“Welcome to Shawshank,” said a new colleague when I started a job at a call centre a few years ago. The prison featured in the Oscar-nominated movie The Shawshank Redemption conjures up images of both oppression, in the coercive way its inmates were ruled, and hope, in the possibility of their escape. I thought little of the pop culture reference, deeming it to be a light-hearted joke. I soon learned its significance. Employees’ actions were monitored to the 10th of a second by computers tapped into ourphones. Management’s daily logs judged us with an accuracy that would have made even Frederick Taylor, the father of efficiency engineering, proud: Average call time, call flow per hour, busy time—statistics on everything imaginable were kept and enforced.
Always striving to improve the efficiency of its controlled populace, management continued its quest for total domination a few weeks after I left. A former co-worker told me about the latest Taylorist attempt: staff were sent emails requesting their whereabouts if they were offline for more than just five minutes. These absurd tactics beckoned a backlash, and workers poked fun at their ridiculous attempts at efficiency by responding with graphic details of their trips to the toilet. After hearing enough humiliating responses, management eventually backed down.
Green light. My car jumps out from the Lakeshore Boulevard starting line and pulls away from the pack.The sparkling light of the summer sun does nothing to illuminate the many waves of the expansive lake out my car window. Instead, the colours blur past me into a formless mash. Speeding precariously through traffic, my lane-weaving hysteria gets held up by a roadblock of slow-moving cars. I tailgate the driver in the passing lane, aggravated by their audacity to drive the speed limit. With my hand about to hit the horn in protest, I look down the street and see a red light. I stop. The red light “bell of mindfulness” gives me pause to question myself: “I’m on vacation … why am I getting angry? Why am I going so fast?”
It was the long weekend. I planned to do nothing but relax. Yet I found I did quite the opposite, tightly scheduling a jam-packed list of things to do. Not only did I feel busy the whole weekend, I looked back and felt that I hadn’t really done anything.
Our culture’s obsessed tendency towards productivity was controlling my life outside work, my supposed “leisure time.” Looking at the call centre employees’ revolt against the clock dictatorship coupled with my own hastiness, I saw a pattern emerge. The hyper-competitive global economy is running amok. Not only are we running with it, we’re running it—it’s reflective of our very nature. We have an internal psychology of haste. Further sped up by the hectic pace of city living and technology, we’ve developed a distorted sense of time. With our frazzled minds looking for somewhere to run, we’ve created a mental environment that’s intensely cluttered with information and polluted with advertising to occupy them. The combined effect: we play a constant game of catch-up in which busyness and speed have become the norm—a state of mindless occupation. There is, however, an easily accessible alternative to the fast pace of mindless occupation. The practice of mindfulness, based on a millennia-old Buddhist tradition, offers a way to slow time down and step through daily life with joy and serenity, rather than mindlessly tearing through the time warp.
The Race to Keep Pace
Forget “fast food nation,” the United States has become simply a “fast nation,” and one that’s having an increasingly difficult time keeping up. In 1988, the U.S National Commission on Sleep Disorders added up the cumulative effects of sleep-debt-related traffic, workplace, and home accidents on the economy. The grand total: $56 billion. With as much as a third of the American population suffering from at least one sleeping disorder, it comes as no surprise that energy drinks are flying off the shelves. Though this new breed of caffeinated drink can contain more than double the caffeine than coffee, it’s still not enough. So many Americans are turning to the central nervous system stimulant crystal meth to keep them awake for unnaturally long periods that it’s become the number one illicit drug problem in the U.S.
The American work-and-spend culture doesn’t demand holidays. Unlike 96 other countries, the United States exists without any labour legislation to guarantee time off from the job. A study released by the Families and Work Institute found that of those Americans voluntarily offered vacation time from their employer, only 36 percent plan on using up their full entitlement (despite averaging only 16.6 paid vacation days a year). Of those that are vacationing, about one in five do some work during their time off. With the lack of proper holidays, it’s no surprise that stress has become the number one cause of medical problems.
