When one travels one notices that there are some universal vices. One constancy that emerges in all scenarios is peoples' seeming contradictions to their immediate setting. For instance in even the most beautiful places—a small town in Sicily, a striking coastal town in Calfornia, or the very peak of a mountain in Montana—people bring with them their vices.
Obviously "wherever you go, there you are;" yet I'm continually astounded that people don’t know how to leverage their environment to affect their wellbeing. The drugs and phones and other means of distraction and escapism used in society are also brought along in peoples' pockets. They're whipped out among stunning and affecting picturesque landscapes: environments where, I would think, distraction should be far from one's mind. All of these are detractors from pure experience or internal reflection. Now, that might do us well in the city, but they serve to cloud and muddle an otherwise pure experience of other settings, like a quiet lake.
I'm sounding like an old man, but bear with me if you would.
These tools of distraction are useful to us in a buzzing and cluttered world, but they become vices and tumors of our perception when they start to use us: They limit our ability to be immersed in the tangible world. We don’t perceive what is in front of us—we wear pixel-colored glasses and forget that we have them on. Digital haze, while it makes the overwhelming details of societal life easier to accept, also fogs up our ingestion of a scene which could bring satisfaction, personal enlightenment, or peace of mind. By muting the hard things in life we are muting all things in life, a treacherous path.
At the risk of belaboring this in too general a way, I think it will be valuable to explore a specific scenario.
A young man in his twenties is jaded and socialized, he uses Snapchat constantly to try and create a narrative of his life out of the chaos. He smokes, he has a “persona,” and he has his pharmaceutical and technological vices (as does everyone, I might add, myself included.) These vices keep him from seeing himself—from seeing his true person in the context of society; of the planet; of the very cosmos. This is reasonable, and, as stated above, a natural defense against what I would call "middle-perception." Middle Perception is somewhere between total ignorance and full enlightenment. It is the pain of being awake enough to feel, but not enough to realize the source or escapability of that pain. It is a vague pain that hasn't yet jolted the person awake.
To avoid the pain of half-opened eyes, our friend uses his distractions to keep himself on the lower end, maintaining his habit and thus his narrative.
One weekend he takes a trip with his friends to go camping in a cabin in the mountains. They will be on a lake in one of the most beautiful parts of the countryside. They bring lots of drugs, beer, phones (and chargers), a Bluetooth speaker... games and things to make sure they will be totally preoccupied the whole time. It is an contradictory yet common approach: going somewhere to escape yet bringing everything with you.
They start drinking immediately, and probably they will be drunk for the whole weekend. Drunk on fun, and on alcohol, and music, and entertainment. And I don't mean to criticize fun or music or drugs, really, it's just that these things seem to me to be distractions from experience rather than experiences. And by bringing the distractions along, nature becomes simply a blank slate for escapism; a means to amplify distraction rather than an opportunity to put both the troubles of life and distraction aside.
When you suddenly have the distance nature provides from the real world, rather than do away with your tools of distraction, you are tricked into feeling like you are free to over-use those distractions. Now those vices have no competition from everyday obligations, and they take over and blind us to the world around us entirely. It is the equivalent of joyously pumping the breaks when your car is in Park because you finally feel free to do so without the car stopping.
Our friend forgets his phone charger. And on top of that, he gets more drunk than the others that night and stays up after everyone else has gone to sleep. Now he is alone and his phone is dying.
The sun begins to rise at four-thirty in the morning and he is sitting on a bench next to the lake; his head is down, using up the last three percent of his phone battery before it dies completely. With no cell coverage he is playing downloads of his favorite pop songs and reading through old texts from a girl he has a crush on who couldn’t come up to the lake.
The sky turns pink, which he sees from the corner of his eye. Eyes on the screen, in a movement preventing him from ever looking at the sunrise directly, he holds his phone up to take a photo. It dies. He swears and puts it back into his pocket, immediately going inside to sleep.
This episode does nothing for him but cycle back into the general feeling he has that the world is conspiring against him. He will try harder to escape this feeling by diving deeper still into distraction, which will continue the spiral until he is an old man or until something happens to wake him. It is not his fault.
In the bell curve of enlightenment—or simply awareness—it takes a long time for complete transformation of perception. Being awake hurts more and more before it starts to hurt less. One feels pain before one realizes how to treat it. It is easy to accept that the world is conspiring against us, and ultimately it is liberating to accept that the world is indifferent; but to transition is painful and existentially horrifying.
It takes a willingness to eschew distractions in favor of the painful brightness of enlightened sobriety. But re-consider that sunrise. Had our friend been extricated from his belief that the universe was against him, he could have sat and watched the sunrise of its own separate, indifferent and sublime beauty. It wouldn't matter if he had gotten a photo. A cosmic event was painting the whole landscape around him in pink and gold. He is nothing but lucky, lucky, that he can see; that such colors give the human psyche a sensation of calm and beauty. In realizing the indifference of the universe, he might realize that he doesn’t need to struggle for attention or to create his own narrative. He can do these things if he so chooses, but he no longer needs them to get through each day.
He is able to construct a life for himself with the full understanding of what he is capable of; what he is incapable of; what his personal values are. He knows there is no greater agent defying him. Clarity is being able to see these good and bad things; not muting them both.
By letting go of escapism and distraction he takes responsibility for himself and his life. This is the power that a sublime and an indifferent natural world has to humble us. Yet we avoid these experiences. We don’t want to peer into the void, even if it is beautiful. We collect photos of nature to reflect on and show to others... but we are afraid to actually stand at the edge and gaze on the gorgeous horrifying universe with open eyes.