and some others, depending on context) shows a different kind of relationship: a familial or genetic one. Think of the prepositional phrase that concludes the first paragraph of this post: “the living pulse of language.” There is a necessary connotation of oneness: the pulse and the language that the pulse is of participate the same existence; the pulse being spoken of is orphaned without the language that it is of.2 In the phrase “the Queen of England,” the Queen does not belong to England as a possession so much as she is inseparably related to the land of that country; she can only be the Queen of England and of no other land, just as she can only be the daughter of her mother and the mother of her children. What’s important here is the nature of the relationship per se, not whether the relationship between the Queen and England is more like the relationship between a daughter and a mother or more like that between a mother and a child. The essence of the preposition is in the relationship that exists between the two related things.

In this respect, the preposition “between” might be the queen of prepositions. For the relational meaning of any preposition is neither the one thing being brought into relationship nor the other; that is, the meaning of “of” belongs neither to the Queen nor to England, but is something else in itself. But what? How can we best grasp the meanings of prepositions? This might sound like a daft question not worth asking, but many English teachers have surely begun to notice a marked deterioration in the use of prepositions by their students in recent years, including my favorite pet peeve, the oxymoronic “based off of.”3

One of the most effective ways to choose the right preposition is to gesture with your hands. Try it. Use your hands to place one thing in another. No, really, don’t just imagine it in your mind; physically use your hands to do it. Prepositions are physical. When you walk alongside a fence, for instance, you are walking a long sidealong the side ofalong beside that fence. Gesture “alongside” with your hands. Gesture “this is for you” with your hands.

Physicalizing prepositions can help us understand them deeply. You can use your hands to gesture “between.” You can also stand in a doorway for a full minute—neither on one side nor on the other side—but right between. Try it with the outside door of your house or apartment building or dorm. Stand in the doorway between inside and outside. What is that experience of between-ness like? The doorway is analogous to the preposition: it establishes a certain relationship between the space on one side and the space on the other. There could be a quite different relationship between those two spaces; there could be a wall between them; there could be a partial wall that ends, and where the wall ends the two spaces that were separated then come together and become the same space.

Using our hands doesn’t work as well for prepositions of time. The only gesture we can make to show “before” is a spatial one, as in the lyric from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

That’s a spatial “before.” But to experience the sense of time in “before” as well as in “after,” we must employ memory. Without resorting to photographic records, compare the way a place appears before and after. Before and after what? you may ask. Try thinking about “before” as before after, and “after” as after before, in pure relationship to each other. You might recall a room that was painted, or a field that recently was snow-covered but now is beginning to bud with early spring. Contemplate the experience of the place changing from before to after; the relationship between the before and after appearance of the place. Try to hover temporally in between the two different appearances of the place, which, like photographs, are static. The in-between time relationships of the prepositions “before” and “after” themselves are not static: “before” moves from later to earlier, while “after” moves from earlier to later.

If you sit meditatively with prepositions, they begin to pulse with living meanings, meanings that inspire the kind of understanding that comes from lived experience.

Here are some mind-bending prepositional gedankenexperiments to take with you. For most interesting results, contemplate one for two uninterrupted minutes per day for several days, before moving on to try another. Focus matters here.

  • Pick a preposition, any preposition, and contemplate its meaning in and of itself.
  • I’m not sure why, but a whole class of mine once got freaked out by this preposition in particular; so consider yourself warned. Contemplate the meaning of the preposition “in.” (Is it scary? Really?)
  • There’s a spatial sense of being with a friend (as opposed to being apart), but when you reassure your friend that you are with him or her, what more than bare proximity do you mean?
  • Contemplate the relational meaning of the preposition “because.”
  • When you say you are thinking of a number from one to ten, what does it mean to think of something?

  1. Dr. Scott McPartland 

  2. In preemptive retort to grammar tyrants who will brook no prepositions at the ends of sentences, I quote Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” 

  3. Think about it: based and off of are contradictories. 

What Makes a Pen Real and a Falling Tree Make a Sound?

Pick up any ordinary pen and consider what you see.  Supposedly your eyes will do their job, which is to represent the physical structure of the pen as a particular configuration of rods and cones. But your mind will not acknowledge the object in your hand as a bunch of rods and cones, nor as a structured mass of molecules (which is what a pen and everything else is made of). Your mind instead understands the object simply as a pen.

There are two stages involved in knowing that what you picked up is a pen. First, your eyes and your fingers communicate sense impressions, or percepts; to your brain. These percepts are in the form of electrochemical stimuli traveling through your nervous system, and they no more resemble a pen than a weather map resembles an actual rain storm. Second, your mind then organizes this raw data into concepts. It is the concept of a pen that the mind grasps, and to prove this, simply put yourself in a room that contains no pens and then reread this paragraph. You still understand what a pen is, even though you’re not perceiving one at the moment.

