Do you have enough time in your life? When I ask this question in my seminars on wellness and time, only one or two people generally say yes—out of a class of 50. Even more surprisingly, when I asked 16 prison inmates with minimum sentences of 25 years to life, not one of them raised a hand. So heavily scheduled and regimented were the inmates’ lives that even “doing time” they had no time.
We can define time as the rhythmic dimension of life. We can pay attention to its rhythms, to the way each moment can be expanded or contracted under our control.
In a sense, we are all imprisoned—by the perception that time is a scarce and limited resource. Since the Industrial Age, time has become a measure of our productivity. We abhor the idea of “wasting time” and convince ourselves “there’s not a minute to spare.” Manacled to our watches, we perpetually rush from one activity to the next. We’re surrounded by time- and labor-saving devices undreamed of in the past, yet few of us have any time to spare.
To most of us, time means clock time: the seconds, minutes, and hours in a day, unchangeable, inexorable. But we can think of time in other ways. We can define time as the rhythmic dimension of life. We can pay attention to its rhythms, to the way each moment can be expanded or contracted under our control. The more we become aware of this quality of time, the better we get at shifting it. But first we have to slow down in order to listen and feel what is actually happening in the present moment.
The problem is that many of us resist life as it is right now. We believe that when the next crisis ebbs, we’ll find the time to relax, enjoy life, exercise, take our dream vacation. But some other crisis, large or small, always follows. We may actually embrace our frantic schedules to avoid unpleasant feelings that surface when we pause. But just because we succeed in denying painful emotions doesn’t mean they go away. They will continue to shape our behavior unconsciously, often in damaging ways. Stress comes from resisting what is actually happening in the moment. What’s more, we deprive ourselves of the special richness that can only be found by living in the present. This is what many people call mindfulness.
Stress comes from resisting what is actually happening in the moment. What’s more, we deprive ourselves of the special richness that can only be found by living in the present. This is what many people call mindfulness.
Now, right now, is the time to pay attention to the moment. To begin, try developing rituals that can shift you from one rhythm to another. Here are five ways to expand your sense of time—and save you from the feeling that time is slipping away:
1. Find quick, easy ways to break a rhythm and enter into a deeper one. Let the telephone be a bell of awakening. When it rings, stop and take a deep breath instead of snatching it off the hook. You’ll find yourself becoming calmer and better able to respond to the call. You can do the same thing when booting up the computer or leaving your home in the morning. The simple act of pausing can help change how time feels.
We often treat our days as a series of highlights—the big meeting, a good meal, an outing with the kids—while ignoring the time in between. But the in-between moments are the bulk of our lives.
2. Honor the mundane. We often treat our days as a series of highlights—the big meeting, a good meal, an outing with the kids—while ignoring the time in between. But the in-between moments are the bulk of our lives. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: “If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert. With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost.”
3. Create time boundaries. Each of us needs some time that is entirely our own. Preferably, it should be the same time every day—a half hour after dinner, perhaps; 15 minutes before the start of work; or an hour in the afternoon. Make this a time for contemplation, for enjoyment of the things around you. Take a walk, listen to music, meditate, read, drink a leisurely cup of tea, or don’t do anything. Just make sure your time alone is not interrupted by your to-do list, or anyone else’s.
4. Create spontaneous time. Remember what a joy snow days were as a child? Adults should create their own snow days—a time for unplanned, unexpected events. Pick an afternoon three weeks from now, write your own name into your appointment book, and leave work early for an unplanned outing. Go wherever your whim takes you. Or pick a Saturday and leave the house with no particular destination in mind.
5. Create time retreats. Once a year or so, spend a week or more doing something out of the ordinary that allows you to shift into a different rhythm. It might mean going to the woods, the shore, or some other beloved spot. Choose consciously to go somewhere and be still, and watch time open up to you. Learn to simply be present without the need for anything to be happening.
Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, is a holistic physician and cofounder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York.
From “Timeshifting” by Stephan Rechtschaffen in Sustainable Planet, edited by Juliet Schor and Betsy Taylor. Copyright © 2002 by The Center for a New American Dream. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. As it appeared in Utne issue no. 115.