Sunday, January 22, 2012

Travel or Die

Insomnia. You're awake but you keep your eyes closed hoping that sleep will flood back in and envelop you again but it doesn't. Then some problem, some issue or thought that you managed to banish in the daylight hours enters and begins to tug at your sleeve demanding attention. You open your eyes and scan the black powdery shapes that make up your room. You find when thinking about this problem that it is grossly inflated, it's proportions grotesquely warped. You cannot see past it. Stay calm. Try a different thought. Go to your happy place. But there is something in the periphery of the happy place which as soon as it is noticed pulls at everything with a profound gravity, consuming all else until there is nothing left but the thought or idea or problem. Why does every attempt to outmanoeuvre this thought or idea or problem seem to give it more power and strength? More than that, why is the problem or thought or idea so massive and unmanageable in the dark when it was the opposite in daylight?

The night hours of the insomniac is the smallest world one can inhabit. It extends to the edge of the room or house – the world outside this boundary is not theirs. It is full of people with purpose. Any attempt to join that world seems contrived, its contents a mismatch for the internal turmoil that theirs alone. It's not the problem that has grown – but the world that has shrunk – the existence of this daytime twin mostly forgotten and of little consolation.

The size of one's world is the sum of the people one knows, the places they inhabit and the catalogue of experiences that that person has. To go to a new place, experience something different, to talk to a new person or even to have a new conversation with an old friend is to temporarily increase the size of your world. In other words newness is a synonym for expansion.

It would be beautiful if the mind were a better collector – constantly accumulating each new experience and keeping it in pristine condition so that it remained there, forever retaining the same space that it was originally allocated. But is not. This is another example of how consciousness is an accident because it does not cope well with the necessary natural circumstances that created it. For the moment that each new addition is added to the world – each item added to the collection – it begins to fade (places and experiences forgotten, people are fallen out of touch with) and shrink and consequently the world as a whole shrinks.

This is what habit is. Habit is going through the motions of life without experiencing something new. And habit spreads. Keep doing the same thing over and over again and each time you will experience it a little less. The natural conditions that created the mind before it became self aware always considered comfort and correspondingly, safety as a virtue. Habit and routine provided food in the same place, mating occurring in the same location, at the same time of year and territory, correctly demarcated provided a safe place to sleep and live.

So why the insomnia? Consciousness when it realised itself – understood that same moment, that sometime it would end. Death, or more specifically the inevitability of death, is the single greatest crisis for self-aware consciousness. What to do, what to do. Deny death – the first stage of dealing with death no less- and create religion and the afterlife. This way a world can shrink – allowing one to reside in the safety of routine and, more than that, allows order to be perpetuated so that a social order can be built. Is it a coincidence that religion and feudalism existed simultaneously and the beginning of the demise of the former resulted in the end of the latter?

Now the self-aware consciousness (or mind) knows its existence is finite and, so, desperately longs to expand its world but needs habit and the corresponding contraction of its world to slot into the rest of society for a reliable income. In other words there is a contradiction between living and staying alive. This contradiction must coexist in a single mind. No wonder you can't sleep.

The solution? Travel. The world (as the sum of people one knows, places visited and new experiences) is vigorously expanded when you go to a new country with an entirely separate culture – the more alien the better. You walk along the street with an entirely foreign vista – you will be struck by its strangeness and differentness – you will experience everything that would be entirely pedestrian in your habit-world with a sense wonder. It is impossible not to take up the profound challenge to routine that is set down by throwing yourself into a situation where no matter what option you choose your world expands a little bit. The contraction of your world when you return home is certain by not instantaneous – you will notice that problems which before seemed hulking seem to have shrunk, sometimes into insignificance. You are the powerful one now. And when you fall back, exhausted into your bed you will find you never slept so well.

1 comment:

  1. You can get a similar experience by going out on a cloudless night in the countryside and looking at the stars. How small our little world is compared to the galaxies, universe and universes. How finite our lifetimes.

    Yes, you're right about travel broadening your perspective.