documentation vs. experience

I have just recently returned from a week and a half trip to Italy. My family and I were traveling together recreationally, spending a few days in Rome and a week in Tuscany. The trip was filled with dusty walks in search of wildflowers, museums filled with Renaissance art, and plate after plate of sinfully delicious nourishment. Throughout all of these experiences, I felt the same pang of responsibility: shouldn't I be documenting this?

After seeing the amounts of journals, DSLRs and selfie-sticks at the Colosseum, I knew I wasn’t the only one facing the urge to archive. Tourist attractions are prime locations to witness fellow humans using technology in order to capture the moment. Restaurants too. As a food and travel journalist, I am inclined to snag a photograph of a fantastic table spread, or write down that moment where the wind catches the honeysuckles just right. But in Italy, some experiences made me feel so alive that I couldn’t bear to remove myself. I wanted to walk without the weight of my camera. 

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau tackles a similar topic in his book, Walden. The story tells of Thoreau’s journey as he immerses himself deep within nature in order to remove himself from the distractions of daily life and experience life in its purest format. In the novel, Thoreau recounts his memories of picking berries and building fires, as well as his observations of his natural surroundings, such as the wildlife and local flora. 

Part of the novel’s dilemma is that in order to write it, Thoreau needed to remove himself from the experiences. To record the melody of a songbird’s tune, we must listen less actively. I’m sure many of us can relate. Take mealtimes, for example. The precious moments after prayers and before a family dives into dinner are meant to be enjoyed; meanwhile, I often find myself hunched over the plate and trying to get my iPhone angles just right. In order to capture the moment, I am removing myself from it. 

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Sacred nuggets of wisdom, such as the Thich Nhat Hanh quote above, encourage finding awareness within the present moment. As yogis and yoga practitioners, awareness is often one of the most sought-after intentions. We collectively strive to live in the moment, without worrying about the responsibility of the future or dwelling on past instances. Of course, this is far easier said than done, which is why yoga is an ongoing practice. We are constantly working to stay mindful. 

Therein I find my personal predicament. I like taking pictures and I like to write; it’s my form of creative expression. At the same time, I don’t want to sacrifice the purity of a perfect moment by focusing on a product. There must be a balance. 

The first thing is to question one’s motivations. Why do I want to take a picture of this? Am I feeding the ego, or am I feeding the soul? Storytelling, through whatever medium, walks a fine line between being selfless and self-indulgent. Though at times it may be difficult, I choose to focus on the former. Creative expression has the power to transport individuals to new places, thus exposing them to alternative, more open ways of thinking while breeding more room for empathy. 

Perhaps another thing we can focus on is to seek mindfulness in the actual act of creating. Here are some practical tips to help you enjoy the present moment while still indulging in creative expression:

  1. Set aside time to experience. Julia Cameron calls these moments “artist dates,” or time that you set aside specifically reserved for experience. Leave your phone at home, and wander through the woods with the intention of exploring. Know that you don't need to document everything; sometimes the purpose of life is simply to experience it. 
  2. Embrace the details. Mindfulness can lead to keen observance. In the moments when you are truly present, you’ll be able to notice details that are often overlooked, such as the speckles on a brown egg, or the way the an orange peel delicately unravels from the fruit’s meat. This is especially useful in photography, as it can heighten the awareness in seeing and, in turn, appreciating the artist’s subject. 
  3. Accept Imperfections.  Artists are often highly critical of their own work. Sometimes I’ll be shooting something and think, if only the light were more subtle, or if I’m taking notes for an article, I’ll sometimes wish that I had interviewed more individuals. I’ve learned that it’s best to find creative ways to utilize the experience I did have, rather than lament over the one I didn’t. Art can be a wonderful tool to nurture a sense of appreciation. 
  4. Enjoy the process. When it comes time to create, whether it be a painting, doodle, or news article, let the pressure of the end result fade from your thought process. Instead, enjoy the beauty of fresh ink on the page. These moments, though simple, provide just as much life as a walk through a foreign country.  

I like to think that it is possible to mindfully document our experiences. What are your thoughts? How do you balance documentation and experience?

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