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Stop the Clock! How To Slow Down Time & Live In The Present

by Steve Taylor


Sometimes it seems as if life is passing us by. When we were children, time seemed almost endless. Car journeys used to last an eternity and the summer holidays seemed like years stretching before us. But as adults, time seems to speed up at a frightening rate. Christmas and birthday seem to come round quicker each year. We look forward to events – like marriages and holidays – for months only to find that they pass by so quickly that we hardly have time to enjoy them.

We never seem to have enough time. We feel stressed by the number of tasks we have to pack into our days and oppressed by the deadlines that loom in front of us. We rush to try to make more time for ourselves, but it just seems to make things worse. Any time we save just seems to fill up with new demands, and even when it really is free, we feel too stressed and agitated to enjoy it fully.

However, in my book Making Time, I suggest that we don’t need to feel oppressed by time like this. It is possible for us to slow down time in our lives –and even to transcend time altogether. We don’t have at the mercy of time, because we can control it. Many of us try to make sure we can live for as long as possible by eating good food and exercising, which is sensible. But it’s also possible for us to extend our lives by increasing the amount of time we experience.

Why Does Time Speed up?

In order to do this, we first need to look into the question of why time seems to pass at different speeds in different situations.

The speed of time is largely determined by how many impressions and perceptions our minds take in – the more impressions, the slower time goes. One of the reasons why time goes so slowly for children is because they have a heightened perception of their surroundings, and because they’re experiencing everything for the first time. As a result, they take in a lot more impressions and perceptions, all kinds of details which pass us adults by – tiny cracks in windows, tiny insects crawling across the floor, patterns of sunlight on the carpet etc. And even the larger scale things which we can see as well seem to be more real to them, to be brighter, with more presence and is-ness.

But as we get older, we have fewer new experiences, and most of us lose this intensity of perception, as the world becomes a familiar place. We begin to ‘switch off’ to the wonder and is-ness of the world, gradually stop paying conscious attention to our surroundings and experience. As a result we take in progressively fewer perceptions and impressions, and as a result time seems to pass more quickly.

However, if we know that familiarity makes time pass faster, then we can slow down time by exposing ourselves to as much new experience as possible, by travelling to new places, giving ourselves new challenges, meeting new people, exposing our minds with new information, hobbies and skills, and so on. One of the pieces of research I did for my book was to go to Manchester Airport and ask returning travellers whether they felt time had gone quickly or slowly, or if they felt they had been away for longer than the period of their holiday. We found that people who went on more adventurous holidays to more unfamiliar places – for example, trekking around India, or a three week tour of Peru – felt that they had been away for a long than the actual time, while people who had returned from tourist complex holidays felt that time had gone quickly.

In theory, this is one way in which we could live for ‘longer.’ If a person spends most of their life doing the same job, living in the same house in the same area, doing the same things with the same people in their free time, then it’s inevitable that they experience a swift passage of time. But if you change jobs regularly, regularly travel to new places, keep investigating new ideas and giving yourself new challenges, time will pass more slowly to you. In this way, it’s possible for a person who dies before the age of, say, 40 to experience more time in their lives than a person who lives a full lifespan.

Mindfulness

Perhaps a better alternative to this, though, is to slow down time is by making a conscious effort to be ‘mindful’ of our experience. Mindfulness is a Buddhist term which means giving our whole attention to our experience – to what we are seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling or hearing – rather than to our thoughts. It means living through our senses and our experience rather than through our minds.

There are some people who seem to be as affected by familiarity than others, and see the world with something of the fresh, first-time vision of children all through their lives. These are the kind of people – sometimes seen as eccentrics by those around them – who often begin sentences with phrases like ‘Isn’t is strange that…?’ or ‘Have you ever wondered…?’ They’re the kind of people who might stop in the street to gaze up at a beautiful scene of the sun breaking through clouds or a silver moon above the rooftops; or they might stare intently at the sea, at flowers or at animals, as if they’ve never them before. Poets and artists often have this kind of ‘child-like’ vision – in fact it’s this that usually provides the inspiration for their work. They often have a sense of strangeness and wonder about things which other people take for granted, and feel a need to capture and frame their more intense perceptions. As a result, time probably goes more slowly to them.

And in a sense, we can cultivate this attitude simply by making a conscious effort to be ‘mindful.’ Instead of focusing our attention on the ‘thought-chatter’ in our heads or on tasks or distractions like TV or computer games, we should try to live in the present, to give our attention to the experiences we’re having and to our surroundings. When you’re having a shower in the morning, for example – instead of letting your mind chatter away about the things you've got to do today or the things you did last night, try to bring your attention to the here and now, to really be aware of the sensation of the water splashing against and running down your body and the sense of warmth and cleanness you feel. Or on the way home from work on the bus or the train – instead of mulling over all the problems you've had to deal with at work or daydreaming about the attractive man you met last night, focus your attention outside you; look at the sky, at the houses and buildings you pass, and be aware of yourself here, walking amongst them.

Mindfulness means stopping thinking and starting to be aware, to live in the here and now of your experience instead of the ‘there and then’ of your thoughts. It stretches time in exactly the same way that new experience does: because we give more attention to our experience, we take in more impressions.

