We engage with the world so vividly that it’s hard to put it into words. It moves us. We get angry, we scream, we cry, we get happy, sad, indifferent, euphoric, and a whole range of feelings. It shapes us and makes us who we are. Experiences mold us. They determine what we will expect or how to make sense of new situations.
This line of thought makes me wonder what we really know about experience. I mean, yes, if you are reading this, you are breathing and as I’m doing this, I exist. But, how do we engage with the world? I can’t help to think of my body that lets me write this, the glass of water that I’m drinking, and the music that I’m listening to while I’m writing this essay. I can’t help but think of all the things that have led me to write this. But there is so much to this. I’m writing ideas that seem true to me, true like I’m describing the palm of my hand. And although I have mentioned some of the material objects near me, I don’t really think about them while I’m writing. And in the same way, you are not thinking about the device you are using to read this, up until I mentioned it.
In other words, we engage with the world in a way that makes objects fade. Ironically, they give rise to our experience. It’s bizarre and non-intuitive. Think for a second about the clothes that you are wearing. They give you comfort, but they exist in the background until something unexpected happens or someone (in this case, me) points it out and you become aware of them. And at some point during this essay, you’ll forget about it again.
I don’t know why I can’t seem to ignore these ordinary life events.
Take for example a great musician performing. Even though they might be in a concert hall surrounded by other people, they are suddenly self-absorbed by the music they are performing. They become immersed in that moment. But if the instrument were to break down or a rash noise would distract them, they would become aware of where they are and would be swayed away from that experience and what they were feeling.
Our engagement with the world seems to be ironic but it has some logic. Right? We engage in a world in which all events are ordered in an objective sequence, we call this time. A world which we can interact with and thus it exists outside ourselves, we call this one, space. One which may have many other dimensions but at the very least, is a material world. Although we can’t apprehend it in its totality, each of us has a particular way to engage with it. Not only because our bodies are different, but also because of our mental make up and experiences throughout our lives.
But then again, we share these little quirks of life. We experience the world in levels of engagement. We can immerse ourselves. We can be aware of and connect in many different ways. But we can only imagine a limited amount of experiences in any given setting. And we can only grasp certain kinds of experiences.
Continuing the example of the musician, at some point during the presentation, they are giving everything they have on stage and become immersed in their art. It might be for a couple of fleeting moments, but they’ll experience an incredible sensation by performing. They can connect with other musicians, with the audience, with themselves, and their instruments, etc. But they are performing in that concert hall because they have chosen to nurture this experience over many other choices they had. They did so because their parents encouraged them, or of their own will, or a little of both. But all of these are only due to the development of the musical instrument, our aptitude as a species of being drawn to musical sounds, that we value and gather in groups to play and listen to music, and also thanks to the historical advances to produce such an instrument, the availability of the materials that it was created from, etc.
By the same token, we can think of any experience. A walk in the park, a moment of silence, when we cook, or even reading this text.
In perspective, it kind of makes you realize how absurd all our experiences are. From the apparent arbitrariness of being able to see, feel, hear, smell, touch, think, and engage with reality the way we do. Not only because it’s true to our own experience but also because they have become embedded in customs and rituals and therefore on the way we see the world depending on which culture we grew up in. This idea can be overwhelmingly weird and anxiety producing. To think back of all the chaotic series of events that has led up to this point.
Or perhaps it’s just me when I think of how we discover underwater oil reserves. If you didn’t know, we continuously blast the ocean to map the areas where oil and gas are located. These loud noises allow us to create a three-dimensional map but to do it effectively we blast every 10 seconds the ocean floor with it. This extremely noisy environment kills two thirds of the zooplankton along the line and it also interrupts the social life of whales, orcas, dolphins and many other species for months.
There is something really disturbing in the way we take this for granted and can even consider it normal or just the way things are. I confess, I sometimes lose my temper thinking about this absurdity. But it can also free us.
If the experiences that we have are absurd in nature, to some degree, then why overthink doing something we want? Social and historical conventions. Right? Wanting to go naked to the supermarket would be a strange experience and even a dangerous one. But perhaps not all experiences transgress our conventions and could greatly open our world to new and life-enjoying moments.
