day, the story goes, God is Upstairs at that Great Big University in
the Sky. He’s reviewing applications for admission. As he’s reading all
these applications he has before him, a common theme comes through: “I
would have done [so and so],” he reads, “but I didn’t have enough
time.” “Couldn’t finish [this or that] because I needed more time.” “I
would have done more…” or, ‘I would have done better…” or whatever, but
“there weren’t enough hours in the day…” Over and over, God reads: “I
would have been a better person, but I didn’t have enough time…” “Not
enough time… Not enough time…” “Well,” God finally says, “that’s
something I’ll do different next time!”
But, of course, the fact of
the matter is that the amount of time we have is a given. We have no
less time than our most ancient (or even more recent) forbears did.
There has never been more—or less—time than there is today, than there
is right now. Why, all of a sudden, this need to bemoan our fates and
try to spread ourselves too thinly over the whole mass of what we need
to do, and hope for the best?
Maybe the problem is not in the way
the world was created but in the way we live and act, right now.
Perhaps our fault is not in our stars—not in the cosmic makeup of
existence—but in ourselves (more particularly, in our cultural selves,
our social selves, and even our economic selves) that we are running
roughshod over the “better part” of life in this way.
to be a new innovation every day—some new gadget to make our lives more
efficient and more productive; some new way to help us communicate
faster and faster and faster. As I have said before, every time I walk
into Best Buy, I feel like Rip Van Winkle, as though I have slept
through the latest generation of technological innovation. And it is at
our own peril, we are told, that we do not utilize all of these new
innovations; if we do not take advantage of everything that’s offered
us, we risk rendered hopelessly old fashioned and out of touch and
As a result, the American-Buddisht teacher Jon
Kabat-Zinn says, “Our entire society suffers from attention deficit
disorder, and it is getting worse by the day…. We are literally being
driven to distraction by our delicious opportunities and choices… It
has given rise to a dance of inattention and instability of mind.”
relentless acceleration of our way of life over the past few
generations has made focusing on anything something of a lost art.
Things come at us fast and furiously, relentlessly. These assaults on
our nervous system continually stimulate and foster desire and
agitation, rather than connectedness and calmness…and, if we are not
careful, they rob us of our time, of our moments… So many of us feel
trapped, yet at the same time addicted to the speed at which our lives
are unfolding. Even our stress or distress can feel oddly satisfying or
Our mad rush to do
more—more—more, and to accomplish it faster—faster—faster—is, quite
simply, making us sick.
In her book, Awakening in Time: Practical
Time Management for Those on a Spiritual Path, Pamela Kristan offers
something of a sure for our modern disease in terms of three overall
components: Attention; Boundaries; and Choices— it really is as basic
as A- B-C:
Cultivating focused, yet flexible attention
either to hold onto what we’re doing in spite of all the distractions
around us, or to let it go;
Establishing task boundaries that
contain what we’re doing and make decent transitions from one thing to
another; boundaries that allow us to be who we are, while keeping us
connected to others in a healthy and compassionate way;
finally, making good, healthy, decent choices in our lives; choices
which keep us in tune with our truest values, and ground us sturdily in
what is really possible for us to do and achieve.
Boundaries; Choices-- those are the real Christmas presents we
modern men and women need, Pamela Kristan says in her book, Awakening
in Time (and she gives all sorts of practical pointers for how to do
these things, too; it really is quite a wonderful little book).
So first: Attention.
our time depends upon our ability to direct our attention, Ms. Kristan
writes. Paying attention is also fundamental to our overall spiritual
health, and entire spiritual systems, both ancient and modern, rest on
paying attention (or practicing mindfulness or staying in tune to
what’s happening right now) as their core practice.
But, “For most
of us, attention is a kind of hit or miss affair,” she writes.
“Sometimes, we focus on whatever is right in front of our noses. Other
times, we slide off to the e-mail pop-up, the person walking in, or the
ringing phone. Or maybe we immerse ourselves so deeply in a project
that it’s difficult to come up for air.”
We need to cultivate our sense of Presence, Kristan says—of Being Present—our sense of conscious contact with ourselves.
Nhat Hahn once wrote about a trip he took with Jim Forest of the
Catholic Peace fellowship, a close friend and an anti-war activist.
“One time when we were together,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “I
offered Jim a tangerine. He accepted the tangerine, but continued
talking about the many projects he was involved in -- his work for
peace, social justice, and so on. He was eating, but, at the same time,
he was thinking and talking… He peeled the tangerine and tossed the
sections of it into his mouth, quickly chewing and swallowing.
said to him, ‘Jim, stop!’ He looked at me, and I said, ‘Eat your
tangerine.’ He understood. So he stopped talking, and began to eat much
more slowly and mindfully. He separated each of the remaining sections
of the tangerine carefully, smelled their beautiful fragrance, put one
section at a time into his mouth, and felt the juices surrounding his
tongue. Tasting and eating the tangerine that way took several minutes,
but he knew that we had time for that. When he finished eating… I knew
that the tangerine had become real, the eater of the tangerine had
become real, and life also had become real at that moment. During the
time you eat a tangerine, eating the tangerine is the most important
thing in your life.”
Of course, when we eat a tangerine
nowadays, it’s most likely to be at a desk, or before a computer
screen, or while we’re driving—in a word, when we’re doing something
else. We do an awful lot of the things we do in our lives when we’re
doing something else. No wonder we so often look back at our days as we
climb into bed at night, and ask, “Now, what exactly did I accomplish
today?” It all seems to us a great gray blur.
“It’s all too
easy to let our attention run like a Springer Spaniel on the beach,”
Pamela Kristan writes. “We talk to the visitor, answer the e-mail, and
pick up the phone. Sometimes, we do all three at once!”
