Despite the cold and squally rain as I write, it feels as though there is a change in the air as February settles in. The first primroses appeared for Imbolc, the Celtic spring, at the beginning of the month, there is more activity amongst the birds and the air smells different, that hint of warmth behind that damp, the scent of greening. The orchard has been pruned and looks pared back and robust. Two of the ten trees have gone to make way for new ones, and their wood will burn hot and sweet when it’s dried. A large fallen poplar that collapsed into the garden from the public land along our border has been cleared and chopped, this wood for filling swales we hope to dig in the flood meadow this spring. The bank beyond our border looks unstable and another tree fell almost as soon as the first was cleared. The mayor turned up within minutes of my email to say we could keep the wood—another of the many changes to life since moving to Brittany.
Change seems to be the persistent theme of my journalling at the moment and I’ve been reading a book on the philosophy of time by Byung-Chul Han and another on transformative experience, by the philosopher, L A Paul.
Time can be an abstract and amorphous concept as well as one that triggers our feelings of guilt and overwhelm as we try to juggle all the things we feel we must do as well as all those we would like to do. We’re used to thinking of time as in short supply and as fragmented, so that even in those moments that we have choice over, time can feel like it’s slipping away from us too fast.
Most of us talk about ‘wasting time’ and are self-critical about this, but changing our use of and perspective on time isn’t always easy. After two years of pandemic our ‘distractions’ have sometimes become defence mechanisms against the overwhelm. But this doesn’t always make these distractions worth hanging onto, often they don’t help us at all but leave us just as restless and uneasy, perhaps even more so. Almost a hundred years ago in the 1920s Heidegger wrote about how distractions only increase our deep sense of ennui:
Presumably this profound boredom—in the form of addiction to distractions —is the hidden, unacknowledged, pushed aside and yet inescapable longing for home…
And for Heidegger there was not the constant pull of devices and platforms to add to the plethora of distractions that offer us a quick dopamine hit but then leave us empty and yearning. For what? Heidegger suggests we long for ‘home’—to belong, to have a place to stand in the world and to feel at home in ourselves. It is this that assists us to see our lives and our time from a new perspective.
But as true as this is, it doesn’t change the fact that trying to make changes through the brute force of willpower while putting ourselves down isn’t going to deliver us home. Self-bullying isn’t any more wholesome than being bullied by other people.
Perhaps a more positive and compassionate way to change our relationship with time, to come home, might be to apply something that the mindfulness maven, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says about meditation:
The best way to achieve goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focussing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement towards your goals will take place by itself. This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen within you.
For Kabat-Zinn ‘acceptance’ does not mean resignation, but starting from where we are with some clarity and honesty, though not with judgementalism, towards ourselves. This allows change to be intrinsically motivated. It allows change to come from within, at a humane pace rather than by force and guilt trip. We don’t change our relationship to anything at a deep level by a process of exhaustion that is only likely to leave our time feeling even more fragmented.
Time is the medium we live in — it is all we have and it matters that we delight in it as much as possible. In The Scent of Time, Byung-Chul Han considers that we are living in an era in which we experience time as fragmented events that don’t connect into a meaningful narrative of life. Instead time appears frenetic and marked by dyschronicity, that is, the
experience of a time that is whizzing without a direction.
When time is unmoored and narrative starts to fragment, how does it effect us, as writers, as humans, as people trying to connect to all of life? It’s a wrecking ball, surely. So how can we change our perception of time to allow ourselves to find meaning and to be at home?
Changing a march to a myth
Not all eras or all cultures have the same notion or experience of time. Time can be experienced as cyclical or as a straight line, a march of progress notion that in Western culture gave way to post-modernism and the fragmentation of any sense of narrative or meaning. In contrast, Han suggests that we need to return to or discover anew a sense of ‘mythical time’. This is the time we encounter in stories, and which gives narrative meaning:
You need only let your gaze move here, move there, in order to read the sense, the meaningful order, off it.
Story, poetry, non fiction, oral story-telling—whatever the genre, narrative gives us a glimpse of mythic time. This doesn’t need to be epic or romanticised; it doesn’t need to be a static and inflexible tradition, but a living sense that we can find meaning in story without it handing us all the answers.
