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Living the moment

In today's time-driven world, lives are measured by the clock. LATA MANI speaks of the need to slow down and improve the pace and texture of life.

ONE of the paradoxes of time is that we tend to experience it as natural or real, even though evidence abounds of its constructed nature. Two examples will suffice to make this point. There is nothing inherent in the location of Greenwich that accounts for the division of the globe into time zones that are relative to the solar time at the Greenwich meridian. Greenwich Mean Time persists as the axis around which time elsewhere on the globe is determined, primarily because this arrangement, which signals the dominance of the West, is accepted by all nations.


Time and speed are the new watchwords of society ... a high speed commuter craft overtakes Sydney's oldest sailing ship.

The same is true of the Gregorian calendar by which the world now officially conducts its affairs. The Gregorian calendar represents a human attempt to give regularity to the dance of the sun and the earth in relation to each other. Thus it is that every four years we add an additional day to recoup the time lost annually when the approximately 365 and a quarter day cycle is reckoned as 365 days.

For the most part, however, we overlook the fact that time is a shared convention, treating it rather as simply a natural phenomenon. We even relocate daybreak and sunset, which, one might surmise, are logical ways to determine the beginning and end of a given day, within the compass of clock-time. Thus it is that newspapers report sunrise today at 6.02 am, or sunrise tomorrow at 6.10 a.m. Daybreak, morning, afternoon, dusk and night vary seasonally, depending on the latitude, the positioning of the earth in relation to the sun, etcetera. Such variations can, potentially, call our attention to the constructed regularity of the 24-hour day and to its linear conception of time. But in general they fail to do so.

So completely normative is this notion of clock-time that everyone in this busy age seems to be run by it. Our sleeping, waking and working schedules are entirely dictated by the clock. Time becomes measurable, finite. Time cannot be extended, except by extending the time when something is due. In other words, two hours remains two hours in clock-time. If we need more time, we need the reprieve of an additional hour to complete our task. Deadlines may be stretched, but not time.

It is thus no wonder that a notional construct by means of which society organises its daily rhythm, has become instead a yardstick by which almost everything is measured. Our sense of satisfaction, our feelings about a given day or week, critically revolve around the idea of time whether there has been enough of it, the nature of that time, the use to which it has been put, the results of our efforts within the time available to us. We constantly evaluate our use of time, deeming ourselves to have either wasted it or put it to good use. Time takes on an objective quality.

Despite this, all of us have experienced the subjective dimension of time. We notice that time flies when we enjoy ourselves, and drags when we are at work on something that we find disagreeable or difficult. If time is constant, it cannot by definition either fly or drag. But our language signals our experience of time as elastic. Thus we speak of time stretched and time foreshortened: minutes that feel like days and days that seem like hours.

Clock-time has become tyrannical in this day, when the speed of communication has made space and time appear to shrink. The pace at which things can now be accomplished means that the expectation of what can be achieved has exponentially increased. Those able to avail of technological advances routinely expect tasks to be completed swiftly and problems to be resolved almost as soon as they arise.

There is much in our everyday environment that mercifully serves to undermine the false sense of urgency and expectation that has come to characterise life, especially in the upper echelons of society. The fluctuations of electricity, the overload of Internet services are but two factors that constantly frustrate our attempts to stay in the fast lane. Even so, the degree of patience that one was required to cultivate as a matter of course is now, relatively speaking, less essential. We need no longer wait for someone to reach their destination but can be assured that they can be called on their cell phone or alerted on their pager.

Likewise the 24-hour availability of the Internet at times makes it unnecessary for us to wait until the next working day to pursue a matter further. This is amply illustrated in the case of Indian companies that are primarily servicing foreign multi-nationals. Where once it was only the blue-collar factory employees who worked round the clock shifts, it is now middle and high level executives who are expected to be available at all hours. For, at any given hour of the day, someone somewhere in the globe is awake, at work and needing information to be supplied or a problem to be resolved. And given the contemporary international work ethos, they feel entitled to have their requests met as soon as possible.

The oppressive aspects of this kind of space-time compression (its benefits are undeniably many, but not my focus here) make it important for us to note that, its dominance notwithstanding, other kinds of time co-exist with clock-time. Some obvious examples here are the notions of Indian standard time, rural time and the ritual calendar that is related to the cycles of the moon, not the sun. All three are a counterpoint to clock time and its double, the Gregorian calendar. But we can go further. We can consciously cultivate practices that bring us in touch with other kinds of temporality.

Let us turn first to nature. Why is it that we find sitting in a garden or at the seashore so inherently relaxing? Why does our sense of urgency, stress and frenzy soften and gradually diminish, even without much effort on our part? One reason, I would propose, is that nature is always only in the present moment. It exists so completely in, as and for itself that it naturally exists beyond clock-time. Anyone who has had the opportunity to observe a tree develop from sapling to full girth will know that although the clock and the calendar can be utilised to keep a record of the tree's growth, they are inadequate to a proper appreciation of its journey. The mechanical constancy of clock-time means that it is not supple enough for such processes as the gradual extension of the roots under the earth, the slow thickening of the bark and the cycle of leaves falling and new growth appearing. Indeed, it could be argued that one reason why clock-time appears to cease, or at least lose its grip on our consciousness when we are out in nature, is that it is simply insufficient to the temporalities and rhythms of nature.

When we experience time dissolving in this way, it is as though we have stepped through the threshold of objective time and are suspended in the Now. Or to put it another way, we have relinquished clock-time by means of immersion in the present moment. What is the present moment? The present moment is one that is experienced without regard to either past or future, that is to say, a moment experienced in its fullness. Most often, each moment is threaded by us into a chain of moments, those that precede it and those that follow it. Each moment takes shape and meaning relative to all that has gone before it and all that we predict, or expect, or hope, will follow. The present moment is merely a name for a moment so consciously experienced that both past and future dissolve into what is often called the Now. When we are in the Now, time completely collapses.

This is not to say that the clock stops ticking. Rather, it is to point out that the continual reincarnation of time in our minds depends on our inserting each moment of our lives into a temporal narrative, into some story of past and future. This tendency necessarily takes us away from the present. And when this mental activity ceases, even for a few moments, we palpably experience a release from time's hold upon us. We relax. It is perhaps little surprise, then, that alongside the speed up in the urban work place one has witnessed an upsurge of interest in meditation. For one of the purposes of meditation is precisely to cultivate one's ability to consciously be in the present moment, without taking flight into the future or seeking shelter in the past.

As the reference to meditation indicates, it is not only outside of ourselves that we experience a temporality that disrupts the normative status of clock-time.

Our own bodies, if we were to attend to them properly, can also serve to illustrate this. We will notice the small and not-so-small punishments that we mete out to our bodies in order to be disciplined by time: our forsaking of sleep and proper nutrition, our becoming storehouses of stress, our pushing of bodily limits by means of coffee, cigarettes and other stimulants. If, however, we refuse these mechanisms of submission to clock-time and insist that the workday be organised according to the rhythms of the body, the hours we work and the conditions in which we perform our labour will look radically different. For then, the natural ebbs and flows of energy will be integral to the social organisation of work and life.

Work, indeed life activity more generally, will appropriately honour the following three qualities, activity (rajas), inertia (tamas) and dynamic stillness (sattva). The pace and texture of life will no longer be determined by mechanistic time. Challenging this dominant conception of time will also have the benefit of undermining the negative consequences of space-time compression. For, in our day, both have combined to compress our very humanity.

Lata Mani is the author of Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life.

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