Escaping from Ourselves: Music, Crowds, and Other Ways Out

April 21 was Record Store Day, an international event celebrating the hunt for tunes you can hold in your hands. By coincidence, this classical music lover found himself listening to a rock concert at a stop where I hoped to shop, not bop. I’d never attended anything similar, but learned something you won’t in a Mozart-friendly venue: the pain people suffer to escape themselves. Or simply to have a good time.

Only a matter of feet from the amplified band, everyone was moving to the music, ear drums be damned by snares and cymbals. What was punishing to me in sheer volume got other people out of themselves. Big music doing a big job. The point was not to use thought, but to submit to the mood-altering bombardment and escape reasoned analysis and reflection.

We do need to get away from reality. Intensity of sound was the key. The straight-jacket of our brain gets loosened and our suffering is covered-over, swamped by an aural tsunami.

Music isn’t the only way. Take the extremity of self-mutilation: cutting your body, as some do, not for decoration, but replacement of emotional pain by the application of physical pain; like a new coat of paint.

Sports venues also use loudness to launch escape from self. Conversation is difficult. Even attention to the game on the field. “Play ball?” You’ll see it, but won’t hear the infield chatter or bat striking ball. No foreground of sound and background of silence, like visual art, but all foreground all the time.

Beyond a flight from acute emotional distress, why might we want to depart reality? Life can be rather too much, don’t you think? The vocational rat race, mortality, and inevitable comparisons and competitions come to mind. No wonder we drink, smoke funny cigarettes, and overeat.

The human being is a clever creature, tricking himself to fly without even knowing what he is doing or why.

Those who dissociate in the midst of a traumatic event describe their transformation as a “going away:” separating a part of themselves from the portion encountering the unsparing awfulness. By breaking into segments, another facet of the personality experiences the grotesquery in a muted fashion or not at all.

Nearly everyone sometimes compartmentalizes his experience. We take in what distress can be managed and screen out the rest, without the extreme loss of awareness in dissociation. “I’ll think about this later,” so we tell ourselves, and a door in the brain closes.

Crowds can help you get out of yourself. Not just at concerts, but political rallies. Size matters. We give up thinking for nonbeing, joining, submerging. At the crowd’s worst, rules disappear, exchanged for bad faith. Humanity and civilization are discarded. We return to more primal roots. The unity of the group is all. You are not solo, not separate, but swept into in a mob of homogeneous excitation. No wonder the mass goes crazy and the individuals lose themselves, surrendering their agency to the power of the collective.

Talented populist orators evoke a frenzy, a single-mindedness they manipulate with our complicity. Why? Because we desire this loss of responsibility and control; the mental weight of making a decision. Once unburdened, anything is possible with someone else’s permission and direction. Think Lord of the Flies and what happens to Piggy.

Sensation of a transcendent kind is found in sex. Sexual contact allows us to escape of our bodies in the body of another. We are swept away in the stretching, sweating, touching, playing, craving, and holding. Our surrender to flooding hormones and synchronous beating hearts yields ecstasy: escape velocity that returns us to our unthinking creatureliness, our animality.

But there is more. When wills and wants and sensibilities align we exchange essences. After, we take some portion of the other’s otherness with us. Each party is completed. We are less ourselves and alone. In the consummation we escape our own boundaries.

Dancing and religious rites can create self-abandonment. Some worshipful gatherings sanctify and applaud those who “speak in tongues.” They become unmoored, taken over by a language that is not a language.

Quieter ways to lose yourself exist, but they lack the drama and require concentration; say, on a book you are reading or by the discipline of a hard-won meditation practice. We can depart our self in a state of “flow” at work, too. But, if you want to leave your consciousness behind without industrious effort, these will not do.

Standard variety vacations suffice, especially if they take you to a place of anonymity, a strange culture, away from work and obligation: in the most positive sense, out of your mind. The tendrils of thought pulling you back to homely discontent are cut.

