At first it seems calm, clear and objective, as in ‘the train will arrive at 10:48’, but as we live in it, it expands and contracts and occasionally pauses; it enshrines events when we had the time of our lives; and it is variously experienced as ease, frustration, panic, flow, tedium, or memories of nostalgia or regret. Subjective time is the felt thing, and if it fits the objective reality of clocks and dates, that’s quite a blessing. As it is, the clocks, the bleeps and the lights generally and implacably trump our sense of flow, rhythm or agreeable ease: you have to get going, you have to wait, your flight is cancelled.
Ever wonder what it was like before we had clocks and their offspring? Of course we all know that that was millennia ago, because now our living reality is detached from our presence. It is a tele-( literally ‘far off’) reality whereby the world is ‘out there’ and we race after it or try to connect to it with our phones, internet, and TVs. So much so that even with those devices switched off, that reality absorbs our attention – we’re heading for the future, we’re haunted by the past, we’re wondering how long it will take to achieve a goal; in fact if we don’t have a goal we feel lost as if we’re wasting precious time. We’ve internalised a convention that best fits machines – and even they break down, experience delays and grow obsolete. This time is just plain dukkha.
Real time is embodiedA memory comes to mind: of an occasion when I took a group out for a walk in the New Forest in southern England. (Well, it was ‘New’ in 1079.) This was meant to be a ‘day off’, an occasion to be with Nature in this spacious rural area. To dawdle, go off track, poke around among the trees, or contemplate birds and deer. Whatever. To my surprise, the group hastened down one of the main paths, in a tight-knit group, three abreast, exchanging animated remarks and arrived back at the minibus in a couple of hours. I then insisted that we spend at least half an hour before returning to the monastery, just to enjoy where we were. By the time I returned to the bus, the others were waiting by its door … It was as if they couldn’t open out of the trajectory hinted at by the path (one doesn’t have to follow it) and weren’t aware of the possibility ( or even the benefits) of breaking out of the everyday rhythm of their lives – in which there’s some goal or another, and that the best thing would be to get there as quickly as possible. Keeping conversations going obscured the vision of a natural world, and they were in their self-oriented reality. Driven by habitual aims and guided by known paths, mental time becomes an aspect of our ‘self’; consequently it is disorienting to drop out of it.
Mental time is often oriented around
systems and conventions, or at least to what they present. But it can shift,
and allow us to deepen. A few years ago I was walking on a two-month
cross-country hike. Physically uncomfortable, its exquisite aspect was that it
presented no agenda, nowhere that I had to get to, and no one to keep up with,
wait for or meet. Granted I was carrying maps for navigation – as to where a
town might be where I could go for alms, or where there might be a patch of
woodland where I could pitch my tent for the night. After a while I noticed a
pattern of shifts: I would start the walk each day celebrating the freedom, and
attuned to the vibrancy of the natural world. But whenever I looked at my map,
I noticed my mind would race, calculate distance, estimate the time it would
take to cover it – and the pace of my walking would speed up, accompanied by a
pushy mental tone: ‘destination fever’. But when, having completed the
navigation check, I put the map away and came out of the idea of where I was
going to relate fully to where I was now, the fever dropped away and the
natural world returned. And with that there was a walking that was in the world
rather than going through it to get somewhere else. (Where’s that anyway?)
So real time is that of the embodied mind, a mind that is connected to the world around it. Understanding that gives us a useful checkpoint on mental time, the time of our thoughts, emotions and reactions. You know: you have an interaction with someone, there is a sudden flurry, you feel dismissed or threatened and suddenly words are rushing out of your mouth that provoke a like response from the other person. Or maybe you’re sitting peacefully and you remember some forthcoming event and suddenly you’re out of your seat with a vortex of thoughts churning in your head: ‘what if this … have I prepared for that?’ Mental time is particularly obstructive in meditation: you’re walking attuned to the sense of openness; there's the sense of moving within a space whose qualities change but whose presence is constant … and then there’s a snag in attention ... and you’re wondering how long to do this for, or whether this will take you into jhāna ... and then that shifts into remembering a retreat with so-and-so, and then someone you met on that retreat ... and as you snap out of all that, you find you’re walking faster, the space has disappeared and you’re getting frustrated that ‘I can’t do walking meditation.’ But this is walking meditation: it’s a great way of noticing the shifts from real embodied space and disembodied time. And, by returning to awareness of the textures of the body, the contact with the ground and the space that’s always around you, it teaches you to come out of disembodied time and into natural rhythm.
