18 Dec 2011

"Why is unconsciousness so precious?"

These words, scribbled in my travel journal a few years back, relate to one of my favourite memories. It was a weekend trip to Paris in midsummer. We played scavenger-hunt around the city for bread, wine, cheese and strawberries, sat on the bank of the Seine for a picnic lunch, and dozed off on the grass. And it's that nap in the warm afternoon sun that I remember.

Which is a bit worrying. Why is one of my favourite moments one that I was only half-aware of?

I don't think I'm unusual. Everyone likes to relax, to slow their minds down, to veg out in front of the television. It's a skill I'm trying to learn. Some people go a bit further, and actively turn their minds off with alcohol.

But it goes further than just relaxing.

Back when I lived much further from the office, my morning commute was often one of my favourite times. I'd smash the bike through heavy traffic on the A501, the fastest thing on the road as I zigzagged around attempts to turn me into paste. Green lines on the heads-up-display of my mind's eye showed incoming vehicles, vectors, obstacles, actions. There was no time to think about anything else.

I think this is why people do extreme sports - for this moment of not thinking about anything except the last two seconds and the next five.

This "zone" isn't even limited to moments of imminent death. There's a "flow state" when working - writing code, for me, but I'm sure there are similar versions for others - where everything but the work ceases to exist and I become both more productive and happier. Books like "Flow" discuss ways to reach this more consistently.

Buddhists come at the same problem from another angle. They teach the cessation of thought - indeed, of being - as the ultimate happiness. I've tried this and it works. I'm actually scared to walk much further down that path.

So it looks to me like all that our highly-stressed, capable and responsible conscious minds truly want, like Asimov's Multivac, is nothingness.

Which is a worry.