After a busy day and the pressure of a lot of work still to be done, I often find myself taking a short bike ride at dusk. There’s a place where I often end up stopping to watch the sunset. It’s at the top of a slight hill where the view opens up, clear of trees and buildings, and I can watch the panorama of clouds and sky changing as the sun descends.
Yesterday, I found myself in that spot again. My bike parked on the sidewalk, I sat in the grass and let everything slip away except for an immense awareness of the present: the tension in my lungs from the ride, the slight chill to the air, the songs of robins, the pulsing heat of the sun’s light. The sky was all clouds except for a few inches just above the treeline where the sunlight emerged in an intense orange. It seemed to take forever for the sun to descend those few inches, but I waited and watched it with my full attention.
I heard the skid of wheels coming up the path behind me and then a voice called my name. “I thought that was you. I love that you’re just sitting here watching the sunset,” the girl said as she stepped cautiously into the grass with her inline skates.
It struck me that there was a certain nostalgia implied by her comment. To take the time to watch the sunset, one is assumed to be in a state of Zen and total awareness. It’s very Buddhist. It’s very hipster. But for me, I wasn’t conscious of all that; my initial reaction to her comment was Of course, I am. What else would I be doing? I could not even consider that I could be somewhere else doing any multitude of other things because this was where I felt I was supposed to be at that moment.
As we chatted, she made some comment about how unsuspecting that a view of the sunset and such peace could be found squished between a giant parking lot and a busy road. I knew that I was looking over the parking lot at the sun and that there was a road filled with the traffic of the evening commute behind me, but I hadn’t even thought about it. I had been focusing on the colors dancing in the clouds to the accompaniment of a robin’s chorus.
I realized that I wasn’t being fully aware of the present but rather creating a mindset to match that of a different location. The peace and nostalgia I felt watching that sunset was how I feel when I’m in the Appalachian Mountains. In an attempt to escape the city, I had found a connection to another place through the sunset. The sun and moon and stars have the power to teleport your soul to anywhere in the world if you’re open to it because they rise and set and shine everywhere around the world.
I didn’t watch the sunset in order to “feel at peace,” but I think that’s what such experiences have been diluted to in our times. In the psychiatrist’s office, you’ll find framed landscapes of remote lakes and mountains and brilliant sunsets with the clouds placed just right. The patients look at the images and find a sense of peace because that’s what the image was meant to portray. The lens doesn’t capture the days where it’s so cloudy you can’t see the sunset or let you feel the brisk wind or the chill of rain or hear the buzz of gnats, but these are all part of the place of these images.
With our world progressively moving to the internet and other forms of media, we’re presented daily with images. Images of people, images of places, images of items—all depicted in a way to frame the way you see them and induce a reaction. The picture of a perfectly symmetrical plant in the therapist’s office aims to calm you. The homeless children and abused animals look up at the camera as emotional music turns not just your ear but your heart. Images do not represent reality in its entirety. They are created with intentional blinders to create a tone and therefore invoke a specific reaction.
However, with some images becoming so iconic, the media has conditioned us to think we must feel at peace when watching a sunset, to feel moved to help when we see a homeless person, to take in that stray dog. But for most people in the real situation, that’s not how they feel or are moved to act. When you’re stuck in traffic and late for dinner, you don’t even see that stray dog on the side of the road. When you’re a young girl alone in the city, that homeless guy can seem more of a threat than a person in need. When we’re in the present, we put on our own blinders. We pay attention to certain things and ignore others and that process is what creates our mindset and determines how we feel and act.
When I’m in the city, I must consciously shift my focus to see the beauty in the buildings and people because my initial focus is on things that build my anxiety rather than create a sense of awe. Likewise, people in the mountains watching a sunset may be too caught up shivering and swatting mosquitoes to really feel a sense of peace.
Images have made molding our mindsets too easy. Images tell us what to see. Because of that, I wonder if people are just looking at things right in front of them expecting that what they are seeing is what they need to see. I wonder if they’re looking at reality at all.
Smartphones have made it easier than ever to capture a moment, a place, a feeling. But there are times when I’m so moved by what I’m experiencing that I know that I can never capture it in any form of art because the reality is too complex, so I don’t even try. I leave my camera lens shut and leave my heart and soul open. When we take a picture, we’re reframing the experience and often diminishing it because it’s difficult to capture so much in an image. Even film that can capture visual and audio senses still has a limited, focused view and lacks the complete feeling of a real experience.
Though images represent parts of reality, they can never fully capture the experience of being in the moment. But even when a person is in the moment, they will frame the experience by focusing on certain elements over others. The ability to be conscious and choose how to frame your view and therefore choose your experience is something that images and other media don’t as easily allow.
I chose to watch the sky and listen to the birds, thereby transporting myself into my former experiences in the mountains and my dreams of being there in the future. When the girl sat down beside me, she also chose to watch the sunset, but she saw it differently than me. She was still conscious of the parking lot and the traffic noise, so she saw a glimpse of natural beauty in the mundane routine of the city.
When the girl decided to leave and continue skating, she thanked me for making her stop and look at the sunset. But it wasn’t me who stopped her or made her see. It’s ultimately up to the individual to decide what they will focus on and therefore how they will react to what is around them.