What’s the problem?
“Many people now find that they live in a rush they don’t want and didn’t create, or at least didn’t mean to create. If you feel busier now than you’ve ever been before, and if you wonder if you can keep up this pace much longer, don’t feel alone. Most of us feel slightly bewildered, realizing we have more to do than ever–with less time to do it.” (Hallowell, M.D., p. 4)
We have a habit of rushing, which has been called hurry sickness, and time poverty, the feeling that we don’t have enough time. These mental and physiological habits strongly affect our health and well-being. Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen wrote, “I would say that 95 percent of the stress in our lives relates to our feeling of time poverty.” (p. 48)
According to Dr. Larry Dossey, “The importance of the exaggerated response to time, the sense of urgency . . . is that it is translated into physiologic effects. These effects are pervasive and are seen long before heart disease supervenes. These physiological events are so characteristic of time-sick persons, they could be called the time syndrome. Among them are increased heart rate and blood pressure at rest; elevation of certain blood hormones . . . increased blood cholesterol; an increased respiratory rate; increased secretory activity of sweat glands; and increased muscle tension throughout the body. The time syndrome is a body-mind process with effects on all major systems. It is not simply a conscious experience of unpleasant feelings.” (p. 51)
“The chronic misjudgment of the nature of time should be seen for what it really is: chronic disease itself. It is a silent process, but for many of us an inexorable one leading to disease which can be fatal. We do not ordinarily judge it in these terms, of course, and too frequently ascribe our sense of time urgency to ‘nerves.’ Having misjudged the cause of our distress, we misjudge the solutions— tranquilizers and alcohol are too often the most commonly trusted antidotes.” (Dossey, p. 166)
“Many illnesses–perhaps most–may be caused either wholly or in part by our misperception of time. . . . I am convinced that we can destroy ourselves through the creation of illness by perceiving time in a linear, one-way flow.” (Dossey, p. 21)
“Heart disease is a direct outgrowth of Western culture, found in societies in a hurry, in which life is rushed.” (Rechtschaffen, p. 172)
Three types of time
To facilitate a clear analysis of the problem, it can be helpful to distinguish three types of time.
(1) Physical or event time is the continual occurrence of physical and experiential events, including the movement of the earth around the sun, and the movement of the moon around the earth.
“Time and tide wait for no man.” “We all have the same amount of time, 24 hours a day.” These statements refer to a kind of time that’s independent of us, a physical, historical, or evolutionary time measured by clocks and watches.
(2) Measured time includes various ways of measuring physical or event time. So ‘measured time’, which is sometimes called ‘clock time’ (even though not all cultures use clocks to measure time), is a way to associate numbers with ‘event time’ in order to coordinate with other people and events, and to think about our progress in various ways. Most cultures use clocks and watches, and subtract a ‘start time’ from a ‘stop time’ to figure out ‘how long’ something takes.
‘Telling time’ is knowing how to measure time in your culture, knowing how much measured ‘clock time’ corresponds to the events that are happening ‘now’. Most children’s books on time are primarily about learning how to ‘tell time’ this way.
The third face of time is probably most important for our happiness, although it’s also probably the face that is least understood and most undervalued. It’s not abstract, but an essential component of our experience.
(3) Personal, inner, or psychological time. Personal time is a personal way of experiencing time that pervades and can restrict experience and performance. “A characteristic rhythm flows within human experience, organizing that experience in the same way that the beat of a drum organizes music.” (Tarthang Tulku, 1990, p. 68) Like a personal space, our version of a private space that surrounds us, we have a characteristic personal cycle time required to perceive sensations and process information. Heat, emotions, caffeine , drugs, and our habits affect the rate of everything we do.
