It has surely occurred to many of us that Western Buddhists practice the dharma in conditions that are almost laughably inappropriate, and that one area where the difficulty is most apparent concerns that awful four-letter word: time. Most of us experience ourselves as very busy beings, and it seems to be the case that time is scarce. And so we find ourselves in the supremely absurd position of rushing about to make time to sit still.
There is a further paradox. Clocks are now so pervasive that you hardly need a timepiece on your wrist. Clocks are everywhere: public places, the TV, the VCR, the computer, the microwave oven, cell phones and the car. You cannot go to the movies without hearing someone’s watch beep a reminder of time’s winged arrow passing all too near. But why is it that the pervasive nature of time-keeping devices hurries us up, when each reminder might—like the bells at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village—bring us back into the moment?
Perhaps the answer lies in the feeling that time, as the historian E. P. Thompson once remarked, no longer passes, for it is now spent. In his influential essay “Time, Work, Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” Thompson pointed out that industrialization began the process whereby time was routinely determined from the outside, via mechanisms (clocks, assembly lines, schedules) that we have long since internalized. Modernity has sucked the flow out of time.
Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball are two of the best-known media personalities who found humor in this. Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times remains devastatingly prescient as a comic depiction of humankind at the mercy of machine time. The famous episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy and Ethel set to work on an assembly line in a candy factory can hardly be forgotten by anyone who has seen it. These monochrome memories remain funny today not only because they were enacted by comic geniuses; they are still funny for the oldest reason in the world—because they still ring true.
Today our lives seem to run on mass-media time. A workaday morning might begin with the harsh stabbing sounds of an alarm clock, with a clock radio calling us to prayer at the shrine of broadcast news, or by a passing car pumping out loud music. The next ritual is perhaps the morning newspaper or an online media fix. And, in the evenings, TV news marks out the beginning of our “free time” and the prime-time hours that tell us—like the bells that call us to sit on retreat—when to stay up and when to go to bed. Media time is also ritualized across the seasons, from TV’s Super Bowl Sunday through the summer’s cinematic blockbusters, to the holiday season programming that defines the year’s end. Indeed, there are people who, willingly or not, time out the very end of their lives this way. I still shudder whenever I remember the comment in Charlotte Joko Beck’s book Nothing Special that there are people who die with a television on in the room.
If the media demarks and subdivides time for us, it also increases the speed with which time passes. The New York Times has reported that Carnival in Brazil moves faster these days—to accommodate TV coverage. The pace of popular music, from Robert Johnson’s blues, through rock and disco, to the fabulous manic pulse of contemporary drum-n-bass, is one of unrelenting acceleration. A movie like the independent hit Rivers and Tides clearly has no place in mainstream media; it is too slow, deliciously so.
A project like that of the “Long Now” also reminds us that there are ways of being in time that defy the temporal agenda of mass culture. At Longnow.org, Steward Brand, Brian Eno and colleagues have created a clock that marks time in 10,000-year segments, reminding us of slow time, of the pace of planetary evolution. The Long Now is a splendid lesson in the relative nature of time; when you start thinking in terms of 10,000 years at a pop and referring to the current year as 02004, that “slow” DSL connection doesn’t seem like such a big deal. The next time you start worrying about whether or not you are “getting somewhere” in your practice with sufficient speed (because we wouldn’t want to run out of time before dashing across the finishing line, would we?), it might be smart to reflect upon “enlightenment” as a culture- or species-wide enterprise, a long time in the making.
If the philosophers and the physicists are right, time turns out to be not only relative and multidimensional, but also, in some indefinable way, a product of the human mind. We have known since Immanuel Kant’s path-making work The Critique of Pure Reason that time is a category through which the human mind subjectively understands the world. Kant’s ideas are not so far away from the Buddha’s insights, such as the revelation that time is a filter through which we experience reality, rather than something that is “out there” in the objective world. Time is a story we tell ourselves, a narrative we have invented in order to make sense of things; and yet this mental filter is so strong that it may sometimes be the only thing we experience.
One does not have to read Kant (let alone understand him) to see the radical difference between “objective” time and duration: just think of those difficult moments on the cushion when everything is perfectly fine, except for the small matter of one’s inability to bear the glacial passing of each painful second. And then think how quickly time “flies” when we are unaware of it. Or how glorious are those other moments on the cushion when thinking and breathing seem to happen in vast, elongated chunks of space which stretch out seemingly forever . . . until you start thinking too much about that. Time is perhaps the most immediate and yet also the least tangible experience of “mind is world” that is available to us.
Meanwhile, it is tempting to see Buddhist practice as a retreat into a premodern, pastoral cocoon. This perhaps explains why we persist in believing that walking meditation is more effective if one comports oneself like a zombie on Xanax. But surely we can also have a mindful engagement with speed; Buddhist bikers and ravers will know what I mean by this. It isn’t the pace that matters, it is the nature of the pulse and your relationship to it. If meditation teaches us anything, it is that the forms of time are malleable, open to scrutiny. Existing in time is like dancing—now you feel it, now you don’t—and no matter how much time is rationalized, standardized, sped up or slowed down, it still takes your mind to make sense of it.
In my neighborhood in Berkeley, California, the signal lights at some of our crosswalks now boast flashing red numbers that count down the few seconds allotted to us to cross the street. This is perhaps a useful safety feature in a part of the world where many pedestrians show little interest in the rules of the road. But every time I see those alarming digits I feel resentful and I am struck by a desire to be somewhere beyond everyday time. I remember what Stephen Batchelor wrote in his book The Faith to Doubt: that there can be a place where “time unbroken by clocks and clappers slips away like water.”
I see this craving for a different kind of time, and I know that it is legitimate. I wonder whether the dull mind that comes with the watched clock is a consequence of capitalism, of industrialization itself, or whether in fact it is the very stuff of modernity. “All of the above” is probably the correct answer, but it is not the only one. For I cannot deny that human beings struggled with time long before the invention of clocks, machines or digitization. And so I try to see the flashing countdown of the signal lights as an opportunity: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . stepping back into the moment.