“What is time? When no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to someone who asks, I have no idea.” – St. Augustine, The Confessions
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but, actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” – Doctor Who
I know what time is. Time is my enemy. When I am struggling to draft something while the midnight electronic filing deadline draws closer, when I’m urging the kids to get ready and get out the door in the morning to get to school before the tardy bell rings, or even when I’m just trying to get to yoga class on time. My blood pressure rises. I get irritable. I want to escape. But there is no escape.
According to physics professor Sean Carroll, time moves relentlessly forward because of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that under natural conditions, entropy–that is, disorder–tends to increase. Machinery breaks down. Eggs break. Milk spills. There is much more of a chance that things will go wrong than go right. One theory of the origin of life holds that we were created in order to move entropy along in the right direction. I’m not surprised. We – my kids, especially – are made to create chaos.
And yet to succeed in life and in business, we must create order. The computer must be assembled in such a way that the spark finds its way to the screen and not to the keyboard to shock your fingers. A legal case must be assembled in order: investigation, drafting, filing, discovery, summary judgment, trial. It would be easier if there were only one case, one client, but we need many clients in order to make a living. Time certainly seems like a strict progression of cause to effect, with the cause being all of our responsibilities and the effect being anxiety. We need time to be wibbly-wobbly. We need it to be forgiving.
When I first started practicing law, the work felt absolutely crushing. After a year or so of praying for escape, I went to a business coach to help me. I thought she would give me some magic-bullet time management technique, and she did. Eventually. In one of our first meetings, she recommended a book called The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. Now I was getting somewhere. This was what I had been looking for. I was so eager, I ran straight to BookPeople and started reading right away.
Well, it was NOT what I expected. And it was not what I wanted. It is a book on meditation! My coach had neglected to mention the subtitle of the book, “A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.” I went back to her the next week and politely asked for something else. I need something specific, not wishy-washy new-age claptrap. She came through and guided me to other resources: Getting Things Done, Seven Habits, pareto analysis, in-box managment, timeboxing, swallowing the frog, etc. I learned what I needed to learn. And yet, through the years, The Power of Now stuck with me.
Tolle’s ideas are drawn from ancient religion – he often mentions Jesus and the Buddha – but the portrait he paints of the way the mind works is entirely modern. In his view, anxiety is created by playing little movies in your mind of the future – e.g., “there’s no way I can make that deadline” – or the past – e.g., “I should have handled that hearing differently.” Both of these movies are false. They occur because we can’t stop our brain from doing what it was created to do: think of a way to find food and keep us safe. When we are safe and have enough to eat, it has to make up things to think about.
But we have this nagging feeling that we are not the same as our brains, that we can stand outside of our thoughts and not get caught up in them. We do this by focusing on the present, the Now. Coming back to the present moment and realizing that you were zipping off into the movie of your mind suddenly grounds you. Your heart slows down. Your breath eases. All of a sudden, the rushing train of time stops entirely, and you are no longer anxious, fearful, or regretful. Tolle says:
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.
Once you are freed from time, and you are in the present, in the Now, you can take a deep breath and simply enjoy being alive. You can then make a choice with your mind to take a little break, go back to what you were doing, or even to put down what you were doing and focus on the Big Picture or some way to better help your fellow humans. Stopping the train need not be a bad thing. As Tolle puts it, “What a caterpillar calls the end of the world we call a butterfly.”