Before humans could speak, it may not have been possible for us to separate from our bodies. But once we developed an inner realm of words and ideas, that artificial reality began to compete with the actual one. Practicing mindfulness meditation is a good way to learn how hard it can be to stay immersed in the body when we are busy thinking.
What do we mean by saying a person is “lost in thought?” We mean she is attending to words in her head rather than circumstances in the environment. We mean he is out of touch with sensations, companions, and his own body. Language gave humans new capacities. We could elaborate mental worlds and use them to lessen the impact of the real one. This is an advantage when strategizing: we can imagine the outcome of a plan and avoid problems that might accrue from enacting it. But by installing a mental buffer, thought also gave us an escape hatch. We can live in our heads and feel insulated from disappointing, uncomfortable realities.
When used skillfully, this ability serves us. We can use narrative and metaphor to find meaning in loss and trauma. We can create beauty to soften harsh circumstances. But the mental landscape is seductive, and life is painful. We retreat further and further into thought, detaching more and more from our bodies. What’s more, the inner terrain suffers from its own hazards; worries whisper; anxieties crackle; sadness looms. The mental life causes more distress than it dissipates
My guess is that our species’ retreat from the body happened slowly at first. As tribespeople telling stories around the campfire, we explored a realm of imagery that overlapped with the tapestry of nature. Tales of wily ancestors, animal spirits, and magical plants may have deepened our ability to hunt and gather the nonhuman lifeforms that kept us alive. But as humanity built civilizations, our mythology grew less relevant to daily experience. Almost-palpable ancestor and animal guides faded out of our narratives, and increasingly abstract gods moved in. Imaginal realms rooted in wild landscapes gave way to morality tales staged in unseen heavens and hells.
Technology has widened the roads leading out of our bodies and into our minds. At every step in the progression from printing press and the invention of novels, to radio and then television, to the internet and smartphones, to electronic gaming and virtual reality, we have found easier and easier escape. Go to almost any public space and you will see half or more of the population looking at or listening to a device. Many of the remainder will be reading the old-fashioned way or staring dreamily into the distance, lost in thought.
Add in the travel industry that promises to carry us away from our humdrum lives. Add in the glamor industry that (falsely) promises eternal, ethereal beauty. Add in so-called reality shows that help us replace our own boredom with someone else’s excitement. Add in all the chemicals available to soften life’s impact: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, illegal drugs, pharmaceuticals. It’s obvious: escape is our primary industry.
We pay a steep price. All that screen time damages spines. All that inactivity weakens the body. All those hours in the head separate us from the warm, vital life in our human bodies.
I don’t want to give the impression that escaping into the mind is entirely harmful; sometimes it helps. When I was a boy, my home life was dismal: my mother had killed herself; my stepmother was abusing me; my father spent his days at work and his nights drinking. I felt terrified and lonely, but I enjoyed a rich fantasy life. I imagined living on a ranch far from Los Angeles, in an high-tech grotto like Batman, or in a miniature city protected by an impervious dome. In memory, these daydreams seem as vivid and real to me as the actual details of my childhood. I believe the fantasies helped save me. No doubt kids in embattled homes today find relief in video games and social media. But tactics that bolster the child often diminish the adult. And while virtual realities may help youngsters trapped in tough circumstances, they may be less healthy for those in safer situations.
Perhaps the goal should be flexibility. We can use our mental realms to plan, to review, and sometimes to escape. But whenever possible, we should stay connected to moment-by-moment reality, to our bodies. We should turn off the screen, slow down our thoughts, and savor the rose of the world.