Finding your real timeSlowing down may seem to be the key to taking one's time, and, considering the pace that people live at, that’s a good pointer in many cases. But it’s also the case that people can insist on going slowly when in the bigger picture it isn’t appropriate to do so. Ajahn Sumedho recounts an occasion of a sangha meeting when some members were intent on walking at the very slow pace of the Burmese Satipatthana meditation method – even though that meant that everyone else had to wait for an hour for them to arrive at the meeting hall. The two groups were not in the same time – even though for a sangha meeting, that’s the one that fits.
Finding real time isn't always about slowing down, and although I have mentioned ‘subjective time’, I don’t mean that the pace of things should go in line with the inclinations of the isolated individual. Rather that although the pace is felt internally, it is set by the individual’s appropriate relationship to the directly sensed world that they are part of right now. It is relational time, Dogen’s ‘being-time’, or the Greek ‘kairos’, the moment that fits. This keeps things fluid.
The entry to this is through embodiment. Embodiment is simply the realisation that directly now, when you drop the notions and go into how the body experiences itself, you’ll sense that it is always in contact with ground or space or movement or warmth. So much so that it is experienced as a part of a world that we conceive of, and see, as being outside it. (If we were really outside it, how could we move through it or be affected by it?) In the felt experience, body has no edges, it extends. When you dwell in that embodied awareness, you notice how the phenomenal world ‘out there’ subtly resonates through you. You see a bird in flight, there is a subtle shift of energy and tonality in the muscles that ‘sympathise’ with the flying and you feel the flexing of its wings. Otherwise you aren’t really apprehending the bird, you're forming an idea about it. In the embodied state, you see the bark of a tree and you feel a qualitative change in your skin, particularly the fingers. This isn’t unusual, it’s just that we barely acknowledge it. We see someone dive and feel thrilled breathless as they enter the water. Traffic makes us cringe away from its hard unfeeling movement, whereas we might feel excited and energised by a herd of horses. From that awareness, you take your cues as to speed; you don’t ‘mindfully’ dawdle when a herd of cattle are bearing down on you, but you might mindfully run, or stand. Sitting in front of a keyboard, I wouldn’t know right now.
But I experience as I tune into the world as it is now, a sense of open space within which the intent to communicate something useful roams. Memories, insights and pieces of information rise up, and I follow them. If the urge to ‘get this done’ arises, I note how my reality contracts, there is a slight tension in my body and the writing becomes work that I have to complete. Isn’t it more fitting to trust real time and balance within it?
Practice: aimless wanderingTry it. One way I have found to be useful is that of ‘aimless wandering’: first cancel any schedule for the next 10-15 minutes, switch off all communications and stand, attuning to balance, feeling it and feeling how it is to be 'me' in that for a few moments. Then track the attention shifts and interests that accompany the physical senses – you might notice the light coming through the window, or the texture of the floor beneath your feet, or a detail of a picture on the wall. Don't lock onto any of this, but notice interest, and the feeling that arises. Then let your attention shift as it will. Let it be slow – enough to acknowledge the interests, the feel and the shifts as attention changes its focus. Attention may zoom in, or shift to a sound, a thought or another sight. After a couple of minutes, follow that shift with small and slow bodily movement. You might take a step or two, or touch something. Use the rest of the clock-time to follow, allowing for pauses, and that the shift of attention and interest might mean that you don't complete a movement. In this way, you sample the movement of the cluster of attention, intention and impression (the activations of mind) within a context. You can practise something like this when doing walking meditation – except with that you stay within the theme of walking to and fro – as if you're walking through something. You are: it's the world of the six senses (that is, it includes the mental). So the context is a field that spans these senses and what they pick up. In this you aren't dividing into a self within an environment, but more accurately holding that field and sensing the mental shifts and affects in it. The speed of those is your real time.
Then the next time you’re in an argument, a panic, or a worry, pause and put aside the conceiving of who’s right, or how to fix things. Ask yourself to tune into your body for a few seconds – then bring your body’s time into it: feel the rhythm of breathing, sense the pulses and let those natural rhythms adjust your mind in terms of those activations. Such as: can my intention pause for a moment? Can my attention widen so that the trigger point that is affecting me is held in a more spacious and calmer perspective? As that becomes possible, you'll notice that the feel, the contact-impression gets less intense and you don't feel pinned by it. As regards a response, let that come in its time. Above all, you won't lose your centre, and you won't be building a wall. Then whether you act, make eye-contact with the other, or deepen into your body, the movement that fits will arise. You’ll have widened out of the contracted mind into embodiment, and that keeps the right time.