Time is a subject about which huge and complex books have been written. It’s the medium we live in and, for writers, it’s the blank white page or the fresh screen on which we make our mark. Any mark that survives whatever passes for the ‘self’ is left in time, outruns it just a little bit, or an enormous amount if it’s a handprint on a cave wall left 40,000 years ago.
All of us are concerned with and embodied in relation to time. Its mind-bending succession of ‘nows’ is all that we have to live by and yet it vanishes if we try to grasp it, always moving on. No wonder then that we experience it not simply (or sometimes hardly at all) as an even-handed measure ticking away our days — one second is one second is one second is … Or is it?
The quality of the present
More frequently time is not experienced as quantity, but as quality. When I experence 15 minutes of meditative yoga nidrā practice I’m held in such a liminal and deeply restful space, as well as entering a different state of consciousness that puts the watching ‘I’ to sleep for a while, that I have no idea how much time might have past. It might be a second or an age.
When I get into deep flow while writing, I’m so unselfed by the process that it can ‘feel’ like it’s some doppelgänger writing rather than me, or I have no immediate sensation or later memory of the ‘me’ that wrote so that the piece feels like it fell through me from outside.
Perhaps we feel this because the person we commonly refer to as the ‘self’ is the part of the brain that is conscious, observing, witnessing what we do (for some of us also judging it). This part of us is aware of time and remains rational. But in flow and creative states we drop into other parts of the brain where time feels timeless and we’re not watching ourselves with a critical eye, leaving us, when we return to ordinary consciousness, with the impression that it’s not this stiff, self-conscious ‘self’ that did the writing at all, that it must have been the muse or some ‘otherness’.
But the conscious, rational self and the creative flow self are both ‘us’. The difference in experience is the qualitative shift in how we relate to time, and particularly in how we experience any given present moment.
When we have access to practices of deep rest and rejuvenation and of deep creativity, our present time is at once more amorphous and more abundant; the kind of both/and state that often indicates deep work is going on and deep life being lived.
can be squeezed
But at other times the present moment can present itself as fractured, stressful, impoverished and delivering nothing but overwhelm. We all have times of having no time and these times are often more hemmed in by emotion and experience than by the practicalities of life.
When life feels like this, it can feel ridiculous to imagine that we can wrestle back how we experience time as something more positive and humane. Yet there are tools and strategies that we can use to change how we show up to the present moment. There’s a free short course, Giving yourself time to become a different story, that you can visit or revisit. It’s one I circle back to myself.
For a while my work life was insanely out of rhythm — quickly becoming an all-consuming monster in the face of which I used langauge of having ‘no choice’ and kept myself going with imperitiaves and ‘have to’, much like the doomed horse, Boxer, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of whose mantras is ‘I will work harder.’
but it can be reclaimed — one step, one step …
Of course, it couldn’t last and I threw myself instead into finding and living practical techniques that helped me to guard and curate time more inventively, more healthily. Learning to say no and learning to be kind to myself were transformative steps, especially on days when time unravelled, either in feeling it had all been wasted or through exhausting myself on 1,001 inessential tasks.
But we are not linear animals. We learn and we live and then some other situation intrudes and it’s as though we are back at the beginning. (Though in truth we are probably at a very different stage in the cycle that simply needs a refreshing boost of strategies.) And so over the last 18 months for me, for example, the combination of COVID lockdowns and an international move with all the defamiliarisation this has entailed have upended my experiences of time again. My strategies have felt, during this time, less like a lifeboat on the ocean of time, more like a rapidly breaking apart and sinking raft.
So I’ve had to go back again. And I’m still in that long process of doing (or redoing) the work of rethinking how I show up in the present moment. How I batch and limit activities that otherwise can consume days, how I pause long enough to not do things in a reactive and chaotic manner. How I — breathe. Think. Prioritise. Do one thing. How I break things down into manageable steps. How I eliminate those things that really do not matter, despite the whispering voice within that tells us the sky will fall down unless we … And, vitally, how I ask for help and show myself some compassion.
and lived within the kairos ripening
There are practical things we can do to curate time differently. But discovering the juicy wonderment of time as a positive quality requires not only practical engagment but also deep shifts in perspective.
