The clock, the calendar, the days of the week—it’s easy to forget that these are all human inventions. It’s also very hard to imagine a world without them, which is clearly why they were invented and why they’ve served the world so well. It certainly makes it easier to make an appointment to meet up for coffee in two weeks.
In many lines of work, we’re facing an epidemic of burnout, so perhaps it is an opportune time to consider how we view time—both our own time and how time works in general. It’s a topic that’s been on people’s minds. When the COVID 19 pandemic called a halt to many of our regular routines, we started to treat our time differently: baking a loaf of sourdough bread in the time it took to have a Zoom meeting. While some people found leisure, though, others—most significantly, many people working in health care and in other essential jobs that cannot be done at home while waiting for your air fryer to cook dinner—found increased pressure. These folks are facing—or have succumbed to—burnout while others returning to work from the WFH (Working From Home) world are having trouble adjusting. There just doesn’t seem to be time.
Mindfulness practice is a wonderful way to experience a richer sense of time not governed by the clock, since the answer to the question of what time it is when we’re meditating is always, “Now.”
Nancy Bardacke—a midwife and mindfulness practitioner, who founded Mindfulness Based Childbirth and Parenting and wrote the instant classic Mindful Birthing—discovered early in her work with couples preparing for childbirth that the sense of time that they carried from the world of their work brought a lot of anxiety to the birth process and the raising of their young children. In response, she introduced her students to “horticultural time,” a kind of time that exists outside the human-made clock. Horticultural time follows nature’s clocks: all the different timescales that govern the natural world. You cannot will a tomato to grow faster. It grows at the rate it grows. The same goes for pregnancy. The baby comes when it’s ready to come. And just the same, Nancy counselled, once the baby is born, it will wreak havoc with clock time. It’s hungry when it’s hungry. It’s sleepy when it’s sleepy. Learning to accept and give into the rhythms of horticultural time, Nancy teaches, is good for the baby and good for the parents. It may not always be easy, but it brings more peace to ease into nature’s age-old time signatures.
In a similar way, artist Jenny Odell, who taught digital art at Stanford University for eight years, asks us to reconsider our relationship to time in her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. Odell is not proposing anything as preposterous as throwing out all our clocks and calendars, she is simply asking us to consider all the ways we conceptualize time and are ruled by it. Can we loosen things up a bit? Can we move more freely between different kinds of time?
She points out that even though the clock “runs our days and lifetimes,” it has never “completely conquered our psyches…we all know many other varieties of time: the stretchy quality of waiting and desire, the way the present may suddenly feel marbled with childhood memory; the slow but sure progression of pregnancy [!], or the time it takes to heal from injuries, physical or emotional.” She also points out that time also often gives way to “timing” and in fact, the ancient Greeks talked about two kinds of time: chronos, essentially linear clock time, how one thing comes after another heading into the future; and kairos, the moment to seize. While we may not know the Greek words, we know what it means to say “the time is ripe” and we can understand the notion of something whose time has come.
As we let ourselves know many varieties of timing as much as knowing what time it is according to dials and smartphones, our leisure may become more truly leisurely, not simply another form of work—the work of trying to get ready to work again. If in our leisure, we are able to embrace a different kind of time, we may find true refreshment and a larger purpose in life than just getting something done. Mindfulness practice is a wonderful way to experience a richer sense of time not governed by the clock, since the answer to the question of what time it is when we’re meditating is always, “Now.” As we notice breath after breath, each coming in its own time, we have a chance, for a while at least, to be more like the tomato, just growing and flowing at our own rate—regardless of what the clock is doing.
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