09 February 2010

Time Part 2

One of the trickiest things about time is its weird subjective flexibility. We’ve all had the experience of concentrating on something we enjoy, and looking up at the clock to find that it’s much later than we could have guessed. Good conversation can be like that. Good writing can be like that, too.

(And there's the opposite scenario, the experience of doing something you hate and watching the time drag.)

Because I meditate regularly, I am familiar with how easy it is to sink so deeply into an altered state of consciousness that time has almost no meaning at all. It’s always surprising to look at the clock after meditation. Sometimes I’ll feel like hours have passed, and it’s only twenty minutes since I first sat down. Sometimes I’ll feel like I was only down in a meditative state for a few brief minutes, and I’ll find that it’s been forty-five minutes or an hour.

So: time is a slippery bastard. Ultimately, our idea that time is something to be measured in steady, regular increments is one of our most delusional notions.

I guess one of the questions that got me into trouble* when I was at a career crossroads was getting into the habit of asking not whether I’d gotten good value for my time, whether I’d been “productive” or “used my time well”, but whether I could look back at the end of the day and feel satisfied. Some days, I noticed, just felt right.

How much time does it take to achieve this sense of satisfaction? If you have to ask, I’d like to propose that you’re thinking about satisfaction in an entirely wrong fashion.

For me, whether a day is good or bad depends entirely on how I feel. And how I feel is in turn dependent on a number of ephemeral and non-ephemeral things: did I write something that made me excited about writing? Did I drink the right amount of coffee? Did I get to play with the dog and cat? Did I do something to make me think more deeply about my art? Did I get outside and clear my head at some point? Did I manage to fit a really good stretch into my day? Did I learn something new? Did I imagine something outrageous?

When asked years ago, I defined a good life as getting into a state of flow and staying in it as much as possible. A concept that was co-opted by western psychology in the early 1990s, flow could be characterized as one of the core methodologies and goals of eastern meditation practices. When you’re in flow, you’re riding on the cusp between focus and relaxation. You’re totally engaged in what you’re doing, and everything else falls away. The question is not how much time you have, but how fully engrossed you are in the task at hand. This applies to doing dishes as much as it does to putting words on the page. In flow, there’s an escape from the pressures of time. In flow, there is access to the essence of joy.

*made me decide to stop doing almost everything else and make a major publication effort

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