The United States isn’t the only industrialized nation caught up in the race to keep pace. As Britain’s congested motorways continue to clog up with weekday traffic, frustrated drivers respond by trying to make up time on the weekends—63 percent drive beyond the speed limit, according to the Department for Transport. Japan is home to psychosomatic conditions like “Sunday Disease” (Nichiyoy byou) and “The Holiday Syndrome” (Kyuuyitu byou), which are felt only on weekends and holidays by workaholics because they cannot work. A Canadian Social Trends survey of nearly 11,000 Canadians aged 15 and over reveals that 27 percent are workaholics. More than a third of those said they “plan to slow down in the coming year.”
Road rage, shopping rage, office rage, vacation rage—the hurry frenzy permeates all aspects of life in what Canadian journalist Carl Honoré calls the “The Age of Rage.” He sums up our current conflict with speed in his book, In Praise of Slow:
If we carry on at this rate, the cult of speed can only get worse. When everyone takes the fast option, the advantage of going fast vanishes, forcing us to go faster still. Eventually, what we are left with is an arms race based on speed, and we all know where arms races end up: in the grim stalemate of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Bells of Hurry
Children’s innate ability to be in the present moment is largely lost in adulthood. Much of this is attributed to their elementary knowledge of time. Dr. Larry Dossey, author of Space, Time and Medicine, believes that as we age we learn to hurry inappropriately, conditioned by the clock’s learned cues. “Our ‘bells’ have become the watch, the alarm clock, the morning coffee, and the hundreds of self-inflicted expectations that we build into our daily routine. The subliminal message from the watch and the clock is: time is running out; life is winding down; please hurry.” Overly attuned to the clock, we wind up with a warped sense of time. We’re able to perceive every passing minute and end up feeling guilty, overwhelmed, and anxious if we don’t use our time effectively.
This misperception of vanishing time speeds people’s biological clocks up and results in “hurry sickness” (also known as “time sickness”). Symptoms include “an extreme and habitual sense of time urgency, compulsion to rush even without any external time pressures, achievement oriented, obsessed with the quantity of tasks completed over quality.” Dossey noted a rise in heart and respiratory rates among patients identified with hurry sickness. He found that these often led to elevated blood pressure and increased levels of hormones. He implicated hurry sickness as a risk factor for North America’s number one killer, heart disease, as well as a variety of other illnesses.
The clock helps inculcate a sense of hurry in us, but it is not the sole culprit. Rushing around keeps our minds occupied so that we can avoid our feelings. Dr. Stephen Rechtschaffen notes in his book Timeshifting, “painful feelings are difficult to face, and we’d rather not feel them if at all possible. So we get busy. We speed up. We substitute action for contemplation.” He refers to it as living in “mental time.”
This avoidance strategy often results from feelings of unfulfillment. We habitually struggle to satisfy our desires by purchasing products or seeking out new experiences because we think we’ll derive happiness from them. However, striving to arrive at some end diminishes our experiences because we don’t stop in the present moment to appreciate what we are striving for.
Civilization develops according to humankind’s needs. Pre-industrialization, we developed gradually to meet our more basic needs. The desire to remain occupied and avoid feelings always existed along with the basics. The invention of the steam engine ushered in an era of technological advancement that provided the necessary tools of hurry and occupation. In the space of a few short years, we leaped far beyond just being able to fulfill our need for occupation. Dwelling in our high-tech cities, we now bathe in Wi-Fi, cell, satellite, TV, and radio frequencies. We live in a mental environment contaminated with consumer clutter and littered with copious amounts of data debris. Our cultish car culture presents countless miles of highway pavement to speed along. Always something to do and somewhere to go. We’ve gone beyond just meeting the need. We’ve created a cutting-edge culture of constant and instant occupation.
The Economics of Time
I angle my glass 90 degrees to the kitchen sink’s tap and place it under the running stream. With the sink filled to the top with dishes, the stream of water splashes me more than the inside of the glass. I reluctantly decide to wash the dishes. Annoyed with having to waste my time on this task, I give them a quick wash and fill up my dishwashing tray with tableware to dry. Every spot is already filled and there are a few more dishes to go, so I mound plates on top of the others until I hear a crash. I stop.