No judgement here. Relief is necessary. Distraction and diversion take many forms. We don’t always choose our evasive poisons or medicines wisely, but one cannot make the best of reality without the occasional departure from the realm of the hard and real. Passing time without flights of fancy would be too grim.

Here’s to the high flyers, the ones climbing toward the clouds in search of cloudiness. It is true, the upper reaches are opaque, but where is it written we must always be clear-eyed?

Smile, laugh, and make love. Or, as the old verse tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.”

So says the Bible!

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The first image is Tape Floor by Jim Lambie. The second is Fenix by Josignacio. Finally, Dancers by Degas. All are sourced from Wikiart.org/

11 thoughts on “Escaping from Ourselves: Music, Crowds, and Other Ways Out

  1. Great post! I can’t handle crowds or any noisy gatherings… my anxiety skyrockets and I lose mental control. Dissociation is my escape from a lot of the “too loud, too bright, too overwhelming” moments of life.

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  2. Excellent post, Dr. Stein. These days, meditation and gardening are my preferred means of escape. Binge watching on Netflix, too 🙂 I can never resist an engaging plot or mystery.

    Observing carnival in Brazil first made me realize that escape we must. Given the pressures of modern life, safety release valves – in all the forms you mention – are essential for preventing explosive uprisings.

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    • Thanks, Rosaliene. Interesting observation about carnival. Masks and costumes doubtless make the escape easier; as in wartime too, with uniforms or, before that, war paint.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would like to see a little bit about excessive daydreaming as a form of escape.
    When it comes to being in crowds for concerts and other leisure events, I remember that, over 40 years ago, a Priest once said, (and I don’t know if this is an indirect quote or not), “Loneliness haunts the places where the crowds gather.”

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    • You are right, Joseph. Daydreaming would be another method of escape, more often used by kids than adults I’d guess. Great quote. Thanks, Joseph.

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  4. I appreciate a live performance but full sensory harassment exhausts me. Reading this blog brought to conscious recall a quote I read long ago;

    “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit in a room, alone, quietly.” ~Blaise Pascal

    Water, that’s where become free as the air. Any body of water will do. It’s usually a pool, where I can loaf on a kickboard for a time then twirl, swirl, and frolick like a sea otter. Then float on my back and get lost with feeling sound of my breathing.

    All the day in my life falls away for a time. Disengage. I know genuine contentment. Post swim I’m renewed to re-engage with the world. I think that’s why I like the smell of chlorine, one whiff and I’m momentarily in my “floaty place”. I was almost born in a swimming pool so that makes sense. The perfect fragrance…Chlorine °5. 🙂

    Since I don’t have regular pool time I’ve learned some simple commands. Short one like the kind that work well with dogs. Sit. Stay. Quiet. 20 minutes of being obedient and wah-lah busy brain takes leave.

    Thank you the work you do with blog. Thank you very much! Nancy

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    • A lovely description of what the water does for you and to you, Nancy. Pascal certainly knew what he was talking about. Your last paragraph is especially appreciated.

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  5. Thank you for the thought provoking post, it was timely for me. As I get older, I am aware, more than ever, of the extremes a lot of us go to escape; music, sex, food, drugs, alcohol, sports, computers, gaming: the list is almost endless. What is it that we are avoiding again? society? ourselves? Hmm. I have one life to live on this rock hurtling around the sun. I’d be content if I could develop a sense of peace no matter what maelstrom heads my way. I am uncertain if I will achieve my goal before my time is up, but I am working on it. If I am going to avoid, I want to be aware of my avoiding behaviors and why I am doing it. I might find that avoiding is unnecessary.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I can identify with your sentiments and especially liked your characterization of our planet as “this rock hurtling around the sun.” That demystifies it, for sure. I expect that in the end we will still be left with questions. Such thoughts, however, will probably not stop the likes of the two of us from continuing to ask them. Thanks for your comment.

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