It’s one of life’s best highs. That certain freshness you find only in new experiences. Getting off the plane in a new country, settling back as the lights dim before the movie starts, driving your new car off the lot.
Of course, it soon goes stale. We’ve all had the experience of excitedly tearing the gift wrapping off a new toy, only to be bored with it a week later. Even adults do this.
Why is it only that good when it’s new? And is there any way of finding that freshness in something that isn’t brand new?
I’ve discovered a few ways, but the one I’m about to share is especially interesting. I had a sudden, bizarre experience one night while I was a dinner guest, and it left me with a profound sense of appreciation that has stuck with me since.
I was sitting down to dinner with my mother and grandma, watching my hand as it speared chunks of potato and romaine salad with my fork, when I had a strange sensation. I was struck by the uncanny feeling that I had not really been there before that moment.
It was as if I had just been dumped there, into that moment, into those clothes, into that seat, into that unique but otherwise unmemorable moment in some 28-year-old man’s life. After I had a second to think, I noticed that the moment came complete with a rich assortment of memories, relationships, knowledge and privileges. It felt like the universe had just rebooted, and that dinner scene was where I found myself when the picture returned to the screen.
I discovered I was in a warm dining room styled in beige and ebony, with two fascinating people and a very colorful plateful of food in front of me. The women, whom I seemed to recognize as my mother and her mother, were in the middle of a dialogue about applesauce.
I had very strong senses of visitation and privilege, as if I was actually a long-dead soul who’d been given a precious chance to taste the richness of life again, but perhaps only for a few moments. To witness, with all five senses, the stunning array of colors on my plate, the indescribable tastes in my mouth, and the warm voices and vivid stories of the two ladies sitting with me. I was still a bit bewildered, but I knew intuitively that to squander that moment would be a crime. I looked and listened, and couldn’t help but smile. It was 100% fresh.
Where I was before that moment, I don’t know. But it wasn’t in that room. It made me think about how short a human life is compared to the vast stretches of time that come before and after it. Each of us is only granted a relatively tiny window of about 0 to 100 years, through which we’re endowed with the precious gift of experience. As for the two oceans of time that bookend a life, nobody really knows what they are like, but it seems fairly certain that they do not contain the same richness of experience that we have at our fingertips in every single moment we are alive.
I have since noticed that I can usually cultivate that feeling at will. I can look at any moment as if I’ve just been dropped here, wherever I happen to be at that moment. The most immediate effect is that my focus shifts from what I’m thinking to what I’m experiencing. The limitless detail of the moment’s spectacle and ambiance silences my incessant mental dialogue. Any feeling of annoyance or preoccupation simply evaporates.
Of course, the details of the moment will always have an air of familiarity. If I paused to think, I could remember buying the shirt I was wearing, I could remember driving to my mom’s house, I could even remember when my parents bought the house.
Pretty much any detail has an explanation if you look for it in your head. But those explanations aren’t a part of the detail, they’re a part of some associated memory or thought in your head.
The detail doesn’t need your thought. The thought just reduces it into something featureless and forgettable. It really pays to stay with the sensory details, and as a rule, honor them above any thoughts you have about those details, for a few reasons.
First off, the explanations the head gives are dull. They’re just dead facsimiles of the real deal, the experience itself. Remembering what a strawberry is like is no substitute for eating one. If you’re not careful, your thoughts and memories will attempt to stand in for your experiences, convincing you that you’ve seen this all before, there is really nothing special here. What a mistake! A memory — or worse, a prediction – is not an experience, not even close. Instead of seeing the world you only see your own tired thoughts and memories.
Secondly, by resigning to the sensory experience itself, rather than thought, you can retain the sense of wonder and abundance that is there in each moment. Most of the time, our perpetual thinking and judging washes over the details of our moments, because thought is linear and likes to be in the foreground. Useless preoccupations from one moment continue into the next, and the bulk of the details are missed.
Under this normal state of perpetual thinking, the real, tangible qualities of normal moments only become apparent when one of them is audacious enough to steal your attention away from the chattering mind: a sudden loud noise, an indignant remark, or a spot of salad dressing on your cuff.
Because it’s these unpleasant experiences that are most efficient at catching our attention, the thoughts-first habit makes life appear to consist mostly of moments that are either unpleasant or boring. Out of habit, we ignore the perfectly good stuff under the pretense that it is nothing new or notable.
But to ‘drop in’ to the moment breaks this aimless thinking and reminds us how much more interesting experience is than thinking, and how it is always new. The reason is simple: thought is what’s already in us, and sensory experience is what is not. I’d rather actually see the world than re-experience the same stale thought loops in my head. It is only thoughts that repeat themselves. Experiences do not, unless you are overlooking the details.
So, to renew that freshness, it makes sense to treat each moment as if you’ve just dropped into it from somewhere else. And that ‘somewhere else’ — whether you think of it as death, nothingness, outer space, or some warm, black void – certainly does not offer anything close to the vast palette of sensations and possibilities of a real, living moment.
When you really think about it, you don’t even have to pretend you weren’t here before this moment. If you were indeed ‘dropped in’ like I described, you’d never know it, because you’d come equipped with memories that give you a believable backstory. Those memories wouldn’t have been here before this moment either. No, there is no need to pretend. You might as well act as though it were true.
Imagine if it were: every thing you see is truly brand new, ripe for discovery. Maybe it is.
Something amazing happens when you compare the gift of experience – to which we have full access, in every instant our whole lives – to the stark notion of no experience at all. Death. Nothingness. Often we need that contrast to recognize life for the fleeting miracle it is.
The sentiment that “every moment is a gift” is so well-worn that it has become a sterile cliché. In fact, we’re so used to being alive that we often want to escape from it. But when we view our moments as fresh, brief treasures, suddenly they feel quite precious indeed. If you’d been existing forever in a place of no experience, how glorious would it feel just to sit down in an armchair, pull on some flannel pyjamas, or drink a cold beer on the porch? It can all be like that.
The only thing you need to remember in order to stave off the staleness is that experiences outrank thoughts. Thoughts are already in you; they’re old news. Experiences are what we live for. Worship what your senses have to say, and take the mind’s commentary with a grain of salt.
Imagine you’ve spent the last ten million years in a formless, detail-less void, with no way to see, taste, or touch anything. But luckily you’ve won some sort of cosmic lottery and your prize is to be plucked from that void and dropped into a real, breathing moment. Real warmth on your skin, real breath in your lungs, real people speaking, real music, real trees.
…aaaand thunk! There you are in this chair, in this room.
Look around. Wherever you are right now, know that you’ve just been dropped into this moment, having been previously sequestered from life and existence. Any notion you have of your past is just a story. Believe that story if you want (I suggest tossing it) but what happens here doesn’t depend on it.
The important thing to know is that you’ve been given another chance to really experience life. Right now.
Look down and you’ll see you’ve been assigned a physical body, which is under your control, along with the miraculous faculties of sight, hearing, touch and more. Maybe it can’t do everything, but can do a hell of a lot.
You are surrounded by tools, clothing, supplies, friends and allies to employ as you see fit. There are no goals, other than what you decide. There are no obligations, other than what you find to be in your best interest.
You have never been here before. Welcome to the playground.
Photo by Ka