Being Present on Vacation

How taking fewer photos can make for a more fulfilling vacation

Posted Aug 06, 2013

If you’re going on vacation soon, you’ll no doubt pack a camera. Recent research has shown that people are taking more photographs than ever before. In those ancient pre-digital days, the number of photos we could take was limited by film. As I remember (it seems a very long time ago) there were runs of 12 or 24 photos. The films were quite expensive, so we had to ration our photos for the most attractive scenes and the most poignant moments. But now there is no limit to the number of photos, and we click away at any opportunity.

In my view, this is quite a negative development. The problem is that when we take photographs we are not fully present. We look at the present with one eye on the future. Rather than experiencing the beauty or poignancy of a particular moment, we suspend experience until the future. But this is absurd, of course - by the time we reach the future, the present is gone. All we can experience is a memory, which is a pale shadow of actual experience.

You could also say that, in addition to not being fully in the moment when we take photographs, we are not fully in our surroundings either. Looking into a camera creates a barrier between us and our surroundings, makes us once step removed. In contrast, one of the wonderful things about being wholly present is the sense of connection it brings. We become part of our surroundings, rather than just observers of them.

Some time ago I went to a family wedding. The wedding ceremony was quite short, and filmed by several different people on mobile phones and digital cameras. Later that afternoon, at the reception, the bride and groom spent most of their time walking around the grounds of the hall being photographed. They stopped underneath trees, by flowerbeds, by the gates of the hall, posing by themselves and then with a variety of combinations of family members. The process seemed to last forever, and to be the main focus of the reception.

And it made me wonder: is this wedding really taking place now? Had the bride spent so long getting ready because she wanted to look good for the ceremony, or because she wanted to look good in the future, when she watched the video of the ceremony and looked at the photos? As I watched them pose for photos, it struck me that the bride and groom weren’t actually here. They were in the future, looking at these photos five, ten or 15 years from now. They were more interested in recording the day for the future then actually experiencing it now, in the present.

Wouldn’t it be much better - I thought to myself - to forget about the future and give their full attention to the present experience of their wedding day, to live fully in the moment and take in the reality of what was happening in the now? Wouldn’t that make a much more fulfilling wedding day?

Living in the Present

The same applies to vacations. Being fully present can be a powerful experience. The world can become a different place, as if a new dimension of reality has been added to it. Scenes seem richer and more beautiful, and objects seem to be more intensely there, with an extra quality of ‘is-ness.’ In the present, experience becomes heightened.

And this is exactly what we want from our vacations: some relaxation perhaps, but heightened experience too. We want to feel alive. When we return home, we want to feel that we’ve undergone a significant experience.

Reducing the number of pictures you take will help you to achieve this. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take any photos at all - but use your camera sparingly. When you see a beautiful or poignant scene, resist the impulse to capture it with you camera. Instead, open yourself up to it. Be as present as you can; absorb as much of the reality of the scene as you can with your senses and your being.

Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. Eckhart Tolle has called his work 'an important contribution to the shift in consciousness happening on our planet at this time.' He was recently included in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine's list of 'The 100 most spiritually influential living people.'

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