“You can make more money but you can’t make more time.” This advice, usually offered by well-meaning people who are encouraging Aspirationals to spend more “quality time” with others, is only one way to think about time.
And not the most accurate, or the most useful, way.
Like money, time is a little bit magic. If you’ve ever been in a serious accident, or had your life threatened, you’ll have experienced this. When I was 21 hitchhiking through France, one evening as it grew dark, a young man jumped into our tent, brandishing a knife.
The moment we were in stretched to what felt like infinity.Time slowed, almost stopped, and I had the experience of what seemed like every single thing that had ever happened to me flashing through my brain.
Fifteen years later, when I stood in a hospital and heard a paediatrician tell me that my six-year-old son had meningitis, I had the opposite experience. It was the future that came flooding in — our sorrow, the hole in our home, his sister growing up without him — but again, accompanied by that strange opening and slowing of time.
In both cases, the physical threat passed, clock-time resumed its tick-tick-tick. But since then I’ve known that time is not linear.
And when I began to go creative, I experimented with time. Now, as often as I can, I slip out of the forward march of clock time into a different zone.
Time, like everything else we experience, is a creation of the human brain, and is experienced in (at least) three dimensions.
1. Clock Time
Tick tock, tick tock. This is the most common way of thinking about time, and we forget how new it is. For millions of years, humans existed without the calendars and clocks that now run so much of our lives.
In this zone, the time-managers are right. Time is fixed and we can’t make any more of it. 60 seconds in an hour, 24 hours a day and then clock time turns to calendar time, as we organize it into seven days a week, four(ish) weeks in a month, twelve months in a year.
The harnessing of calendar time is now the engine that drives our society, from the moment of our hospital birth through school timetables and work schedules and social meetings and events, and the transport systems that carry us around from one to the next.
A quantity-focused relationship with time leaves the same frustrations as a quantity-focused relationship with money. This ignites con-mind and one of con-mind’s favourite delusions is that there isn’t enough.
If I believe I only have so much time, and so much to do, that is my experience. But if, as I make anything else I also realise I am making time, and if I have the creative intention to expand my time, to open at each moment to the heights of transcendent time, to the depths of profound time, an hour can hold a lifespan.
Creative Use of Clock-Time: Recognise that, as Tolstoy said,”there is only one important time and it is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future?”
You may be looking back to extract a lesson from the past, but you are doing that now. You may be setting out plans or goals for the future, but you are doing so now.
OVER TO YOU: To use clock time well, remain rooted in the present as you make your arrangements, sort your plans, learn your lessons. Return to now and drop thoughts as much, and as often, as possible.
When you observe your mind projecting into the future (watch for anxiety, or “what-if”s), or dwelling on the past (watch for self-criticism or blame), understand that you’re moving out of clock-time into conceptual time.
2. Conceptual Time
The phrase “Time is Money” is an example of conceptual time. It implies that time is a possession you exchange or trade. This, says Lewis Richmond, author of Work As A Spiritual Practice, is why the religious teachers of old all agreed there was something corrosive about money, “the way that money alters our state of mind, our sense of time…”
Richmond spent the first half of his adult life in the San Francisco Zen Centre, studying Buddhist thought and practice under the famous master, Suzuki Roshi. “That was what was so striking about my own transition from the monastery to the office. In the monastery time doesn’t belong to anyone. It is something to be shared.”
Conceptual time thinks of human existence as a linear forward march from birth. We’re all headed in a good direction until we get to the peak, somewhere around 25 years old, and then in a bad direction, through the ravaging effects of time as we age. Underneath, always, is a mostly unacknowledged fear. A fear that was best summed up by a T-shirt slogan doing the rounds a while ago: “Life’s a bitch. And then you die.”
This fear drives a great deal of human behaviour and is the root of most human anguish.
Ideologies like communism, fascism and fundamentalist religion all put faith in a mind-projected future, when something better (equality or conservative values or salvation) will be ours — once we get past the enslavement, war, torture and genocide we have to implement first in order to get there.
You’re probably not a murderous fascist or you wouldn’t be reading this book but are you trying to get somewhere other than where you are? Are you turning now into:
• A yearning: for a future fulfilment, the job, the deal, the person who will make you happy, give your life meaning, some day?
