Boogie boarding on the left side of Maui's Napili Bay, while waiting for waves I watched a bunch of large sea turtles feeding in the shallows of a reef that I also was interested in -- to avoid running into, as the turtles have hard shells and can handle waves that break over shallow rocks, while I can't.
When their heads popped up I imagined they were looking at me curiously. "What kind of fish is that, gray headed with a big flat blue fin that keeps it on top of the water?" But given how many other boogie boarders they must have seen, I doubt they considered me as anything special.
Back on the beach, I told my wife about the sea turtles.
She walked to the end of the bay to get as close to their feeding area as possible. I followed her, camera in hand. I stood as near to the reef rocks as the foam tossed up by breaking waves allowed, not wanting to have my beloved Sony camera doused.
It didn't take me long to learn that sea turtles are difficult to photograph from above the water. Their heads and shells are only visible briefly; by the time I was ready to take a photo of one it'd be back under the water again.
I was determined, though.
A voice inside my head kept saying, "It'd be great to be able to show other people what Laurel and I saw on our last day on Maui." So I kept snapping still shots, mostly of an ocean devoid of sea turtles. Eventually the fruitlessness of this hit home. I decided to switch my camera to movie-mode.
Not much better.
I still had a lot of trouble locating the turtles in the viewfinder. Getting a close-up shot was nearly impossible. But I would have kept on with my efforts to capture the moment if my camera hadn't suddenly presented me with a "X" across a battery symbol, after which the lens retracted and the camera shut off.
Instantly I felt relieved. The spell was broken. I realized that I'd been missing some great moments in order to capture them. Yet how could I bring home a moment as a photo or video if I'd never really experienced it?
What I'd have would be a recollection of what it was like for me to stare through a viewfinder while my mind was getting frustrated with how difficult it was to locate those shifty sea turtles. I'd have some photons recorded on a camera card, but I wouldn't have captured a genuinely meaningful moment.
Because the effort to capture it was preventing me from experiencing it. I'd been focused on how nice it'd be to show other people the sea turtles, losing sight of the fact that they were right freaking there in front of me and I wasn't really seeing them myself.
When my camera shut off an intuition popped into awareness. Laid out into words, it was something like this:
"No problem. I'm still equipped with an amazing multi-media recording device. It captures sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, emotions, thoughts -- everything that I'm experiencing right now. This amazing device is called My Brain. Start using it, you fool! It's a hell of a lot better at capturing meaningful moments than that Sony camera is."
Watching the sea turtles in the waves mindfully in the moment was hugely different from observing them with a future-memory focus. I may not be able to show you the turtles, but what they were like is part of my experience store now.
This is a problem with social networking: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, instant messaging and all that lead us to think "How will I describe this moment later?" while we're in the midst of experiencing it. Splitting our attention isn't conducive to being truly attentive to what's going on.
In a February 2011 New Yorker article, "The Information," Adam Gopnik came up with a great one-liner:
Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something.
The Internet and it's social networking tools have a tendency to wrap around our minds. But when we're intensely mindful, aware, and into a moment, that's when our minds are wrapped around experiences.
Think about it. Not too much, though.