The invention of the sundial more than 5,000 years ago marked the starting point of our hurried journey through history. Though humankind has had reason to hurry since the clock’s invention, industrialization provoked our penchant for productivity. The customer service mantra “immediate customer satisfaction” amplifies the incongruity between our sense of time and the objective reality of clock time. We work in the unrealistic demands of the immediate economy, and as consumers we’re conditioned to demand immediate service. By referring to the clock with deity-like reverence in both these worlds, we’ve become trapped by the insensible expectations of immediacy. Desperate for time, we strive to save it, maximize it, and hoard it, only parting with it for our labour’s going market rate.
We have a lifetime’s worth of time. Yet since fanatically applying free market economy thinking to our concept of time, we’ve turned it into a finite resource that fluctuates in value based on supply and demand rather than allowing it to be the plentiful resource it really is.
Anthropologist Allen Johnson, professor emeritus at UCLA, has spent years researching the effects of industrialization on modern and traditional societies. He proposes that as humankind’s economic development has increased, we’ve shifted from a time-surplus to a time-famine society. With gross domestic product (GDP) as our primary measure of economic productivity, the prevailing belief is that it should constantly be increasing. And for it to go up, more and more products need to be consumed. However, to generate more money to feed our higher consumption, we need to become increasingly efficient producers. The consumption that drives economic growth parallels the consumption of time. “Free time gets converted into consumption time,” says Johnson, “because time spent neither producing nor consuming comes increasingly to be viewed as wasted.” We end up time poor, scrambling to use every last minute.
The momentum of industrialization drives us deeper into time addiction until we begin to apply a cost-benefit analysis to all our actions, often to the exclusion of what is truly valuable. We become bound by this unnatural benchmark of speed, forcing ourselves to do more in less time. “Leisure time” looks more like work as we cram in activities and tightly schedule social events—with the consequent trade-off of quality for quantity. We race to use time as best we can, but unknowingly we do not. Instead, we become misers with time, parcelling it out to the highest bidder like shares traded on the stock market. Time becomes just another commodity, posing a contrived need for the market to conveniently fill.
I recently heard a radio newsbyte proclaiming the latest service to hit the streets of New York City: RequestWorks’ line waiting service. Their staff of line-waiters will queue for you for only $30. Sounds like an ideal service for those who think of themselves as money rich but time poor.
Have we already reached the time-famine society Johnson predicted? As the famine intensifies, what will experiences look like in the future? Hired escorts to take spouses out for romantic dinners? Stand-ins for family reunions? Online wedding ceremonies? These possibilities of a time poor economy no longer seem unfathomable.
I surf from www.abc.com to www.xyz.com, touching down on one news site just long enough to read a few of the main articles. Skimming rather than truly reading, I at least capture the gist of what’s going on and finish the site off with a quick scan of the headlines. My email alert flashes a few times, and I instinctively ALT-TAB to my MS Outlook where I fire off a volley of abrupt one-liners such as “yeah, sure let’s meet then.” I toggle back to resume browsing when the phone rings. Hitting the hands-free button I chat, all the while surfing the site. The voice from the phone resonates with the annoyed tone of one who feels they’re not being heard. As the call wraps up, I carry on staring into the abyss of the computer monitor while my mouse propels me through cyberspace. The phone rings again. I stop.
Industrialization first bred us into the charged-up thoroughbreds that we have become. Now galloping through high-tech society, we feel the need to incessantly speed, so we look for technological stimulation on which we can feed. Bleeping, buzzing and glowing throughout the urban landscape, technology’s pervasiveness urges us to keep constantly occupied while also providing ways for us to “save” time.
Technology presents many uses to humankind, but recent advances have obliterated any balance that previously existed. Instead of being masters of our gadgets, we are now subject to their demands. Our “advanced” society is collectively chained to cell phones, personal digital assistants, and Wi-Fi-equipped laptops that beckon our constant and instant availability. Switched on at all times in our 24/7 culture, we face the ever-present prospects of work and other self-created distractions. On a social level, singing cell phones and beeping text messages now commonly invade romantic dinners and movies, distracting people from a fully immersed experience.
