Time Zen

Time Zen

Two images juxtaposed: a blue-gray axe blade with a weathered handle laid down on a gray stump with blue-black radiance with wood fragments and a black and white crowd scene walking up and down stone steps inside a large public building.

Time zen is looking deeply into time. Do that with me now. Images (both from copyright-free Unsplash): Axe: Christopher Burns. People walking: José Martín Ramírez Carrasco.

Time Zen

Time zen is looking deeply into time. Zen simply means contemplation. (“Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word for contemplation dhyana.)

Our experience of time is what we contemplate in time zen.

Looking deeply at time, as I do so often in this blog. To contradict what you may be living, to draw important distinctions, to recreate time, so you can live a healthier time.

The Art of Disappearing

I am mulling a poem. I have written to you about it before.

The poem is about about saying “no,” and choosing how we use our time. It is called “The Art of Disappearing.” I referred to the last three lines of it during last week’s free online “bootstrapping” coaching session (subscribe to future announcements in the upper left of that page). Here are those all-important last three lines:

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Is Choosing How We Use Time Elitist?

I once felt resistant to this view of time. I overworked, lost all my adrenal function, got it all back (I was in my 20s), learned what “carrying capacity” meant, and gradually weaned myself from what now to me was workaholism. A literal addiction (if we adopt Judson Brewer’s working definition: continued use despite adverse consequences.”

The poet is asking us to acknowledge our human mortality and fragility of our lives–and then “decide what to do with your time.” This sounds like time zen, looking deeply into time.

Are we being needlessly, inappropriately, exclusionarily, elitistly picky or bossy about our time if we obey the last three lines of that poem?

Mindfulness and Time

It is possible to understand right mindfulness–step seven in the Buddhist “noble eightfold path”–as meaning we accept all that comes. Thus, if we are mindful, we do not (need to) choose how we use our time: it’s all good, it’s all right, we (need to) accept how our time is being used.

I feel this is a clear misuse of mindfulness. One indicator is that it is way too convenient to capitalism. But that’s not the thrust of my reasoning in this post.

A more lived and living indicator that this is a misuse of mindfulness comes when we take a quick look at the other steps in the eightfold path. Discernment is key in, for example, right livelihood, right effort, right thought.

Mindful Discernment and Time Zen

It is easy to confuse any and every pull on our time as “chopping wood and carrying water.”

The old Zen saying this comes from means that chopping wood and carrying water are (as important as) meditation practice. See for yourself:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

It is easy to misunderstand this quote. But as I read it, there is ultimately, no separation between enlightenment and chopping wood and carrying water. This is our goal: to sit in meditation, and chop wood and carry water, in the same state.

And no, enlightened people in Zen do not have their wood chopped for them, their water carried for them. A Zen monk is also famous for saying something we find quoted by Lenin and the Bible, too: no work, no eat.

But the poet is on to something quite different, and she is right to put us on to it, too.

What is the Right Use of Time?

The delicious, detailed examples given in “The Art of Disappearing” are of times we should “disappear” rather than succumb to misuse of our time for things we don’t deeply care about.

These include people recognizing us in the grocery store, parties, and people wanting us to hear their new poem.

If what is dear to us is genuinely nourished by these things, it is time zen to say “yes” to them.

The poet simply urges us to remember fact: our human life is short. It can end at any moment

And “then decide what to do with our time.”

Time Zen is Consistent with Actual Zen

Time zen is a term I made up. But it comes, in part, from years contemplatively reading a twelfth-century wild wise man named Dogen Zenji. What the poet asks us to do in those last three lines is exactly like what Dogen says about not squandering our lives:

Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.

It’s not our job to say yes to everything. It’s not proof of our mindfulness to say yes to everything.

Why Time Zen?

It’s proof of mindfulness to use our minds as intended: for discernment, mindful discernment.

Don’t get me wrong: the mind is not all that. It’s not everything. It’s not the boss. Something higher than it is the mind’s boss, and it is that we educate when we practice “mindfulness.”

It’s easy to rationalize that we should say yes a lot. It’s easy to persuade ourselves that we are being tested, and to get a high grade on the test, we need to suck it up and make it work for us, when it doesn’t work.

And that only lazy people try to get out of things they don’t like.

Sometimes, “lazy” people are the most productive, creative, and able to be creative people. The poet is a published poet in part because the art of disappearing is something she practices.

Time zen doesn’t mean we ignore what we must do. It doesn’t mean we enslave or underpay others to do what we must do and don’t want to do.

Look at monks: monks need to eat, repair their huts, grow food, at minimum. Monasteries are cleverly organized to ritualize, mindfulize, and minimize these tasks for the common good–so they contribute to enlightenment.

But these tasks still need to get done, and we can also say “yes” to them in our daily lives.

Misuse of Mindfulness

This is quite different from being pestered, hounded, harassed, yanked around, and distracting ourselves, berating or beating ourselves into being overly responsive to others and overly available.

It is a misuse of mindfulness to observe, with Zen detachment, all this arising in our lives, and take no right action when we equally observe how deeply it hurts our heart. Mindfulness and compassion, including self-compassion, go together. This is self-love.

We must discern. Mindfulness helps us discern, then protect and defend our time and space and energy.

Right Use of Time Comes from Reflection on Experience

To know when we are truly making Zen use of time, we need the experience of Zen activity, where carrying water is done with meditative urgency, and meditation is done with the urgency of thirst.

We also need the experience of wasting our time, distracting ourselves, and actually experiencing the anguish of knowing someone else is wasting our time, right in front of us, with us, and we are letting them—and then the anguish of risking what feels like our whole identity in telling them to stop, and we are leaving now. We are ending this conversation. Not returning this phone call. Not picking up a call in the first place. Nor staying online one more second. We are not checking email this evening. Not available this weekend.

We are in a hot bath. Sitting quietly, doing “nothing.” Tuning into our calling, and listening. We are not interested in one more scroll-down on Facebook or Instagram. We are interested in the world within. Meditating like our “head’s on fire,” as Dogen Zenji puts it. Experiencing our inner lives and listening to our inner dialogue, like it matters, and like it will put out that fire. Because it will. We have chosen to quit feeding that fire. We do what is essential, and we learn to love the Zen of that. And then decide what to do with our time.

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