A couple of months ago I had a meeting with my friend. We've known each other for years, so I didn't expect her to be on time. However, she came right on the dot to my surprise. She was panting, sweating and clearly in distress. When I asked her what happened, she told me she was so afraid to be late for our meeting that she had to run to my place, as she had missed her bus.
That made me feel awful. I was responsible for her distress and fear. I built certain expectations around time and caused harm to a person I love because of it 😟
I have been feeling anxiety around time for years! Everyone knows that I'm very punctual and never late. Everyone also knows how much I hate when someone is late and how upset I can get.
So, I got curious about the roots of my relationship with time. Was it possible to be more carefree with my own perspective on time and gentler towards others?
Good news, everyone! Yes, it's possible and what's even more important, it feels damn freeing.
Let's dive into it. We are going to explore how our time perception has changed since we were kids, what modern physics thinks about time in comparison to spirituality, and how you can reframe your own thinking.
Overconnected and exhausted
When was the last time you didn’t have enough time for something? ⏳
Not enough time to read a book, watch a documentary, take a vacation, talk with your parents, have dinner with friends, finish a presentation, study for an exam…
It seems we are constantly running out of time to do anything. There is persistent fear that we might not finish projects and tasks on time, and that deadlines won’t be met.
We are overconnected and exhausted 😫
Progress didn't come for free and we paid a steep price.
Since the invention of electricity we started to prolong our days and work overnight shifts. We have built cities that never sleep, and we are proud of it. We have created smartphones that are always on, always connected.
We exchanged boredom for constant stimulation, swapped rest and relaxation for more work hours, contemplation for multi-tasking. At some point taking a break started to mean you are lazy.
People who take care of themselves and prefer slower pace are considered not motivated enough. Those of us who check email once or twice per day are frowned upon. And if you don't reply to a text in an hour, obviously, you just don't care 🤦♂️
Is it even possible to have enough time for everything? New season of your favorite series came out, your friends are going out tonight, your mom expects you to call, you have 3 voice mails, about a thousand unread emails that constantly grab your attention with a red badge, plus alarming due dates are approaching on work projects.
That's considered normal.
Collectively we built an overstimulated society that demands and steals your attention, fragments it into thousands of pieces, yet demands you to be focused and present with enough time for every activity. We are so deep in the hamster wheel that we don't even see it.
What we also don't realize is that we pass this attitude towards time and attention onto our kids.
There is no time to get dressed in the morning as we are going to be late for school (you are gonna be late for work, so they are just a proxy), there is no time to enjoy dinner as there is homework that needs to be done, there is no time for a bed-time story as you have to prepare for a work meeting.
Kids learn through us that there is something called "time" and there is never enough of it.
How does an unaltered mind see time?
I remember when I was a kid, there was all the time in the world! 🥳
You start doing something and you are not thinking: "Ok, I’ll play this game for 2 hours and then I will allocate 30 minutes for dinner and get back to it".
You are not flipping through books thinking: "I can’t afford to start reading it, as it will take a lot of time". You simply start reading and if you don’t like it, oh well, there are million other books.
You are still not aware of negativity adults attach to time and you don't feel guilty for not having enough of it. In a way, you have all the time in the world as you don't really care about it. You are not on a conveyer belt yet, which our society pushes everyone on.
Physics: you know nothing about time
It is within my mind, then, that I measure time. I must not allow my mind to insist that time is something objective. When I measure time, I am measuring something in the present of my mind. Either this is time, or I have no idea what time is.
Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XI
What does science have to say about time?
According to modern physics time does not exist1. Seriously.
It just exists for us, humans, as we are a biological, chemical, and partially electrical system, which is, unfortunately, a subject to the laws of thermodynamics. It appears there is no time without heat, damn entropy!
Carlo Rovelli explains this in his brilliant book The Order of Time:
“If nothing else around it changes, heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one. The crucial point here is the difference from what happens with falling bodies: a ball may fall, but it can also come back up, by rebounding, for instance. Heat cannot.