Cell phones, which now service an astonishing 2 billion people worldwide, have largely shaped our 24/7 lifestyle. I often get shocked reactions from people who hear I don’t own a cell phone, “How do you get hold of people? How do you live?” I vividly remember one conversation in which an acquaintance could recall only one of his many friends not owning a cell phone. He concluded that this was “his useless friend”; after all, if he couldn’t reach him on a whim, how much use was he? After I got over the initial shock of hearing that someone without a cell phone could be deemed useless, I began to ponder the relevance of his statement. Perhaps I, too, had become useless. Had my attempts at achieving a balanced technological diet relegated me to a world of obsolescence?
Thankfully, the Internet provided me with a new technological lease on life. Within a decade, this revolutionary communications medium has gone from negligible to essential. I know I’d now struggle to survive without it. Unfortunately, many are struggling to survive with it—psychologists now consider web over-usage to be a mental condition, appropriately named “online compulsive disorder.”
We might charitably call it “multitasking,” but its compulsive nature is impossible to overlook. (I once heard a teenaged girl at a library brag that she had 13 messaging conversations going at once.) Telling research by the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan suggests that multitasking results in a much higher rate of errors as well as more time needed to complete tasks, often more than double. This suggests why studies regularly report a higher rate of accidents among drivers who talk on their cell phones while driving.
Multitasking is a classic case of too much technology, not enough brain. In fact, the term “multitasking” is actually a misnomer. Jordan Grafman, Chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, asserts that the brain doesn’t actually multitask except in the most automatic actions, such as walking and talking. Instead, actions are handled one at a time because the brain only has the capacity to toggle between them, constantly re-ordering them in the mind. Despite multitasking’s dubious advantages, the practice has become commonplace. Once commonplace it becomes habit—regularly encroaching on areas of life totally unrelated to technology.
In our hurry sick society, technology’s time-saving allure easily wins us over. However, technology has created a paradox of supposed “time-saving” that in fact frees up time for more work. Our level of busyness reveals a damaging cycle erupting: As technology becomes more pervasive, lives become even busier, so we turn back to technology to solve our problems and end up propagating an even speedier culture that demands the use of yet more technology.
My internal clock subconsciously sped up by city living, I find myself standing zombie-like in front of an elevator, waiting for the indicator light to blink. Momentarily snapping out of my trance, I glance to either side of me at the blank looks mechanically waiting in sync with the elevator’s arrival. All eyes fixate on that one little light; it suddenly flashes. We enter, down, stop, door open, out. Proceeding at a breakneck pace towards my destination, I look around at the countless eyes blurring past me in every direction. Picking up the pace yet another notch, my solitary race is interrupted by a homeless man sprawled on the sidewalk. “Spare some change,” he says with his grubby outstretched hand pointed in my direction. I stop.
The city is primed for speed. Whether we’re perilously sprinting across the street to catch a bus or dashing to put money in our expired parking meter, we’re routinely running against time. The city is akin to what James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, would refer to as an intensifier, though on a much bigger scale (intensifiers—like the close door button on elevators—exist to speed processes up, but in fact speed people up and make them more impatient).
With all the latest communication technology within our grasp, city dwellers routinely choose to contact one another the quick way, often bypassing slower, more personal exchanges. As cities sprawl, distances between people increase further, leaving technology the primary means to plug the gap. Unfortunately, as those gaps increase, genuine personal interaction decreases. On more than one occasion, I can remember friends saying how they choose to text message people instead of calling because it takes less time. Judging by the proliferation of text messaging and email in recent years, it would seem that quality personal communication is quickly getting lost in the speed shuffle.
As the circumstance of speed tightens its hold on people, larger numbers flock to cities for fear of getting left behind, thus leaving fewer living a slower lifestyle. But would a simple move to the country provide the remedy for our hurry sick culture? Though the slower pace of rural living can lead to less hurry, mental pollutants exist everywhere that further complicate the situation.