• A rumination: about your childhood, your relationship with the parent who never loved you, your bad luck, the weather?
• A chase: of sex, food, drink, drugs, work, money?
Creative Use of Conceptual Time: One of the effects of Creative Practice is that it changes our concept of time. Mindfree Movement tunnels all time down into the feeling of the body in space. F-R-E-E-Writing allows us to live remembered pasts and imagined futures, whenever we want. And Inspiration Meditation expands our sense of time, opens it up.
“I often use the phrase ‘thick time’ to describe this phenomenon,” says Lewis. “At work we experience time as thin — rushed, hurried, noisy, distracted. Following our breathing, minute by minute, hour by hour, time becomes neither slow nor fast. Time revers to just what it is.”
And what is it? It is the holder of now. It is my breath breathing, my body sitting, my fingers tapping the laptop keys, the sunshine spilling in the window, the murmuring voices across the room ordering coffee, the floor under my feet, the ceiling over my head.
OVER TO YOU: Whenever adding too much future brings on anxiety, stress and unease or adding too much past brings on guilt, regret or grievance, apply Byron Katie’s questions. Take, for example the sentence so many of us say so often: “I don’t have enough time”.
1.Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
2.Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
3.How do you react, what happens, when you believe this thought?
4.Who would you be without this thought?
3. Creative Time
The renowned creativity researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, began researching flow after he became fascinated by how artists can “get lost” in their work, losing all sense of clock time — often to the extent of disregarding their need for food, water and even sleep.
But what Csikszentmihalyi and his team observed and concluded over three decades of research is that when we get lost in time, there is no loss. Our experience of time becomes more expansive and we find parts of ourselves that are missing in cognitive and clock time. The experience of creative time is more evident in the lives of artists, because artists have to access it to work well, but it is available to us all.
At its core is the act of creative surrender, something we can all enjoy.
When we go creative, we remove the moment we are in from the forward march of clock/cognitive time and open it to timelessness.
I wrote a lot about time after my early experiences with Inspiration Meditation but it was when I was in cancer treatment, when from the materialist perspective time felt like it might be running out, that I experienced creative time most thoroughly. Time stopped being a fast flowing stream and became oceanic.
Creative time is the simple act of yielding to, rather than opposing, blocking or running away from, the flow of life. It’s about noticing the space, the nothingness that is here, now, beneath whatever thing or person or experience is taking over our thoughts.
Every atom in every seemingly solid thing consists mostly of space but we give so much attention to the solid, so little to the spacious. Novelist Joy Williams says a writer must serve “that cold elemental grace which knows us… somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness – those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.” It’s the same for creativists.
We are at least as (if not more) interested in what goes on inside as what happens outside; at least as (if not more) interested in nothingness as in somethingness.
Creative time is an open, spacious, present moment, where we drop deeply into nothingness and experience the soft space that surrounds hard matter. In such a moment, everything expands.
OVER TO YOU: WRITING THE MOMENT (F-R-E-E-Writing Exercise)
Sit in stillness and quiet, with your notebook open before you, your pen beside it. For two full minutes, sit with silence, letting your breathing become progressively slower and deeper. Prepare to write fast, raw and exact-but-easy. Let your thoughts rest, waiting to begin.
Write a heading: Sights
Beneath it, describe everything you see when you look up from the page..
Write a heading: Smells
Beneath it, describe any scents or aromas you can smell.
Write a heading: Sounds
Beneath it, write down all the sounds you can hear.
Write a heading: Tastes
Any tastes in your mouth? Can you pick up something nearby and describe its taste.
Write a heading: Touches
Describe the feel of your clothes on your body, the chair you are sitting on, the floor beneath your feet. Reach out and touch something How does it feel to your touch?
Write a heading: Thoughts
What’s on your mind here and now? Write it out on the page
Write a heading: Feelings
How are you feeling today?
Write a heading: Images
Close your eyes. Hold your front mind still until an image rises, a picture of any kind. Write a short description of it.
Write a heading: Summary
F-R-E-E Write for two pages about the experience of writing like this about your sensory experience. What does it do to your sense of time?