Felt Experience of Time
The way in which one’s experience of time can be altered by one’s perspective has been a topic of intrigue for me. I vividly recall my first experiments with centering prayer as an example. I set a timer for 20 minutes, then after what seemed like an eternity, I peeked at my watch completely convinced that the timer failed and that 45 minutes had actually gone by. To my surprise, I discovered that only 13 or 14 minutes had passed. I was intrigued by simply altering what I was doing in a particular moment could have such a profound impact on my experience of time. In his book Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time Marc Wittmann writes:
The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.
In this example, through centering prayer, I was bringing a very intentional awareness and attentiveness to my mind and thoughts—so much so that my sense of self and time came rushing back into my consciousness causing my experience of that time to feel elongated.
I’ve noticed this in other areas of my life to which I bring a sense of intentional awareness. For example, there was a three month period in which I tried to write a new haiku every morning. I would typically formulate this haiku on my bike ride into work. I would scour the landscape for inspiration and try to poetically fit reflective thoughts into the haiku structure. Those bike rides always felt longer and more memorable than one’s in which I just road mindlessly. Wittmann continues:
Events are subject to more frequent and more detailed recollection when they are connected with feelings. In general, we can say that events are stored because they are charged with a certain level of affect. Alternatively, the episodes in our lives that we remember depend on the feelings we associate with them. The greater the store of lived experience — that is, the more emotional coloration and variety one’s life has — the longer one’s lifetime seems, subjectively.
Thats it! Wittmann describes my experience with moments like this. There does seem to be something that happens when moments are charged with a certain level of affect—which explains why a morning spent examining the landscape for poetic inspiration becomes a longer and more memorable morning than others. It explains why taking a dedicated amount of time to let go of one’s thoughts and to notice the things that come to the surface—through meditation or centering prayer—can feel like such profound and meaningful experiences.
I try to practice an Examen prayer as much as I can. This isn’t so much of a present moment exercise, but by going back through my day and noticing the different areas of consolation and desolation, the whole entire day becomes more memorable to me. It’s like turning up the color saturation on a photograph. Everything becomes more interesting and pronounced from its previously flat and muted state. It is a way of “charging” those moments with a feeling or a sense of awareness which allows them to stick and become part of one’s reservoir of rich life experiences and moments to draw upon.
Dig Your Heels In
Our society beckons us to become more efficient and more organized by alluring us toward new fangled apps and devices that will allow us to become better connected, remind us of things, and store information better. But so often these things just end up costing us more by distracting us more and further dividing what little expendable time we have—which lessens our ability to charge those moments with feeling and affect—which in turn causes our lives to feel shorter and less meaningful. Like water striders gliding around on the surface tension of the water, we fail to penetrate the thin membrane that allows us to swim in the richness of life’s experiences. Wittmann expounds:
If one has no time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we are no longer aware of ourselves… Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one’s own self. We also no longer feel “at home” with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.
It takes discipline to live a life with space, with margins. I’m honestly not sure what we are racing so fast toward. I’m more and more convinced of our dire need to dig our heels in and refuse to be carried along by the stream of hurry and business. I like what Alan Watts writes in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety:
But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.
This is the only moment in which you are present—it is the only moment that matters, so don’t live in it divided six different ways. It can feel like were accomplishing more by adopting an octopus-like engagement with the world—our physical and mental faculties stretched out like tentacles into all different directions. But going through life’s moments like that will result in a life that feels shorter, less rich, and the moments that really matter less memorable.
After all, Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”1
Photo by Lance Baker: Sleeping Bear Dunes, MI
1Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life