Allen once said that 80% of life is showing up. But it’s probably in
the other 20% of life that the real extra-ordinariness of our
lives takes root. That other 20%-- beyond just going through the
motions—is where “showing up” is not all that’s required. It’s where
“being present”—really paying attention-- is what’s called for.
a measure of constancy and control of our attention,” we read, “we gain
an internal coherence at the center of our beings. We more easily take
our cues from within, rather than deferring to external authority. No
longer are we at the mercy of every passing event or tossed about by
surface storms. Our lives follow the slower-moving currents beneath the
surface where life is less chaotic and dissatisfying, and more
cohesive, resonant, and rich.”
But to cultivate this deeper sense of being, we need Boundaries. All things have boundaries:
have skin; cells have membranes; water droplets have surface tension.
These enveloping, containing boundaries allow a thing to exist. Without
them, there is no ‘thing’, just an undifferentiated mass of stuff. With
them, whatever it is can grow, flourish, and explore its unique way of
Our boundaries define who we are.
boundaries also mediate between us and the wider world of which we are
a part. “Think of a cell’s membrane. It not only defines the cell but
allows the cell to interact with its larger environment. Through it the
cell takes in nourishment and information and releases chemicals and
The health of a cell depends on the
health of its membrane. Our health depends on the healthiness of the
boundaries we establish.
Our boundaries need to be permeable,
but not indiscriminately open. If we habitually accommodate all of
everyone else’s needs—if we are constantly at the beck at call of the
requests, desires, demands, specifications, what have you, of everyone
else—if we habitually accommodate others’ needs and ignore our own—then
we let in too much of what’s “out there” and deplete our own internal
reservoirs. Then, there goes our time! There go our hopes and dreams!
There go (often) our health and peace of mind!
On the other
hand, if we get so caught up on our own concerns that we ignore what’s
going on around us, and run roughshod over the needs and desires and
aspirations of others, then we become closed off and unable to
participate in life’s richness. Our lives shrink. We isolate ourselves
and end up alone. If we concern ourselves only with our own needs and
wants, then we worship at an altar that is just too small.
course, the emotionally mature person (and emotional maturity may, or
may not, have much to do with how old someone is) knows that life is
seldom an either/or proposition, especially when it comes to setting
boundaries. The emotionally mature person knows that there are times
when we need to turn the focus within, when we even need to be quite
self-absorbed. Like when we’re sick, or in the process of changing
careers, or going through some other major life transition. At other
times, accommodating others’ needs more than we might otherwise is
appropriate: as when we have small children to care for; or when we’re
caring for someone who is sick, or for (say) elderly parents who can no
longer make all of their own decisions or do everything they need to do
But (usually) these times of high intensity, of
one extreme or the other, pass. And when they do, and “ordinary time”
descends upon our lives again, then it is possible for us to
reestablish a healthy balance of inward and outward focus, which
provides the basis for a healthy and fulfilled modern life. “Boundaries
that are firm and flexible protect and connect us,” Pamela Kristan
writes. “We take on some tasks, expectations, and proposals, and
In a word, then, we make Choices.
human beings are, to an amazing degree, the sum total of the choices we
make. “When we say ‘No,’ we realize that the rejected request is
someone else’s choice, not ours. When we say ‘Yes,’ we recall what it
is that makes our hearts sing.”
At the very heart of who we
are as conscious beings is a great deal of free will—freedom to choose
who we are, and how we will respond to this world. In his great work,
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl points out that even in a
concentration camp—the most horrific and constraining experience
possible—we have a choice about how to respond, what to think, even how
to feel. Even though our environment—the culture in which we
operate—seems to hold its heavy hand over us—be it the restrictions of
a traditional culture, the demands of an overly-controlling family, the
dehumanizing pace of 21st century corporate culture—we nonetheless,
ultimately, choose at every moment, what to do and how we going to do
It’s not that we don’t have choices that we make. It’s
that we’re not always (often? usually?) conscious of the choices we are
We’re distracted by the “squeaky wheel”, so
we do something someone else asks just so we won’t be
bothered by their demands any longer. We have only a certain amount of
time available, so we do whatever happens to fit into that slot, as
inconsequential and unnecessary as it might really be to our overall
goals. An uncomfortable task awaits us, so we avoid it as long as
we can—until it returns to bite us in the backside. We feel burdened by
(seemingly) endless demands and expectations, so we rebel and do what
we want, rather than what we should. Conversely, we feel guilty about
assert our own needs and wants, so we do what is expected of us, and
within us there grows an increasing sense that life is joyless
Sometimes (oftentimes?) it’s not just our
consciously bad choices that get us into hot water. Sometimes, it’s our
less-than-conscious choices, too, that cause us trouble. We do what’s
not so important and neglect those things which are. We burn out and
grow ill or depressed. We feel we’re missing out on our lives, so we
get resentful or angry and our relationships fall by the wayside. In
the end, living for ourselves alone or completing whoring after the
approval of others are both symptoms of the same disease. We end up
neither enjoying life nor serving the cause of our common-wealth.
answer, of course (or, at least, an answer) lies in paying Attention to
these lives we are leading, so that we can come to Know Oursleves
better. Then in setting firm but flexible Boundaries that define
who it is we truly are. And finally, in making conscious Choices that
we can stand behind, and live with, and affirm with the fullness of our
whole beings—body, mind, and soul.
Then it is that we embrace
these limits of Time and Space that both the natural world and modern
society place upon us. Then it is that we embrace the blessed limits
that living on this good Earth requires—with grace and gratitude and a
full share of good humor.