The first of these two stages is really nothing more than passive observation. What is a pen, materially? It’s a mass of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles. Has any human being ever actually seen—as in laid eyes on—those subatomic particles? No. Even the most powerful microscopes can only bump over some thing that physicists have mathematically postulated to be an electron, but no one has ever perceived an electron with his own senses. A pen in its raw state, like every other object in the world, is just a mass of particles.

The second stage, the concepts stage, is where we get our sense of reality; for if we did not organize the constituent particles of matter with our minds, we would forever be confronted with a universe of undifferentiated particle soup. A pen is made of particles; air is made of particles; and the particles in both are fundamentally the same (i.e. protons, neutrons, electrons).1 It is consciousness that differentiates between the two by forming two distinct ideas. The idea of a pen is a coherent representation of the sensory data we receive in the form of percepts. The raw data—the particles themselves, as well as the sensory impulses traveling through our nervous systems—remain unrepresented until our minds make comprehensible forms out of them.


This extra-sensory, reality-forming activity of the mind is what philosopher Owen Barfield calls figuration: After passively perceiving undifferentiated particle structures with the senses, the mind figurates those structures and forms an image of the real world. Barfield calls the process of perception and figuration, taken as a whole, participation.2

Thus, the world, without consciousness to participate3 it, is an abundance of unrepresented phenomena. Such unrepresented phenomena would certainly exist in their own right, but they would not be real in any sense that is useful, because they would have no conscious meaning. In terms of an existential state, unrepresented phenomena do not depend on consciousness for existence (in other words, the particles, the quanta of energy, are there whether consciousness figurates them or not); but in terms of conscious reality, what is unrepresented lingers in the realm of the potentially manifest. Thus the answer to the long-debated question, “If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is, No, it doesn’t. But it does make something, something as yet unrepresented. Particles of what a participating person would recognize as air would move precipitously. And if a participating person were in the forest, that unrepresented movement of particles would indeed be recognized as sound.

Perhaps the hardest part of participation to swallow is that without consciousness there is no reality. Raw percepts, what I called “particle soup,” aren’t anything without concepts. But neither have concepts any reality without percepts. As philosopher Georg Kuhlewind noted in The Logos-Structure of the World, the percepts bring the weight of evidence to our perceptions; in other words, the percepts of our sense impressions tell us that something exists, that something is actually there. Concepts structure the something-there into an intelligible, experiential reality. It might be useful to distinguish between what exists and what is real in this way: something which exists potentially may occupy consciousness and join with concepts, whereas something real has already so appeared in the mind and been conceptualized by it. Even for the tree to fall in the forest, a participating consciousness is prerequisite. Otherwise the best anyone can say is that, because he’s been in a forest, or experienced artistic renderings of forests (in paintings, for example), he can imagine that in some forest a tree might fall, and if it did fall, he can imagine that it would make a sound. In the absence of a participating consciousness, there is no tree even, and no forest. Something exists, and something is happening in the world of unrepresented energy-particles.

Though it is difficult, using conventional wisdom, to think of a phenomenon as part of existence and yet simultaneously unreal, it is a viable distinction; otherwise, the word real in the philosophical sense could just as well be stricken from the dictionary as redundant, and the distinction between represented and unrepresented phenomena would be impossible to make.

There are many practical implications of the above philosophical excursion, not the least of which is that our collective reality is correlative to our collective concepts. It follows that what we make of the world in fact makes the world. What we do with our minds matters. This is one of the major foundational principles of The Conscious Learner.


  1. You might argue that the configurations of the subatomic particles make all the difference, but if that’s so it must be by a magical process: the mathematical differences between one atom and another do not in any way resemble the qualitative differences between a pen and air. Nor do molecular structures determine that a pen is a pen and not a hippopotamus. A molecular structure is a set of relationships, bonds, between atoms. These bonds are said to determine the substance’s physical properties, its conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point. But all of the terms being used to describe molecular structure are conceptual. A bond is a particular kind of relationship involving attraction. Conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point are all concepts. Thus a molecule’s physical properties are the product of consciousness’s figuration of percepts. 

  2. See the first four chapters of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, which, especially as far as the argument here is concerned, may be read as his magnum opus. 

  3. This usage of the verb participate can be found, says Barfield, on nearly every page of Aquinas’s writings. E.g. “Suppose we say that air participates the light of the sun, because it does not receive it in that clarity in which it is in the sun.” (De Hebdomadibus, chap. 2—quoted in Saving the Appearances, p. 90.) 

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