I am least happy when I am self-conscious. These are the moments when I see myself as I imagine I must look through the eyes of onlookers. This is such an unnerving thought that I easily lose my composure. Everything then becomes complicated and confusing and my mind starts to race. I am here but my mind is busy imagining myself through the eyes of those people standing over there and all the time I am supposed to be talking and acting naturally. Aaahhh! There is just too much going on in my head.
All things being equal, if selfconsciousness is bad then unselfconsciousness should be good, so I started thinking about the times when I really forget myself and give myself over to whatever I am involved in.
How about watching a film or reading a book? Such activities can be so absorbing that I forget myself so completely that I could almost really be out on the wild and windy moors with Katherine Earnshaw or living in Mandalay with Rebecca.
Even so, at such moments I am so lost to myself that I couldn’t actually tell you whether I am happy or not. I have so completely disappeared off my own radar that I may just as well be a brain in a vat, or Neo attached to the motherboard in The Matrix. The whole thing is just too mental, too virtual and doesn’t strike me as being very fulfilling. It’s too much like dreaming.
I think the best state is when I am doing something physical and I just watch myself doing it. For example, today I was watering my sister and brother-in-law’s garden because they are on holiday. It was a job I could do without much thinking but I also found it interesting enough to capture my attention. My body knew what to do without ‘me’ having to step in and take charge. It was like being inside a fully automatic robot. ‘Thinking me’ was inside ‘robot me’ and both were comfortable in each other’s company.
I suppose this could be the state that Mihali Csikzentmihalyi calls ‘flow‘, though as I understand it flow happens when you are doing an activity that requires practice, expertise and concentration. So perhaps the state I was in while doing the watering was ‘Flow Light’. After all, I neither need to be an expert waterer nor put my whole being into the moment.
Yet even if my gardening experience wasn’t quite the genuine article I would still place it at the top of my list of ‘Modes of being’, with unconscious, brain-in-a-vat mode that I use for reading and watching TV in second place, and panicky selfconsciousness last.
Just as an aside, I think watering a garden is a proper activity in a way that running on a treadmill or pushing weights are not. You should wear yourself out, use yourself up interacting with the world. Your body and mind should be shaped by your interaction with the world, like a rock shaped by the wind or water. The person you become should be an unintended by-product of your activity, not its end goal.
In interviews you can often spot the people who have their eyes set firmly on the outside world and those whose attention is on themselves. The former can talk about gardening, wildlife, motorbikes or anything else and I can listen quite happily. Yesterday I watched an interview with Tom Wolfe and his gaze is cleary outward. Peter Hitchens also has the healthy outward-orientated outlook. On the other hand, in the same video Emily Thornberry in the same video seems to have her mind mainly on how she is coming across.
Self-obsessed people, whose attention is principally on themselves and their image, can often manage to whip up a semblance of passion but it’s really just a show. Look at Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and Russell Brand. Look at the unctuous Anthony Weiner. Even if you agreed with such people, how could any normal person stand to have them as friends? At least with the TV you can turn them off but what do you do in real life?