08/05/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Is Your Timepiece 'Keeping' You? A Mindfulness Practice for Transcending Time

Time is but the stream I go fishing in. I drink at it, but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. It's thin current slides away, but eternity remains. -- Henry David Thoreau

Being an avid student of mindfulness, which is the practice of being fully present in the moment, the subject of time has always fascinated me because it -- or, perhaps more accurately stated, our perception of it -- affects our lives in ways we seldom consider. Odds are you are wearing a watch right now, or carrying a phone with a digital clock, or sitting in front of a computer with a time display, and that you have looked at it within the past 15 minutes. It seems time has us surrounded! Have you given much thought to how much of your life is kept and controlled by "time"? This is not to say we could or should do away with all these wonderful time "keeping" devices because, as someone said, the concept of linear time is what keeps everything from happening all at once. There would be great havoc in our world without a mutual agreement among us about what "time" it appears to be at any given moment. In other words, we need a way to measure the manner in which life intersects with itself by means of human beings coming and going without chaos ensuing. The question is, can we live mindfully with our various timekeepers rather than being dominated by them.

While Hollywood has made countless entertaining movies about the space-time continuum and time travel, the great irony is that few of us take "time" to consider the phenomena of time and the role it plays in our daily lives, not to mention the power we give to something we can't even see. What is time? You can't see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, or hear it. Is it, as Thoreau infers, sacred and eternal and, at the same time temporal, like a stream that we metaphorically stand in and experience as it passes us by. Does time really even exist or is it simply a creation of human beings seeking to have something tangible by means of which they can measure the duration of their experience on the planet?

The relevancy of time and its impact upon our lives is an ancient conversation. While, I am neither a physicist nor a clock maker, I saw first hand the work of those who were, at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum had on display the inventions of many scientists from the 1600s and it was apparent that our fascination (and obsession) with the concept of time and space goes back a long way. There were dozens of early "timekeeping" devices (such as the one in this photo). It got me thinking about the reality that it was human beings who invented time, first by placing numbers on a calendar and a sundial, and then by placing them on a man-made device called a clock. Over the centuries, the position of the sun and stars, calendars and clocks have aided us in maintaining our lives in a linear fashion based on three "tenses" -- past, present and future which, pun intended, makes us "tense" much of the time.

The universe knows nothing about time; it is we who created time and we live our lives according to the watch we have strapped to our wrist, or the numerous clocks in just about every room of our home, or on the dashboard of our car, or our mobile devices. Suffice it to say, we are prisoners of time and it seems we can't escape the gravitational pull of its affect on us -- or can we? Interestingly enough, a week before being in Florence, while presenting a workshop at a conference in Geneva, a very kind gentleman named Erik gave me a wristwatch which, rather than having numbers on its face, had the word "now" at every designated hour. I loved the message! The obvious practice when looking at the watch is to bring the wearer's mind back into alignment with their body, which is always in the present moment. The reality is, it is always now. Five minutes from now it will still be now... and five years from now it will still be now -- but now is seldom where our minds are.

My point is this. Too often we may hear ourselves saying time is moving so fast that we can't keep up with it, when, in reality, time isn't moving at all. Time is stationary because it is always now. Perhaps it is us who are moving so quickly through the now moment we miss the gift of infinite presence that is always (and only) available in the present. Now is where the grandeur and wonder of life is happening but when our minds are elsewhere we miss the show! It is amazing what one can see when one is completely present in the moment rather than staring at the clock, a time machine that rips us out of the sacred second at hand. If you are open to the idea of reclaiming some of the power you have given to the illusion of time, consider this brief mindfulness practice:

  • Using Thoreau's metaphor, take a few deep breaths and visualize yourself standing comfortably, ankle deep, in a beautiful stream.
  • With your feet soundly planted on the sandy bottom, visualize the stream of water rapidly passing by your ankles as "time" flowing by, and the bottom upon which you stand stationary as the present and eternal moment of "now."
  • For a few minutes breathe deeply and let the water flow with no attachment to where it is going. Just focus on standing firmly, with grace and ease, on the solid sand under your feet. It actually feels good to not get caught up in the current of time doesn't it?
  • Feel a sense of peace slowly rise up within you, from the bottom of your feet... up into your heart... and then into your head, knowing you have just anchored yourself in the eternal present moment of now, which is where life is patiently waiting for you to show up.

Sir Noel Coward wrote, "Time is the reef upon which all our frail mystic ships are wrecked." I think this is a very poetic way of reminding us to be present in the moment where the true self is always at the helm. When we make space for infinite presence to reveal Itself in the present moment, time seems to stand still, allowing us to pilot our mystic vessel more mindfully around the reefs of everyday life. Ram Dass must have had Thoreau in mind when he coined the phrase, "Be here now." This is great advice for us anytime we find ourselves being mesmerized by a clock in its many manifestations. Time really is the reef upon which our mystic ship gets hung up. So take a deep breath right now... and enjoy this present moment because, irrespective of what the numbers on your favorite timepiece may say, Now is all you really have -- don't squander it by trying to keep up with something that really doesn't exist.

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