The Art of Wondering at the World: A Few Thoughts

Today after work I found myself riding my bike along the beach instead of on the road towards home. It happened almost unintentionally, a daze that I caught myself in when I realized that I more or less had subconsciously decided it was too nice outside to head home just yet.

After a while, I settled on a little grassy area by the beach, a view of the mountains wrapping around the opposite side of the bay and sailboats lazily drifting back and forth with the wind.

I stopped to have a snack, and as it happens, in spite of this beautiful spot, the sun out, a turquoise-blue ocean, a nice breeze, a scene similar to what you might imagine your vacation to look like, here I was on my phone, checking email, nose-deep in Facebook.

I looked up at the view in front of me—this amazing view—and suddenly I realized that for the past 15 minutes I could have been in a white windowless room, and besides the lack of a breeze, would not have known any difference.

I immediately put my phone away. For the first few minutes I was kind of antsy, that unsettled awareness you get when you feel like you should be doing something. That anxious feeling when you have free time and you feel like you should make some sort of use of it, be "productive." What was I doing just sitting here? If I wasn't "doing anything," I should be heading home.

But somewhere under this it also felt good, a distant long-lost something drifting up, if at first a little strange. It was like a craving being satisfied, but foreign, a little awkward, unfamiliar. A taste I could recognize but couldn't quite put my finger on.

After a few minutes, my head started to clear from my phone and I pulled out of my little black hole; I started to relax, settle into my own skin. I started to hear clearer, see clearer, to pull myself back to the present.

It's funny how that works, isn't it. How we have to pull ourselves back to the present moment. How our minds are constantly focused on our phones, our cameras, our computers, thinking about seven different things at once, how our heads are always in the clouds, anywhere but here.

But then try sitting with yourself for just five minutes. No stimulation except for you and the moment that you are experiencing. It’s funny how an hour can fly by on Facebook but five minutes with yourself will feel like forever. 

And when the dusts starts to settle, and you begin to get comfortable once again in your skin, you think just how vibrant it all is. The sounds, where you are right now. And suddenly everything seems to stand out brighter, the sounds become louder, you feel and see and experience more. You no longer have all this stimuli. You're just left with you and what a beautiful thing that is. To just sit and be.

It’s a bit like traveling and getting camera-happy, something that I am guilty of. Sometimes when I travel I notice (only after the matter) that I’ve just been clicking my way through a place, documenting and plowing through countless pictures I will never look at again, a quick “been there, done that,” another tick off the bucket list. Take a picture, move on. A little keepsake to remember it, a little unofficial placard to remember that I was there.

But sometimes it’s the places that I take few or no pictures at all that I remember the most vividly. It’s when I soak up these moments, appreciate where I am, and just be, that stay with me the most vibrantly. I often wonder what traveling would have been like before cameras. I imagine without them we might take more time to think about what we see, savor it a bit longer, see more with our eyes rather than through a lens. 

But then there are those rare golden moments when you unintentionally take in a place or an experience organically, you wonder at someone or something purely. When you appreciate where you are, a quiet mental absorption of the world around you. One of those moment that you know will stick with you for the rest of your life.

I remember last month when I visited Budapest with some friends and we went up to a viewpoint that overlooked the city after a long day of exploring. The sun had gone down a few hours earlier and we sat up on this ledge overlooking the city in the cold air with the little golden lights below. We could hear bells somewhere down below, the cars, the sirens. We could just make out the river in the night, the ripples of black and blue, little dots of blue and green, white lights from the streets and Chain Bridge.  

We had been chatting all day, but here, the conversation and laughter slowly drifted into silence, and we all soon pulled into ourselves, getting lost somewhere deep in our own thoughts, an Alice in Wonderland kind of lost. And it was only later when someone or something pulled us out of it that we become aware of the moment--of everyone thinking, appreciating. Soaking it all in. A group of people, all experiencing the same moment at the same time, but pulling it in and weaving it into their own story. Shaping it. 

These are the golden moments--the moments that dissolve into each person’s memories, like dye in water, creating it into something new.

I’ve noticed this kind of hyper-awareness especially when I travel alone. You think more. You see more. You observe more, about the people, the energy, the places around you, and yourself. Perception is deeper—sights, sounds, attitudes; they don't just hit you and bounce off. You absorb, you digest, and dissect. 

Perhaps this is why everything affects you more when you travel alone. Sharing a moment with someone (Did you see that? Wow that's amazing!) changes the experience. It puts it into words. It encapsulates the experience into a feeling, a being, a form. When you perceive the world around you and you don't have anyone to share it with, to package it nicely into words, it remains as the raw emotion. No labels or pretty wrapping to help shape how you remember it. You realize that words can't describe it and all that’s left is the process of trying to digest it, of trying to understand how you and it fit into the big picture.

Photo Cred: Annika Helmvoigt

Photo Cred: Annika Helmvoigt

When people say that you “find yourself” or you learn about yourself when you travel, I think perhaps this is what it comes down to. When you travel alone, you experience the process of trying to understand yourself more—how you react, how you feel, how you perceive and see and think. We bulldoze our way through life in a state of over-stimuli, and it's only when we're stripped of that and we're just left with us—no people to bounce ideas off of, no one to judge, no one to help us decide or influence how we see the world—that we start to realize just how little we know about ourselves. How little we've allowed ourselves to grow in the "me" category. 

Every day we have thousands of influencers in our lives—from what to wear to what to eat to what to say. Very rarely are we allowed the luxury to figure out what our lives look like without any influencers. And it's only then that we start to form, to develop, to grow into the person we want to be. To start the haphazard, and often windy road of Who Am I.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am infinitely thankful for all of the people in my life that have steered me in a positive direction over the years, and I would probably not be where I am right now had it not been for them shaping my life in one way or another. I love group travelling, am a fan of a solid Instagram pic, and phones nowadays have too many cool features for me to go cavewoman and say "no" to technology. So it’s far from the truth to say that all influencers or distractions or outside stimuli are bad. In fact, I think these are some of the biggest ways to help us grow and build our lives in a positive direction.

But at the same time I think it’s easy to get lost in it and to forget what we’re like without all of this outside stimuli. It’s important to remember to try to find the real, the authentic, the natural in experiencing the world. To soak in what you can organically and to try to explore and connect to the world in a personal way. It’s a little unnerving sometimes to try to figure ourselves out, to connect with the world when we’re vulnerable, when it’s just us. It’s easier to put up a wall, to bury our noses in our phones rather than to spend a few moments with our confusing and complicated selves. But to be present and to be honest with ourselves and the world around us, and to make that connection as authentic as possible, I think is so important in the process of growing and trying to understand where we’re going—and the direction we want to be going.

So maybe sit with yourself and do nothing for a bit. Try traveling alone. Soak in the experience before taking a picture. Look at the world from above and wonder about it for awhile. Learn, grow, savor. Enjoy discovering the art of wondering at the world.