The Dalai Lama said that there can be great variations in personal time: “Depending on how advanced your level of mind is, your perception of time changes. Something that ordinarily appears as momentary may appear very long. And as you’re dying, there can be both normal time and this expanded time. As you shift to the subtle body, time expands. Consciousness is not tied down by the physical body. For the subtle body, things can move faster than the speed of light.” (Dalai Lama, p. 10)
Linear personal time
In the most common Western version of personal time, the linear view, time seems like a conveyor belt that moves horizontally at a constant and unchangeable speed between past, present, future ‘rooms’ in our experience. (Hall, pp. 78-9.) These different aspects of time are actually felt to be separate. We are located in the present ‘room’.
Linear time is a major and fundamental feature of our Western cultural world-view. It may have originated with Newton, some 300 years ago, when Newton portrayed time as an absolute physical reality, and regarded the passage of time as independent of consciousness. From a linear-time world-view, it doesn’t matter what you think, feel, or do, or how you look at time—time doesn’t change. As a result, we feel somewhat helpless in the face of time.
Despite this ‘standard’ belief that time is independent of consciousness, we somehow also feel a flow of time within ourselves, an internal mirroring of the ‘real’, constant external flow. This is considered the norm. In fact, we use the phrase “losing track of time” to indicate a kind of negligence when our internal feeling of time passing (FTP) doesn’t ‘accurately track’ the presumed external flow of time. Our sense of time, the ability to estimate what the clock time is, seems connected to our FTP. It is often believed to result from an internal biological mechanism that tracks or measures external time flow.
It is the FTP that sets up the host of familiar problems mentioned above, relating to time pressure, anxiety, time poverty, etc. “Nothing ever is in passing-time. . . . The time-man in us does not know now. He is always preparing something in the future, or busy with what happened in the past. . . . This is becoming, where nothing ever is. . . . In time all things are seeking completion, but in now all things are complete. . . . What we call the present moment is not now, for the present moment is on the horizontal line of time, and now is vertical to this and incommensurable with it.” (Nicoll, p. 11)
“Time appears as a linear series of events related in a cause-effect chain. The origin of our world must then be sought at the beginning of this chain , a causeless cause or an infinite series–something rather obscure and unnatural in either case.” (Tarthang Tulku, 1976, p. 4) Feeling time flow linearly includes a continual struggle and when exaggerated, a race against time. Whatever we do is effortful and stressful; time has a kind of built in friction. But as long as FTP is thought to simply mirror external events, it’s considered unchangeable, like the presumed constant external flow of time.
Since this variety of personal time feels out of our control, it seems our only choice is to adapt to this temporal ‘reality’, finding ways to work ‘within’ its limitations as skillfully as possible. This is what conventional time management programs do. They focus on the event and clock time we have available for tasks we wish to accomplish. They promise to improve the quality of our personal time, our experiences of time, but as time management teacher Stephen Covey says, “Concerns about quality of life are just as likely to come from someone with a high level of time management training as from someone without it. . . . the fundamental problem remains . . . .” (Covey, p. 31) Conventional time management cannot deliver what it promises because it does not directly confront, nor resolve, the habitual mental and physiological way of experiencing linear time that we learn in Western cultures. So even as we practice time management, we continue to feel like we’re being swept downstream by the river of time.
But personal time is fabricated
But actually this linear view of time is just a fabrication, our conditioning, a stressful and counterproductive Western habit. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall says “each culture has its own time frames in which the patterns are unique.” (Hall, p. 4) Northern Europeans tend to do one thing at a time. Mediterranean cultures stress involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules; appointments are not taken seriously. “In the West . . . time is an outside force helping us to organize our lives. In the East, time springs from the self and is not imposed.” (Hall, p. 91)
Felt personal time depends on culture, but it also depends on an individual’s conditioning within a culture. As infants we have no sense of time flowing in a linear way. According to psychiatrist Peter Hartocollis, “The experience or sense of time, and later the perception of time as an attribute of objective reality, is a function of consciousness. It grows along with consciousness, beginning with the differentiation of the self from the object world.…What gradually establishes the sense of time as duration . . . is the felt inadequacy of the self in terms of growing unpleasure and the awareness of the possibility that the need-fulfilling object—mother—may or may not come.” (Hartocollis, pp. 5-6) Thus the sense of linear time is developed gradually, and Western child-development studies suggest that it is fully present by about the age of seven.
