Alain de Botton: how to travel from your sofa

Coronavirus may confine us — but we can learn to explore in very different ways

‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ (c1475) by Antonello da Messina © Getty

(All rights reserved by Alain de Botton and the FT.)

At some point in the 1650s, the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal jotted down one of the most counterintuitive aphorisms of all time: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room.”

Really? Surely having to stay quietly in one’s room must be the start of a particularly evolved kind of psychological torture? What could be more opposed to the human spirit than to have to inhabit four walls when, potentially, there would be a whole planet to explore?

And yet Pascal’s idea usefully challenges one of our most cherished beliefs: that we must always go to new places in order to feel and discover fresh and worthwhile things. What if, in fact, there were already a treasury inside us?

What if we had within our own brains already accumulated a sufficient number of awe-inspiring, calming and interesting experiences to last us 10 lifetimes? What if our real problem was not so much that we are not allowed to go anywhere — but that we don’t know how to make the most of what is already to hand?

Being confined at home gives us a range of curious benefits. The first is an encouragement to think. Whatever we like to believe, few of us do much of the solitary, original, bold kind of thinking that can restore our spirits and move our lives ahead. The new ideas we might stumble upon if we did travel more ambitiously around our minds while lying on the sofa could threaten our mental status quo.

An original thought might, for example, alienate us from what people around us think of as normal. Or it might herald a realisation that we’ve been pursuing the wrong approach to an important issue in our lives, perhaps for a long time. If we took a given new idea seriously, we might have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, ditch a friend, apologise to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.

But a period of quiet thinking in our room creates an occasion when the mind can order and understand itself. Fears, resentments and hopes become easier to name; we grow less scared of the contents of our own minds — and less resentful, calmer and clearer about our direction. We start, in faltering steps, to know ourselves slightly better.

We should think it almost as prestigious to sit at home and reflect on a trip we once took to an island as to trek to the island with our cumbersome bodies.

Another thing we can do in our own rooms is to return to travels we have already taken. This is not a fashionable idea. Most of the time, we are given powerful encouragement to engineer new kinds of travel experiences. The idea of making a big deal of revisiting a journey in memory sounds a little strange — or simply sad. This is an enormous pity. We are careless curators of our own pasts. We push the important scenes that have happened to us to the back of the cupboard of our minds and don’t expect to see them ever again.

But what if we were to alter the hierarchy of prestige a little and argue that regular immersion in our travel memories could be a critical part of what can sustain and console us — and, not least, is perhaps the cheapest and most flexible form of entertainment. We should think it almost as prestigious to sit at home and reflect on a trip we once took to an island with our imaginations, as to trek to the island with our cumbersome bodies.

In our neglect of our memories, we are spoilt children, who squeeze only a portion of the pleasure from experiences and then toss them aside to seek fresh thrills. Part of why we feel the need for so many new experiences may simply be that we are so bad at absorbing the ones we have had.

To help us focus more on our memories, we need nothing technical. We certainly don’t need a camera. There is one in our minds already: it is always on, it takes in everything we’ve ever seen. Huge chunks of experience are still there in our heads, intact and vivid, just waiting for us to ask ourselves leading questions, such as: “Where did we go after we landed?” or “What was the first breakfast like?” Our experiences have not disappeared, just because they are no longer unfolding right in front of our eyes. We can remain in touch with so much of what made them pleasurable simply through the art of evocation.

The French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal © Alamy

We talk endlessly of virtual reality. Yet we don’t need gadgets. We have the finest virtual reality machines already in our own heads. We can — right now — shut our eyes and travel into, and linger among, the very best and most consoling and life-enhancing bits of our pasts.

We tend to travel because of a background belief that, of course, the reality of a scene must be nicer than a mental image we form of it at home. But there is something about the way our minds work that we would do well to study when we regret our inability to go anywhere. There will always be something else that obscures that beautiful destination scene, something so tricky and oppressive as to somewhat undermine the purpose of having left home in the first place, namely: ourselves. We have no choice but to bring ourselves along to every destination we ever want to enjoy. And that means bringing along so much of the mental baggage that makes being us so intolerably problematic day to day: all the anxiety, regret, confusion, guilt, irritability and despair.

