This week, Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplain, explains how stepping out of clock-time can work wonders for our mental health.
One of the things people who come to a mindfulness class say is how mindfulness exposes their experience of time. ‘How long was that?’ they ask at the end of a thirty minute body scan, surprised to hear that they have spent a whole half-hour attending to the ebb and flow of breathing, the flux of sensation in the body. Or: ‘how long was that?’, said with frustration, the tight face betraying how every minute was grimly suffered, the meditation only completed for the sake of it.
We live, for the most part, in clock-time. It’s the kind of time counted by the pulsating seconds on a wristwatch, billable hours, overtime (remunerated or not), the digital uptick on your work computer, time to get on with it, making the most of your time, running out of time. It’s the time in which, at 10.01, you begin to wonder where your fellow meeting attendees have got to. Although this has an undoubtedly capitalist flavour today, its linearity is recognisable to the ancients: the Ancient Greeks used the word chronos to describe the linear, the chronological, tick tick tock. In this scheme of time, every minute is just the same as any other, and so it falls to us to cram in as much as we can – to make every minute count.
Nor is home life immune to this. With most of our study and work lives moved online, our flats, houses, and bedrooms now contain corners of potent clock-time. It shows up, seventeen point two minutes into a mindfulness practice, when you are checking how long there is to go, and calculating how much good it’s doing you. It’s what makes you reach for your phone to write lists when you are at the playground with your kids, and check the time in the night when you can’t sleep. It’s what makes you angry after a long and dreary socially-obligatory call, or lonely and bored in your room, self-isolating in halls, for hour after hour of your appointed fourteen days. When we dwell in this time, we feel as if we are constantly outrunning the crocodile coming for us a la Captain Hook, with his tick tick tick.
This kind of time is real, and, for some things, undoubtedly useful. If you don’t show up at 11am, you will miss the lecture; if you cook banana bread for only 10 minutes, it will be soggy and raw. But left unchecked, clock-time runs on stress, not synergy. And it seeps, insidiously, into your mealtimes, your yoga class, and your check-in with your partner: those spaces and relationships where you sense that, actually, another form of time is called for.
The Greeks had a different term – kairos – which means ‘the right time’: what is timely, opportune. This kind of time has a certain feel to it. It is what occurs in your meeting when a fortuitous idea arises out of the slipstream of what someone else has said. It’s a warm radiator on a chilled day, the sun breaking through clouds, a hug when you need it, an inspiration that takes flight, a spiky nest of cobnuts on the ground in Astley Ainslie Hospital, a glimpse of the sea from Morningside Road. It is ‘hail fellow well-met’, the happy accident, the unexpected pleasure, the coincidence. It is, literally, the momentous: ‘there was a moment’, we say.
For kairos is not the linear tick-tock, but the ‘moment’ indeed: that point in time when mind and body seem all of a sudden to meet, and you feel the sun on your face, and your awareness drops like a pebble out of the thought-storm-clouds and right back into your own skin. It is the moment-ness of something that makes us feel most alive, in flow, certain of things, even if that certainty is of uncertainty itself.
Sometimes moments stumble upon us, and when they do, we sense that the alchemy behind them was there all along – hidden, quiet, an invisible string, to quote Taylor Swift. But the Ancient Greeks thought kairos contained a little effort. To Aristotle, being able to spot and seize the right time was a question of judgment and skill. In positive psychology today, to be in flow means to be somewhat stretched – not so much that we are rendered unskilled, not so little that there is nothing to be done, but enough that we are alert and awake, and able to pull things together as they come to us. Herein, whether we are at work or at play, lie momentous things.
Here, this week, are a couple of ways to incline the mind to the moment.
1. The Pleasant
When something lovely arises, we tend to feel it, briefly, and then move on; or we may not actually feel it all that much, but only recognise it at a conceptual level. For survival-based reasons, the mind is typically much more interested in dwelling in what is difficult than in what is pleasant. It is also more likely to ‘conceptualise’ pleasant experience, rather than sense it, just in case we are so caught up in the loveliness that we don’t notice we are being stalked by a tiger (or – poor Captain Hook! – a crocodile).
These days, tigers are more like to-do lists haunting our every waking hour. They are emails pinging into your inbox, and the deadline banners on your smartphone screen. They may also be viral loads, awaiting us in aerosols. We are surrounded by so many tigers that our nervous systems struggle to tell the difference between the ones that could eat us and the ones that are cardboard cut-outs.
To step out of clock-time, really look at the cobnuts, lying like lime-green sea-urchins in your squirrel-festooned path. Take in the wind on your face when you catch sight of the sea. Feel the excited jolt of the happy coincidence, and the sparkle in your own eye when beloved handwriting comes through the letterbox. Psychologist Rick Hanson calls mindfulness of pleasant moments ‘turning good facts into good experiences’. And as for those tigers, ironically, when we are actually in the moment – seeing, sensing, listening – we are more responsive and alert. Awareness is broader and more receptive than automatic pilot, and so you are more likely to pull things together by 5pm, rather than less.
2. The Present
Stepping out of clock-time and into the present moment is as simple as one of my favourite practices, FOFBOC (feet on floor, bum on chair). It was developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project, and designed to be simple enough that a teenager could do it in the middle of an exam, or before French.
To do a FOFBOC, simply sense the soles of your feet on the floor. Notice sensations of contact – the texture of your sock, or shoe. The weight of the feet, and maybe coolness or warmth. Simply allow your attention to settle here for a few moments.
Then shift your awareness into the sensations of your sit-bones on your seat. Notice the stability of the body, weighted in the sit-bones, and the way that the seat holds you up. Sense the softness or firmness of the cushion.
FOFBOC can be done with eyes open or closed; in-between meetings, or at the end of a paragraph. If you are standing, you might just FOF. Some of my students do this several times a day, so that checking into the present moment becomes natural, ordinary. They report that the peripheral chatter of clock-time quietens a little, and the signal, intention, or direction, emerges more clearly from the noise.
I wish deep sleepiness upon the crocodiles of your chronos, this week. May the moments be many, instead.
Five-week Mindfulness and Compassion Course for Staff starts Thursday 5 November, with Dr Kitty Wheater and Revd Dr Harriet Harris. Bookings here.
Photography: Sam Sills