on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

my strange relationship with time

I have a strange relationship with time. On one hand, I have time anxiety: the fear that time will pass too quickly and I’ll run out of time. On the other hand, there are times when I am bored, wishing time will pass more quickly to the next eventful event. 

I try to cope with my time anxiety by doing more, filling up my time. But it inevitably leaves me exhausted and frazzled, thinning the relationship with myself. Or sometimes I overdo things and I burn out so I am unable to do anything even though I have copious amounts of time – this exposes my inability to be compassionate with myself as I berate myself for being useless and a time waster.

Being aware of time makes me uncomfortable and anxious. It increases the distance between my self and everything else, because I think too much about time to be fully present. 

posted the other day that knowing how to rest is a rare skill. Rest should be fruitful: we should recover and rejuvenate, coming out of the period feeling refreshed and hopefully inspired. But resting makes me frustrated, because I cannot shake off the feeling that I am wasting time. If only I can fully immerse myself into the emptiness of time and learn to truly decompress, I wouldn’t be stuck in the twilight zone of neither here nor there. I was wasting time by resting, because I didn’t know how to rest. Did it make me feel better or worse off?

In the societies we live in today, I am not unique in my estranged relationship with time. Mandy Brown cites Mary Ruefle making the point that wasting time is not time wasted, and is necessary for creativity:

I return to Mary Ruefle:

John Ashbery, in an interview in the Poetry Miscellany, talks about wasting time: “I waste a lot of time. That’s part of the [creative process]….The problem is, you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted. Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life. You can’t use your time.” In other words, wasted time cannot be filled, or changed into another habit; it is a necessary void of fomentation…Gertrude Stein: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”… The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time. For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.

Source: Out of time by Mandy Brown | link

She also points to the smartphone as the source of our restlessness:

In this way, smartphones consume rest. I mean to defy the usual consumption metaphor—in which we (the users) consume whatever the device makes available. Instead, I think the devices (and their attendant systems and modes, the apps and news feeds and platforms and whatnot) consume usWe are consumed: our rest, our ease, our leisure, our breath—all are eaten up by the flickering and frittering and jittering of inconstant screens.

Source: Out of time by Mandy Brown | link

…and of course I am guilty too of letting my smartphone consume me. I much enjoy doomscrolling to be honest, it takes me away from the sad noise of my mind. Who wouldn’t prefer that cute dog video or that very interesting thing compared to the depressive chatter in the mind? I think there are times when such a diversion is necessary in exchange for sanity, but in the long run I know it is being able to be with my mind that will open the doors I am seeking.

Even teenagers know this:

She lucidly explains how going “Luddite” has helped her with school, sleep, friendship, reading, concentration, and “hanging out with yourself.”

– Logan Lane and the Luddite Club

It is somewhat depressing and yet inspiring when someone less than half my age seems to know how to live better than me (I think there is much to learn from the younger generations, if we’re willing, because they grew up without the boxes that we have). It is ironic because I probably only got to know about this random teenager through doomscrolling, but there is a difference between conscious exploration of the online world, versus letting it crowd our minds without agency. Is it necessary or healthy to fill our minds up with so many people’s thoughts, prejudices, trauma, beliefs, projections, emotions? I ask myself this very often these days.

The concept of time – that it exists independently, and that we can measure it in an absolute sense – is dodgy in the world of quantum physics, according to Carlo Rovelli:

There is no single time: there is a different duration for every trajectory; and time passes at different rhythms according to place and according to speed. It is not directional: the difference between past and future does not exist in the elementary equations of the world; its orientation is merely a contingent aspect that appears when we look at things and neglect the details. In this blurred view, the past of the universe was in a curiously “particular” state. The notion of the “present” does not work: in the vast universe there is nothing that we can reasonably call “present.” The substratum that determines the duration of time is not an independent entity, different from the others that make up the world; it is an aspect of a dynamic field. It jumps, fluctuates, materializes only by interacting, and is not to be found beneath a minimum scale. . . . So, after all this, what is left of time?

Source: The order of time by Carlo Rovelli | link

abstract illustration of time

I find reading “The order of time” very intriguing, because I might as well be reading a book on Buddhist philosophy. It is very Buddhist to state that there is nothing when we try to break down everything:

On closer inspection, in fact, even the things that are most “thinglike” are nothing more than long events. The hardest stone, in the light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is in reality a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust, a brief chapter in the history of interactions between the elements of the planet, a trace of Neolithic humanity, a weapon used by a gang of kids, an example in a book about time, a metaphor for an ontology, a part of a segmentation of the world that depends more on how our bodies are structured to perceive than on the object of perception—and, gradually, an intricate knot in that cosmic game of mirrors that constitutes reality. The world is not so much made of stones as of fleeting sounds, or of waves moving through the sea.