None of this smear of the self is there when we picture a trip from home for a few minutes. In the imagination, we can enjoy unsullied views. But there, at the foot of the golden temple or high up on the pine-covered mountain, we stand to find that there is so much of “us” intruding on our vistas.

There’s a tragicomic irony at work: the vast labour of getting ourselves physically to a place won’t necessarily bring us any closer to the essence of what we seek. As we should remind ourselves, we may already enjoy the very best that any place has to offer us simply by thinking about it.

Let’s turn to another Frenchman with a comparable underlying philosophy. In the spring of 1790, a 27-year-old writer called Xavier de Maistre locked himself at home and decided to study the wonders and beauty of what lay closest to him, entitling the account of what he had seen A Journey Around My Room.

The book is a charming shaggy-dog story. De Maistre shuts his door and changes into a pair of pink-and-blue pyjamas. Without needing to pack a suitcase, he “travels” to the sofa, which he looks at through fresh eyes and appreciates anew. He admires its elegant feet and remembers the pleasant hours he has spent among its cushions, dreaming of professional success and love.

Next, de Maistre spots his bed. Using a traveller’s perspective, he also learns to value this piece of furniture. He feels gratitude for the agreeable nights he has passed in it and takes pride that his sheets almost match his pyjamas. “I advise every man who can to get himself pink-and-white bed linen,” he writes, for these are colours to induce calm and pleasant reveries in the fragile sleeper.

A 1926 edition of de Maistre's book; it was originally published in 1794

De Maistre in later life © Alamy

However playful, de Maistre’s work is inspired by a profound insight: that the pleasure we find in new places is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination. If only we could apply a similar mindset to our own rooms and immediate neighbourhoods, we might find these places becoming no less fascinating than foreign lands.

So, what is the traveller’s mindset? Receptivity, appreciation and gratitude might be its chief characteristics. And, crucially, this mindset doesn’t need to wait for a faraway journey to be deployed.

A walk is the smallest sort of journey we can ever undertake. It stands in relation to a typical holiday as a bonsai tree does to a forest. But even if it is only an eight-minute interlude around the block or a few moments in a nearby park, a walk is already a journey in which many of the grander themes of travel are present.

An illustration from 'A Journey Around My Room'

We might, on such a walk, catch sight of a flower. It is extremely rare properly to delight in flowers when one can at any point take off to another continent. There are so many larger, grander things to be concerned about than these small, delicately sculpted manifestations of nature. However, it is unusual to be left entirely indifferent by flowers when the world has narrowed dramatically and there is global sadness in the air. Flowers no longer seem like a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, but a genuine pleasure amid a litany of troubles, a small resting place for hope in a sea of difficulties.

Or we might, on a local walk, spot a small animal: a duck or a hedgehog. Its life goes on utterly oblivious to ours. It is entirely devoted to its own purposes. The habits of its species have not changed for centuries. We may be looking intently at it but it feels not the slightest curiosity about who we are; from its point of view, we are absorbed into the immense blankness of unknowable things. A duck will take a piece of bread as gladly from a criminal as from a high-court judge, from a billionaire as from a bankrupt felon; our individuality is suspended and, on certain days, that may be an enormous relief.

On our walk around the block, themes we’d lost touch with — childhood, an odd dream we’ve had, a friend we haven’t seen for years, a big task we had always told ourselves we’d undertake — float into attention. In physical terms, we’re hardly going any distance at all, but we’re crossing acres of mental territory.

A short while later, we’re back at home once again. No one has missed us, or perhaps even noticed we’ve been out. Yet we are subtly different: a slightly more complete, more visionary, courageous and imaginative version of the person we knew how to be before we wisely went out on a modest journey.

We will — one day — recover our freedoms. The world will be ours to roam in once more. But during our collective confinements, aside from the obvious inconveniences, we might come to cherish some of what is granted to us when we lose our customary liberties. It cannot be a coincidence that many of the world’s greatest thinkers have spent unusual amounts of time alone in their rooms. Silence gives us an opportunity to appreciate a great deal of what we generally see without properly noticing; and to understand what we have felt but not yet adequately processed.

We have at present not only been locked away; we have also been granted the privilege of being able to travel around a range of unfamiliar, sometimes daunting but essentially wondrous inner continents.

Alain de Botton is the author of books including The Art of Travel (2002) and most recently The School of Life (both Hamish Hamilton)

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