Timeless personal time
Anthropology and child development studies suggest so, but do we know from our personal experience that linear time is a fabrication rather than a ‘reality’? Consider this:
What was your experience of time during peak experiences, the best moments or periods of your life? Did you experience time ‘normally’?
In the seminars I taught over twenty years I asked thousands of people these questions, and almost all of them said that their peak performance felt timeless, without the ‘normal’ friction and effort. They said, “Time doesn’t flow then, at least not in the ‘normal’ way. I’m either not aware of time passing at all, or it seems to go fast, but without a feeling of being out of control.”
So during their best moments, they’re not feeling time in ‘the standard’ way, when it’s passing and its passing is out of control, making us anxious. There are things happening, which is ‘event time’, yet ‘personal felt time’ doesn’t have an ‘arrow’—it doesn’t have a sense of heading in a particular direction.
This is common knowledge about common experiences. The things that we really get involved in are ‘over’ ‘before we know it’—this kind of ‘felt time’ is often called ‘timelessness’. When we’re completely absorbed in something, totally engaged or preoccupied, there’s a sense of being very present with what’s at hand, and time doesn’t seem to pass in the ‘standard’ way. Timelessness is a kind of ‘felt time’ that actually doesn’t seem to ‘pass’ at all.
“Depending on a person’s spiritual maturity or realization, there could be a difference in how one sees the moment. . . . For instance, if two people attend a party, one person might be so absorbed in the party he would feel that time went [snaps his fingers] just like that! Whereas the other person who did not enjoy it very much might have felt it long, dragging, because he was thinking about when it would finish.” (Dalai Lama, p. 5)
Abraham Maslow noted this phenomenon: “There is “the frequent report, especially by lovers, of the complete loss of extension in time.…It is as if they had, in a way, some place in another world in which time simultaneously stood still and moved with great rapidity.” (Maslow, p. 76)
According to Dr. Dossey, “In total immersion in a task, whether listening to lungs or weeding vegetable gardens, time is abolished. It stands still.” (Dossey, p. 34)
Time management instructors Hunt and Hait wrote: “When we live in the now and are totally absorbed by the activity at hand, we become our most positive and productive selves. . . . Engrossed in the now, we slip effortlessly into a no-boundary place in time and space, a timeless dimension where energy abounds and time is irrelevant.” (Hunt and Hait, p. 66)
According to Stanford professor Michael Ray: “If you pay attention at every moment . . . you become more efficient, productive, and energetic, focusing without distraction directly on the task in front of you. Not only do you become immersed in the moment, you become that moment.” (Hunt and Hait, p. 67)
What does all this mean? What can we conclude? At least these two things:
- Linear time is not an unchangeable ‘reality’. Since one variety of our personal time can actually be a sense of timelessness, with time not passing in ‘the standard’ way, it’s clear that there’s a range of possible ways of experiencing time.
- When we’re completely absorbed in something, totally engaged or preoccupied, there’s a sense that time doesn’t flow, at least not in the ‘normal’ way. So our experience of time depends on how involved or engaged we are in what’s at hand. Bergson’s findings are relevant here: ” time seems to slow down, run, or stop, depending on one’s emotional states and attention dynamics.” (Mainemelis, p. 552)
How is the experience of linear time generated?
