Territory I could get lost in, with a map or without (Southern Utah, near Boulder)
The texture of every day consciousness has changed dramatically over the last two years for most people with whom I share my life. We are like patients whose vitals don’t make any sense—some of the indicators are healthy and hopeful, but many are abysmally misaligned and reason for dire concern. The pattern recognition skills—our internal GPS systems—that we used to navigate life before Trump (and the rise to power of a whole international cartel of authoritarian political figures) are now outdated and in desperate need of a retooling. More than ever, the map is not the territory.
This disorientation has been playing out in a profound way on a personal level for me as well. Last January I was radically pulled off the life I thought was mine. Health crises are detours that throw you onto makeshift roads—unpaved, provisional, heading in a direction that is far afield of where you thought you were going. At first you just assume this is short lived and you will soon be back on familiar tarmac. But the new routing doesn’t seem to be turning back. At some point it happens, you realize that the paved road you had been driving down is gone and no longer exists. This muddy, unwieldy track heading who knows where is your route now.
Like the patient with mixed vitals, it isn’t all bad, this new road. When you are forced to slow down, the world around you changes. It becomes more accessible. The quiet brings subtle, previously unheard sounds into play. No map. No roadside distractions. No traffic jams. The mind is permitted to drift, to find its own pace.
And that has its own rewards. In Steven Johnson‘s thoughtful New York Times article, The Human Brain is a Time Traveler , he puts this in a larger cultural context:
Today, it seems, mind-wandering is under attack from all sides. It’s a common complaint that our compulsive use of smartphones is destroying our ability to focus. But seen through the lens of Homo prospectus, ubiquitous computing poses a different kind of threat: Having a network-connected supercomputer in your pocket at all times gives you too much to focus on. It cuts into your mind-wandering time. The downtime between cognitively active tasks that once led to REST* states can now be filled with Instagram, or Nasdaq updates, or podcasts. We have Twitter timelines instead of time travel. At the same time, a society-wide vogue for “mindfulness” encourages us to be in the moment, to think of nothing at all instead of letting our thoughts wander. Search YouTube, and there are hundreds of meditation videos teaching you how to stop your mind from doing what it does naturally. The Homo prospectus theory suggests that, if anything, we need to carve out time in our schedule—and perhaps even in our schools—to let minds drift.
*Random Episodic Silent Thought (REST)
A health crisis is not a requirement to “carve out time…to let minds drift.” And someday it may be that the crisis is gone and the drifting remains.