Friday, November 2, 2012

Stepping Out of the Theater

"You quit your seat in a darkened movie theater, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you’ve forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you’d been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you. Yes, you say, as if you’d been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms—not the dry orange dust from horses’ hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke—but this solid air, the blood pumping up your thighs again, your fingers alive. And on the way home you drive exhilarated, energized, under scented, silhouetted trees."      - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I just got out of a movie. I'm not going to say which one, because I want to talk about how I feel sometimes after movies, without linking that feeling to any particular one.  The fact is, it wasn't a great movie, but it was visually enthralling enough to make me lose myself in another world for 2 1/2 hours. I'm not a very harsh critic of movies, and one of the main reasons I go to the theater is to walk out at the end with that wide-eyed post-movie feeling.  You know that feeling, right? You walk out feeling like a layer of scales has fallen from your eyes.  You see the world un-jaded for a while.  It's quite indescribable, and I'm not going to capture it with words. A true genius like Annie Dillard can come miles closer than I can, but even she can't describe the feeling well enough to make you literally feel like you do as you're walking out of that theater.*  In fact, I'm almost betraying that feeling by trying, but I'm going to do it anyway this time, with the caveat that I'm just scribbling, and at best pointing and saying, "Look!"  I'm no more capturing the sensation itself with these strings of symbols than I can describe the taste of chocolate to someone who has never tasted it.  The words won't make them taste it--not even close.  Even now I look at the written word c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e, and seeing how weak it really is.   I have tasted chocolate, of course, but I'm not doing so now,  so that word can only give me the vaguest of bleached-out recollections.  That will soon be true of the words I'm writing now, which will only give me a pale recollection of how I feel as I write them.

In a way, I'm sacrificing the post--movie sensation to words, because I'm going to sit down and focus on something other than that sensation: writing about the sensation.  That's a very different thing, and the act of doing it will help kill the sensation itself.  But it's worth it.  I'm old enough to have seen many enthralling movies, and to have driven from the theater with this feeling, knowing it will fade.  So, I really want to use words here against themselves, to talk about just how powerless they are to capture the sensation.  If you read these lines, you will think some of my thoughts, perhaps, but you won't really feel my feelings as I sit here.  Even if I read these lines in a few days, I may have a vague recollection of the feeling, but that's all.  Words can't give it back to me whole, any more than they can make me taste chocolate that isn't there. 

What's interesting about the feeling is that it's very much like I would get if I meditated for a while (I don't meditate regularly, but I have gotten a similar feeling that way--it's a lot harder than going to a movie). My muscles have relaxed in my face and throughout my body.  I haven't been thinking about my body, so it's at ease, like news anchors when the cameras aren't rolling. There's also a feeling of openness, because for the last couple of hours I've been giving my attention to something that doesn't come from me.  I go around most of the time with a mind full of abstract thoughts--representations and recollections that emerge (at that moment, anyway) from inside my brain, not from perceptions of the world around me.  The abstract thoughts crowd out the perceptions.  The way I understand this process, as someone who's read a lot of psychology, is that we can only pay attention to a few things at once.  We have a limited window of conscious attention.  So, if I fill my attention with abstract thoughts, other sensations and emotions will have to fade into the background.  Space is limited.  It's easy, especially for a cerebral type like me, to fill your consciousness with thoughts and then forget what it feels like to simply be awake and alive.  When you learn to meditate, or get engrossed in a movie, those thoughts recede and lose their stranglehold on your consciousness.

Here's the funny thing.  When you clear your mind of most of those thoughts, and let the other stuff in, what you feel can be strangely ennobling.  You feel appreciative, for one thing.  You realize just how vivid and present reality is, and how numb you can be so much of the time.  I also feel more kindly and less self-absorbed.**  Why is this?  Of course, I don't know if everyone feels this way, but I suspect many of them do.  If so, it's an amazing thing that if you wipe away some of your daydreams and preoccupations, a feeling of kindness and heightened sense of compassion is what you find underneath.  I don't know why that is (or even if it is, for most people) but it certainly is interesting, and rather encouraging.  I think it's partly because the sense of self is to some extent a learned mental construct, and self-consciousness is only one kind of consciousness.  And it can be an intrusive one.  When you form an image of yourself in your consciousness, that takes up space within your consciousness.  Sensations and emotions that aren't about self are pushed into the background.  So, when we focus on something outside ourselves for a long time, perhaps that pushy, elbowy self-image shrinks and fades, leaving more room for thoughts and feelings that aren't about us.  I think it makes more room for shared or mirrored emotions--for empathy.  It's not something I understand well, but it's powerful, and would probably be good for us all to cultivate.  That's why I'm writing this, to remind myself that even though these anemic words won't capture how I feel right now, that feeling is a big deal, and worth pursuing.

I need that reminder, personally.  I'm one of those types who's always thinking about some abstract problem, and therefore not noticing feelings and connections with others; not as well as many other people do.  To some extent I think that's justified.  I spend a lot of time on this blog grappling with questions about how people think, and how we could think better, more clearly, and more honestly.  There's a whole lot of really shaky thinking out there, so the topic of improving it is worth spending some time on. The more people think critically about claims and motives of politicians, spin-doctors, snake-oil salesmen, and fortune tellers, the less hospitable the world will be to harmful nonsense and dishonest rhetoric.

Still, I have no illusions that I have I've figured out very much.  I especially have no illusions at time like this, when something wipes all this analysis from my mind for a while, when I see how much I have to learn, and how much more there is to being alive than just cold cogitation.  Times like this are when I glimpse this feeling that I'm part of something bigger, and that I'm connected to other people in some profound way.  Sometimes I even feel like we're all part of some bigger consciousness--like we are all different ways the universe is perceiving itself.  I don't mean this in some supernatural way, or in the sense that the universe somehow cares about how my life goes.  I'm just allowing for the possibility that nature could be more subtle than we realize. Maybe consciousness is some kind of universal feature of nature, like gravity?  Maybe it's a sort of groundwater of the universe, which brains of a certain level of complexity are able to tap into and share?  And maybe not, but who knows?  I may be a skeptic, but for me that means being open-minded as well as questioning. I think those things are two sides of a single coin, which is: not thinking you know what you don't know.  One thing I don't know is why, when we succeed in forgetting ourselves for a while, we can feel more alive, more connected with others, and even more selfless.  But I think it's worth looking into.


* Reading whole chapters in that book can give you that feeling, because she describes her awe at the world so well you start to share it a little, and because you get so engrossed in her brilliance that you forget yourself.  But the point remains that a description and a sensation are two very different things. 

** Of course, the makers of the movie may have just successfully strummed you heartstrings with cleverly-chosen sights and sounds and words.  But I think there's more to it than that.  Even just meditating for a while, and forgetting yourself that way, without the manipulation of emotions you get in a movie, can give me that selfless, kindly feeling.  But I don't get that feeling from meditating very much, because, as I said, that's a lot harder than just going to the movies.  Cheaper though.