June 15, 2014, by Stephen Mumford

Immersion and Self-Consciousness

Schopenhauer claimed that the function of art was to release the individual from their constant restless striving. We have selfish desires that we look to satisfy, desires which seem beyond our control and not always admirable. But in aesthetic contemplation we can lose our sense of self if we become immersed in the object and then personal striving loses its control over us.

In some degree, this seems possible. One might listen intensely to a piece of music, for example. All one’s consciousness is devoted to the experience. It is the totality of which one is aware. In this state, one doesn’t think of other matters. One doesn’t even think who one is. The subject must fall out of their own consciousness.

This is not always easy to achieve. Self-consciousness is an important human ability. We are able to be the objects of our own thoughts. Hence, one can think about an activity while performing it but then also be aware that it is you doing it. It is one thing to think about a painting and another thing to think that you are thinking about a painting. Contrary to Schopenhauer, this ability to think about our own thoughts is vital for our free will. I can find myself contemplating my own failings, for instance, realise I’m doing it, and decide not to if I don’t think it’s good for me.

Although so vital to our freedom, self-consciousness can also be a problem, as most people’s daily experience attests. Someone speaking in public mustn’t become too self-conscious. On the verge of completing a task, one mustn’t start thinking about what an achievement it would be to succeed, for that lessens the chance of success. Athletes know this. Having a match point in tennis, for instance, one really needs to concentrate on playing the point. If at the same time one starts thinking how much the point means and what glory follows from winning it, the chances of success are lessened. This is because, for optimum exercise of an ability, all one’s concentration must be dedicated to it. If a portion of one’s mind is devoted to thoughts of oneself performing the action, then one is not concentrating on the action wholly, usually to its detriment. Instead, one should seek immersion in the activity, losing the self in it. While I value my self-consciousness as a source of my freedom, then, it is also one of the things over which I need to exercise control otherwise I won’t always get what I want.

I sometimes think of life being like walking a tightrope. Tightrope walking is a highly skilled activity, sometimes with a high cost to failure. Total immersion is required. Don’t look down. Don’t start thinking of the possibility of falling, nor even of the glory of success. Instead, one should concentrate wholly on the act. Like many others, I often do things that are outside my comfort zone and do not come naturally to me. If I dwelt on the enormity, I might fall down off the high wire. Sometimes, it’s best not to think about things too much.

Posted in AestheticsExistentialismMetaphysicsMusicPhilosophySport