The joy of living in the present

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It’s been about ten years since I gave up my watch. Through college, I was a devoted watch-wearer, and I often checked the time compulsively. Sometimes, I would even look at my watch and then seconds later realize that I hadn’t even registered the time, so I’d have to look again. I was stressing out about the time while not even aware of what time it actually was.

Then my watch broke, and my cousin suggested I try life without it. She had given up her watch and said she didn’t miss it. For awhile, I felt naked. But it didn’t take long to adjust, and after I did, I noticed an interesting effect: going without a watch actually made me more aware of the time. Without thinking about it, I took note of environmental cues — the light, color, and temperature — and of the way time was passing, giving me an unconscious sense of the time of day. I’ve honed this ability by checking myself against the clock so that now my guess is often within 10 minutes of the time even if I haven’t looked at a clock all day.

This ability made me feel like I had a great awareness of time, but recently I had an experience that changed my perception of time yet again. A couple of months ago, I started a meditation practice. It began with five minutes here and there, snatched out of the morning rush of a busy day. Then, while on vacation this summer, I meditated for ten minutes a day. It doesn’t sound like much, but those ten minutes felt endless to me. On good days, where I found a clear mind, the ten minutes felt like a beautiful expanse. On bad days, it was an endless torture; my mind was like a hyperactive child for whom a minute of sitting still felt like an hour.

But good or bad, meditation had the same effect: time was expanding. And suddenly I realized how quickly time races away from me when my mind is focused on the future. Like many ambitious people, thinking about what’s next is a default state for me. I’m always thinking about an upcoming meeting or task. Planning, that great unique ability of the human prefrontal cortex, consumes a lot of my bandwidth. The completion of one thing is barely savored before moving on to the next one. My to do list and my calendar, both tools for managing and structuring the future, are tools I live by. This isn’t always negative: sometimes I’m looking forward with anticipation to a vacation, a wonderful dinner, or a quiet moment to relax at home. But it’s still a focus on the future, and in my experience, it makes time seem to go faster. In that state of mind, there’s never enough time to do everything I want to do. The now doesn’t exist, because it is constantly subsumed by the next.

And yet, when I meditate, time is ample. It’s voluptuous. I can luxuriate in time.

Of course the idea that time expands and contracts is nothing new. People say things like, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” And research now shows that time seems to move faster when you’re older (each moment is a smaller fraction against the whole of your life than it is when you’re young) and time can almost stop for people in a moment of trauma or crisis. I knew that time had this elasticity, but I’d never felt it quite so powerfully. Nor had I ever felt that I was in a position to control it.

In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff talks about how the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is clock time. It moves sequentially. It ticks off in even increments: seconds, minutes, hours, months, years. Kairos is about moments — strictly speaking, moments of opportunity — and there is no clock for kairos. It is felt time, rather than counted time.

So after I got rid of my watch, I did get better at understanding time: chronological time. I became attuned to the tick, tock, tick of the time moving throughout the day, and this was valuable because it meant I was no longer chained to time-counters — I did my own counting. But I was still counting. Meditation is now bringing a new awareness, an understanding of kairos, into my life. These meditations have reminded me just how much can be accomplished in ten minutes: a note to a friend to let them know I’m thinking about them, a bit of exercise, or a small dose of writing. There are opportune moments all around, and they reveal themselves by my being present.

I struggle with being present. Especially when a moment is challenging, it’s tempting to want to rush into the future. And when there’s so much you want to create and do in life, it’s hard not to think about that great, looming list. But recently I read an excerpt of a book on meditation which helped me understand it a bit better. The book talked about two kinds of energy: motivated energy and unmotivated energy. Motivated energy drives towards the future, and this energy is important because it promotes our survival, helps us learn and grow, and ultimately spurs us to achieve great things. Without motivated energy we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, let alone go to work or school, find food, pursue a mate, raise children, or any of the other things that make our lives worth living. A species without motivated energy wouldn’t last long.

But to live one hundred percent in motivated energy is exhausting, and to the point of this blog, leaves little room for joy. The value of unmotivated energy is celebration of the present moment. It is reward, idleness, contemplation, meditation, play. It is truly present, with no directional thrust. And it’s pure joy.

We have much more control over time than we think. First, we can choose to emphasize our kairos over our chronos, our human time over our counted time. And second, we can choose how we live in time. We can be deliberate about when we look towards the future with motivated energy. By being present and aware in those moments, hopefully we can also give ourselves permission to be equally present in our joyful, “unmotivated” moments, without guilt or pressure. We can resist the temptation to try to make every moment “useful.” We can cultivate unmotivated energy, just the right amount, as a ballast for all that time rushing by, to be wonderfully aware of the beautiful now.

And if perhaps we need tools for tuning into our unmotivated time, this silly clock could be one. Designed by Louie Rigano, the About-Time Clock recently won a competition by for new designers. So perhaps I’m not the only one feeling the desire for a new relationship to time.

When it comes to telling you the time, the About-Time seems close to useless. But if you want a reminder to stop looking at the clock and start smelling the roses, I think it’s a good one.

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Images: Louie Rigano

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  1. Thanks for the great post! My father, who majored in classics in college, told me about the concepts of chronos and kairos. As he explained it, kairos is God’s time; the flowing time that underlies everything, the time of synchronicity and rightness of action. My favorite days are those in which I’m able to drop into kairos, and do whatever my intuition (“the God within”) tells me feels right. When I have those days everything falls into place perfectly, and time seems to stretch out in a delightfully expansive and satisfying way.
    I took my watch off several years ago when I completely burnt out on work and quit my job; not feeling right without the weight on my wrist, I rummaged through my jewelry box and found my very first watch, given to me at the age of 10 by my mother. I didn’t remember dismantling it, but apparently at some time I had, and had filled the case with tiny seashells. With that watch strapped to my wrist I had a constant reminder that kairos was the time I needed to be in.
    I just re-found your blog, and am glad I did. Thanks.

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