Time is not an absolute or a monolith. In the Greek concepts of kairos and chronos, the latter is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is ‘the right time’; it is ripeness, the moment of truth. Kairos time feels different — we encounter it in those experiences when time seems to slow down or stop, like losing ourselves on a walk, being in deep creative flow, practicing meditation … These moments don’t mean we have perfect life (which is in any case a poisonous myth) but they give us transformative and healing and time-expanding experiences of being deeply present to our lives.
Often such moments take us unawares and we can’t fake or force them. Some such moments are enormous life events like the birth of a child or a deep experience of epiphany. But many are simply the epiphenomenon of paying attention to others and to life, or of simple (yet profound) small changes like slowing down (at least some of the time), breathing deeply, savouring the small pleasures of a day. The more we shrug off the media’s calls to acquire a lifestyle and instead revel in life itself; the more we can discriminate between what diginfiies life and what is merely a consumer nonsense; the more we refuse to be workoholics who are ‘on’ 24/7 and take time for radical rest, and the more we turn our attention to loved ones or to those who offer mutual nurture, including animals and plants, the more likely we are to find ourselves living by kairos. You can live more life in one excellent day than some people experience in a lifetime.
audaciously attending to the now
None of this is to decry how we are anchored in the past. Our ancestors, whether of actual lineage or mentors or the elders we’ve found in books, have left us important legacies; some of what we are left may be death-dealing, but some wil be life-giving, full of blessings. When our present is completely uprooted from the ground of the past then our lives become shallow and starved. (We see this in the disorientation of those who have experienced being immigrants especially when migration has been forced or casued by violence, but also as a both/and quality in those who have welcomed and chosen migration but still feel elements of being adrift.)
If we don’t know where we’ve come from, we are unlikely to know where we are going. How we witness to and remember the past is always an urgent matter for the present, yet, in the Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir nontheless makes a powerful case for fully inhabiting the present. She notes how we can be drawn into looking at our present as though it is already a potential past, that is something we can do nothing to change, when in fact every moment contains a choice. And she goes on to say that this moment of choice is one that writers (and all artists) are entrusted with setting free because we have ‘a world to express’. And this is something we can only do by really paying attention to the world, to the present.
This quality of attention is something I’ve written about before, most recently in the blog on ‘listening‘. When we pay attention, deeply pay attention, we also become more open, we become present not only in time but to our bodies and emotions as well as to our environments.
Attention, the attitude of deep listening, is the rarest and purest form of generosity, Simone Weil believed. And she also defined absolute attention as prayer. Attention is where we find the inspiration to write and create, as the poet Mary Oliver acknowledged in her moving account of her life with her partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, Our World. She says that whilst her writing has often been remarked on for its quality of attention to the natural world, it was from her partner that she learnt the kind of attention that is intense and imbued with openness.
Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was eager to address the world of words — …. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.
rejoicing in the life of other beings
The bringing together of attention and feeling allows us to get our of our own way in order to inhabit and savour the present moment. This is something that the theologian Martin Buber captured in his work, I and Thou, almost a hundred years ago. For Buber the present is not simply some discrete unit of time but something in which ‘meeting, and relation exist.’ We are only alive to the now when we truly see and hear the other as being alive in the now, when the ‘other’ becomes not ‘it’ and ‘object’ but ‘thou’ and ‘subject’.
This profound relational orientation in our experience of time is something that the sculptor (and psychologist) Anne Truitt also write about. Her definition of love in Daybook is:
the honoring of others in a way that grants them grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.
It’s a definition remarkably similar to Rilke’s or to the mutually nurturing relationship in Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, The Missing Piece meets the Big O, discussed in the blog on nurturing. The grace in which each of us can flourish, knowing we are seen and heard, brings us into the present moment.
The quality of the present can be squeezed
but it can be reclaimed — one step, one step …
and live within the kairos ripening
audaciously attending to the now,
rejoicing in the life of other beings,
the grace in which each flourishes, is seen.
We all need to be heard. And we all need to listen. This is attention with feeling. This is a radical orientation to the present and to a renewed future, by slowing down enough to listen, be present and connect. In the inimical words of Mary Oliver:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.