Thursday, 13 January 2011

Being here now

So, I am sat in my hotel room six floors up in the Arosa Hotel in Paderborn. Far below me the city stretches away in the January rain, looking like the town in the 1971 version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", where the great glass elevator breaks through the roof of the factory and travels out above a very Teutonic looking city. White houses, each with its red tiled roof, give way in the dismal distance to white industrial building and in between, two enormous churches punctuate the view, towering above more mundane looking office and municipal buildings.
It is not a picturesque view particularly, but it is one with which I am partly familiar, having been here so very many times over the last 18 years or so.

But it is a vista that is different to my everyday outlook in Bristol and its surroundings.
Now I look out of the window and I am "here". There is enough strangeness about what I see to render it "foreign" because, although I know many of the streets very well by now, they differ in architecture and construction in ways subtle but significant from those I know as "home".

What is strange though, and this feeling has haunted my experience ever since I was self-aware, is the feeling of "not really being there". This sensation is rather pervasive and intrudes almost as much as the view of my nose used to when I was five and first looking at blackboards for a significant proportion of my days. Wherever I looked, there it was, obscuring objects and getting in the way of seeing properly. Annoying, isnt it.
But i grew to accept this triangular intrusion into my field of vision, I have not similarly accepted this nagging voice asking me "how do KNOW you are where you are? When you aren't there any more, how will you know you didnt imagine being there?"
Its a reasonable question. I remember visiting a factory in Italy about 16 years ago. It was my first trip to Italy and frankly, I was a bit surprised that providence had placed me in a position where I would be travelling to places I once considered exotic and unreachable. To prove to myself I was actually there, or rather, to attempt to gain information from another, more trustworth sensory source, I touched the walls of the building as we walked back to the office area. I ran my hands along the masonry in an attempt to touch something, literally, concrete in this strange, unfamiliar environment.

And yet, it still didnt really work. A few days later, at home, back in familiar surroundings, it was as if I had looked up suddenly and the images in my memory, the sensations of my "minds hands" could as well have been memories I created from imagination. I knew I had been there because there were witnesses and a ticket stub from my flight. But the quality of the information stored in my mind seemed as if it could have been planted there without the experience actually having ever taken place.

Sitting here looking out of this window, I know that in a few days' time, i will similarly look up and I will have a memory of having been here, but I will be elsewhere. So, how then do i make this particular "here & now" real for myself? Given that my meandering mind often takes me to places in my memory or imagination, where i can see every turn of the road, every detail of a room, how can I convince myself that I am present in a room in a hotel in Westfalia?

And this brings me to a further thought: If I can illustrate an example of the fallability of memory, I will do so here. When i lived in the dingy fug of my great-grandfather's house, which we left when I was four, I remember sitting in an armchair in my pyjamas. I suppose I would have been about three. I remember clearly the feel of the material on my bare feet. I remember the space between the arms of the chair in which I sheltered. But oddly, I also remember the door opening and a face peeping round. It was the face of a frog on a man's body. I remember the man, in a suit, with a the head of a frog such as one might see in a cartoon, or like Kiki in Hector's House for those of you familiar with this childrens' program of the early 70's. I wasn't alarmed or scared. The world was still somewhere that held all manner of inexplicable and confusing things and this was just another example of something I had not yet encountered.

I remember this as an event. Now obviously, there wasn't a man with a frog's head in Tenniscourt Road in 1968. I have obviously conflated a dream and a memory. But the memory feels real and plenty of research shows how easily memories can be created of events that demonstrably did not happen (Reference: Search, If you wish, on "Elizabeth Loftus". "False memory". Eye-witness testimony will never again be something you place implicit confidence in)

Since I seem to be unable to distinguish the quality of the memory from things I possibly imagined, perhaps, I can make a shortcut to experiences that it would be dangerous or inadvisable to have. If I eat a Mars Bar, a huge amount of nasties like sugar and fat are released in a rush into my bloodstream. This endocrine disaster is probably not a good thing, though arguably once in a while causes no harm.
However, after having eaten it, apart from feeling sick and having slightly more tooth decay, the main artifact of its consumption will be a memory of having eaten it.
Why then, can I not short-circuit the act of eating it and imagine the whole experience, thus saving myself from nutritional misfortune but still having the enjoyment in hindsight?
I shall stop at this example but it has implications for other daydreams that would surely get me in a lot of trouble were I to act them out.

Ok, we all know it doesnt work like that. It was merely a thought experiment to illustrate a point.
So, the experience seems to be the thing, perhaps not even the memory of the experience, which we know can be fallible and flawed. maybe the key to it is that hackneyed old stalwart of New Agers everywhere: "Being in the moment."

Perhaps if I relax a bit and just sit looking out of the window and stop trying so hard to "BE here!", I will allow the here-ness and now-ness to just permeate my consciousness and all will be smooth mellow spiritual creaminess.

Though, looking out at Paderborn in the rain, perhaps I might be better advised to daydream somewhere sunnier, warmer and more amenable.