Being idle can do crazy things to a person. I don’t think humans are meant to be inactive for too long. We have a certain level of potential energy that’s begging to be transformed. Being in Japan and not working, I was expecting to be alone when we took this gig, but what was unexpected was a deeper understanding of time and my relationship to it. Most days here, I can fill with anything or with nothing, but idleness has shown me it isn’t time that moves, or expands and contracts, it is us.
We talk about time as passing, flying, or being spent. Time can permit; it can be killed or saved or freed. We have many idioms that we use, but common in most, is that it moves or flows, and we are inevitably swept up in its movement. When we talk about having free time, we are really talking about moments that aren’t bound by our expectation or obligation. So, I’m starting to think of time more as a container or a womb of empty space that is waiting to be filled than something that passes.
Time that is unbound is a tricky thing. And more often than not, it is never really unbound. Even when we are idle, it is being burdened by expectation, broken thoughts, and emotions that we bind with our identity. We focus on future concerns or past indiscretions. We say yes to things when we want to say no. We spend our time doing the dishes when we really want to be playing with our kids. We make small things into big things and ignore the big things in pursuit of the mundane.
For me initially, there was a certain paralysis that set in with an ample amount of unbound time. The same way that you get the worst service in a restaurant on a slow day. There is a sort of inertia that needs overcoming as you wait in anticipation for something to start. After all, if time flows, something is bound to be swept up in its current and make its way to you. Once you are moving though, it is easy to keep moving, but if there is no external push, that inertia can be insurmountable. Especially if you are waiting for it to happen to you instead of you leaving your imprint on it.
“Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment”.
~ Deepak Chopra
In my old understanding, there were days that I lived ‘better’ than others. I’ve run daily for weeks only to be followed by a day of day drinking and three days of watching Netflix. I’d spent hours in meditation, written a book I’ve yet to publish, started a screenplay, two blogs, and a fledgling podcast. Some of which I still work on, and some I quit as the novelty wore off. I’ve played guitar, made lotion, joined a book club, and dabbled in Japanese. And I’ve spent more time on Twitter than I care to admit. Some of these things made me feel productive while others made me feel guilty because there was nothing tangible to show for it. So I was left with the question – What makes a moment worth living?
I’ve done some interesting things, but I’ve also been envious when I look at some people around me who have accomplished careers and material success. I thought about how they decided to fill their containers. They have been consistently (consciously or unconsciously) filling the space with the same things over and over without getting distracted or bored. Maybe they were both and decided to push through anyway, deciding to bind their time in specific ways to meet specific ends.
I started this blog a few weeks back, and at that moment, it was clear that discipline and consistency were precisely what I needed. I thought that commitment to consistency was the antithesis of grandeur and novelty. It was undoubtedly the way to keep any feelings of guilt at bay for not being productive. I needed a container for my chaos, and that container was intentionally bound time.
Then, after reading Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan, who critiques and questions our outward drive for material things and success in the name of perpetual progress. Instead, contending that what really makes a life worth living is meaning and connection, I was reminded of my usual thinking. Historically, I’ve tended to apply a more Epicurean philosophy, “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” So with his reminder, my pendulum started to swing back the other way.
“Of all the means to ensure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”
I’ve always struggled between a life of ticking all the expected boxes and a general fuck-itness of the status quo. Usually acknowledging that a both/and rather than an either/or approach to things is the most meaningful. So, I like conceptualizing time in this way because it reminds me that how I fill the space is a choice. We can get so caught up in the idea that time happens to us, that we forget it is ultimately the individual that fills the container. And even when we have external obligations, it is our framing that drives the nature of the experience.
So lately, I’ve become more mindful of the quality of content that I add to the container. As it is the quality that matters, not merely the outcome. Admittedly, quality is a subjective measure where I am the arbiter, not society. That is why all the great sages and spiritual teachers talk about being in the present. It’s an awareness of the space that is and the contents held within it. The Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, says, “Time goes from present to past.” Meaning we can talk about doing something after dinner, but that moment only occurs when it’s occurring, and then it is past. There is no other.
Maybe that is where the word fulfillment comes from. The idea that we fill our space with something meaningful or meaningless. And this can either add or detract from our sense of connection and purpose which is derived from both the experiential and the tangible. Leaving space for consistent, goal-oriented pursuits and the occasional day drinking with friends. For what matters is our presence and the quality of the expansion or contraction of self in the container of time.