A series of articles on developing a life of simplicity
by The Rev. Canon Renée Miller
Simplicity of Time
Round and Round We Go
It seems we are all in a race against the clock. Most of the time, our racing takes place at a subconscious or even unconscious level. But there are those times when we become keenly aware that the ticking timepiece has claimed our life's energy. Take, for example, a morning when you become faintly aware of the alarm clock's grating buzz, but are unable to respond to it. When you do awake and come to full consciousness, you feel panic inside as you realize how late it is and how much you have yet to do. You need to shower, fix and eat breakfast, get the children ready for school or day care, prepare lunches, make three phone calls before leaving home, and you have an important meeting as soon as you arrive at the office.
A morning such as this can be disconcerting, disturbing, and even dangerous, because what inevitably happens is that you hurry to reach the end first. In other words, your attention gets fixated on the meeting rather than the moments that precede it. So, you don't enjoy breakfast, you don't really "see" your children's smiles, you don't remember what you made for lunch, you barely recall your phone conversations - all because the meeting you fear you'll miss has captured your focus. The danger in this kind of situation is that you really have 'lost' time - you have lost those moments that were between waking up and getting to the meeting. You have lost them because you have not been attentive to and aware of them.
late Donald Nicholl, a Roman Catholic lay theologian and
professor, offered a compelling image for this: "You
don't notice the small things if you are moving fast. Suppose
the person you most love is in a railroad station and you
are looking for one another. If she stands still and you
pass through the station at 100 miles per hour, you will
not find each other." If you
are moving too quickly through your morning, you will miss
the subtle moments
of surprise and grace that are always present but often
go unnoticed when we are not moving slowly and attentively
enough to see them. A chaotic morning can leave you tied
up in knots for the entire day if you try to move faster
and faster. Instead, simply stop whatever you are
doing for 3 minutes to notice what is going on around you.
Your breath will slow and deepen and your chaotic morning
has the chance of being redeemed.
I once shared with a retired priest friend that when I took a day off, I didn't know what to do, and found myself easily disenchanted with a day that should have been a delight. It seemed I was so habituated to pursuing goals and getting things done, that a day without a schedule left me feeling confused and anxious. He said to me, "Ah, Renee, this is what you need to do. First, get a good book. Fix yourself a cup of hot chocolate; pour yourself a small glass of creme de menthe in a lovely glass. Don a velvet robe and turn on some soft music that will soothe you, rather than interrupt you. Curl up in a big chair and read for a few minutes while you pet your cat. Then, gently look up from your reading material and peer very seriously into space." What a telling phrase - 'peer very seriously into space.' Peering very seriously into space is really an exercise about the simplicity of time. Let me explain.
the complex and fast-paced culture of the 21st century,
we often feel as though time is slipping through our fingers
-- as if life is passing us by. The demands and expectations of a results-oriented, economically driven society require multi-tasking and long hours that leave us trying to fit the rest of our life into the squeezed minutes that can be secretly seized in this marketplace environment. Days off become times to snatch a quick glance at a newspaper at a local coffee bar before launching into the seemingly endless errands and responsibilities of daily life that have been put on hold the rest of the week. We long for more time in our day, more days in our week, more weeks in our year, more years in our life. We feel we are always running behind, or running to catch up, and we'd like to just run in place for awhile!
Time is one of the most challenging aspects of simplicity because we are so helpless to change time itself. Once we fully realize this, we are inclined to move in one of two directions. Either we move faster in order to make more of the time that we have, or we seek to limit our activities in order to slow down time. In both cases, we are living within a distortion of truth. Neither moving more quickly to have more time, nor doing less so that time slows will make the minutes of our life meaningful. When we move faster in order to do more in the allotted time, we cease to live fully with attention and intention. When we try to pare down our activities so we'll have more unstructured, personal time, we become so focused on time that we miss out on life.
A friend of mine who knows I travel extensively asked me recently how I deal with the change in time zones. My answer was immediate. "I do whatever is supposed to be done in the city where I've just landed. If it's time to eat dinner, but my body clock isn't hungry for dinner, I eat dinner anyway. I go to bed when the others go to bed and get up when they get up." This very simple exercise has been of immense help to me, surprisingly even on international flights. The same principle can be applied to the simplicity of time. What makes the minutes, days, and years of our life meaningful is not having more time or fewer activities. It is being attentive to 'now.' It is being present to the present.
Being present to the present is, itself, a spiritual practice of great magnitude. It is a practice that nudges us to awareness, alertness and attention. It is aided by a desire to live the human life as fully and significantly as possible. There are numerous distractions and diversions that threaten our resolve to be present to the present, but the promise of the practice is that we will avoid coming to the end of our lives feeling as though we've never lived at all.
secret to the simplicity of time and being present to the present
is re-discovering the value of time in our lives. Time is not the onerous taskmaster we imagine that demands our life's blood. Time is the great gift upon which the dreams of our hearts are given voice and expression. Remember those experiences in life when you have "furiously lived out" the dreams emerging from your heart? Then time seemed as if it were standing completely still, or speeding joyfully onward at breakneck speed without our loss of control or awareness. Simplicity of time awakens us to those hidden energies in the heart that are waiting to be birthed into action. The experience of being present to the present teaches us that time is not the enemy. Instead, we find that time is the great ally of the heart.
Beginning a practice of being present to the present will awaken you to the contents of your own heart. It will develop within you a desire to be alive each moment in your life. It will bring you to the place where you recognize that, although time itself cannot be sped up or halted, avoided or grasped, it can be the canvas upon which you paint a creative life. To help you in your practice, experiment with some of the following ideas:
1) Go for one week without wearing a watch and rather than turning to your timepiece to tell you what you should be feeling, try to listen to the timely cues your body and emotions give you naturally. Pay attention to the feelings of hunger, restlessness, hurry, weariness, boredom that surface in you throughout the day and respond to them with a sense of intention.
2) Once each day, look up from whatever you are doing and 'peer very seriously into space.' Don't attempt to capture any images or ideas. Simply allow the images and ideas to move gently through you.
3) The next time you feel in a time crunch, stop what you are doing and for a full 2 minutes close your eyes and breathe slowly, noticing the tension in your body as you inhale and relaxing into your breath as you exhale.
4) Read Jesus' words from Matthew 6:25-34 and reflect on 'time' as it relates to the natural world (of which we are a part!).
5) Begin a daily practice of meditation that will provide your body and soul with a sense of freedom within the context and boundaries of time.
6) Over the next month reflect on the following questions:
- If you had a day all to yourself, with no responsibilities, how would you spend it?
- If you had an unlimited amount of time, with whom would you spend it?
- If you were put into a magical time machine, and when you stepped out time would stop for one year, what would you do with that extra year of life?
- When you see God face to face, what will you want to say about how you spent the time you were given?
Copyright ©2002 Renée Miller.
Read Installment 4: "Simplicity of Activity"