What it does need, Han suggests, is a rehabilitation of the rhythm between the life of endless doing and activity, often characterised by work that expands into our homes and into all parts of our days or even nights, and the contemplative life.
Changing activity for contemplation
A life of contemplation? Who has time for that?
Historically, the contemplative life has been the preserve of elites: colonisers; or those like the Classical Age Greek philosopher Aristtole who could spend 20 years as a student in a society with a wonderful democracy—as long as you were not a slave or a woman; or those with a spcecific religious vocation. Advocating contemplation has to be done in the context of real lives being lived now. And in this context it can be a radical act to rest and restore and simply linger over an idea.
Recently a writer from the Philipines wrote to me about how her writing is a call to give story and meaning in a context in which many Filipinos are ground into hopelessness in the face of poverty. She didn’t see the illumination and hope of story, as a luxury, even though it requires some contemplative space, but as a real force for change; beginning in how people see their lives and their time.
Similarly, one of my yoga nidrā mentors, whose lineage is from the First Nation Seneca people of Turtle Island (known more often as America), speaks passionately about rest as a radical challenge to colonisation, including the colonising of every bit of our time for work or consumption or corporate profits. Sadly, this colonisation of time can include a lot of what passes for, or is sold to us, as ‘leisure’ but which ends up simply keeping us numb enough to get back on the hamster wheel.
A life in which contemplation is valued for its own sake and in which deep rest and lingering are the rights of all, is a very different aim and gives an altogether transformed view of time. The active life has value too, of course. How we express ourselves in the world and how we support and take care of families is vital. But it’s not the sole purpose of being. We are not merely labouring animals whose worth is assessed in how much we produce and consume. And the active life can also benefit from a view of time that is mythic— where the various parts of our lives work together to form a narrative of meaningfulness and where there is a wholesome rhythm between activity and contemplation, without reducing either to the servant of the other.
Changing slowing down to lingering
Finding a harmonious rhythm between activity and contemplation stops us from thinking about rest as merely ‘time off from work’ or ‘leisure to reset us to go back to work’. Contemplation is not merely about slowing down and decelerating the pace of life for a short while so that we can get back to business as usual.
Over the last two years I’ve thought a lot about slowing down, about a different relationship with time, but reading Han challenged me to take this deeper — he talks not about decelerating but lingering. There’s a deliberateness and sense of savouring to this. It’s more than just a word shift. There’s a shift in the body and a shift to a different relationship with time and the world.
Whoever is not capable of stopping and pausing has no access to what is altogether different. Experience transforms. It interrupts the repetition of the ever same. You do not become more susceptible to the making of experience by becoming more active. … You need to let yourself be concerned with that which evades the activity of the acting subject: ’To undergo an experience with something —be it a thing, a person, or a god—means that this something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us.’
In the light of this I’ve been rethinking my mantra of ‘slow down, listen, connect—it is enough’ and rephrased it as
linger, listen, connect—it is enough.
Lingering, like savouring, is a wonderful way to think about how we name what is being lost, especially if we sense that time is moving faster and faster and society is increasingly fixating on consuming more or doing more. Lingering is more apt than ‘slow’ because it removes the idea of merely decelerating, which doesn’t necessarily make enough space to listen, pay attention, contemplate.
Contemplative lingering gives time. … It widens that being that is more than being-active. When life regains its capacity for contemplation, it gains in time and space, in duration and vastness.
We need this kind of time if we are to be deeply creative and able to find flow rather than merely be productive. We need it if we are to find radical rest that resists our time being colonised. We need it if we are to experience time as mythic, not as quantity, but as quality—kairos rather than chronos.
And we need it if we are to be able to pay attention, really listen to our bodies and the earth we dwell on.
Changing a glance to deep regard
Cycles are fundamental to all of life. The seasons and the weather change. There are cycles of birth, ageing, death and new life. There are cycles of activity and contemplation. Flux and change are everywhere and sometimes the transitions are not just ebb and flow but whole step changes or paradigm shifts. Sometimes the changes are deeply transformative, we begin to hear and to live a new story.
