How to Have Better Experiences, ft. Mona Lisa

Monalisa-Louvre-Museum-Paris-France-8.jpgImage from Keep Calm and Wander

A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I spent the morning touring the Louvre museum in the elegant city of Paris. The museum holds a vast collection of beautiful, illustrious pieces of art, and a portion of history so rich that one feels as though they’ve taken a ride with a loony whitewashed scientist in a DeLorean.

The museum’s most illustrious piece is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for which the halls of the establishment are peppered with sign posts. As we sauntered ever closer to the famous painting, it became increasingly difficult to swing one’s arms in a casual fashion, and we found ourselves assuming a penguin-like waddle. We finally reached the section in which it was housed, packed to the rafters, to discover that we couldn’t see the painting because the view was almost entirely blocked out by arms and mobile phones.

It’s astonishing to think that the vast majority of the museum-goers standing in front of the Mona Lisa weren’t using their god-given eyeballs to look at it, but instead believed it more important to look at it through the lens of their smartphone’s camera, because heaven forbid they’d miss the opportunity to take a picture of a famous picture. Many of us have become so detached from our own senses, and so obsessed with modern technology, that we’re abandoning the opportunity to actually experience the marvels that are in front of us. A smartphone camera is no substitute for a fortuitously-evolved pair of eyes, with capabilities to distinguish the tiniest, delightful details within a painting. Neither does it house a curious brain, the ponderous stirrings of which add fresh colour and satisfaction to an art-viewing experience. It just takes a crappy, distanced picture, which can be trounced by thousands of professional pictures on the internet, and is probably going to be glanced at a couple of times before never being looked at again. Meanwhile, the time that should have been spent examining the picture and appreciating its beauty has been lost.

In another section of the museum, we witnessed a middle-aged Asian lady frantically dashing across the hall, taking a picture of a painting before darting to the next one. She seemed genuinely stressed about this arduous task, as though missing a painting would result in her beheading upon reaching the museum’s exit. It was hilarious to witness, but really quite depressing. She was so desperate to capture her experiences that she failed to experience them. This is like visiting one of Paris’ mouth-watering restaurants, taking a picture of the menu and then leaving. All she seemed to want was a record of the moment; a far-cry from the magnificence of the real thing.

This behaviour isn’t limited to museums. The digital age finds us consistently immersed in a hypnotising world of bits and bytes, at the expense of just experiencing the exquisite world around us. Our phones cannot tell us what the local park smells like after a long-awaited rainfall, or convey the sweet crispness that permeates the air. They’ll fail to transmit to us the feeling that emerges when looking up at the magnificent dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a heavenly beam of light illuminating the exquisite carvings below. A digital recording of your child’s first steps, in which your eyes are fixed onto a small screen to make sure you’re getting the perfect shot, is a dismal travesty.

The only way to fully experience these things is to put our devices away and pay attention. It makes no difference how many pixels our cameras can capture, or how high the frame-rate of our video, when our attention is focused on recording the event instead of experiencing it; so anxious to freeze the moment in time that we’re relinquishing what’s valuable about it – the experience itself. This might be considered a kind of meta-existence, in which we’re stepping outside of the real world in order to capture and record information about it. This reality seems unbelievably perverse, and yet, so many of us exist in this way, unaware that we’ve become record-keeping spectators in our own lives.

Our only hope is to resist our unrelenting desire to capture our experiences, relinquish the absurd virtual likes that we’re addicted to, and look a little closer at the world around us. Our lives are enriched through mindful attention, and impoverished through obsessive record-keeping. Our blessed senses open up a world of marvels, which can only be properly appreciated by paying attention. How can one even consider prioritising a virtual Facebook like over the sensual delights of the Niagara Falls? Or witnessing an American bald eagle soaring above your head, instead of fumbling to open your camera app?

