I attended the firework display at Alton Towers last November and it was utterly fabulous. While we stood experiencing it in all its glory I became aware that there was a child standing in front of us filming it on a phone. The child was about 10-years old I would think and was on his own and so I assume had been sent forward by his party to record the spectacle for later viewing. He stood for the whole display like this and watched what was unfolding via the image on the phone screen. The sight of this boy engrossed in his filming activity upset me and made me feel sad but only when reflecting on it later did I understand why and now I use this realisation to illustrate a point I make on every 'Introduction to Mindfulness' Workshop I run.
It upset me because I realised that, in trying to capture the spectacle of the fireworks on the phone the boy was not fully present and so in a way was missing it. He was trying to capture something that cannot be captured, to hold onto something that cannot be held on to. And in doing so he was not fully present to the actual experience. And how often in our lives is this the case? That we are not fully present to experience because we are trying to 'do' more than one thing at once or because we are on auto-pilot because we are so busy engaging with our thoughts instead of actually attending to whatever aspect of our life is unfolding in front of us.
A mobile phone is not an adequate medium for capturing the magnificence of a firework display. What you capture of the sights and sounds will only be a pale reflection of the actual event. You will show it to your friends and family and they will likely give it a quick glance and make some sign of appreciating it but without having been there they cannot possibly appreciate the strength of the colors, the sounds of the fireworks, the reflections on the lake, the excitement in the air that night and the particular smell that fireworks on a cold evening make that is so evocative and takes you right back to the bonfire displays of your childhood.
This makes me think of Buddhist teachings about attachment and impermanence:
"Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering." - The Dalai Lama
"It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not." -
Thich Nhat Hanh
In essence the child was tying to capture something that could not be caught. To make permanent something that was impermanent. And that is what made me feel sad. Also because of the fact that I think, and I could be wrong of course, that he must have missed out on experiencing the firework display fully. The phone is not an adequate medium for capturing the experience and indeed the thing cannot be captured. But it can be fully experienced moment by moment and we have always had the perfect medium for experiencing such things - our remarkable bodies. I am blessed with full sensory processing abilities and I am profoundly grateful for that. I could see the colours that evening at Alton Towers, smell the smells, here the sounds and detect the excitement, the anticipation and the energy all around us.
Mindfulness is about developing our capacity for awareness. Awareness of what is actually here right now in this moment. Our thinking minds have a fantastic ability to recall the past and to think about and plan for the future. But if we do not develop the ability to be fully present then we will live much of our lives in a state of 'autopilot' and that will mean a life half-lived. And yes it is lovely to have photographs and videos to remind ourselves of things that happened but surely not at the expense of not actually being fully present?
If you are as old as me you will not have had a mobile phone as a child, something that my children find amazing. But I am increasingly grateful for that. I found it hard enough to get the attention of my busy, hardworking parents as it was without having to compete with Facebook and Sky News alerts. And no-one would have ever asked me to do anything on bonfire night other than to just stand there and to see, feel, hear, smell and taste the whole fabulous experience.