I recently had the good fortune to stand in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night’ while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was an ordinary fall weekday but there were at least a dozen people standing in front of this one painting. I could deal with that. But almost everyone but my husband and me had their phones held above their heads to take pictures of the painting. This is quite different from standing with a group simply admiring the work in quiet shared appreciation. We couldn’t even see the artwork through the sea of cellphones.
Why were they taking photos anyway? There are thousands of photos of this famous painting readily available on the internet, including this one, so I’m not sure what they gained.
But I do know what they missed. They missed the opportunity to be fully present with the painting itself, up close and personal, not through a lens trying to frame it. They missed the chance to simply gaze and allow their eyes to travel around it, to appreciate each element, to notice details of color, texture, imagery, contrast and other choices the artist made. They missed the chance to really open to the gift of seeing close up those swirly brushstrokes (something no camera can replicate), to allow themselves to be immersed in the experience of its creation, to let go and enter a world not of their own making. A painting has the capacity to move us, but only if we are present to experience it.
This is not a complaint or a request for museum etiquette, as much as it may sound like one. It was for me, and perhaps for you, a dharma lesson. Because it’s an example of how we miss living fully in the moment when we try to ‘capture’ it for later enjoyment. We can’t capture a moment. A moment is fleeting. And we can’t relive an experience, especially one we weren’t present enough to fully live in the first place
What is it to be fully in the moment? I encourage you right now to pause and look around you. Let all your senses fully explore this moment. Notice patterns, the interplay of light and shadow, color. Go beyond making a mental note of objects you can name. Notice their shapes and the arrangement of them in space.
Now use your hands to rub and touch the texture of things within your reach. Feel the inside of your mouth, the slippery sliding, the wet warmth.
Then listen, hear whatever there is to hear in this moment. And whatever else you notice in this moment, without getting caught up in a lot of thoughts about it.
For me, right now as I’m writing this, there is the sound of footsteps on the stairs, the clearing of a throat, the sound of the dishwasher — ordinary. Yet held in an open embrace, life being lived and loved, just as it is.
Can you be that present all the time? Probably not, and that’s okay, but what a wondrous thing to aspire to. Can you see how when we try to re-live memories of ‘special’ moments it dishonors this very moment. Everything in the whole universe fell into place in a particular way to bring this moment into being. Let’s have some appreciation for this, just this, just as it is.
Another lesson from this same experience of standing in the crowd in front of that painting: A few of the phone-photographers actually turned their back on the painting to take a selfie — ‘me and Vinnie, we be buds’ — for sharing on social media. This is a perfect example of how we try to shore up our identity, fearfully putting together and promoting the self as an object to be admired, respected, loved and seen. Great compassion to that suffering being who fails to feel how supported and appreciated they are by the whole universe. How the whole universe came together to create them, just as they are.
Buddha discovered for himself and shared how there is no separate self. Sure, we function in this life as if we are separate — just as a drop of water flying over a wave seems separate, but it’s not. And we’re not. We are literally all stardust. Each body-mind is a unique but inseparable manifestation of life loving itself. Life is a complex system of ever-changing patterns of being, arising and falling away, forming and dissolving. There is nothing to prove on social media. There is no reason to feel isolated. We are all of us in this together.
So can we put down that phone and simply enjoy what is present in this moment? Ah. Welcome home.
Thank you, Stephanie.
This is well-expressed and comforting to be reminded that there are still beings like yourself who remain outside of this ubiquitous cell-phone/social media behavior.
Well, at least in front of paintings in museums. I’m as hooked as the next person. But I have the intention at least to use technology wisely, and sparingly. Thanks so much for commenting!
Thank you, Stef. We were at the Chicago Art Institute in September and had the same experience…so many phones and selfies, so few people actually experiencing the art. It was really sad to me. I so appreciated the reminder to enjoy the present moment, and to not let social media be what validates us. We are perfect just as we are. Namaste.
Great post and really shows your wisdom and just common sense – however I don’t think all selfies are shoring – there is a part of the culture that makes this the norm and might be less about showboating (not that you were saying that fully) but it’s a generation thing (like the peace of the 1960s crowd and all that went with it)
And aeeeome reminders to be in the moment more
I appreciate your commenting, and I’d like to hear more about the generational thing you mention. I lived in the Haight Ashbury in the heyday of feeling incredibly high on the blossoming of freedom from ego-driven games, and understanding our deep interconnection.
I understand and appreciate that the internet has given us all an incredible opportunity to connect on so many levels, but taking selfies is something that just goes right over my head. I once sat next to a young woman on a plane who showed me photos of her trip and I was looking forward to seeing them in case it was someplace I would like to go someday. But they were all just pictures of herself! You could barely see the background. 😉 If this is not just ego uber alles, I sure don’t know what it is. So any help appreciated.