I stroll into Pizza Pizza for lunch and join the line. While waiting, my eyes wander until they’re caught by a scantily clad Britney Spears suggestively staring back at me. Tugging down at her pants, the entertainer shows me some more of her mouth-watering flesh. I approach the counter feeling in want. “Order please.” Aware of my inability to realistically experience the Joy of Britney, I fight off the reflexive urge to replace her with an ice-cold Pepsi. I stop.
Advertising creates an artificial need in people’s minds by watering the negative seeds of greed, insecurity, boredom and unhappiness. Beyond its primary goal of nurturing a dependency on goods and services to ensure continued profit, it promotes the nearly infinite consumer options made possible by global manufacturing, trade, marketing and distribution networks, thus propelling variety beyond any sort of balance.
We start to think that simply because we can choose, we should be able to get what we want. It is that “should” attitude that misleads us. We should have the car we want, the house we want, the vacation we want. However, it isn’t even possible to attain all of our material desires because we’ve been conditioned by the commercial media to always want the next latest and greatest consumer good or service. We are caught in a revolving door of consumerism, never fully satisfied. Believing that these excessive needs are in fact real needs helps to propagate a throwaway culture in which we’re addicted to unnecessary change. The “solutions” to any kind of change are out there. Whether we’re looking for a new body, new mate, new lifestyle—goods and services exist to satisfy any of those desires. This whirlwind of consumerism has whisked us into a cycle of constant craving and unnecessary change.
The TV’s one-way feed of passive entertainment has masterminded the cleverest manipulation of the human mind. Founder and Editor of Adbusters magazine, Kalle Lasn, writes about a phenomenon in broadcasting called jolts. They are defined in his book Culture Jam as “any ‘technical event’ that interrupts the flow of sound or thought or imagery—a shift in camera angle, a gunshot, a cut to a commercial. A jolt forces your mind to pump for meaning.” He draws a comparison to Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments on dogs. Any stimulus change, whether it’s Pavlov’s ringing of the bells or TV jolts, triggers the fight-or-flight response—a nervous system reaction that pumps adrenaline and other hormones into our bodies to prepare it to fight or flee from predators. Since the response is not meant for watching TV, the system gets unnecessarily flooded on a regular basis and that causes stress.
With networks desperately vying for viewers in a saturated TV market, the maximum number of jolts are scripted into programming to keep audiences hooked. Lasn attributes the escalation of jolts (double in 20 years) to channel-surfers who “ironically, are both the cause and the effect of jolt hyperinflation. The more frequently viewers surf, the more broadcasters are inclined to fill their programming with jolts to hold the attention of surfers. And surfers, conditioned to expect ever quicker jolts, become more inclined to surf.” By jolting viewers to watch commercials, the TV has done more than any other medium to shape our highly consumptive lifestyle and create a need for constant stimulation.
Navigating through the asphyxiating demands of data smog has never been harder. Between multiple media choices, personal technological devices, and the Internet’s non-stop stream of stimulation, we’ve ballooned into info-gluttons, minds stretched from all the bits and bytes crammed into it. In Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell points to information overload as the key factor behind the newly recognized phenomenon, Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). ADT results when the brain’s circuitry gets overloaded by the flood of data and other demands now commonplace in the modern work environment. Just as the body can be physically overexerted, Hallowell believes the workplace now overexerts the brain. By busily attending to constant stimulation (mostly information related—like email), our mental energy gets drained, and organization and time management problems result. Struggling to deal with the increasing demands, we naturally respond by becoming distracted and restless. In the long run, we underperform. Unlike Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADT arises entirely from environmental factors and because of that has, according to Hallowell, reached epidemic proportions.
Overt, yet subtly manipulative, a barrage of persistent mental pollutants lurk, always ready to hijack our senses. Advertising (limitless variety equals overconsumption), TV, and data smog (info-gluttony leads to ADT) all share their capacity to manipulate the unaware mind, seeping into the roots of our mental environment.
The Mindless Occupation
Once exposed to enough mental pollutants, our hurry sick culture shifts into a higher gear of mental hyper-speed: mindless occupation. Mindless occupation can be seen as the inability to truly concentrate the mind when performing any kind of action or thought—a sort of autopilot for the mind. Just as it’s more difficult to slow a car down when it’s going fast, the mind is equally difficult to slow down after operating in hyper-speed because it’s used to a higher level of stimulation. Attempting a concentrative task like meditation after a stressful day will illustrate this fact quite clearly.