In the elementary equations of the world, the arrow of time appears only where there is heat. The link between time and heat is therefore fundamental: every time a difference is manifested between the past and the future, heat is involved. In every sequence of events that becomes absurd if projected backward, there is something that is heating up. If I watch a film that shows a ball rolling, I cannot tell if the film is being projected correctly or in reverse. But if the ball stops, I know that it is being run properly; run backward, it would show an implausible event: a ball starting to move by itself. The ball's slowing down and coming to rest are due to friction, and friction produces heat. Only where there is heat is there a distinction between past and future. Thoughts, for instance, unfold from the past to the future, not vice versa—and, in fact, thinking produces heat in our heads…”
Pause for a moment and contemplate.
To be perfectly honest, time does exist, but it’s not the universal time we are used to. What we are used to deal with is merely an interpretation of the world, a version of reality comprehensible by our minds.
It's our almighty brain that creates the flow of time, stitching moment after moment together, establishing a connection between past, present and future. Our brain is just a time machine, that tries to predict future as accurately as possible based on our previous experiences, as it's vital to our survival.
When you drop your phone 😲, your hand is able to catch it before it hits the hard floor instantaneously thanks to past experiences. Your brain has calculated the most likely position of the phone, so your hand catches it swiftly. The brain acted as a time machine, predicting the future.
The possibility of predicting something in the future obviously improves our chances of survival and, consequently, evolution has selected the neural structures to allow it. We are the result of this selection. This being between past and future events is central to our mental structure. This, for us, is the "flow" of time.
Saint Augustine, quite skillfully noticed, that time is created in our mind, and is not an outside force. When we listen to music, we are able to give meaning to a sound in relation to a previous sound and a sound following it. It seems paradoxical, but music can happen only in time, while we are always stuck in the present moment. So how does it work?
It is possible, Augustine observes, because our consciousness is based on memory and on anticipation. A hymn, a song, is in some way present in our minds in a unified form, held together by something – by that which we take time to be. And hence this is what time is: it is entirely in the present, in our minds, as memory and as anticipation.
But what fascinates me is the fact that mindfulness practitioners came to the same conclusion millennia ago. You exist in the now, present. Focusing on the present, being in the moment, being mindful about now and what is happening right at this very second is the core of mindfulness practice. Everything else is a delusion, a fantasy world either out of our reach, or that has already happened.
By observing every moment you allow your brain to witness the reality unfold as it is, without using it as a time machine. If mind is not anticipating the future and not diving in the past, you are in the present. You choose to stay in present, moment after moment. When brain is not busy predicting and is just an observer of the present moment, time ceases to exist.
Spirituality and science have yet once again come to the identical conclusion with extraordinary different tools and approaches.
I first recognized the absence of time through meditation. Being aware, noticing everything as it happens leaves no place for your mind to think about the past or the future. Everything just happens, things and you are transforming and constantly changing, nothing is set in stone. The idea of time itself just dissolves, as you are not busy connecting past with present, present with future. All that exist is now. Past has countless possibilities, and so does the future.
I remember seeing an image of a dot in one of my meditations, which represents this very moment; and future and the past as two rectangles converging in the present moment. To my surprise, this is the same exact picture that physicist use to describe time. These are called light cones:
“The temporal structure of the universe … is made of cones. Special relativity is the discovery that the temporal structure of the universe is like the one established by filiation: it defines an order between the events of the universe that is partial, not complete. The expanded present is the set of events that are neither past nor future: it exists, just as there are human beings who are neither our ascendants nor our forebearers.”
If you have got through all of that, congratulations!
Now, you are probably thinking, how is this helpful at all?
For me, being able to experience absence of time influence through meditation and grasping the scientific explanation behind it brings liberation. It frees me of the anxious thought patterns and the tyranny of due dates and busy calendars our society values so much.
If time as we know it does not exist, there is no definite amount of it. There is no shortage of it. Things just happen as they happen, when they happen and where they happen.
If you are sitting down to read a book, you are simply reading a book now. This is what is happening right now. Worrying about how much time is left to read it makes no sense. You brain tries to predict what is going to happen next, recalling past experiences with anxiety and guilt attached, which we had accumulated since we were kids.
Being anxious that you might not have enough time to finish a project at work is yet another delusion. It’s a thinking pattern we have been developing since the idea of being pressed for time was passed upon us by our parents, school, and society.
