By Vajragupta Staunton, Author of Free Time! from clock-watching to free-flowing a Buddhist guide
As mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘If you fill all your time, you won’t have any’. In modern life, especially in the digital age, we can cram our days full to bursting point. We rush around using technologies to ‘save time’, but what exactly are we saving it for? In the UK, 57% of workdays taken off sick are due to stress, and much stress is time related. There is something awry in our culture’s attitude to time. Our time can feel speedy, bitty, shallow; it froths and fidgets rather than flows.
There is a whole industry of time management, offering techniques for making more effective use of our time. But that metaphor of ‘management’ is revealing: we ‘manage’, ‘save’, ‘organise’, ‘spend’, or ‘invest’ our time, but mustn’t ‘waste’ it. Time becomes a commodity that we can possess and exploit to our best advantage. Time becomes a container, like a suitcase, which we need to pack as fully and efficiently as possible. Can we end up cramming it to bursting point?
We need to change the paradigm, and explore a whole other dimension of our relationship with time. This involves examining our actual experience of temporality. We all know that time is elastic, it stretches and contracts. Time has texture: it goes at a quick-march or at a snail’s pace, comes rushing fast or dripping slow, it can be smooth and flowing or stop-start-staccato, deep and satisfying or frustratingly shallow. What causes the perceived quantity and quality of our time to change so radically?
Firstly, the kind of attention that we give to our experience will also shape the time that it seems to happen ‘in’. For example, if we are visiting a new country or culture, our attention can be stimulated by the experience. So many things – the taste of the food, the sound of voices, the trees and buildings, the temperature and smell of the air – are different to what we are used to, and this enlivens our awareness. One result is that, after just a few days we feel like we have been there for weeks. Time unfolds quite differently to when we are back home.
We can, however, choose to practice this quality of attention in other situations. To develop more attention and awareness means life becomes more full and rich, and this will also be experienced as a fuller and richer sense of time. To be more mindful is to be more time-full. Practice mindfulness and you will live longer!
If we want more time – to play a game we are enjoying, or to prepare for a difficult exam – the time seems to rush by, and dissolve away into nothing. If, however, we want less time – wishing a boring journey could be over, sitting through a painful dentist appointment, or waiting for the final whistle when our team is hanging on to a slender lead – then time seems to drag.
In other words, if we are clinging to our current experience and resisting the future, time speeds up. If we are longing for some future experience, and pushing away from the present, time slows. Our attitude towards our experience – our minds pushing and pulling in relation to it – will also shape and texture the time it happens in. Perversely, time seems to do the opposite of what we want!
Recently I met an accomplished jazz musician and I asked him about his experience of time when playing music. ‘It is wonderful’, he said, ‘it is totally timeless’. ‘But’, I replied, ‘aren’t you keeping time, keeping perfect rhythm, with the other musicians? How can that be timeless?’ His response was that these were two different things. The musicians could be highly aware of each other, in synch with each other, in harmony with the flow of the music and its rhythm. In that sense, they kept perfect time. But that total harmony then felt ‘timeless’.
In other words, what we do with our minds, how we pay attention to the world, and our underlying stance towards it, shapes and colours what we actually experience, including even the time that it seems to happen ‘in’. And if we have certain habitual behaviours, that means we will experience a habitual mode of time. It becomes a habit and then, gradually, a whole way of life. We can feel we never have enough time.
Investigating our experience of time, and considering our relationship with it, can be deeply and powerfully transformative. Noticing the feel and texture of our time can help us see more clearly, and understand more profoundly, the anxiety and restlessness that so often dominates our minds.
Free Time! From Clock-Watching to Free-Flowing, a Buddhist Guide, by Vajragupta Staunton, is published by Windhorse Publications, and explores time, and our relationship with time, using the perspectives and practices of Buddhism. For more information, visit the website below.