Mindless occupation accumulates from a number of causes. From a young age, we absorb cues from the clock, metamorphosing into excessively time-conscious beings. Being propelled into a constant state of time urgency, we hurry.
We also subconsciously speed up to avoid our feelings. To satisfy this urge, we’ve craved a world filled with occupation. Without stopping to think, we built it once we had the technological capacity. Society evolved to meet our needs for occupation by creating the lifestyle (city living) and tools (advanced technology) necessary to speed up and occupy ourselves at all times. The modern media environment intersects at those crossroads. It produces data smog that floods our brains with an endless stream of stimulation, resulting in more exertion with less productivity (ADT). Finally, the unlimited options presented by the consumer cult create a state of perpetual craving and change.
The effect of all of this—exemplified by multitasking—is this: we constantly rush to attend to an overload of stimuli, yet our productivity is diminished because we’re forcing ourselves to do more than we’re able to do. Already unable to keep up, the spectre of unlimited variety also hangs over us. This ends up making us feel as if we are farther behind and cannot catch up to all the things we want to do and buy. Collectively, what ensues is a state of mindless occupation in which we find ourselves constantly doing something, anything, to satisfy our unquenchable desire.
The mind, like any other system, is designed with a certain capacity. When pushed beyond that capacity, it can overload. Usurped by various external forces, we have been drawn into an occupation that mimics the hectic productivity of our working lives—one of mindless occupation.
Public Space Trap
As vast amounts of wild lands and public space are given up for resource extraction, urban sprawl, and advertising, mindless occupation further embeds itself in our psyche. Because we do not value nature for its inherent beauty and public space for its usefulness, we allow forests to be paved over in favour of shopping malls and public squares to get plastered with advertising monitors. And by frequenting these malls and looking at these monitors, we end up positively reinforcing the destruction of the commons.
Just as advertising ensures perpetual profit by creating a dependency on consumerism, urban development helps ensure perpetual occupation by creating a dependency on distraction. Forest after forest, this harmful cycle emerges: Mindless occupation asks for constant occupation to feed itself and environmental destruction offers it that gift. By razing the natural landscape, sprawling cities are created that have little public space. With the natural landscape gutted beyond the line of sight, many in large urban centres have to drive an hour or more to see any wild land. The likelihood of urbanites making the trek to nature dwindles with distance. Complicating factors such as traffic or lack of transportation make excursions even less likely, so all too often we end up at the shopping mall on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon. As public space becomes less accessible, we become more reliant on consumer goods to occupy our racing minds, which further encourages consumerism and consequently entrenches mindless occupation.
The effects of mindless occupation are multiplied for those most affected by public space scarcity. Since consumptive habits like going to a coffee shop have become normal ways to spend free time, generations are being brought up accustomed to living without public space. In this culture, the remaining forests and animals that still exist in cities are all too often overlooked by passers-by. The dance of the butterfly, the song of the lark, and the majesty of the elm tree—nature’s beauty is ever present. Appreciating nature allows us to rest and concentrate on one thing and truly absorb it: looking, listening, smelling, feeling. It’s the natural approach to using the mind, one thing at a time—the way it was meant to be used.
Communing with nature not only helps ease the grip mindless occupation has on us, it allows us to recognize nature’s inherent usefulness—thus making us more likely to preserve it. And preserving nature is an important step in breaking the dependency cycle of mindless occupation.
As First World excesses push the boundary of what is extreme, more and more people are looking for moderation in their lives. It becomes harder to achieve, however, as mindless occupiers infiltrate our existence. Taken individually, these occupiers aren’t much of a concern, but their combined effect causes overload. So the idea is not to necessarily avoid or be fearful of them, it is just to be aware. With awareness, we can trust our intuition and know if we’re overloading the system.
The practice of mindfulness helps foster awareness. The essence of it is to be in the present moment. Mindfulness isn’t a new fad or trend, it’s a central theme of Buddhist practice that dates back over two millennia. By its very nature, it’s a part of the slow movement (see sidebar—The Slow Movement), though only because it shares similar characteristics, not through any formal affiliation.
