I was sitting on a beach yesterday when my attention was drawn to an upset person. She was incongruous in the relaxed happiness of a sleepy Thai beach. As I continued to watch she went through tears, and onto anger. During the conflict with her partner one of their friends approached and suggested that he take their picture. The couple got up, walked to the sea, and posed in a loving hug with big smiles carefully composed on their faces.
This made me think. They obviously wanted their holiday snap to show that they were having a wonderfully happy time. However, in truth, at that moment they were not happy. In some ways it showed the memory of the holiday to be more important than lived experience of the actual moment.
The influence of memory on happiness is shown by Brickman, Coates & Janoff Bulman’s 1978 study of lottery winners, accident victims and happiness (I wrote about this in my earlier blogpost Are Lottery Winners Happier ?). Of interest here is that they found that accident victims were happier than lottery winners when recalling their memories. Nostalgia does play a big part in people’s everyday emotional state (just think how many dinner parties descend to discussions of “TV when we were kids”, or how much time people spend looking at their photos of ‘back in the day’).
As we explore our route through meditation we try to become more aware of the present moment, trying to free our mind of past experience and future expectations.The holiday photos don’t help us here. In terms of the 3 Universal Truths of Buddhism I guess that the photo is recognition of impermanence (Annica), however that would assume a negligence of Dhukka (trying to retain permanence leads to suffering), which in turn is a denial of Anatta – not only does the person in the photo no longer exist, but they didn’t even exist at the time (especially as the photo faked the true emotions of the moment).
The photo is a simulacra of life and person.
The wonderful Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, says that the only thing that we actually possess in this world is our true voice. Everything else is merely on loan to us. The couple on the beach reminded me that our true inner voice is the most valuable thing that we have. To neglect, suppress or deny that inner voice is a form of self harm which can only lead to greater unhappiness. Sing loud every moment, for this moment is only temporary.