Clearly there’s a range of possible ways of experiencing time. How are these different experiences generated in our experience? Understanding this might help us alleviate the time pressure and anxiety that we feel. Here are some descriptions:
Tarthang Tulku said that “The movement of time is only a subtle trick . . . Different moments occurring in or establishing different ‘locations’ in time actually occur and remain within the same time . . . .” (Dimensions of Thought, p. xliv)
Chogyam Trungpa seemed to agree, saying that our sense of movement or passing of time is fabricated from momentary discriminations: “The experience of oneself relating to other things is actually a momentary discrimination, a fleeting thought. If we generate these fleeting thoughts fast enough, we can create the illusion of continuity and solidity. It is like watching a movie, the individual film frames are played so quickly that they generate the illusion of continual movement. So we build up an idea, a preconception, that self and other are solid and continuous.” (Trungpa, pp. 12-15)
Neurologist Oliver Sacks also suggests a cinematographic model: “One level of brain activity [Trungpa’s ‘fleeting thoughts’?] may be working automatically, while another, the conscious level, is fashioning a perception of time, a perception which is elastic, and can be compressed or expanded. . . . William James speculated that our judgment of time, our speed of perception, depends on how many ‘events’ we can perceive in a given unit of time. There is much to suggest that conscious perception (at least, visual perception) is not continuous but consists of discrete moments, like the frames of a movie, which are then blended to give an appearance of continuity.” (p. 64)
“Cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana writes that direct experience emerges out of chaos and ‘is a dynamic that disappears as it takes place. Living takes place in no time, without past or future. Past, present, and future are notions that we human beings, we observers, invent as we explain our coherences in the now’.” (Mainemelis, p. 550)
Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis, a professor at the London Business School, drawing from numerous other writers including philosopher Henri Bergson and psychiatrist Peter Hartocollis, suggests that we “draw a distinction between direct–or immediate–and ordinary experience. Direct experience is the experience of the immediate present moment and consists of fleeting apprehended instants, which in and of themselves are atemporal: they are instantaneous impressions of an external reality characterized by heterogeneity and nonlinear patterns of change. . . . as the instants of direct experience are processed . . . they are linked to one another and experienced as an inner duration . . . as states . . . lasting for a moment and then fading away, but which are also infinite because they permeate each other, living and disappearing within each other as a continuous and holistic flow of events. As inner duration is generated by instants that contain one another, the self is made up by states that generate each other . . . .
“When inner duration is projected to external space, it cannot . . . be experienced as states that permeate each other, because space consists of momentary patterned structures that are heterogeneous and do not envelop each another. Instead, duration is now experienced as states that are arranged side by side, as in space, each “now” state being surrounded by a state “just passed” and a state expected “to come,” on a continuum that is conceptualized as time . . . . Bergson saw this process as a kind of cinematographic operation: consciousness takes several snapshots of reality; it keeps a record of them by means of inner duration; it arranges them successively side by side to form a reel; and it projects the reel back to space “in high speed,” creating the illusion of a uniform linear movement that progresses through an invisible homogeneous medium of “time.” . . . Time, however, exists only in the apparatus.
“Without inner duration there would be no becoming–only instantaneous experience. Without the notion of time, the self would be a heterogeneous multiplicity of impressions varying infinitely across different moments in terms of qualities, evolution. and acts .By inventing time. consciousness is, in fact, creating an abstract homogeneous medium, in which the self can change, age, and evolve while paradoxically always enduring. In other words. By projecting inner duration to the external world, consciousness temporalizes external change into “before and after”–into past. Present, and future states–and ascribes to the self and other objects a lasting ontological quality that endures through change and goes beyond the experiential moment of recognition.
“Ordinary experience, then, is the experience of the present moment as integrated in a sequence of other moments and events–as a tiny link attached to an infinite chain of experiences and instants. Ordinary experience presupposes the notion of time, but direct experience is timeless.” (Mainemelis, pp. 549-550)
What Can We Do?
