Speeding Up Life Shortens Your Meaningful Moments: Time and Addiction

We obviously live in a fast paced political-social world. It is easy for most of us to get caught up in thoughts about job or school, relationships, money, health, or the new political reality. Thoughts move at lightning speed. Communication in the brain moves through neurons or brain cells as an electrical current, so ideas can register in tiny fractions of a second. And for many of us, thoughts constantly arise in our mind, whether awake or asleep. Just think how fast a thought can arise in your mind and then disappear. Having thoughts is what a mind does.

 

Emotions usually take longer to get underway, but once started, last longer. Try to make yourself love something or get angry. You need to evoke thought, memory, or sensation first. And emotions don’t evaporate and disappear so easily. They can lie hidden and their very intensity can make them difficult to process.

 

In fact, since thoughts arise so quickly, they can easily be used to hide away feeling. And as the pace of society quickens, we more easily get lost in our mental world. We think “the mind gets things done; feelings or emotions get in the way.” The more we use thoughts to cover emotions and feelings, the more we dread and avoid feeling. We thus train ourselves to fear our own feelings, and to experience anxiety and other forms of discomfort whenever feelings appear. We might not even relax when on vacation because that would mean lowering our guard. How often do vacations cause more anxiety than normal day-to-day life?

 

And when feelings or emotions come up in our daily lives, we react doubly. We not only try to respond to whatever situation we are in; we react against the formerly buried content. Our perceptions and thinking can get confused and distorted.

 

The result, as discussed by Stephan Rechtschaffen in his book Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life, is that our ability to focus and experience a moment of life is shortened to the length of a thought. This book was published 20 years ago, but its central message is even more important now. When psychological reality moves too quickly, and the duration of a moment is too short, then life seems more superficial, and it is difficult to be intensely conscious and aware. We can’t process meaning well. In order for an experience to touch us at all, we need something very intense or dramatic.

 

The shorter the focal duration of a moment, the more groundless and isolated we feel. We cling more desperately to our thoughts and viewpoints, as if they were the only thing we could count on. We crave intense risk, stimulation or challenge to achieve any depth of experience.

 

As Rechtshaffen points out, this is also what happens with addictions.The rushing mind can be addictive. In an addiction, we turn to some substance like a drug, or to a media device, something external to ourselves, to get high or to distract ourselves, because our focus on the moment is too short to allow anything “mundane” to be exciting. The more we depend on externals, the more our length of focus decreases, and we need even more stimulation. We can be manipulated more easily because our connection and understanding of our own inner experience is diminished. We continuously focus in the wrong place and never satisfy our true yearning.

 

We humans desire peak experiences, highs, and pleasures. And the longer we allow the focal duration of a moment to be, or the longer we can maintain focus, the easier it is to think clearly and for any experience to feel real, important, touching. Thus, almost any experience can be meaningful, can be a high, whether it is taking a breath, cooking a meal, or kissing our lover.

 

I think the deepest yearning we all have is to feel loved⏤to feel loved not as a gift bestowed upon us by others, but as a mutual creation that arises when we love others, when our life has depth and meaning. And when we do that we are likely to live our moments fully. Only by improving our ability to focus and pay attention, to quiet the constant chatter, and trust our inherent abilities and feelings, can we do this. Mindfulness, taking time in nature, allowing ourselves to truly savor and care for each moment we live, is so important. When the mind quiets, we hear the world more clearly. To re-phrase the English poet, William Blake, we hear and feel eternity in a moment.

 

*Photo: Temple, Delphi, Greece.

Reflecting on Time

Sometimes, I marvel at time and how my life seems to flow. I can’t believe how old I am. Or I can’t believe how quickly yesterday becomes today, ‘now’ becomes ‘then.’ Yesterday afternoon I was in the middle of a wonderful conversation. I was totally absorbed, enjoying myself. Then, suddenly, it was a day later. Is this due to a lapse in attention? Many people say that as they get older, time passes more quickly. Is that the same as what I am describing?

 

Right now I am in the middle of everything. Everything I see and feel is so present, real, rich. I can see the apple tree blossoms, smell the lilac bushes, and feel my stomach expanding with my breath. I feel the rhythm of the wind in the apple trees. I don’t feel time. I feel this….. For an instant, there is only feeling. Then I try to remember what just happened. And as I write it down, I lose it.

 

I can’t locate time except as, for example, a number on my digital clock or something scheduled on my calendar. A minute, an hour is life transmuted into abstraction and memory. When I feel life going by so quickly, I am distant from it. It becomes like reviewing memories. Remembering is often like watching a movie, watching life summarized and miniaturized into individual frames. And I become a character in the movie. The nature of movies is to speed by so I speed by.

 

And when life speeds by (or you want it to speed by), it hurts. There is nostalgia there, but also regret. Nostalgia can’t compensate for losing the here and now. As described in the classic book, Flow, and different meditation traditions, when your life is full sized, close up, and embraced, there is no sense of being distant from others, the world, and one’s life; your time sense is altered. There isn’t a you being hugged but just the feeling of hugging. Time is not separable from each breath, movement, perception lived.

 

So, I guess the question is, can life always feel full? Can even regret be embraced? I think so. I think being open to the awareness of distance is a step in eliminating it. The heart of what I experience is my attitude toward it. In order to write this, I need both time and the timeless; the two are wrapped together and I need to embrace both. The timeless is the smell of the lilac and the rush of creativity when writing. Without the distance of time, I couldn’t step back and reflect. Without memory, I couldn’t write a word, couldn’t name the fragrance, couldn’t learn, couldn’t keep in mind even who I am relating to. I couldn’t appreciate people from my past, couldn’t identify who I carry within me. Memory is usually tied to an uncovering and release of emotion. But what is the ultimate aim of reflecting—and remembering? Creating great theories or conclusions? Or actually living more inclusively and deeply?

