On Having Time and Being Time

3 Apr 2018 8:52 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

by Tim Burnett

A new book by a Zen teacher friend of mine arrived a few days ago which has me thinking about time. The book is a study of a famous essay on the topic of time by Eihei Dogen, the 12th Century Zen master who is famous for his voluminous and challenging writings. I'll add a link and a few notes about this below if you're curious.

I'm intrigued by this new book. After reading the first few pages this time I find myself thinking about time, our relationship to time, and how stressed we seem to be by time. And I include myself fully in this! Perhaps it’s time to think more about our relationship to time itself.

In our class for healthcare professionals we do an exercise called Areas of Stress designed to support a "turning-towards" orientation around our stress. The idea is that trying to avoid and ignore stress or to "manage" stress in that stuff-it-in-a-box fashion seems to ultimately backfire. When we have the resources, the path to healing seems to require facing the stressful areas of life head-on and working with how we're relating to that stress. 

We go through about 20 areas of stress like intimate relationships, work, sleep, food, our changing bodies, the world, our stuff, and so on.

And I always include time. "Time," I'll write and say something like: "having enough time, managing time, using time wisely, not wasting time, having time to get stuff done, having time for self-care. Is time an area of stress for you?"

Can you guess which area of stress is always in the top 3 for most people in our groups?

Yes: time. We are stressed by time. Worried about time. Time is a problem for us.

And I think we take it for granted that it should be this way. "There are only 24 hours in a day," we say. And we know that we need enough sleep and exercise and now, on top of all that, a daily mindfulness practice which takes up more of that precious time daily! Time is rushing at us. Do you feel like you’re pushing through time like walking into a strong headwind? Time is exhausting.

Of course I think mindfulness can help with this troubling dynamic but as I re-examine Dogen's thoughts about time from 1200 years ago I wonder if our approach is thorough enough.

The simple and profound practice of mindful awareness of present-moment experience does help in a deep and radical way. That’s for sure.

Photo by John Novotny

Turning in to our breath, or what we're seeing right in front of us now, or what we're feeling in our body, heart and mind, these are moments of stepping out of the buffeting of the winds of time. These can be deeply healing moments where we can remember ease and a kind of timeless presence. Somehow it's also possible to rest in time. 

We explore this more fully in retreats. In our Days of Mindfulness, we encourage people to turn off their phones, put away their watches and let the time be "now" for at least a day. This can be challenging at times (pun intended) but it can also be so freeing. To just relax into the flow of moment by moment awareness and bring the mind back to that feeling when it veers off into future and past.

So this is helpful. Powerfully so. But I wonder if it's enough.

Are we avoiding the real issue at hand? Is the present-centered focus of mindfulness training offering us the real possibility of change or merely a way of taking a break for a moment before we're swept back into the whirlwind of life as a person who's running in place while time sweeps by from future to past?

I don't have any real answers to that but I think it's worth turning our attention to this. How do you think about time? How do you feel about time? Does it make sense to perceive time as something separate from ourselves that we try to manage and organize and spend wisely?

Or is there another way that's more wholesome and integrated? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts. 

Best wishes on this early Spring day. Have you paused to take in a blooming cherry tree yet? A seasonal treat that I hope I'll "make time" to enjoy today. Or maybe tomorrow. Or...


The book mentioned in the essay is Being-Time: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji by Shinshu Roberts. Shobogenzo is a famous collection of essays by Dogen. This particular essay called "Uji" in Sino-Japanese. Is usually translated as "Being-Time" - it's a meditation on the idea that there is no time separate from being and no being separate from time. The same essay was also one of my friend Ruth Ozeki's inspirations for her wonderful novel A Tale for the Time Being which I recommend highly.

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