November 2010 

Using time

We want to use time well. We read books and articles that enlighten us. We try to spend quality time with friends, and quality time alone. We work when we must and play when we can. We have our weekly plans and long-term goals, and to the extent that we accomplish them, or feel that we are moving toward accomplishing them, to that extent we feel that “time is well spent.”

Today I washed the car and weeded a portion of my garden. I opened the book of an author I had not read before and discovered some refreshing insights. I spent a pleasant evening with my wife. It was a satisfying day. Time well spent.

Of course, weeding a garden, reading eight pages of a book, going out to dinner would in sum account for about five hours of the day. What else happened? Now I recall rising from bed, going into the bathroom…

Wait. I had lain in bed a good half hour before arising. What did I hear and see? What was I thinking?

When in the shower, and when dressing, and when going downstairs to breakfast, and during breakfast…what? What happened after breakfast? I washed the car. But did I go from the breakfast table to the car? No, I went upstairs, sat at the computer, and tried to connect to the Internet. Is that what happened, from the breakfast table to the computer? No, probably not just that. What else then…?

This type of exercise, a review of time recently spent, is not new to many of us. It takes a certain degree of effort to focus the attention and to recall in as much detail as possible the sequence of events as they occurred. If we persist in this effort, we can be surprised at the clarity of our memories, even to the point of seeing and recalling moments we had hardly noticed at the time. How extraordinary our memory, how surprising the workings of our own mind!

Of course, the time spent doing this exercise is, well, time spent. What are we doing while we are recalling past moments? Only that. But the world around us does not stop because we are in mental rewind. Well, the world is there, I am doing an exercise, and when I have finished I will return my attention to it.

And then what will happen? The exercise ends, I look around me, and…

Here is a new take on the exercise. Rather than scrutinize the recent past, let us scrutinize the present. To make the example meaningful—be aware that after this sentence comes the next sentence. You are reading this sentence.

And here is the next sentence. Down at the bottom of the page—not far off—is the last sentence. What happens then? Will you see it when it comes? Will it be part of your life?

The feeling of time well spent, as an experience of the past, is satisfying when considered as a kind of summary or completion, or of a desire satisfied. Nothing wrong with the feeling, but is this all that time can give us? If, after reading an article and rising from the computer, we move to some new task or interest, or we just move, what is less about that movement than about what we just did, or what we are going to do when we get to the next little target? We perhaps consider many moments as simply transitions from one thing to another. But we are here, living and breathing, all through the “transition,” whether we realize it or not. And when we get to our next activity or experience, do we “start experiencing” it? Perhaps so. But when did we stop experiencing? During the transition? Why? Were those seconds not as important?

Recalling the recent past in sequential increments makes us enthralled with our memory—look at what I saw and did! But we can be enthralled with the present. We can be there for the transition. And, if we experience ourselves every step or movement or breath of the way, then it is no longer a transition, it is our life. I am not going from something to something else. I am here, firmly lodged in the present.

This effort brings new challenges. Not just the persistent diligence needed to hold awareness of oneself for more than a few seconds (look out—here comes the daydream). But because what is right before us will have its own demands, demands we had not noticed before. Not so innocent, slamming that door, tossing the paper aside, wandering into the refrigerator. Things become meaningful. Every little thing. A simple activity acquires another dimension, a new life, which is our presence during the activity.

Accomplishments in time will matter to greater or lesser degrees. But awareness of them will always be the same—either we were present or we were not.

We can also notice that when we try to use time to experience its moment-by-moment marvels, time itself will often not cooperate. Its passage will seem more urgent than our experience of it. So stands our eternal struggle—to use time and not be used by it.

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