When I was in Sedona, AZ, about a year ago, I was reminded of an interview I read with travel journalist and chef Anthony Bourdain. He said that he no longer takes photographs when he travels, as he is inevitably disappointed by how poorly they capture his experience. I had been treated to a stay at an incredible spa nestled in the floor of a spectacular, red rock canyon, surrounded by parkland. In a freak meteorological event, it had turned cold and damp and rainy in late May and we’d been tucked into the relaxed loveliness of the spa. I was really dying to get out and walk the canyon though, and finally we woke to brilliant, clear weather.
I grabbed my boots and my camera and wandered down the center of the canyon, entranced with the color and light of the desert morning. I constantly stopped to look around, breathless with the power of rocks towering over my head, and each time I lifted my camera to my face in an attempt to capture the view. I’d move a bit further on and stop to catch the next angle, the next formation. Every part of me was so full of amazement at this place; I could easily see these rocks as beneficent gods, standing watch over my puny humanness. I needed to catch this place, and bring it back with me.
All of a sudden I realized I was spending so much of my time and attention trying to put this place in my pocket that I was not permitting myself to fully BE there – right now – and to develop the kind of complete, rich and intimate relationship with the experience that would be more useful in remembering the experience than any photograph I might take would be.
This leads me to another story of being in a beautiful and deeply moving place. I was going to British Columbia for the first time to begin my instructor training. It was a bit of a Planes, Trains & Automobiles sort of trip; two plane trips, a tram and a taxi ride had gotten me to the ferry landing within a barely comfortable window to get on the boat. Once on the boat, I headed right for the dining area to eat my first meal in many, many hours.
Emerging from the interior, I stepped into the most profoundly beautiful panorama I could never have imagined. There we were, crossing this spectacularly beautiful bay of crystal blue water, from which mountains sprang, covered in richest green. The sea air blew gently across my face; waves lapped the boat. What did I do? Burst into tears. Why? Because I was already anticipating having to leave.
Now, you must understand; I was going to be there close to two weeks. I was not going home the next day. Still, I was overcome with a sense of loss. I soon snapped to, breathed and enjoyed the rest of the ferry ride.
The common thread in these stories is how we create stress, or dukkha, for ourselves in even the most fortunate of situations. Stressful situations – anger, fear, annoyance, sadness – all can threaten our state of equanimity, our ability to be present, and our responses of aversion and attachment. These situations are quite readily recognized, as their general lack of social appropriateness and the sense of discomfort they produce are reminders to return to a more balanced state of mind.
It is equally possible to become unbalanced when caught up in a moment of joy, elation or delight, but the euphoria of the moment screens us from the imbalance and suffering it creates. Being so enthralled by our circumstances that we fear their loss evokes an attachment to them, and an aversion to losing them, that brings distress. Trying to hold on to what we have in the moment, takes us into a state of worry, preventing us from being present.
Failing to be mindfully present due to anticipation of future events prevents us from enjoying what is right in front of us. Being right there with your experience as entirely as possible, understanding, but not fearing, its transient nature is a path to peace.