There is no benefit from this way of thinking at all. All it does is produce anxiety, worrying, stress, fear and inability to start anything. It cripples our ideas and actions. It petrifies and stops us from enjoying even relaxing activities. It makes procrastination bloom. 💩
That’s the liberation I’m talking about. Being free from anxiety, being free to enjoy life once again without guilt or regret.
When you are a child, this idea of not having enough time is not yet engrained in your brain. You start learning a new skill, playing the musical instrument or tinkering with Photoshop, folding origami animals or experimenting with 3D modelling, and immediately you are in the flow, without noticing how much time has passed or is left.
Of course, to be productive and being able to perform well at our jobs we need to think about time and plan activities. Yet it doesn’t have to be this rigid and static prison we are so used to lock ourselves in. Red due dates don’t have to haunt us before we go to bed and right after we wake up.
There is always a choice. Regretting doing something before you even started it is a choice. So is being afraid not to finish a project before you even reached a first milestone. We are just not aware that we are making the same choice over and over.
Most of the time we are completely mindless about the fact that we are caught up in our usual thinking pattern and we are just reacting. That’s when we get paralyzed with anxiety; so, we keep delaying that one big task, or starting a home project, or can’t even relax to enjoy a well-deserved break.
Courage to remember
Rewiring your brain takes patience and determination, but also courage.
What I discovered one day about my relationship with time brought sadness, but was soon transformed into joy of understanding and an ability to change.
I was at a silent meditation retreat. All the activities are prescribed and start at a certain time. It's a pretty rigid timetable.
6:00 Wake up
8:00 Work or walking meditation
On the second day I became aware that I'm constantly checking my watch ⌚ I didn't want to be late for an activity or meal. It was incessant. Every 5 minutes I would look at my wrist to make sure I will be able to finish my walking meditation. I was feeling so uneasy and in strict timeframes to complete every activity that I wasn't enjoying my time at the retreat at all.
Meditation allowed me to be more mindful and notice this pattern.
Next was acceptance. It didn't come easy.
Every time I had an urge to look at my watch, I would not allow myself to do it. Those were very painful moments. Looking back at this I'm laughing, but every atom of my body was resisting this new approach! Changing something though sheer willpower is possible, but there is a way that works better for me. I decided to see what is happening in my mind and body when the next impulse to check time arises.
"Want to check time? Go ahead", I told myself. Apparently something is bothering you, so your mind wants to know.
Compassion is giving yourself permission. By giving permission to be this or that way, you recognize what you are doing. We might not like or even hate what we are doing, but by resisting it we are actually adding more power to our habits. Only by accepting who we are and what we do will bring true understanding and ability to change.
Pretty soon I realized that it doesn't matter where I meditate: walking in the forest or on the cushion. It doesn't matter if I'm late for a meal, there are always leftovers. It doesn't matter if I'm late for dharma talk, there is always something to learn. So I gave myself permission to just be.
That felt so damn good!
True understanding revealed itself in a couple of days. During breakfast I remembered being a small boy and waiting for my father to come back home from work. My dad used to be an alcoholic. I knew if he was not home around 5:30-6pm, he was going to be drunk and my parents would have another fight 😿 I was running back and forth between the kitchen with the clock on the wall and my room, which had a clear view of the road. I did this for good 45 minutes pretty much every weekday.
Being on time started to mean things are going to be safe and calm, there won't be any fights and anxiety.
I'm not that small boy anymore. My father is not that drinking man anymore. Those are just loose memories. We change our body composition on molecular level every 7 years. I am not that person even on the atomic level, yet I was still clinging to past experiences and let them define how I see the world and people in my life.
I can choose how I view time and what being late means in every situation.
Only by being mindful you can see your own patterns. Only by seeing your behavior you can accept it. Only by accepting yourself it you can gain understanding. And only with compassion you can change.
Being able to look at time, such a monumental and existential phenomenon, in a radical new way might seem impossible. Just this very idea causes discomfort and disbelief. But as countless people have discovered and experienced, your relationship with time can be different.
You may decide to experience it through practicing mindfulness or truly comprehend it scientifically. Either way, whenever you are worried that you don’t have enough time, just notice that and remember that you have all the time in the world.
I encourage you to read this wonderful book, it's like poetry on physics. You can either find it in your local library or get it on Amazon. ↩︎