One of the projects that kept me busy this month was my presentation at Yokohama International School's annual conference, "Bridging the Gap." You may remember (and you can check the blog archives) that we gave a yoga presentation at the same conference last year. This time, I thought it would be good to change things up a little bit, and decided to focus on Buddhist ideas rather than Yogic ones.
I'd like to outline here the first part of my lecture that day. It has to do with the way we perceive time. I started by asking the attendees what images came to mind when they thought of the word time. The first answer was, of course a "clock."
Clocks are very useful machines, but they have a way of distorting our perception of time. When you look at a clock, the present moment is just the smallest sliver of a line, and you get the feeling that the present is getting away from you, especially with the clocks that have a ticking second hand. "Tick-tick-tick-tick...." just the thought of it makes me feel stressed out, like time is running out. Stand in Shinjuku station and watch people running madly to catch a train on the Yamanote line. In a full sprint, they will sometimes knock people over to catch that train. The thing is, the Yamanote line has trains coming every two minutes. This is the end result of a culture that obsesses about time getting away from it. Always running, never feeling like there is enough time.
In the modern world it can sometimes seem that we are walking the tightrope of time, the past a huge, yawning space behind us, the future an immense fog ahead, and we are stuck on the smallest bit of now, marooned between two chasms. You can get this feeling by looking at one of the oldest ways to measure time, the hourglass...
Do you see how "now" is squeezed between the two larger sections of past and future? What a stressful way to think about the world! It's also completely wrong. This is the good news of buddhism. The present moment is the only moment that anything has ever or will ever happen in. For example, I am thinking now about the time I got my wisdom teeth pulled. That was about 5 years ago. But 5 years ago is an imaginary place. In reality, my brain is going through a electrochemical process to bring up that memory in the present moment. Similiarly, I am now thinking about my plans for the New Year holiday which happens in a month. But that New Year's Holiday is an imaginary place. The thoughts about it are happening now. All we have is now. And when you stop investing so much energy into the imaginary past and future, and instead focus on the very real present moment, you are practicing what buddhists call mindfullness. Accepting the moment for what it is without extra layers of judgement and comparison.
This is all kind of heavy stuff, so I find it helpful to use illustrations to make it more vivid. Let's revisit the hourglass from before, except this time we'll try to make an hourglass that reflects the true nature of the world...
The past and future are the parts that should be squeezed out, not the now, in fact if you keep squeezing them smaller and smaller you'll get something like this...
And how about that clock that was chopping up the present moment into impossibly small chunks? Well, I'm happy to announce you can now buy this clock from this online store.
Something special happens when you let go of the past and future, or more accurately, of the way things were and the way you want them to be. Instead of "I hope this rain clears up so I can go out" you arrive at "Look at the rain. It's so nice to be warm and dry inside right now." The first is a thought pattern of frustration, the second a pattern of thankfulness and compassion. Which would you rather spend your short time on earth experiencing?
The thing is, our world practically forces us into the past/future way of thinking. Every advertisement you see is selling you a future you, where you are happier and more complete (with the help of their product). To break out of this thinking requires a lot of effort. You can feel it in sports, where you focus completely on the task at hand, or in a hobby where your attention is completely absorbed. But there is a much more accesible way to gain access to the present moment. Just sit down, and stop doing so much. Stop doing anything at all. Sit and let your thoughts come and go, without grabbing on to them and chasing them around. Just be.
Welcome to the world of meditation.
So, what time is it right now? Remember, there is the imaginary answer...
and the real one...
Enjoy your now!