Strapped for Time?
During the final year of his life, my 86-year-old father deepened his relationship with time. He'd practiced yoga daily since he was 80 but was increasingly confined to a wheelchair, unable to do simple things like walk outside to pick up his New York Times. "He's slowing down," people said. They meant it as a sad commentary, but I felt differently.
Dad lived unhurriedly, absorbed in the details of the moment: monitoring the daily arguments and flight patterns of sparrows outside his window, unwrapping a chocolate truffle, watching clouds trek across the sky, or scanning, with a magnifying glass, baby pictures of his daughter and his grandson for similarities.
His mindfulness and contentment starkly contrasted with the frenetic pace of my life. I careened from clients to classes to meetings to Dad's and then home, where I'd work past midnight. If the gas guy wanted to chat as I was filling my tank or I found myself in a slow checkout lane at the grocery, my goodwill was siphoned away by worry about falling behind. Dad seemed present and happy, while I—a yoga teacher and psychologist whose focus is helping others live more mindfully—was chasing time.
Just about everyone I know, it seems, shares a similar sense of time deprivation. "I'm in a time crunch," says a colleague in an email. Recently, someone emailed me about my 10-month Elemental Mind-Body Yoga Teacher Training Program: Could he start right away? Could he complete the training in less than 10 months? "When I have nothing to accomplish, I'm fine," says a friend, a yogi in the process of writing a book, "but when I have goals, time is my enemy."
Of course, most of us, most of the time, have goals; having a job, going to school, raising children, all require us to get things done according to certain schedules. There's nothing wrong with the drive to produce: It echoes the life force of creation. But we live in a culture that prizes productivity and speed. Before we know it, we're embroiled in a perpetual battle with time, missing out on our connections to our deeper self and to others.
Is there a way to live that frees us from the cycle of longing for more time, misusing the time we do have, and then blaming a lack of time for our discontent?
The answer is yes. In my private practice and yoga teacher trainings, I've worked with countless people on improving their relationship with time. Happily, doing so doesn't require withdrawing from the world or radically scaling back on things you want to do. Nor do you need to focus on time-saving tips for scheduling yourself with ever-greater efficiency. Instead, you bring greater awareness to the way you experience time by building small steps into your daily routine that help you savor your life.
To experience time differently, you need to cultivate and practice a new relationship with it, just as you'd nurture a yoga or meditation practice. At first, you may feel as though you're swimming against the current of cultural cues that push you to do more and move faster. It may not be easy to change, but the rewards are great. This approach, rooted in the philosophy described in the Yoga Sutra—particularly the concepts of self-study, honesty, and nongrasping—can bring you into a deeper harmony with time, allowing you to engage more fully with every moment.
Waking and Entering
Your first step is svadhyaya, or self-study, one of the ethical principles of yoga. Svadhyaya asks you to look inward and get to know yourself better. It teaches you to feel the difference between your own natural rhythms and the cadence of the world around you. It can teach you what's practical and healthy to focus on, and what you may need to delegate or drop.
In much the same way that those who struggle with food issues may be unaware of what and how they're eating, you may not have examined the behaviors and assumptions that shape your relationship with time. Taking a time inventory gives you a window into the values that underlie your time-spending habits.
Begin your self-study by asking yourself questions like these: Besides eating and sleeping, how do I allocate my time in a typical 24-hour period? Do the activities on which I spend most of my time nourish me, or do they feel obligatory? Do I put others' needs first, only to suffer a resentment hangover? When I long for more time, what do I imagine doing with it?
As you mull over the answers, you'll begin to identify the activities that are intrinsically important to you as well as the pace that's most compatible with your own organic rhythms.
Researchers studying the neurobiology of social relationships speak of emotional contagion, meaning your brain is hardwired to pick up on, and mirror, the emotions of others. You can catch someone else's good or bad mood in less time than it takes to have a conscious thought—which makes emotions even more contagious than a cold or flu.
In much the same way, people often adjust their sense of time to those around them in a sort of temporal contagion. When you're with people who move at warp speed, you can find yourself operating at a pace that's too fast for you.
True to Life
Once you've taken a closer look at where your time goes and begun to know your innate priorities and pace, you're ready to explore the yogic principle of satya, or truth. Satya is a natural offshoot of self-study; when you know what your truths are, you're more likely to acknowledge when you're moving through the world in ways that don't fully honor those truths.
There's a saying in Buddhism: Delusions are inexhaustible. If we are constantly running from one thing to the next in a way that makes us feel depleted, then sooner or later we need to acknowledge that the ideas we have about what we can accomplish are out of sync with the reality of our lives.
It may sound as if this acknowledgment would be painful; actually, it can be freeing to get more clarity about what's possible and what's not. Coupled with the self-study that can give you a better idea of what's most important to you, this process can bring your inner and outer lives into greater harmony.
Most of us live in linear, chronological time, with its clocks and deadlines and pressures. A steady diet of this kind of time starves the most vital, alive, and essential parts of us. But there's another, richer kind of time: extraordinary time. It's a state of intense focus, of being in the moment; it is what musicians and athletes describe as being in the zone. Similarly, people have described near-death experiences as a slowing of time, accompanied by a deepening of internal awareness and connection. It doesn't matter how fast or slow you move, but whether you're present enough to find the state of optimal experience that embodies extraordinary time.
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