I’m not suggesting that we should normalize going naked to the supermarket, but I have to be realistic. There are experiences that will be constrained by our social world. Some of them must and can be challenged. And some are futile, because, well… we live in society. They could take time and a lot of effort, but we can come together and open up the world for other kinds of experiences.
And then again, there are other experiences that are available to us that don’t transgress our legal conventions. But we don’t let ourselves engage with them because they transgress other conventions. Like not wanting to sing karaoke because we are embarrassed of how we might sound. Or not taking off your shirt at the beach because you don’t feel comfortable showing your body, due to absurd beauty standards. I have had both of those experiences, the former has almost been completely tamed, but the latter is still an ongoing battle.
Thinking about how absurd everything is, has definitely helped me. The habit of assessing what’s going on and why I give so much weight on those things that block me from enjoying life. After a while they just keep getting more trivial. It’s a process to connect with the kind of life I want. Not conforming to the opinions of others, but rather feeling more at home with my world.
Though, it’s not just embarrassing experiences. It’s everything. I constantly caught myself absent. Mindlessly walking to a place. I do this stupid habit, where I ask myself: “where are you?” And with just one question, it changes my experience. It slows me down. It connects me. It makes me pay attention. See the trees. Feel the wind. Listen. There was no reason to rush. No reason at all.
A similar thing happens while I eat. I don’t like to have a screen around. Eating without my phone or computer creates a different experience. I seem to appreciate and enjoy the food even more. I’m not figuring out which movie to play, or what is this character saying, or why has the streaming slowed down. Instead, I’m enjoying the fresh aroma of basil, the flavorful spaghetti, the crunchiness of the garlic bread, and a delicious wine. Or even just a simple peanut butter sandwich.
We have a tendency to forget our most immediate experience. I don’t mean what we think or feel but rather our immediate bodily experience. We sit for hours in a position that ultimately doesn’t do us any good. We pay the minimum attention to our surroundings when we walk. And the rest of it we use it to think about future or past events, like… regurgitating what we said in a conversation or thinking about the things we need to do.
Those things aren’t inherently bad. But, when our default mode of experiencing the world is governed by a lack of attention to our immediate present then I think it is necessary to question it. I mean, do we really want to engage with the world in such a way? Why is it so difficult to maintain our attention? How do we feel when we are in the present? How would our life be if we could switch our default mode of experience?
Imagine always being absorbed. The complexity of our environment demands that we engage with the world in different ways. We wouldn’t be able to survive a modern city and its traffic, let alone being a defenseless animal in a highly aggressive and dangerous jungle.
We have to be able to experience life on a spectrum, or else we wouldn’t be here. But our current society has chosen to value the objects more than what they give rise to. We’ve chosen to value what others think about us instead of choosing what we value.
Life is lived in the present. For as we can’t do anything about the past and the future is about to happen. And yet. At that moment. We can choose how we want to engage. Being absorbed is the most gratifying of those ways. But we normally choose or we are conditioned to value the least meaningful. The one that lives in the background. Or even worse. We ostracize ourselves. We choose not to open up to the kind of experiences we want in life.
One life. That’s all we got. How come we don’t learn about the ways we engage with the world? We talk about chasing experiences when we think of leisure and even then, most people just pull out their phones, take a picture and barely enjoy the place they are in.
There has to be a different way of looking at the world. We exist. Not as objects but as living creatures. We engage in this space-time dimension every second of our lives. Yet we don’t think about our life in that way. We chase things, status, recognition, and other people. It permeates our life, family, relationships, jobs, entertainment, and society.
I hope this message gets through as I feel it. I hope next time you do something, for a fleeting moment, you’ll remember to think about how you are engaging with your world. That you are able to see the absurdity of being able to experience this in the first place. That you can calmly contemplate it. Feel it. Pursue it and immerse yourself in it. Or withdraw yourself from it and switch to a different experience. Perhaps one that you have been neglecting or one that you haven’t thought of because you always do the same thing without hesitation.
Thanks to Leo Arias & Matt Perez for reading this essay and catching my horrible typos. :)