Time is Thought
Most of us think of time as “real,” as a measurement of where we are in our day, our week … our life. It comes as a surprise to realize that time is actually where we are in our thoughts, no matter where we are chronologically in our day, our week … our life.
I have seen this again and again working with clients:
- The woman who spent most of her days angrily rehashing her violent marriage, which had ended five years before I met her.
- The young woman who relived the moment she had been raped every time a man approached her in friendship, and fled all encounters with men.
- The many veterans whose days are consumed with vivid re-enactments of the horrors of war in their minds, even though they are now safe at home.
- The trafficked women, rescued from their pimps and living safely and comfortably, who look in the mirror and still see the frightened, disheveled, bruised and hungry girl who depended on drugs to blot out the hours they spent being used and abused.
- The lonely widow who cannot let go of reliving happy times she had with her husband and sits home, regretting the loss of her married life and thinking about how happy she used to be, rather than socializing with friends or responding to men who invite her to dinner.
- The teenager who makes no effort in high school because he cannot drop the label he adopted when a third-grade teacher told him he was “not ever going to amount to anything.”
- The executive, paralyzed by indecision and inaction, because every time he is confronted with an important choice, he relives the worst mistake he ever made that got him fired from an early job.
- The athlete who can’t compete because she got insecure and blew an important meet, and trembles with the fear and upset of that moment whenever she has an opportunity to try again.
- The perpetually underemployed woman who cannot accept appealing and challenging new jobs she is offered because she really loved the great job she had before with a promising company that went bankrupt, and she is now afraid to join a start-up company or to start something on her own.
- The sad and bored 90-year-old who withdrew from his active life at the age of 88 because he didn’t expect to live much longer, remembering that his father always used to say that “none of the men in our family live much past 85.”
All of us find ourselves experiencing whatever in time and space our thinking delivers to us, whether into significant past events, or fears or anticipation of future events. We get “stuck in time” more than we realize, missing the promise of the present moment again and again as we travel in our minds back into the already lived past or forward into the imaginary future.
Yet the only true “time” we ever have to create new experience, to get a fresh start, is this moment NOW. Everything else is memory or fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with either. It’s often fun to reminisce, or to tell stories, or to dream aloud. It’s sometimes helpful to review earlier situations to learn from them, or to anticipate future situations to test them. The choice we always get to make is whether to create our life, moment-to-moment, or to continually remember the past and project the future as the moments fly by. Each of us finds our own balance as we make that choice, often without realizing what we are doing with our thinking, or even realizing that WE are the choosers and the thinkers. When we unknowingly give away our lives to habitual old thoughts or manufactured new fears, though, we limit our own creative power, we inhibit our own possibilities, and we sidestep happiness.
That last bit is the crucial one, to me. We come into life fully equipped to thrive and survive, but we can learn to override that natural capacity with the very same gifts that made it possible. What is it that all babies have in common? They live in the moment, surprised, delighted, scared, uncomfortable, amused, loving, as thoughts cross the screen of their minds, uninhibited, unfiltered, and unevaluated. Babies’ feelings and responses change so fast that new parents quickly learn the power of distraction. Fussy? “Oh, look! A shiny little toy!”
What is it that all adults have in common? The ability to hang onto distressing or frightening thoughts and try to figure them out — to avoid distraction by committing to analysis and rumination. Yet, deep down, we all know that when we simply ease into the moment and let our minds fall silent, the old thoughts quickly drift away and we are immersed in the present. Things we never expected come to mind. We are at peace. Inner peace is happiness, our natural state.
As years pass, I have come to cherish that, to appreciate the fact that if I do not impose on my ordinary thinking, my mind produces contentment with what is, gratitude for all that has been, curiosity about what is to come. Left alone, my thinking does not churn up fear or regret or dissatisfaction. Unencumbered by the intrusion of me dragging things off the shelf to review or scrutinize them or worry how they might recur, my mind just generates ideas about learning, creating, enjoying.
It would be easy to start thinking about all the years I didn’t allow that to happen, all the years I spent making up stress and problems and chaos and conflict. It would be easy to upset myself in the midst of reverie. But what would be the point of that?
I could spoil the moment. But why would I, knowing better?