I’m walking on a beautiful beach without a care in the world. The sun is shining. I’m healthy and free to do exactly as I please. Indeed, I’m here because I’ve chosen to be. But I’m not satisfied. I’m imagining places that might be more exciting to see and people who might be more fun to see them with. My mind is full of thoughts of what could be better — so full there is no room for thoughts of appreciation. As I leave my footprints on the white sand, I suddenly become aware that I am almost incapable of enjoying anything in my life.
In 2011, I had gone to New Zealand with the intention of exploring the world and seeing as much as possible. I had spent months preparing for my first backpacking trip, saving up for plane tickets and securing a working holiday visa. Obviously I was very excited to go. And yet, just a few weeks after my arrival, the excitement was gone. How ironic. Here I was, finally on the other side of the globe, only to once again be thinking about where I’d rather be.
Happiness seemed like an exotic bird that I could never catch. Whenever I looked for it, I couldn’t find it. When I occasionally saw it and chased it, it would fly away.
I didn’t understand why. For some reason, the satisfaction of getting what I wanted never seemed to last very long. Sooner or later, I would invariably descend to my usual state of dissatisfaction, unfulfillment and misery and begin looking for the next thing to give me fulfilment.
As I was walking on that beach, I came to a realisation: getting what I wanted never made me any happier in the end. Nothing satisfied me. I didn’t know how to appreciate things.
Unsure what to do about this depressing conclusion, I turned to a friend for advice. She recommended that I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
I had never read anything like this book. Here was a man who claimed not only to know the path to inner peace, but also that it was accessible to everyone, right here, right now, regardless of one’s past and all exterior circumstances. He said that if only I could let go of my concept of time, if only I could stop labeling and judging what I saw, life would become more wonderful than I could ever imagine.
Finding inner peace became my biggest concern. The book became my little Bible. I carried it everywhere, read it meticulously every day and tried to understand what he meant. Instead of exploring New Zealand, I explored my mind. Rather than bungee jumping, skydiving and going on excursions as I had planned, I spent most of my time by myself, either walking extremely slowly or sitting under trees. Feeling, listening, looking carefully for any sign of the bliss he was talking about.
What’s so special about the present moment? How do I drop all labels and concepts? How will any of this make me happier?
Then, one day, I saw it.
It was in Queenstown, on a sunny day with a few clouds. I had a mild hangover from partying the day before. I was sitting in a cafeteria with another backpacker, having a talk and a coffee. After she had left, I held the almost empty cup in my hands and looked at it. In my head, I tried to recall and emotionally embrace all the ideas I could remember from the book: time does not exist, there is only this moment, there is no separation, stop viewing the world through the filter of the past.
From the outside, it probably didn’t look like anything was happening. It wasn’t a scene out of a movie. I didn’t slam my hands onto the table, sit up straight with big eyes and yell, “Oh my god, it all makes sense now!” I was sitting very still, saying nothing. Anyone looking at me would probably have assumed I was simply daydreaming and deeply in need of that coffee. But they would have witnessed the biggest change in my life.
This Is Where The Fun Begins
As I was sitting there, from one moment to the next, my mind shifted. I had suddenly lost my sense of where I ended and where other people began. The mental distance between myself, objects and other people was no longer there. I was totally unaware of myself as a person. I had no notion of my name, age or past. I had no self-perception, no opinions, no agenda, no concerns, no thoughts. It was as if the mental room that I normally used for those things had been completely cleared, leaving room for everything else to finally come in.
I stepped outside. Life had been amplified. I felt everything. The movement of my legs and lungs, the wind in my face, the sound and sight of the trees, all of it was so clear and vivid I knew I had never truly felt any of those things before. Everything around me seemed pristine, precious and perfect. It was as if I had been wearing dirty glasses that finally came off. As if I had always been asleep and finally woken up. As if I had just come to life and witnessed the world for the first time.
When I met the eyes of passersby, everything unreal or unimportant — how I and other people looked and what we might have amounted to in the eyes of society — had completely disappeared from my awareness. It no longer carried any weight. With that gone, my vision was clear, and only the essential remained.What I saw in people was all I needed to know: that they mattered, that they had value, that they were as deserving of love as everyone else. And that made everyone look so beautiful.
I went into a nearby cinema where another backpacker friend was working at the front desk. When I looked at him, it became absolutely clear to me that, until this moment, I had never truly encountered or communicated with another person. I might have looked at them, spoken with them and had opinions about them, but never seen them in their entirety, or let them see me without a trace of a front. I didn’t notice how he was dressed that day, I didn’t pay much mind to what words he used, I don’t remember what I said — and yet my understanding of, and communication with, another person had never been more raw, unfiltered and clear.
