Got any vacation plans? Got a house on the beach for a week – or every weekend? Gonna splash in ocean or in a pool with a view of the ocean or in a pool on a boat on the ocean? Gonna fly over the ocean, go somewhere far and exotic or go home? Gonna drive, camp, eat road food, visit Graceland?
It sounds great. Just do me a favor – don’t bring me anything. Don’t send me postcards, don’t post photos on Facebook before you get back, don’t bring me souvenirs, not even salt water taffy.
Just go there. And be there.
And then come home.
Don’t take pictures of the sunset; you’ll miss seeing an amazing display of how the quality of light changes in a nanosecond with your own eyes. Don’t take videos of the kids frolicking in the waves – get in there and frolic yourself. Let your souvenirs be the memory of how your skin feels when it tightens as the salt water dries. The cold shock of the Atlantic. The seal that you were the first one to spot out beyond the waves – because you were just sitting, just looking, just seeing what there is to see.
As Buddhists we value direct experience, which is what happens when we’re able to relax enough and trust enough in our own buddha nature to be with what is happening RIGHT NOW without defining, categorizing, or narrating it.
In “One City: A Declaration of Interdependence” (now available in e-book format), IDP founder Ethan Nichtern writes: “For most of us, our connection with direct experience is tenuous at best.” When we have only “an off-and-on love affair with reality,” he says, we fill in the gaps with assumptions, untested theories applied with a broad brush. And we all know what happens when we assume …
“When we start to assure ourselves that our assumptions definitely depict the truth … all we end up experiencing is the indirect idea of things,” Nichtern writes.
Our culture, however, seems to prefer proof that we were in the vicinity of a great experience: the star’s autograph, the sunset photo, the souvenir T-shirt. When my kids were small, I was always confused by parents who would watch an entire performance through the lens of a video camera. Having taken videos of my kids, I know that what you see through the viewfinder is not the same as what you see when you put down the camera and lean forward, with complete presence, to watch them sing, “I’m a Little Teapot.” You can’t go back and watch a felt memory or share it with distant relatives, but you will always have that feeling of pride, amusement, and wonder – and it will come back at the oddest times. As you’re looking at their latest piercing or debating the construct of gender with them, say.
The last time I was in Paris – far too long ago – we went to the Musee D’Orsay, which had a number of Van Gogh paintings, including some of the most famous ones, the ones made into flat posters that had adorned innumerable dorm rooms. When experienced directly, they are stunning – mad swirls of layers of paint, vibrating colors, energy that leaps from the canvas.
As I looked awestruck at Van Gogh’s irises, dozens of tourists walked up, took a picture, and moved on, never seeing the paintings except through the camera lens. I was baffled (and angry). Why come here, I ranted to my family, who had not taken any photos. Why bother trekking up the stairs and seeking out the paintings? Why not just buy postcards in the gift shop and hop back on the Bateaubus?
You couldn’t even see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre because of the cameras people held high over their heads to get photos of the painting.
What’s wrong with this picture?
We’re so intent on holding on to our experiences that we don’t bother to experience them. We see the sights through a camera lens. We spend hours in the gift shop (because we must exit through it, as Disney and Banksy taught us) picking out items to remind us of where we’ve been. But it’s so much better to just let the unmediated experience bake into our bones so that the experience becomes a part of us rather than an album on Photobucket or Snapfish.
So don’t send me postcards or emails or post photos on Facebook. Experience your experience. When we meet again, you’ll show me the beautiful sunset in the quality of the light in your eyes. And the light in me will bow to that light in you and we’ll smile, connected in our knowledge of the wonders the world holds.
And we won’t lose any fillings to the salt water taffy.