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How to Make Life Spacious

Mary Jaksch

Guest Blog by Mary Jaksch first published in Goodlife ZEN January 2009. Mary is a Zen Master.

Although this Blog is written from the perspective of Zen practice, the focus of is on “time”  – something useful to consider when thinking about village life and its development.

Mary writes:

Does time seem to run faster and faster as you go through life? Sometimes time seems to zap by in a flash; at other times boring hours seem to go on and on for ever. Especially on Friday afternoons! If you look at your life, and especially at your work: do you feel that you have to accomplish more and more in less and less time?

Today I want to suggest to you a different way of approaching time that makes for a more spacious life. A way that makes us realize how precious and unique each moment of our life is.

This day will not come again.
Each moment is a priceless gem.

But before I offer you some suggestions on how you can slow down time, let’s take a look at how we usually think about time.

We tend to think of time as a commodity.

Time as a commodity

We speak of ‘using time’, ‘buying time’, ’saving time’, ’spending time’, or ’squandering time’. Because of this view, we are experiencing something that social scientists have termed a time-compression effect which means that today we seem to have much less time to do the things we need or want to do. This contributes to more stress at work, sleep deprivation, burnout, and less time for family and friends or recreational activities.

Remember the fairy tale of the princess and the frog? How she kissed a frog and he turned into a beautiful prince? Well, mostly we experience the reverse: we kiss a prince – and it turns out to be a frog! This is what happens when we treat time as a commodity. When you try to pin it down and master it, time transforms into something ugly.

Have you ever come across the novel called “Momo”? It was written by Michael Ende who became famous for his novel “The Neverending Story”. Momo is a fantasy novel that investigates what happens when we treat time as a commodity.

Here’s the story line:

A secret army of men in grey suits plan to rule the world and are slowly taking over a city. These men are beings that live only on other people’s time.

The first person to fall prey to the secret army is Figaro, the barber. One of the grey men recommends that he save time by eliminating all the activities that give meaning and quality to his life: the time he spends with his elderly mother, with his handicapped friend, his social life, his reading, even his daydreaming. Suddenly he becomes future-oriented.

Ende describes Figaro like this:

The determination to save time now so as to be able to begin a new life sometime in the future had embedded itself in his soul like a poisoned arrow. He was becoming increasingly restless and irritable. The odd thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare and his days grew shorter and shorter.

I think we all know about that!

The cult of productivity

Just think about how the cult of productivity dominates our work culture! The philosophy of productivity is to do something we don’t enjoy doing as quickly and efficiently as possible, in order to have more time for what we do enjoy. But strangely enough, the upshot is that we spend less and less time enjoying life.

Time is really something very mysterious. As St. Augustine said:

What really is time? If I am not asked, I know this, but if I am asked, I do not.

One of the interesting question is how we actually experience the flow of time.

How do we experience time?

If you look back on this day, your mind will pick out particular experiences that mark the time passed. Maybe you’ll remember how you woke up, or how the first bird sang, or how breakfast tasted, or how you rushed to work, or how angry you were when you saw a particular email, and so on. Our mind constructs a time line made up of memories.

It would be similar if I asked you to recall your life. You would string together significant moments of your life. Maybe you would recall your first memory or other significant memories of your childhood. As you then scan along the timeline of your life, you would pick out other memory clips of your life. You would factor in your age, recalling how many years you’ve already lived, and predict how long you’ve still got to live and what you might do with those years. In fact, when we think about the time-line of our life, we tell ourselves a story. And this story can change according to how we feel right now. (This reminds me of NLP and their saying, “It’s never too late to have had a happy childhood!”)

The timeline of our life is a story we construct

I was once given a wonderful postcard with a picture of elderly Catholic nuns in habits playing ping-pong and laughing. The caption said, “How young would you be if you didn’t know your age?”

Life holds one great but commonplace mystery… time. Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem an eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it. Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. (Michael Ende)

So if treating time like a commodity doesn’t create a more spacious life, what does?

Mindfulness creates spaciousness

The strange thing is that when we are completely in the now, we have no awareness of time. That’s why we lose track of time when we are absorbed. Being in the now is sometimes called mindfulness. It means being present with a clear mind and an open heart. I’ll say more about that in subsequent posts.

How do we enter the present moment?

There is a direct pathway to now. It’s the breath. When we attend to our breath flowing in and out, we enter the now.

Let me suggest to you a simple mindfulness project:

As often as you can each day, pay tender regard to your breath, flowing in and out. Try saying silently “in” , as you breathe in, and “out” as you breathe out. Notice your little smile as you do this. Notice how your feeling of life changes in the moments when you are present.

Mindfulness is a wonderful medicine for life. Take it as often as possible!

I’d love to read your thoughts about time as well as your experience with the mindfulness project in the comments.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good to be re-minded about this! I enjoyed reading it.

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