The story teller and mythologist Martin Shaw talks about story as the decision to keep remembering. Memory and time are inextricably intertwined. What gets remembered, what gets forgotten, makes a difference to who we are, as individuals and as cultures. Story as witness, tradition, social glue, shared values, protest, and the refusal to keep silent, is deeply healing; an act of grace and alchemy.
And story always begins in listening. A story (which might be a poem or an essay, a memoir, non-fiction, short story, blog post or novel) comes together when the writer is listening to the earth they dwell on, their own body and its internal weather, and what they are seeing and hearing around them, whether that environment is their back garden, local cafe, a radio programme, something they read…
When its authentic, the prose and poetry we are writing arises from paying deep attention, from lingering on something that doesn’t just glance off us, but lodges inside us. What we write well and what feels true to our voice is always something that resonates in a profound way with who we are, even if it takes a while to work out why that might be.
This is not the work of a moment. It takes lingering attention, it takes research and digging deep into ourselves. It takes patience, sifting and a deep regard for our material—the material the world gifts us and and the material of our bodies and emotions. We have to linger and we have to listen in order to make the connections. And when we do, then what we create, whether it is read by one person or thousands, adds another witness against the darkness. And it makes time fragrant.
Changing fragmented time to fragrant time
Connection is at the heart of what I write about. To live in fragments no longer is vital if we are to have any hope of changing the disastrous course our planet is on socially and ecologically. When we begin to see time not as a whir of disparate events with no connections or as an assault of disparate demands, but as a deep sense of story, then our overwhelm in the face of the challenges facing us can lighten.
In The Scent of Time, Byung-Chul Han has a beautiful description of Indian and Chinese incense clocks. The clocks hold incense that has a particular burn time so can be used to measure days, hours or minutes. Unlike a sand clock there is no metaphor of time running away, but rather of time perfuming the air. These fragrant clocks tell time as they connect to scent, the sense most linked with memory. Time as remembrance rather than as disconnected fragments. Even when the incense has burnt down, the ash remains until it is emptied for the clock to be used again and as it does so the remains of the pine and cedar form a ‘green moss’ that fills in the words and images engraved into the clock so that time is held there. Time is perceived as having duration, it lingers.
The 13th – 14th century Chinese poet Hsieh Chin writes
Smoke from an incense seal marks the passing
Of a fragrant afternoon.
While the poet Ch’iao Chi writes
Like billowing silks, sinuous, cloud-tipped
Smoke has written ancient script,
From the last of the incense ash to burn.
There lingered warmth in my precious urn,
While moonlight had already died
In the garden pool outside.
The warm ash outlasts the moonlight. Time itself lingers.
We are living through difficult weather, ecologically, in terms of global justice, in the wake of a pandemic entering its third year and as global economics resists the desperate need to find paradigms of abundance that do not rely on increasingly frantic levels of consumption. But we don’t have to accept that time is no more than frenetic, miscellaneous events.
Rebalancing our sense of contemplation and lingering against the calls for constant activity is, as paradoxical as it sounds, an activism in its own right. It’s a refusal to see life as meaningless and driven. It’s a championing of the need for deep restorative rest, that isn’t only an adjunct to working harder, as essential to a humane life for everyone. And it’s an embracing of narrative, in all its forms and genres, oral and written, as a way of making mythic meaning.
It’s time we breathed in the fragrance on the breeze as Spring approaches, pausing to linger, listen and connect — it is is enough.
Kith: for a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses here on the site as well as online courses of different lengths here. While you’re browsing, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life or subscribe to Kith Review, the new magazine being launched this year.
Teffy Wrightson says
Thank you Jan. You speak of the scent of different times, like the growing smell of approaching spring, which is something I notice a lot. Have you ever noticed the different sounds of time? Things sound very different in the morning than in the late afternoon and totally different in the darkness of midnight. I wonder if blind people can tell the time of day by sound?
Yes – the sounds do change through the day and especially at night – time is much more multisensory than we often realise — the light changes, the sounds, the smells — even the felt senses of how we experience a morning as opposed to dusk or the middle of the night … another reason to linger — to savour this 🙂
Judith Wilson says
Exactly what I needed to read today – thank you. I love the idea of scented time.
Thank you Judith 🙂