Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mindfulness and Time

Mindfulness of Time

“I don’t have enough time!”

“Where did the time go?”‘

“I hate all this hurrying!”

Time is a useful idea. Thinking in terms of time, dividing the year into days, the days into hours and hours into minutes, allows us to coordinate with one another and to track our progress on various tasks and other concerns.  However, when we are not mindful of time, instead of time being used by us as a tool, we become Time’s instruments. We become run by Time instead of the other way around.

To liberate our lives from the tyranny of time — from rushing from one thing to the next like hunted animals — we need to put time in its proper place. That requires more than just “slowing down.” Putting time back in its place requires noticing, moment by moment, the thoughts that we have which push and bully us to rush around crazily.
We need to examine the “Should” thoughts that push us around, the “Must” thoughts, the “Ought” thoughts.  Here are just a few and some responses to them, with credit to the late but fondly remembered Albert Ellis:

Thought: “I should be getting more done.”
Response: Really? Where is it written that you “should”? In the Bible? In the Book of Judgement? In the US Constitution? Do you mean that there are some things you care about, and that if you want to prioritize those things over other things, then you’ll need to take some actions that reflect that priority? Or do you mean that, for some inscrutable reason, if you DON’T complete certain tasks, you’re a worthless piece of s**t? Reflect carefully on what your mind is really telling you. Is your mind really helping you out? Do you function well when you take this thought seriously?

Thought: “It will be awful if I’m late.”
Response: What is it that would happen that would be “awful”? Some people would be disappointed in you? You would be disappointed in yourself? Some inconvenient consequences would arise? How does that compare say, with the Black Plague or with the massacres that took place in Rwanda or Cambodia, to the Jewish or Armenian Holocausts? Is it really “awful” if you are embarrassed or people are disappointed in you or you have to face some inconvenient consequences of tardiness? And, how helpful is it to believe the thought that it is “Awful”? How do you like your life when you let such thoughts be your primary motivators, rather than paying close attention to what you love and care about? This thought is a sort of “I-can’t-stand-it” thought, namely “I can’t stand it if I’m late.” Ellis called this sort of thinking “I-can’t-stand-it-itis,” kind of like tonsilitis!

Thought: “Life is passing me by, I haven’t accomplished my goals yet and I’m getting old!”
Response: This is more “I-can’t-stand-it-itis.” You are being distracted by your mind and by the standards that your mind is setting up. The underlying structure of this thought is something like, “If I don’t accomplish certain goals, I am worthless” or “If I don’t accomplish certain goals, I won’t be able to stand it.” How does life go when you take thoughts like this seriously? Is this the first time you’ve had this thought? Is it helping you? What if you were to “hold it lightly” (thank you Steven Hayes) and turn your attention to what you care most about? What is it you care about that the thought refers to? How could you make more contact with whatever it is? Are you willing to make a commitment to taking a specific step toward making that contact, toward acting in some way that is consistent with the underlying value? Why not live what you care about RIGHT NOW, instead of “someday,” imperfectly instead of perfectly?

In so many ways, we make the perfect the enemy of the good. This is what our suffering from time is really about: perfectionistic thinking, “I-can’t-stand-it-itis,” and getting distracted by our own ruthless minds, getting taken off of our valued direction. If you want contact with children and don’t have children, why not find a way to have contact with children? If you want contact with music and aren’t a musician, why not find a way to have contact with music?
If you think that you “should” be getting more done, why not hold that thought lightly and make a list of things that would be good things to do, things that have to do with what’s important to you?

Time, like our very minds, can be a useful tool, or it can utterly lay waste to our appreciation of our lives (thank you Taizan Maezumi Roshi). To appreciate our lives, we need to “see through” these thoughts about time. We need to pay attention to our thoughts, as we pay attention to our breath and body. It’s not another “should,” it’s an “if you want X, you will need to do Y.” If you want to appreciate your life, you will need to practice mindfulness and question your thoughts about time.


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