Mindfulness also enables us to ‘step outside’ the things we’re doing. In Making Time I put forward several ‘laws’ of psychological time, one of which is ‘time passes quickly in states of absorption.’ This the reason why time goes quickly when we’re having fun – because when we have fun, we’re usually in a state of absorption. It’s why time an evening meal with friends seems so pass so quickly, a wedding day or an exciting sports match. In these situations, you can slow down time by drawing your attention away from the conversations you’re having or the spectacle around you, and just observe. Make an attempt to be ‘mindful’ of your surroundings and your experience, without being absorbed in them.

Transcending the Ego

The second factor which determines the speed of time – besides the amount of impressions and perceptions we take in – is how strong our sense of ego is. By the term ‘ego’ I mean our sense of being an ‘I’ inside our heads, a separate entity which looks out at the world, with its own memories, beliefs and self-image. Our sense of time is closely linked to this ego. New born babies don’t have any sense of time, because they have no ego. And one of the reasons why time goes so slowly for children is because their egos are still quite weak. By the time we reach adulthood, however, the ego has become fully developed, and we have ‘fallen’ into time completely.

But even as adults we occasionally experience moments of slowed down time, or even complete timelessness, when our ego temporarily dissolves. This can happen when the ego is paralysed by a sudden shock, such as in an accident or an emergency situation. This is why so many people who have car accidents say that ‘everything went into slow motion’ or ‘each second seemed like a minute.’

The ego can also dissolve away after a long period of very focused concentration. This can happen in meditation, or when sportspeople enter ‘the Zone,’ when a slowed down sense of time makes them capable of astounding feats, because they have more time to make their moves, to position themselves and anticipate their opponents’ actions.

This provides us with another way in which we can slow down time: by weakening the ego. This is one of the purposes of meditation. Meditation can affect our sense of time passing in both long and short term ways. In the short term, it slows down time by heightening our awareness of our surroundings, so that we take in more impressions and perceptions. It also halts our normal ‘thought-chatter’ – the incessant stream of thought running through our minds. Usually in meditation, we use a focusing device such as a mantra, a candle flame or our breathing. If we can keep our attention focused, we find that our thoughts begin to slow down. The mind becomes quiet, and a sense of natural well-being fills us. And since most of our thoughts are concerned with the future or the past, with less ‘thought-chatter’ in our minds we become more focused on the present.

In the long term, meditation works to ‘undo’ our sense of ego. As we regularly meditate, our minds become permanently more empty and still, and the boundaries between us and the cosmos become weaker. As a result, time gradually slows down for us, in the same way that it does for sportspeople in the zone.

And after all, ‘undoing’ the ego is one of the main aims of spiritual development in general. Through meditation, mindfulness, devotion, service and other spiritual practices we slowly transcend our limited ego-selves, and re-orientate ourselves around a deeper spiritual self. In the process, the boundaries of time expand, like a river opening up to the ocean, until the illusion unravels completely, and we realise our true, timeless and eternal nature.

Living in the Now

Linear time is an illusion, created by our thoughts. The future and the past don’t exist in reality, just in our heads. We create the future by anticipating it; we create the past by recalling it. And one of our biggest problems as human beings is that we spend so much time immersed in thoughts about the future and the past, rather than living in the present. But through practising mindfulness and meditation we can learn to live in the now. We can turn our attention away from the illusory world of daydreams and memories, and into the wonderful is-ness of our experience and our surroundings. This is like stepping of the train of linear time, and finding ourselves in the midst of an endless panorama of the present.

Tips for Slowing Down Time:

  1. Meditate regularly. Meditation slows down time in the short term by opening your mind to more perceptions, and in the long term by weakening your ego.
  2. Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness means leaving in the present moment. It means that giving your whole attention to where you are and what you’re doing, rather than to the thoughts in your head.
  3. Stop thinking about the future and the past. Don’t see your life as a road, with you walking into the future. See your life as an ocean, that spreads around you in all directions now. There is no before or after, only the present.
  4. Bring new experience into your life. This could mean foreign travel, new hobbies and friends. Make sure life doesn’t become too full of routine.
  5. Avoid spending too much time in states of absorption. Absorption makes time go faster, so don’t spend too much of your free time in states of ‘passive absorption’, such as watching TV or surfing the internet.
  6. Don’t wear a watch. Free yourself from ‘time pressure’ by stopping wearing a watch. Just looking at watch can make you feel anxious.
  7. Try not to let your life run by clock time. Begin tasks when you feel the time is right to do them, rather than when the clock tells you to. If you tune in to the natural rhythm of the cosmos – into the Tao, as it’s called in Chinese philosophy – you will know when the right time to do something is.
  8. Bring yourself ‘outside’ events. If you’re in the midst of an enjoyable occasion which you feel is going by too quickly, withdraw your attention from it. Become a detached observer of it rather than a participant, and be mindful of all the sights and sounds around you.

Steve Taylor is the author of Making Time: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and how to Control it (Icon Books). He is also the author of The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History (O books). His work has been described by Eckhart Tolle as ‘fascinating, important and highly enlightening.’ His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com


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