What is the present moment? Simply put, it’s neither the past, such as thinking about the events of last weekend, nor the future, such as clinging to desires. It’s the opposite of temporal life. Like workers on an assembly line, we see objects continuously coming at us. Upon their arrival, we deal with them. Once finished, we put them back on the line. In the factory of time, the objects being fed to us are life events. Unlike a real factory, these objects are unknown. We often look into the crystal ball, trying to predict the possibilities. This often leads to worry or craving. We attend to the object, usually in a passive “get it over with” frame of mind. If we rush through it and make a mistake, we often think about the past, sometimes resulting in regret. Working under a clock, we’re timed to be efficient, so we strive to build widget after widget, without experiencing the process of widget-making itself. To experience the present moment is to exclusively work on the widget, as if there were no clock, no deadline, and no factory.
Theorizing about the present moment, however, is of little use. The present moment is not quantifiable. Those who practice mindfulness seek the present moment experientially. It is a practice, not a philosophy. Meditation is the best way to concentrate the mind on the present, though the moment can be captured in other ways as well. What is helpful is having an understanding of the methodology of mindfulness to use in practice.
Stopping is something we don’t do nearly enough. It’s the first and most important step to being mindful because it helps us break the trance of automation that comes from mindless occupation. I find it the hardest part of the practice to sustain. Instead of telling ourselves “don’t just sit there, do something!” Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a founder of the “engaged Buddhism” movement, recommends we tell ourselves the exact opposite: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” I began practicing mindfulness just prior to starting my job at the call centre. The examples in this article are daily instances where I caught myself falling into mindless occupation. Sometimes I managed to stop myself at the height of the mindless trance, at the peak of my hectic busyness. Sometimes, it wasn’t until I’d been in the trance for sometime that I was able to awaken and come back to the present moment. In any case, catching myself at some point proved beneficial by returning me to the here and now. To this body, this mind, this breath.
Bells of mindfulness are cues that can help us stop and return to the present moment. Audible reminders such as the ringing of the telephone or non-audible reminders like walking through a doorway can be prompts for our practice. Bells of mindfulness can be anything we choose. Dossey rightly acknowledged that watches and alarm clocks are “bells” that condition us into hurry sickness. Through mindfulness, we can reprogram ourselves to react to those same bells in the opposite way.
Once stopped, we can then be aware that our experience with time truly is subjective. When we’re having a great time, we say time flew by; when we’re not, it dragged. This subjectivity of time can be used to our advantage. Rather than succumbing to our sped- up sense of time passing, we can instead use our perception of time to change our experience with it. In a university psychology class, the difference between sensation and perception is first explored by the question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? While the falling tree does create a change in air pressure that can make a sound, because no one is there to hear it, there actually is no sound. The ear is a sense organ that takes in physical changes, but it’s our brain that psychologically interprets those air pressure changes into sound. Similarly, when we’re talking to someone with a low voice, we won’t hear (perceive) them if we don’t pay full attention, though the sound waves are coming through (sense).
Mindfulness practice helps us change our perception of time by stretching individual moments in much the same way elite athletes slow down time while “in the zone.” We can choose any action to dwell on, such as drinking a cup of tea. Aware of the tea in the cup, I breathe in. Smiling to the tea, I breathe out. Grasping the cup and making it the sole object of our attention, we can look into the cup, feeling it, and smelling it to appreciate its many elements: warmth, sunshine, water, soil, minerals, taste and tea leaf farmer’s labour. By truly focusing on it, we can appreciate it for everything it is, not just seeing it as a tea bag and water to passively consume. We drink a cup of tea to drink a cup of tea. By engaging the process in this way, we do it with intent and remain in the present moment.
Rather than saving time the way time-management seminars teach, mindfulness practice can help us feel rich with time by expanding the few moments we do have in a busy day. A 15-minute work break sitting in the stuffy confines of the office flashes by in an instant when checking email. That short time can be expanded when going out for a mindful walk, breathing in and out with each step. It can feel timeless when sitting on a park bench, aware of the wonder contained in each life-giving breath. Even on a busy day, moments can be appreciated. Necessary tasks like eating or doing the dishes can stretch the moment when done mindfully.
