Escapism is my cardio—running away from responsibilities counts, right?
American spiritual teacher, writer, and psychologist-by-training, Baba Ram Dass (1931—2019) who helped popularize Eastern philosophy and spirituality in the West was renowned for his entertaining yet profound spiritual discourses. In one of his talks, Ram Dass narrated the parable of a farmer and his horse.
The story was about a farmer whose horse had run away. Upon hearing about the horse, the farmer’s neighbor walked over to the farmer to commiserate, saying, “Oh, that’s terrible.” The farmer replied, matter-of-factly, “You never know. It is what it is.”
The next day, as the farmer and his neighbor were chatting, the horse returned, and brought with it two other wild horses. The neighbor exclaimed, “Wow, that’s great!” to which the farmer again said, “You never know. It is what it is.”
Then, during the week, the farmer’s son started training one of the wild horses. But as he rode the wild horse, he fell and broke his leg. The neighbor sympathetically said to the farmer, “Oh, that’s terrible.” The farmer’s response was unchanged. “You never know. It is what it is.”
A few days later, the Cossack army marched through the country, taking all young and able men with them to fight in a war. However, the farmer’s son was spared because he was injured. The neighbor, upon hearing this, remarked, “Oh, that’s great!” to which the farmer said, “You never know. It is what it is”.
And so it went.
The moral of the parable is simple—nothing is inherently good or bad. It’s all about perspective. We can spare ourselves needless headaches and heartaches by not forcing predictability in a highly unpredictable world. And we can do that by learning to embrace the here and now instead of indulging in escapism.
Scottish novelist and nonfiction author Andrew ‘O Hagan’s article titled A hotel room of one’s own in the NY Times magazine is an ode to escapism.
‘O Hagan extols the benefits of checking in to his favorite hotel in the world, Claridge’s, a hotel only fifteen minutes from his home by taxi, and yet an entire universe away in terms of experience. In the article, ‘O Hagan makes the case for why a night or two spent away at a hotel, even if it’s in your own city, on upholstery you never have to mend, or bed you never have to make, can make you feel refreshed and rejuvenated.
Escapism is the art of seeking solace from reality, and it has been a common human response to stress and challenges throughout history. It is a coping mechanism that offers us a temporary respite from the sometimes crushing demands of reality and often helps us deal with the monotony and duress of everyday living.
Almost any leisurely activity can be a form of escapism—books, travel, gardening, movies, etc. And with evolving technology, we now also have the benefit of much more sophisticated forms of escapism. Take video games for example—at the core, they offer us to play roles of gun-toting, merciless shooters—stuff we would never (hopefully) attempt in real life, often in distant zombie-infested galaxies in the company of mythical dragons and demons
Our need to escape is fundamental, because, let’s face it, human lives can be taxing.
Author Jeremy Sherman, in his blog Ambigamy, describes the unique challenge that accosts humans and our almost primal need for escapism.
We humans have a challenge that other organisms don’t have. We are confronted with way more reality than any of us can stomach and we are afforded way more ways to escape it.
A dog doesn’t worry about death by a thousand cuts, not being able to pay the bills, or that nasty thing someone said to it last week. And a dog can’t check out of its reality either, with flights of hubris becoming a legend in its own mind the way we can.
We humans have language which exposes us to way too much world and affords us way too many ways to ignore, dismiss, and reject it.
But, if life has taught us any lessons, it’s this: Too much of anything can be toxic whether it’s fine wine or escapism.
Overindulgence in escapism—avoidance—can have potentially deleterious effects.
After all, the laundry will not fold itself, and nor will the bills magically disappear. Additionally, prolonged immersion in idealized fictional worlds may set unrealistic expectations for reality: roleplaying a dragon in a video game can be construed as fun (for some) but thinking you’re a dragon in real life is likely to land you on a therapist’s couch.
But most importantly, changing our environment, our house, or job doesn’t work, because, well, for one thing, they aren’t easy to do, but as Jon Kabat-Zinn highlighted in his popular book “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” (1994).
“There you are” refers to our internal mental state. Simply switching our environment won’t help if we continue to carry our emotional baggage and unresolved issues with us. Kabat-Zinn’s answer to the problem of escapism is mindfulness: the ability to focus on being in the present without constantly flitting between the past and future. He says,
Guess what? When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that’s what’s on your mind. Whatever has happened to you, it has already happened. The important question is, how are you going to handle it? In other words, “Now what?”
And the way to train our mind to stay present is through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Sure, the word meditation is loaded and esoteric-sounding, but, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, it is a very basic human activity.
Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity, which at the bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are…Meditation does not involve trying to change your thinking by thinking some more. It involves watching thought itself.
There. It’s that simple. At least, in theory. And contrary to popular perception, you don’t need a lot of patience to turn into a meditator. Because, as Kabat-Zinn says,
After all, if you really aren’t trying to get anywhere else in this moment, patience takes care of itself.
So, instead of googling vacation packages to Iceland while secretly hoping the plumbing issues at home will vanish, I guess we could try to spend time on the meditation cushion. Maybe we’ll get lucky one day like Charlie Brown does.
Sometimes you lie in bed at night and you don’t have a single thing to worry about. That always worries me. Charlie Brown.