Do you remember the clarity of childhood?
I do. Out in the playground I would sit, observant and care free.
I remember the smell of the freshly cut wood chips underneath the monkey bars as I grasped the cool, steel rungs, polished by small happy hands swinging too and fro.
Everything was so crisp, so fresh and so new.
I remember the smell of the damp soil as I dug in the garden, pushing toy Matchbox cards along dirt roads. I can still vividly see the change in sunlight as the summer’s day turned to a cool afternoon doused in shade. Days were endless.
I really did live in the moment.
It’s funny how when I recall childhood memories I really do remember the small details… smells, tastes, textures and the associated emotions. I remember the colours of my plastic trike and the sound it made as the small plastic wheels ground over the asphalt below and the vibrations shook my small happy body.
I remember the faded, paint chipped blue bubblers that stood looking sad outside the school window and the way the cool water spurted erratically as I sipped during lunchtime. I can see the weaving and faded patterns of different coloured handball and hopscotch courts that wove through the playground. I even remember the colour, feel and smell of my rug for ‘sleep time’ at preschool.
Yet why is it that memories of late seem less vivid? They appear as faded VHS recorded moments with poor colour saturation and void of the associated smells, texture and emotion of the moment itself. Why is it that something I recall from five years ago has less impact and detail as a memory from childhood?
It is as if we go from directly experiencing the world to experiencing it through a veil of modern day stress and mental noise.
As we get older we give things labels. Likes and dislikes, wants and needs, pleasant and unpleasant and once we do this we no longer really ever ‘see’ the world. Instead, the creation of labels causes us to experience everything through a clouded, subjective lens of judgment and this changes our entire view of the world.
This subjectivity creates an internal world. A reflection of the real world that gets mistaken for reality. Like Plato’s cave analogy, we too mistake dancing shadows as the real world and not as our own inaccurate, biased mental projections.
Never again do we experience things just as they are. Nothing is new anymore, everything has been done. Instead of seeing the beach, we see a place on dangerous rips, sharks and blue bottle stingers. We no longer see the beautiful sun drenched day, instead, it becomes another day of exhausting heat, sunstroke and skin cancer. It’s as if we go from playing outside in the yard to inside the artificial house where we dwell in what we are so sure we already know.
At first, our internal world is like sitting in a clean, freshly-painted white room. It has big clear windows through which we still interact with the world, but it’s different. We may still get a waft of the spring wattle on the coming summer breeze that floats in through, but we won’t often venture outside to experience it directly. Instead, we stare out, confused, with that look of distracted interest you remember so well. It’s the same look you witnessed on your parent’s faces as they watched you play and you craved for attention in the yard outside.
As time goes on the window gets dusty and the view through the dirty glass is a little more obscured. The clean white room has changed and begins to fill with a few objects that grab your attention and distract you from the outside world. Things of worry, concern or dismay fill the room and you begin to focus more on these things than the window now.
Time moves on and again the window gets cloudier and the room fills with more objects that demand your attention. The dust fills the corners and your own kids can be viewed outside the now opaque window as they glance back to see if you’re looking. But it’s hard, it’s really hard to be present and live in this moment. It’s hard to step outside this room and into the yard when there are so many issues.
Every now and then we fling open the windows and experience the world again. We are present for a tiny moment as we sit, smell the air and bathe in the beauty of the garden but before long our mind takes over and we’re back indoors, listening to the familiar soundtrack of our mental commentary that plays eternally like a scratched record. The melody never changes.
In this modern age, we are very rarely present. We don’t notice the details of everyday life as much as we should. We turn to art and media to tell us about the world and we sit in our air-conditioned comfort on our Ikea lounge suite and watch ‘the world’ brought to our living room. Or, we may go to a gallery or a theatre to qualify ourselves as ‘worldly’. We get absorbed in stories, narratives and drama yet, rarely do we live our own lives with the presence and attention they deserve.
So, how do we go back to experiencing the world as new? How do we get out of our minds? If we don’t we will be stuck in that musty room of mental noise and it will get worse. Eventually, we will start to draw the curtains over the only window for fear the sun may fade the furniture and the room will fill with clutter that we will begin to cling to as if it is our own identity. We’ll associate ourselves with these inanimate objects more than we do the real world as the dust builds, the cobwebs grow and we’re stuck in a room of material possessions that represent faded memories of a time when you used to live in the real world.
What’s the answer? Be present. Learn to tame your mind to stop its incessant noise and commentary. Try to simply view the world without judging. Enjoy the little things, bathe in the detail, the sights, the smells, the texture and the feeling. Travel and explore foreign places as this forces you to be objective again. Visiting unfamiliar places, void of previous memories can make our perception vivid and childlike again. This is why travel is so important.
Get out of the room and step into the garden, even if just to sit there. Otherwise, the window will grow smaller and the world will change without you. Be present and observant like a child swinging on the cool smooth steel monkey bars smelling the fresh wood chips and thinking nothing else but that.