Source: The order of time by Carlo Rovelli | link

Contrast this with this statement by Matthieu Ricard, probably the most famous monk in the present world:

It quite simply affirms that, if we dig deep enough, there is a difference between the way we see the world and the way it really is, and the way it really is, we’ve discovered, is devoid of intrinsic existence.

Source: The quantum and the lotus by Matthieu Ricard, Trịnh Xuân Thuận | link

They are basically saying the same thing, except Buddha was a genius for intuiting this a couple of thousand years ago. So what does it mean if time and/or matter doesn’t really exist in the way we believe them to be? How does this change my relationship with time? Time and reality may not be very real but how we feel about these concepts have very real implications of how we live life. I think what helps me is that it softens everything for me, that I don’t have to be rigid, because nothing is rigid:

And a human being? Of course it’s not a thing; like the cloud above the mountain, it’s a complex process, where food, information, light, words, and so on enter and exit. . . . A knot of knots in a network of social relations, in a network of chemical processes, in a network of emotions exchanged with its own kind.

Source: The order of time by Carlo Rovelli | link

…and that our mistake is thinking of the world in absolute terms, when it will make more sense if we think of it as the constant changing of events:

The error lies in seeking to understand the world in terms of things rather than events. It lies in ignoring change. The physics and astronomy that will work, from Ptolemy to Galileo, from Newton to Schrödinger, will be mathematical descriptions of precisely how things change, not of how they are. They will be about events, not things. The shapes of atoms will be eventually understood only with solutions to Schrödinger’s equations describing how the electrons in atoms move. Events again, not things.

Source: The order of time by Carlo Rovelli | link

By extension, my mistake is to think of myself as as an independent complete self that is already made: full of flaws, prone to failures, as though it is completely up to me that I am shaped this way, that my relationship with time is self-determined. Just like it is not easy to dictate our own schedules when we first break free of the standard 9-5 regimen, it is not easy to have a personal healthy relationship with time when the world functions on such a rigid notion of time.

I am changing, but I don’t want to be a process. I want myself to be an off-on switch. In the end, the Buddha is right again. It is having unrealistic expectations that causes suffering.

But if we think deeply into the idea that we’re a network of processes, we may learn to expect differently. Because nothing is fixed and solid, there is space and there is potential. What will pass, what is ongoing, and what is next? Nothing stays still. That is the curse and gift of time.

When I am at rest or when I am bored, I mistakenly think that nothing is happening. Something is always happening. The body repairs itself, the subconscious sorts itself out. After all, the best ideas seem to come in the shower. Can I learn to welcome that quiet and emptying instead of labelling it?

How do we have self-compassion in that space between the person we are and the person we wish to become? Frustration too, can be a friend I recognise. I am frustrated because I know there is something off in this moment. But perhaps instead of being mad at the discomfort of this offness, I can examine why. When we leave our feelings as they are they may linger or snowball, but maybe when we try to look underneath those layers, their stranglehold on us may not be as solid as we believe them to be.

I guess I want to have an easy relationship with time. That in my ideal world and with my ideal self, I will not feel the anxiety of time passing because every moment is fruitful. But going back to the idea of impermanence, perhaps this ideal state does not exist because I am always in flux, in the process of changing. What feels fruitful to me today may not satisfy my tomorrows. Something tedious this week may feel restful next. I must be willing to keep engaging, to keep having an evolving relationship with time. And to have a healthier relationship with time, maybe the key is to be capable of relating to myself better.

I seem to always be unhappy with the choices I make, that’s why. It is hard to thrive when one has an antagonistic relationship with one self.

Related resources

link A Working Library
Out of time
by Mandy Brown completed: 12 Feb 2023

I return to Mary Ruefle:

John Ashbery, in an interview in the Poetry Miscellany, talks about wasting time: “I waste a lot of time. That’s part of the [creative process]….The problem is, you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted. Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life. You can’t use your time.” In other words, wasted time cannot be filled, or changed into another habit; it is a necessary void of fomentation.

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book goodreads
The order of time
by Carlo Rovelli

book cover: the order of time

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The quantum and the lotus
by Matthieu Ricard, Trịnh Xuân Thuận completed: 28 May 2018

book cover: the quantum and the lotus

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link National Library of Medicine
Creativity—the unconscious foundations of the incubation period
by Simone M. Ritter, Ap Dijksterhuis completed: 12 Feb 2023

First, an overview of the domain of incubation and creativity is provided by reviewing and discussing studies on incubation, mind-wandering, and sleep. Second, the causes of incubation effects are discussed.

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