The rest of that afternoon I walked around in complete awe of this world I had never actually inhabited before. My mind was timeless. I didn’t want to be anywhere else, I didn’t desire anything. I was only here, completely at peace with life. It was blissful. I could have never imagined anything like it.
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
— from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake
It probably sounds like I was trippin’ balls. In a way, I was. But the author was right: no drug, preparation, ambition, religion or ritual is needed, no criteria have to be met. Happiness is available here and now, even to me and you, the uninitiated, the untrained, the ordinary. I wish I could give this experience directly to you, but it is essentially beyond words. It has to be experienced before it can be known. Nevertheless, it’s so beautiful it’s worth pointing you towards it.
And This Is Where The Work Begins
I wanted to stay that way forever, but I couldn’t. The experience eventually ended, it didn’t grant me eternal happiness, and it didn’t solve all my life’s problems. The light dimmed. Sometimes I find myself in darkness again, fumbling around, grasping for things and clinging to them, naïvely hoping they can make me happy.
But I now have proof that the mind is capable of rising to a vantage where it sees everything beautiful in the world. That book and that experience revealed a path towards total appreciation of life. Since that day it has been my calling to walk that path and raise my mind back up to that view.
The way I see it, there are two ways of appreciating beauty: intellectually and directly. To appreciate something directly means to appreciate it merely because it exists, which is a miracle in itself. The thing doesn’t have to live up to any criteria for us to value it. For this type of appreciation to happen, our minds need to be very still, totally free from thought and judgement.
“There is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”
— William Shakespeare
With practice and meditation, we can hush the mind for limited periods of time, which I highly recommend that you learn. But we cannot silence it for good; it seems our minds’ default state is to be thinking and analyzing. For the times when we can’t stop comparing or appreciate things directly, the second best thing is to learn about the world and appreciate it through our intellect.
So I started reading. Philosophy to gain new perspective on life, neurology to learn how the brain works, psychology to understand how my conscious and subconscious interact, biology and evolution to appreciate the wonder of life, self-development to spot and correct my flaws, sociology to see how society affects us, and anything in between to grow familiar with the world. Intellectual appreciation doesn’t quite compare to the direct, but it’s still damn awesome.
I saw that appreciation of life was not to be found in the extraordinary, the rare, the extreme or the distant. It is the seemingly small, ordinary things that are the most incredible. That the sun warms our skin and provides life for beautiful flowers and trees. That flowers and trees, as if they were not precious enough on their own, also attract birds and butterflies, the sound and sight of which we are also free to enjoy. The more I read, the more miraculous it seems to me that we can see, hear, or feel anything; that we even exist at all.
“For happiness, how little suffices for happiness! … the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a whisk, an eye glance — little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Normally, our perception of other people is distorted. We see them for what they have done to us in the past, how they can be useful to us in the future, or simply judge them by their appearance. Based on these things, we believe we’ve got people figured out and decide whether we want to spend time with them or not. Our view is superficial and calculating.
That day I understood that my thinking mind, with its snap judgements and limited information, can’t possibly see another person for who they really are. So I used my intellect to disprove my prejudices and stereotypes. I trained myself to see people’s virtues before their vices. Even when I can’t see anything good, I try to understand what reasons there might have for their actions and imagine who they might’ve become under different circumstances. I still reserve judgement and refuse to conclusively make up my mind about someone — I always leave room for myself to be proven wrong. If my perspective could change so drastically in a day, how might they change over a year or a decade? Finally, even if my mind finds them unlikable or that they are “of no use to me”, I make a point of silently wishing them happiness, because I remember that my mind’s assessment of their value will always be fallible and does not reflect their real value.
The experience gave me a glimpse of my own nature and my relatedness to others. Just as my perception of others is limited and wrong, so is my perception of myself. I am more than what I think of myself at a given moment. I am the same as everyone else. Not in the sense that everyone is average, but literally that we are one and the same. Our blurred vision and the illusion of time makes us believe that we are separate, but in reality, whatever we do onto others, we are doing onto ourselves. We will never amount to anything more than, and can never be separated from, how we treat the world.
We owe it to the world to strive towards the highest and clearest view that we can possibly attain. From there, joy, respect, love and appreciation — of others, of ourselves, of animals and of the environment — follow as natural consequences.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’, make no sense.”