My mindfulness practice has illuminated a contrast between ordinary time and the expansiveness of moment by moment experience. I’ve found that as I move in and out of autopilot, time seems to speed up and slow down. When I’m consumed by thoughts of what I’ve yet to do, I become disconnected from preset moment experience and transported, like a science fiction time traveler, into an imagined future.
Recently I went on a vacation where I was removed from all the usual obligations and could move throughout my days as I pleased, often immersed in nature. Time expanded like an overstretched rubber band until I returned home and it snapped back to its often too-tightness.
This experience made me curious. What are the causes and conditions, both internal and external, that impact my sense of time? I noticed that when I have too much on my plate, my sense of time shrinks and I sometimes develop a rushed and panicky feeling inside. Whenever I can release myself from obligations and just be, my sense of time expands and I feel surprised at how little time has passed. When I’m having a lot of fun, time seems to pass by too quickly. When I’m focused on something important upcoming, intervening time seems to drag on. And when I’m deep in the flow, my awareness of time passing disappears completely.
Mindfulness has revealed that time isn’t the only experience that’s malleable by an interrelationship of causes and conditions. Its one thing to know this intellectually, and another to experience it directly. Recently my friend Cathan was leading a guided meditation on mindfulness of sound. She guided us to choose individual sounds to focus on and asked us to notice how that played out. One of the sounds she offered was painful to my sensitive ears. As I guided my attention to a different sound, I noticed a palpable reduction in my experience of pain, even though there was no external change in the sounds offered. To a person who was conditioned to believe that things are what they are, in and of themselves, eternally, each experience that challenges this notion seems miraculous – like magic.
As I prepare to depart for my annual 5-day silent retreat, I’m aware that I will likely be time traveling again. My perception of time will expand and slow down, allowing me to experience more fully and authentically the moments of my days. I know that with more practice, I’ll be better able to notice when time traveling takes me out of the present, even outside of the protected space of a vacation or a retreat. Until then, I will stay curious about my habits and patterns around time.
Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. – Henepola Gunaratana
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