How to collide with reality (as opposed to merely be aware of it)

The Appollo 13 Saturn V rocket launch

It seems to me like there are different levels of experience. There are those things that you merely notice, and those other things that make you feel very much alive by plunging you in a deep emotional state.  Let me be clear: I am not talking about drugs or spirituality (they would make for an interesting related discusion, but Sam Harris has a whole lot more to say about that than I do). Let me give you a few personal examples of what I mean.

I have always been fascinated by the starry sky. I remember spending many hours staring at the sky late at night, either with binoculars, a telescope or my bare eyes, in the hope of seeing Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, the Andromeda galaxy, shooting stars, northern lights, various nebulae and much more. I wanted (and still want) to go in space to see all these mysterious and magnificent objects from up close. By itself, looking at the stars is a bad example because I almost always experience it deeply. I only need to start thinking about what these objects in the night sky actually are and try to picture their true size and distance in my own limited imagination. I crash and burn at the attempt like a rigorous artificial intelligence trying to make sense of “this statement is false”, and it feels good. I feel completely insignificant, and completely blown away by the greater context in which my short life is taking place. The harder I try to really picture these things, the deeper the emotional response. If I don’t even try, I don’t feel a thing. Wonder requires a conscious effort, but it can quickly become addictive.

Here is a slightly more subtle example. One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was Apollo 13. I loved the movie because, well, it’s a very well-made movie but also because it happens in space. I somehow knew it was depicting real events, but I wasn’t even born when these events happened. Most importantly, I didn’t have any real life experience that were remotely close to what the Apollo 13 crew went through. I couldn’t relate. For me, the events of Apollo 13 were closer to the events depicted in Star Wars than, for example, my first day at school. Let me rephrase that. Since for me, Apollo 13 was a movie, my emotional brain automatically categorized it as “remote/fiction”, despite the fact that my rational brain knew that these events happened for real.

This schism in my brain remained unscathed until last year, when I watched Apollo 13 again. While the movie was playing, I could glance out the window and see a beautiful moon crescent at the end of the afternoon. This is when my emotional brain and my rational brain made contact. The moon is real, look at it: it’s right there and this where these guys went! Look at how small it looks from here, look at how far it is! This is the moment when the Apollo 13 mission suddenly became real to me. It is also the moment I decided I would apply the next time the Canadian Space Agency would call for new astronauts.

Here is another example which will get me closer to the larger point I am trying to make. Until May 15th 2008, I live my entire life in the beautiful Canadian province of Québec. Unless you live in Montreal, Québec can be an extremely isolated place. If I could find a word that is opposite to “international”, this is the word I would use to describe it. Québec has only 7 million citizens and the population is concentrated on an axis along the St-Lawrence river, between Montréal and Québec city. No kidding, to go from one city to the other, it takes less than 4 hours.  To make the isolation worse, it is very easy to spend an entire lifetime in Québec speaking only French, despite the fact that it is surrounded by hundreds of millions of english-speaking people. Broadcasting regulations in Québec pose limits on how much (translated or not) english content can be broadcasted on the radio and TV. So Québec is isolated, not only geographically, but also culturally.

Québec city and the St-Lawrence River

Growing up in Québec, the most contact I had with the outside world was through the news or movies. For this reason, Vancouver, Boston, Toronto, Las Vegas, Geneva, Mumbai, and many other cities that I had only heard of registered as “fiction” in my emotional brain. Despite being fascinating to me, all these cities had this aura of mysticism that I couldn’t shake off. For me, everything that happened in these foreign places was a big deal, because all I heard from these places were big deals (news, events in TV shows and movies). I was falling prey to the all-too-common “the grass is greener at the neighbour’s” fallacy.

When I finally got to these places, I got conflicting impressions. These places were finally real to me and I got a tremendous thrill of just being there. But also, I realized how much ordinary stuff goes on in these places. The people living in these places may very well perceive your own hometown as a big deal too. The point is, these places finally got assigned a level of emotional reality. I am starting to get a vague impression of how big this Earth actually is, and how many people are living on it. I love it. This feeling amplifies each time I visit a new place. I don’t think I can ever go back to Québec’s close environment after experiencing this. I am now an Earthling, a human being, before being a Quebecer or Canadian.

A very similar case can be made for celebrities. We idealize these people to a level that we would never impose on our friends and family, and even ourselves. They can be models to us, and we feel betrayed and disillusioned every time one of them do something that deviates from this silly ideal we constructed.

Several hundred years ago, travel wasn’t big. People lived in their village, going about their day-to-day life in their little communities. Nowadays, our immediate access to information from all around the world gives us the false impression that we experience the world. If you never travel, never wonder what things are made of, never wonder how we came to be, never ponder the fact that every life form on this planet is your cousin (this one blows me away every time), or even wonder what the people you most admire do in their free time, you will be stuck with your superficial impression that these things are real, without really experiencing them. You will be stuck with the models you constructed, condemned to being away from the truth. You need to actively go after experiences that will connect your rational side to your emotional side. Learn as much as you can and connect the things you learn to real experiences. Travel, look at the stars, look at bugs, animals and plants, look at all that wonderful technology that surrounds you, and learn how it all came to be. If you taste the thrill of connecting your rational mind to your emotions, this will be you freedom pass out of boredom. If you don’t know where to begin, find a professional to take your hand!

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