I know it’s hard to believe, but time is actually passing as its usual pace. No matter how much it might have seemed to drag on (or flash by), last week was simply another week. Judging by some of your emails, it certainly seems to be case that many of us are experiencing the passage of time differently at the moment. For some, it feels like time is passing very slowly, making the present circumstances of quarantine and uncertainty feel interminable – as though we will never get out of them. For others, the days are just vanishing as soon as they begin, and we get to the end of them unsure what we did and where they went.
Sometimes philosophers refer to this idea of ‘lived time’ as ‘duration,’ precisely to differentiate between how time feels to us as we move through our days and how it continues to pass in the scientific way at the same … time. For most everyday purposes, the fact that we can measure time accurately to within 1 second every billion years with an atomic clock is far less important than the fact that anxiety, stress, boredom, or depression might make that second feel like a lifetime. That is to say, ‘duration’ matters to us. And, thankfully, although there is nothing we can do about the flow of time, we do have some degree of control over duration. ...
What does this mean?
I guess it means something like this: just as the quality of mindful attention that we bring to objects (like food) or activities (like breathing or washing our hands or walking or even thinking) can change our experience of those things, so we also transform our experience of the passage of time, often without even noticing that we’re doing it. In fact, one of the central lessons of our course has involved learning to identify how we often add to our own suffering by layering unnecessary meanings and significances onto our experiences. In many cases, it’s our regular routines and habits that add these meanings for us, without us even noticing.
That is, when someone we know doesn’t wave back at us as we pass them on the street, we not only feel a moment of disconnect, but we also feel anger that they ignored us, or guilt that we must have upset them earlier, or just frustration that we failed to attract their attention. Or when someone stands closer than 2m in a store, we not only notice this and adjust the distance, but we also feel a wave of irritation that someone is being thoughtless, or we feel fear that we were too oblivious to maintain correct distance and then panic that we might have done that dozens of times today already. Much of the suffering in these scenarios is self-inflicted. Most of our suffering emerges from the way we feel the emotional consequences of our judgements rather than from the events themselves. Perhaps you can remember our discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of the ‘two arrows’ in the course?
Why should our experience of time (aka duration) be any different from our experience of these other mental events? At the moment, for instance, many of us are feeling disoriented in time, balancing our memories (and embedded expectations) of what our days used to look like against our hopes that they will look that way again or perhaps our fears that they will not – so, let’s call our vision of the future uncertain, since the future is always uncertain. Lost in these various reveries and nightmares, it’s very easy to neglect the present and not to notice how it passes moment by moment all the time, or to get trapped in our anxiety about the difference between today and yesterday or tomorrow. And thus our moments flash past us unnoticed or suck us into an interminable quagmire of stress. Spending our day-to-day moments lost in laments for the past or speculations about the future means that we are not paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. We forget our breath and our body and the sunshine between the clouds – the sensations of the here and now.
These are precisely the times when the cultivation of mindfulness might be supportive. No matter how things were or might become, this is how things are now. Taking a deliberate moment to enjoy your first sip of coffee (which is what I’m doing right now) is usually nicer than gulping it down mindlessly while worrying about something else (unless you discover that in that moment that you don’t really like coffee, and perhaps you never have – you just haven’t noticed). These everyday moments are not trivial; they are the stuff of our days, and days are the stuff of our lives.
To be honest, I often think about the wisdom of Kung Fu Panda (2008) at times like this. If you’ve seen the movie (the first one, of course), you may remember a lovely moment when Po (the eponymous ‘accidental’ dragon warrior) is stuffing himself with peaches. Master Oogway (the turtle) finds him and realizes that Po is just stuffing himself mindlessly because he’s upset. So, Oogway asks Po why he’s upset, and we hear from Po a litany of regrets and shames about the past and a list of worries about being good enough to meet the challenges of the future. Oogway’s response is lovely:
“You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There’s a saying: yesterday was history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that is why it is called the present.”
The point here is not that we should forget the past or neglect to prepare for the future, but simply that remembering and planning might better be deliberate, intentional activities. Just as we can make use of other routined activities to practice mindfulness (like washing our hands with deliberate awareness, instead of mindlessly splashing in the water while thinking of something else), often resulting in performing those activities better, so we might try the same with remembering and planning. Rather than allowing memories and fears to slip in and distract us from everything else we’re trying to do (like, sipping this delicious cup of coffee), rather than experiencing them as automated disruptions or traps, mindlessly eating peaches, perhaps we can see what it would be like to set aside some time each day to pay attention to them properly. And then, we might leave them behind and pay attention to something else, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Just as we take our attention to our toes, then our ankles, then our legs etc. in the body scan, letting go of the last sensation before moving on to the next, so we might let go of remembering and planning and move our attention on to something else (like this coffee). And whenever our attentions wanders off, we might gently but firmly invite it back to where we’ve chosen to put it.
These are challenging times for all of us, each in our different ways. But this time need not only be one of suspension between memories and fears, today is still the present. I hope you can find a moment or three to enjoy that gift.
With all good wishes right now,
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones. Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria. www.mentalpraxis.com
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.