The Mona Lisa is ruined when viewed through a digital screen. If Da Vinci painted her in our time, one might argue that her half-smile is one of mocking condescension, in response to the knowledge that most of her audience are living a hollow, ghost-like meta-existence. You never know – if we put away our cursed phones, her smile might broaden into something wondrous to behold.

Turn up the brightness in your life by silencing your judge

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The gavel – that little polished hardwood hammer that fits most snugly in the judge’s hand – is something that we all love to use. Each occurrence in our lives is judged to be good, bad, or neutral, with an unforgiving and decisive smash on the block.

Judging our experiences is natural behaviour that has allowed us to endure through the ages, from the tiniest, inconsequential sea-dwelling microbes, to the complex Earth-ruling creatures that we are today. Judgment proffered us with the motivation to get the fuck out of the way when a rhino was charging at us, or to tip-toe towards the cave of an attractive, hairy neighbour. Without this evaluating force we’d be aimless wanderers, with nothing to entice us; zombies without a cause.

Our tendency to assess is a crucial force in our lives, but we’ve become overly partial to it, and perhaps a bit cocky. Our dynamic, businesslike brains can rapidly evaluate our desire or aversion towards something, and yet, the conclusions that we make aren’t always in our best interests. Watching a cricket match for six hours might seem like a hell designed just for you, and that’ll be a permanent assessment unless you approach it with a more receptive, open attitude. There’s nothing wrong with giving something a chance – let’s not pretend that you’re a high-flying socialite with a calendar busier than a hoard of spring bees. Your judgments aren’t infallible, and you could be missing out on a great deal of joy.

Judgment colours your experience, creating distortion before its even begun. Declaring that something is bad is like tarnishing it with hideous black paint – the encounter is bound to be ruined. Judgment often creates a self fulfilling prophecy; a miserable destiny authored by yourself.

Nothing in this world is inherently good or bad, we just label them so. A monstrous category five hurricane that hurtles towards an innocent American town isn’t fundamentally evil, just as the rains that make a poor farmer’s crops grow cannot be considered fundamentally good. This is Mother Nature at work, exhibiting her ruthless indifference towards our species. But these are extreme examples – less drastic occurrences happen to us a thousand times a day, with each one painted as good, bad, or neutral.

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet

Our incessant verdicts can cause us a great deal of stress. Relinquishing our judgment of “bad” offers us an escape route to a more peaceful mind, one in which our experiences aren’t automatically corrupted by bad habits.

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus

This is not to say that judgment can be permanently suspended, we still need it to survive. It’d be foolish to defer the assessment of an articulated lorry that is charging in our direction. Similarly, our sense of morality is pinged upon the ability to discern right from wrong; good and bad. Most of our deductions, however, are much more trivial, and their cessation can offer us serenity.

Non-judgment means you don’t have to make an evaluation of every experience, you can simply be aware. This state of mind can be delightfully tranquil, in which usually threatening events are stripped of their danger, encouraging us to pay close attention instead of turning our backs. We experience things just as they are, not how we’ve assumed them to be. Non-judgment is a way to see the world clearly, like getting a pair of spectacles after having blurred vision for years. Suddenly, a sharpened focus is attained, in which a thousand details that we’ve never noticed – that we were too judgmental to notice – are presented to us in dazzling fashion. Withholding our interminable judgments turns up the brightness in our lives.

“I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

How do you practice non-judgment? Much of it is about being mindful, which can be improved through meditation – a habit with so many benefits as to seem like snake oil. It requires no equipment or skill, just a dogged determination, and patience.

If the thought of sitting still for prolonged periods makes you want to start uppercutting people, you might consider trying the following instead:

  1. Notice when you’re judging. Pay attention to what happens in your body and mind.
  2. Recognize your thoughts without denouncing them as bad or good. Suspend your judgment.

We’re never going to stop smashing the gavel entirely, and nor should we – it’s essential for our survival. But we can train ourselves to use it less frequently by practising non-judgment, and in the process, our minds can attain a serenity in which we’ll live our lives with less friction, and greater contentment.