While at the Do Lectures I met Jorrit from http://www.homeofmillican.com and we had a fascinating conversation about travel and the concept of ‘inscape’.
In my book The Idle Traveller I spent some time looking at the way our minds work when we travel. You can read that book for a longer and more detailed explanation but I’ve been thinking about it again recently after a trip to New York. The crux of it is this. Wherever you happen to be physically all human experience actually takes place in your mind so when you travel, no matter where you happen to be moving across the globe, the real journey you take is always in your own head.
This means that the idea of travel being a physical ‘escape’ is only part of the story. ‘Inscape’ is the other dimension to it and ‘inscape’ is accessed not just by where you travel, but how and why you travel too. Before we go away we spend lots of our time looking at the globe of potential destinations and think little of the map of human conscious experience itself.
So let me take you back to New York to give you an example of what I mean. Isobel and I arrived in the city on a Monday evening. It was hot and humid. The taxi was cramped, as were our minds having spent seven hours in a metal tube hurtling through the sky. We were tired, slightly on edge, and excited. This ‘inscape’ was totally fresh and new, but a little crazy. I felt hemmed in. My senses were delivering sights to my brain that were completely alien in comparison to what I experience in London. Different kinds of trucks (like the one in Duel), pylons, shop signs, advertising that baffled me, brands I didn’t recognise, street signs I didn’t understand. Everywhere I looked I found newness. The weather was also very odd. Hot, sticky and drizzling with rain. I was in a new physical place, yes but I was also now on a journey into ‘inscape’ too.
The next morning I got up early because my body clock was out of whack. At 6 am I went for a run from our rented flat in the East Village to the Empire State Building. That was incredible. I normally run near Peckham Rye in London. Peckham is lovely but the streets of New York are slightly different. Again though, my brain was being forced to pay attention far more than it usually does when I run. I ran better. Faster. I felt stronger despite having little sleep. It felt like my whole being was beginning to waken as New Yorkers began their journeys to work. Part of the reason I felt different was because I was running along the streets of New York but I was also running into a new part of my consciousness — getting deeper into my experience of ‘inscape’ itself.
You can tell when you’ve arrived in ‘inscape’ because everything around you gets richer. Time slows down. You laugh more. You sleep better. You notice things you would normally blunder through. Coincidence and serendipity pop up where you least expect. It’s almost as though you are more alive.
This leads us to start to think about what’s going on with ‘inscape’ and the answer to that lies, predictably, in the way our brains work too.
You may or may not be aware that your consciousness works in different ways. You have an unconscious brain and a conscious one. Your unconscious brain takes care of all the things you do that are expected and part of your normal life. Most of the time — because the majority of us live according to a routine — our unconscious brain is doing all the work. Your journey to work, driving your kids to school, most of the things you do in your job and so on. Our conscious mind is only activated when something happens that our unconscious brain is not equipped to deal with because the sensations are different or new. So in that taxi my brain was working much harder than it has to when I’m in a taxi in London. I know where I am in London. I understand the fixtures and fittings of city life. My unconscious brain is used to it all and asserts itself.
In a yellow cab from JFK my conscious brain was being forced to engage and make sense of this new place. To see if there were any threats, opportunities or different things I’d have to master to be able to function in this new environment.
This, incidentally, is why people say they ‘find themselves’ when they travel. It’s because they are faced with totally new experiences and their conscious mind is being forced to pay attention, which means they are quite literally more conscious of the experience of being alive when they travel than when they are at home living in accordance with their usual routine. Our perception of time changes when the unconscious brain is in control too. Time moves more quickly, and that’s because we are less conscious of what we are doing and so don’t experience time in the same way. This is why two weeks holiday goes much slower than two weeks at work — because we are more aware of what’s going on.
So what does this all mean and how can it help you get more from travel? For me it means paying attention not just to the famous sights we might be encouraged to visit when we go away but to what’s going on deep inside ourselves too. Once you realise that you are taking a journey into conscious experience itself it is much easier to decide what to do. Going shopping — or anything you usually do at home — will quickly take you back to territory of the unconscious realm, albeit with better weather. This can feel sour in comparison to the sensations of ‘inscape’. To revel in consciousness — what it actually means to be alive — you have to put yourself out there. Be brave. Talk to people from a different culture (and it doesn’t count if they are serving you), experience new traditions, unfamiliar food, ways of life and philosophies you haven’t encountered before. You also have to slow down. And I mean slow right down. The only mode of transport you can rely on that will always take you there, regardless of where you are, are your own two feet.
So there you have it. ‘Inscape’ — the one destination everyone can visit, wherever you happen to be in the world.