 

If you want to explore this for yourself and, if you’re a teacher, with your students: sit back in your chair and relax. Focus on your breath. Maybe close your eyes. Let come to mind a moment when you did something meaningful or fully. When you were fully involved. Picture or feel the details of the moment. Where were you? Were you with anyone? Who? If you were with others, how did your actions affect them? How did you work together? What did working or living fully feel like? How did you open to it?

 

And when you open your eyes and return, examine your responses. Hold them in memory and feel what they have to say. What made the moment so full and successful? What motivated you to do whatever you did?

 

Be aware in yourself how time and the timeless weave themselves together. Life is more exciting and rich when the patterns of this weaving are noticed and embraced.

 

 

*For an interesting reading on time for yourself or secondary school students, see: The Dharma of Dragons and Demons, by David Loy and Linda Goodhew.

Achieving Goals

I have something planned for early tonight. I feel both anxiety and excitement whenever I think about it. I feel threatened in a way, feel a queasiness in my stomach, a tension in my shoulders and thighs. Why? Is the tension from the mere fact of setting a goal or planning an activity? What am I afraid of? And how do you set and meet goals without anxiety?

 

What happens when you create a goal, or create any planned activity? Goal setting is important to all of us no matter how difficult or tedious it might feel at times. It’s important to students, in getting work completed on time. It’s important to teachers who, during the school year, are so busy their lives seem to consist mostly of planning activities and goals or living the planned activity. It’s important to parents, managers, workers of all jobs and professions.

 

To learn how to create goals, you have to understand why you do it, why this particular goal, and why any goal. It’s not just about meeting expectations and getting work done. Goals structure life. We can’t live without them. They are intentions. They get us to do something. They concretize our emotions and values. They create opportunities to grow, learn, enjoy. So, to create goals you need to be aware of and understand your own experience now. You have to understand your own intentions, needs, drives, primarily the drive to live fully and meaningfully. What, if anything, is getting in the way of living fully now?

 

When I feel threatened, I usually want to fight, run away, or play dead. But there’s another possibility. I feel threatened partly because getting someplace on time, or succeeding at any task or assignment, means doing all the necessary steps to getting there. Even to be somewhere at 5:00 pm, I must figure out when I must leave, how far away is the place I am going, etc.. Once a time is set, I need to put psychic energy into remembering to get there. And how do I do that? If I’m going somewhere to have fun, I don’t want the moments I am getting ready to have fun be moments of anxiety and fear. To learn something that will make my life better should not mean making my life before that time worse.

 

But, you might say, sometimes you need to sacrifice in order to achieve. You need to be able to do what is difficult or do what you would rather not. You need to work a lousy job in order to pay for college so you can get a better job. Yes, that’s true, to a point. The point is how do you live that “lousy” job or anything difficult? Once you set an intention or goal, do you then resent and feel angry about all that you must do to get there? Do you resist your own intention? You mustn’t lose the feel of the original drive, which is to fully live the moments of your life.  As the novelist G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.” A difficulty can become an opportunity. Once you uncover your intention, then mine each moment you live to the depths for what it can teach you, give you, and especially what you can give to it.

 

So, if you conceive of goal setting as something you do for the future, as if the future were separate from now, then you can never get there. You undermine your efforts. The goal in the future is an idea wrapped in hopes and memories. It’s an abstraction.  It’s easy to fear not meeting your expectations or not being the person you imagined you’d be, because these are ideas. You can never, no matter how hard you try nor how glorious or perfect your idea might be, transform yourself into an idea. An idea does not breathe; a living being breathes. But right now can be glorious.

 

So, to learn how to meet goals, you learn how to live each moment. If you think having a goal is planning for the future, you miss the heart of it and separate from it. If you treat each moment as your goal, then you’ve already achieved it.

 

 

To mindfully set and meet goals, try the following:

  1. Sit with your body straight but not rigid. Take a moment to close your eyes partially or fully and notice your breath. Notice what is happening in and around you. With your inbreath, notice any feelings, thoughts, sensations, or images. With your exhalation, let go of the images and return to awareness of the breath.
  2. Is there a goal, a need or drive that you have? What goal stirs your heart, awakens your soul, or puts food on the table? Just allow any thoughts or images to come to mind of any goal you want to achieve.
  3. What is it about this goal that motivates you? Do you want this for your own good? To help others? Just ask yourself, and listen for an answer. Feel the energy within it, the passion. Visualize achieving this goal. Hear, feel, or picture it. Notice yourself, where you are, what you’re doing, as you achieve the goal.
  4. Test it. Notice any thoughts, feelings, emotions which arise in response to the thought or image of this achieved goal. What might the consequences be of pursuing and achieving this goal? How does it affect the people you know? The world? Does the goal feel right? If so, continue. If not? Let go of the goal and turn your attention to noticing your breath, or listening to the sounds around you.
  5. Let come to mind the steps you need to take to achieve the goal. Just listen, feel the answers arise. What do you need to do now? Do it in your mind so you can do it in reality. Imagine acting fully, with determination, to achieve what you set out to achieve. What actions will you take when you leave this chair?
  6. As you breathe in, turn your attention to the room. As you breathe out, open your eyes and look around you. Then begin.

 

*The photo: the goal of a stone patio halfway achieved.