Explanations such as those above may be suggestive of how our experience of time is generated, yet my personal and teaching experience shows that understanding intellectually what’s going on isn’t sufficient to break our mental and physiological habit, the time syndrome as Dr. Dossey put it (p. 51). As Dr. Rechtschaffen said, “Understanding time . . . isn’t enough . . . . When you learn to embody time, when you can shift it at will, then you will experience a wholeness, a freedom—time freedom . . . .” (p. 20) This requires transformation, not “an attitude or a conceptual shift of some kind.” (Tarthang Tulku, Dimensions of Thought, p. xxxv)
We change our linear time habit by first being aware of it precisely as it is, yet without taking its limits at face value. “Ordinarily, we are so concerned about trying to wrestle with lower time, working within the limits of that time [as conventional time management does]. More ‘esoteric’ traditions [and many systems of meditation] try to break out of lower time, although they may call it by another name. In either case, we seek techniques, tools, methods, skills, and information. There is another way, fully contained within what may first appear as the ‘present moment’. . . .
If we know how to look, the caring or support is immediately available within each of the moments which combine to constitute our lives. The humble moment, when seen as time, space, and knowledge, is a target worth aiming at. It’s the vital center of the universe; if we hit it, we explode everything that prevents fulfillment, attaining everything that fulfills.” (Tarthang Tulku, Dimensions of Thought, p. xlvi-xlvii)
Though we clearly would like to stop struggling with linear time, for most of us this means breaking a body-mind habit that we built over years, or even decades, so “most of us won’t suddenly become comfortable with time. The process is a natural unfolding.” (Hunt and Hait, p. 241) The time-space-knowledge vision summarizes the path we traverse in transforming our relationship to time as follows. We go “from ordinary cause-effect succession, point by point
to an appreciation of ‘timing’ which is still construed in conformity with the ‘succession’ picture:
That is, we can see ‘timing’ as expressing everything within the series, and as permitting the conventionally accepted passage from one situation (point) to the next. We may then go on to relate to ‘timing’ as being a more truly higher-level factor, timing out our situations from ‘above’ and permitting some chance to ‘return’:
The small size of the arrows pointing ‘up’ is an indication of transcendence still being seen as only a slight, rather exceptional possibility compared to the ‘regular’, ‘down’ direction. The solid line represents the ‘time’ continuum available to us (in contrast to the isolated points of ordinary time). As our conviction in a standard, spread-out realm ‘here below’ weakens, we may let go of the ‘outside-stander’ picture of ‘the external world’. Instead, we may see all serial ‘timing’ to be occurring in the same place, rather than establishing an extended ‘world out there’. That is, all going from place to place, experience to experience, which validates the picture of a spread out world, actually occurs as a succession of ’timed out’ experiences
. . . As ‘upward’ lifting and opening become more pronounced, this insight into ‘non-going’ results in a collapse of ‘here’ and the here-there, infinite-above-limited-below view. It becomes a more encompassing, open-ended ‘here’. Serial one-by-one replacement of experiences within ‘here’ is not necessary, because ‘here’ can embrace them all at once. Along the way, ‘timed out’ succession, and ‘timed out’ togetherness within each point,
(Tarthang Tulku, 1977, pp. 150-152)
To facilitate this transformation and the direct experience of the time-space-knowledge vision, the Time, Space, and Knowledge books offer more than a hundred exercises, about thirty of which deal very directly with time. (The Time, Space, and Knowledge (TSK) books are available from www.DharmaPublishing.com.) Here are the names of some of the time exercises: Past, Present, Future of Each Moment; Reversing Temporal Structure; Diving into Time; Going without Going; A Marriage of Sound and Breath; Inventing the Past; Moments Between Moments; Reversing Time; Projecting the Future; Point of Transition; Glowing Journey in Time; Time of Thinking; Abiding in Thought; Commanding Time; Dynamic Time; Penetrating Time; Opening Time, and Embracing Time.
