Skip to content

Escaping Ourselves

3 min

"When, consciously or unconsciously, we use something to escape from ourselves, we become addicted to it."

"Most of us are constantly trying to escape from ourselves; ... In the desire for self-forgetfulness, some turn to art, others take to drink, while still others follow mysterious and fanciful ... doctrines.

When, consciously or unconsciously, we use something to escape from ourselves, we become addicted to it. To depend on a person, a poem, or what you will, as a means of release from our worries and anxieties, though momentarily enriching, only creates further conflict and contradiction in our lives.

The state of creativeness cannot exist where there is conflict, and the right kind of education should therefore help the individual to face his problems and not glorify the ways of escape; it should help him to understand and eliminate conflict, for only then can this state of creativeness come into being."

- J. Krishnamurti, from "Education and the Significance of Life"

What does it mean to "escape from ourselves"?

This is both an odd notion, and an immediately recognizable one. Who among us doesn't zone out? It is so commonplace as to have one wonder if an alternative is even possible.

As a thought experiment, bring to mind one of your most cherished forms of escape. Maybe it's the desire to consume some substance, or to open an app on your phone. To brainstorm an exciting new project. To spend more time at the office. To take care of someone else's needs. To worry about something.

Reflect for a bit on a way you escape from yourself, and then imagine refraining from it completely.

What comes up in you as you do this? What concerns arise? If you didn't do X, what would happen?

What I suspect you will find if you actually try this, is a sort of anxiety. A kind of emptiness or groundlessness. The longer you stay present with the impulse to escape without acting on it, the more discomfort you will experience.

On the other side of this discomfort is an existential freedom that relatively few people enjoy.

This resting in groundlessness is increasingly difficult as the ways of escaping ourselves proliferate and become stickier and more frictionless (On-demand junk food, weed, and alcohol delivery, Netflix auto-play, Instagram, porn, etc.). We are living amidst an acceleration of addictiveness, where just hanging out with ourselves without needing to be doing something is increasingly rare.

A principle of any addictive process is that there is a period of withdrawal when we cut out the addiction. For some substances with strong biochemical forces (e.g. heroin), these withdrawals are incredibly painful. And yet, who would say it's best that a heroin addict choose the misery of heroin addiction over the pain of withdrawal?

It may seem extreme to compare zoning out in front of the TV with some junk food to an intravenous heroin injection, but I submit that they are a difference in degree, not kind. They certainly have different impacts on our minds and bodies, but they are both means to the end of self-escape, and as such, they both limit how much freedom we can enjoy.

It's important that we be gentle with ourselves here. Addiction is not a trivial matter, and there are many reasons why escaping from ourselves or our immediacy is (or was) a wise and healthy thing to do (e.g. when faced with acute trauma, splitting off from our experience helps us survive psychologically).

Generally speaking, our patterns of escape are actually trauma-responses to past experiences that were "too much" for us. They are strategies we've found to help cope with some overwhelming part of being alive.

Because of this it is important that we love the ways we escape, while still learning to let go of them. Self-condemnation is not helpful here.

One of my main existential crutches over the years as been food and television. I've used these to cover over feelings of loneliness, emptiness, despair, and alienation. I have compassion for myself, and yet I continue to work on freeing myself from these addictions because while they are not as potentially harmful as a heroin addiction, they still keep me in a kind of stuck and conflicted state.

As we come to see with greater subtlety the total process of existence, we are more free to make choices that nurture our minds and bodies and that enhance our capacity to create a more beautiful world.

This is a gradual process, as the more you look, the more you will discover subtle ways you escape the intensity of living fully. Yet I cannot think of a more important effort to engage in as a human being than to slowly peel back the ways we disconnect from ourselves and our creative potency. The degree that we succeed in this ripples throughout all aspects of our lives and relationships.

Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.