Nhat Hanh believes we may be too goal oriented for our own good. In Peace is Every Step, he urges readers to not forget ourselves while striving to reach our goals. “The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself.” Setting goals can definitely be beneficial, but we should carry them out in such a way that we are doing things with enjoyment, not just doing them to cross off items on our list of goals. By not looking at an individual action as one of many to be completed in the day, time no longer seems like a finite product while life no longer feels like a linear path from birth to death.
Feeling a lack of time is not the only reason we fall out of the present moment. We often occupy ourselves to escape feelings. Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda, a four time Nobel prize nominee often referred to as “the Gandhi of Cambodia,” believes that humankind suffers immensely from feelings, and a subconscious coping mechanism results. “We eat and drink every second through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and nerves, twenty-four hours a day without stopping!” he recounts in Step by Step. “We are the world, and we eat the world.”
Through mindfulness, we can reflect on our feelings before our habit energies lead us into action. It’s quite common for anger arising from a conversation with an acquaintance to lead to violent speech or action. Mindfulness allows us to catch the anger because we stop and don’t react immediately. After stopping, we can then be aware of the feeling and accept it in a non-judgmental manner. While embracing our feelings with mindfulness, it becomes much easier to calm down because we aren’t directing our energy towards the object of our anger. Instead, we just become aware of the feeling and accept it by smiling to it. By intensively shining the light of awareness on our angry selves, we’re then able to look deeply into the situation that caused that anger and transform it into understanding.
“Those who rush arrive first at the grave.” Back when that Spanish proverb was written, rushing was more of a choice. As we collectively drift into the maelstrom of mindless occupation, it now seems to be more of a prerequisite. Mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that a society’s principles are based on the size of their tallest building. We’ve gone from a time when the tallest building was the cathedral, to the political palace, to the office towers of today. The economic rules of society bind us to their unrealistic demands. Though work is the most extreme mindless occupier controlling our actions, it is but one of a multitude that exist. In a world charged with mindless occupiers, it becomes all too easy to fall in line. In this culture of excess, we have to remain forever vigilant.
Mindfulness practice is an antidote to our ultra-competitive western culture. In a very simple way, it doesn’t just break down mindless occupation but helps us see what is important and what is real. The most cherished experiences are the timeless ones. Not those we rush through or use to distract ourselves. Being mindful helps us identify the extremes in life that keep us constantly occupied. Breathing in, I clearly see the middle way; breathing out, I smile at the middle way. Through this process of coming back to ourselves, we keep the light of awareness lit while on the path.
Attuned to the mad rhythms of mindless occupation from a young age, I’ve found the practice of mindfulness to be a challenge. Though it’s a slow practice that provides measured results, I’ve been happy to already gain a number of tangible benefits over the past few years. I find that I no longer live at the same frenetic pace that I had become accustomed to in the city. I appreciate nature, food, and life more. Many of the mundane tasks I once avoided now bring meaning. But most important, I’ve learned that through mindfulness there’s no need to be constantly occupied with the external because there is so much that resides within. We just need to stop and be mindful to realize it.
Plopping into my usual chair, I sit down to lunch. As I shovel a forkful of salad into my mouth, my attention cycles through my to-do list until I catch sight of a flock of Canada geese flying in from the right side of the window. I stop. I draw my attention to the dozen or so majestic birds flying in formation. Small heads bob at the end of long black necks and powerful wings flap them through the partly cloudy sky. Flapping, flapping, and out the left side of the window. A cloud remains. On its top, fluffy knobs of white slowly drift into a trail of smoke. Beneath, the fading light of the late afternoon winter sun ignites a radiant glow of purple and pink. I shift awareness back to my plate. Lifting a fresh leaf of lettuce and tomato into my mouth, my ears awaken with the crunch while my taste buds tickle with the tomato’s burst of flavour. I look back out the window. The clouds, the sky, the sun, the water, the soil, the salad. The life.