In the training I am currently offering to transform our experience of time, besides some of the exercises presented in the TSK texts, I have added these exercises: Clock Watching; Clock Watching with Breathing Exercise; Time Calling; Card Sorting; Deadline Visualization; Seeing through Negativity; Estimating the Speed of Time’s Flow; and the Presume. (For information on this training, see http://www.tskassociation.org/mastering-linear-time.html )
Other books–notably Time Shifting and The Tao of Time–offer some preliminary instructions or visualizations, yet nothing on the order of TSK, LOK, KTS, and DTS. Moreover, these other texts do not offer time transformation exercises within a comprehensive vision of human development.
Let’s start a ‘time movement’!
Before we run out of time, “The misuse of time in today’s society should lead to a ‘time movement’.” (Rechtschaffen, p. 226)
“We are building very fragile structures in time, and since this cycle not only repeats itself but also escalates in intensity, we and our structures do have a definite limit. Eventually, the pressures built up within our crowded space by a driving, uncontrollable time may become more than our knowledge can handle.” (Tarthang Tulku, Dimensions of Thought, p. xx)
“Unless we consciously learn to control time in our lives, the stress we suffer will only get worse. We are at the mercy of all the messages in our society that tell us to go faster, do more, produce more, buy more . . . . Until we learn to control time consciously, our lives will continue to speed away from us . . . .” (Rechtschaffen, p. 14)
“Today, for individuals as well as for members of the workforce, shifting rhythm is essential not only to physical and mental well-being, but also to improved productivity. A good many management consultants believe this as much as I do.” (Rechtschaffen, p. 150)
“Unfortunately, the poor use of our time does not make us fat, and so its effects are less visible. That may be why the problem has not yet been given national priority. Nevertheless, it can make us as sick as overeating. Ulcers, heart attacks, and cancers are created in the furrows of stress, which is to time what obesity is to food. In a sense, this situation is much more serious, because many more people suffer from stress than from obesity.” (Servant-Schreiber, p. 31)
We can get results in no time
Utne Magazine editor Jay Walljasper said, “A balanced life—with intervals of creative frenzy giving way to relaxed tranquility—is what people crave.” (p. 45) But we are not stuck with a false balance that is really just alternating between trying to keep up with the rat race and then dropping out for a while. Composer Philip Glass knows another possibility: “There are people who work a lot and then they get all frazzled. It isn’t that way for me. . . . It is not a question of building up to a point and then having to release it.” (Walljasper, p. 47)
Instead of the momentum of linear or serial time, certain individuals have learned to end the momentum and perhaps even find a sense of stillness within all activities. “Time is neither linear nor sequential; in fact, there are neither moments nor successive movement, and thus no succession.” (Tarthang Tulku, 1977, p. 136)
A physician used this visualization to deal with headaches: “I watch the River of Time flow gently for a while . . . . The river slowly starts to curve so much that it begins to flow back on itself, gradually forming a complete circle. . . . the circular River of Time . . . starts to flood its banks inwardly . . . . and as it continues a giant lake is formed. . . . The surface becomes calm and still, reflective as a mirror. . . . time itself, has ceased to flow. . . . This timeless Lake of Time is indescribably serene, like a high alpine lake you encounter unexpectedly and never want to leave. It fills me with a sense of peace and I stay there feeling the stillness of the Lake of Time for as long as I wish.” (Dossey, p. 20
Many athletes have spoken about being “’in the zone,’ a place where there is no linear time and we are the complete masters of our bodies and of the sport itself.” (Rechtschaffen, p. 162. See also In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports. Michael H. Murphy and Rhea A. White. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.)
Whether we’re athletes or not, at any moment balance can be found within the undisturbed ‘eye’ of our whirlwind of activity. We can learn to find, and perhaps remain ‘within’, the most peaceful, yet most productive ‘zone’ at the center of our activities. Philip Glass described it very well: “My normal activity, which is very high-paced compared to normal standards, is integrated into a steady, calm place in the center which doesn’t get bothered.” (Walljasper, p. 47)
For additional information, see http://www.tskassociation.org/got-time-introduction.html
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