Short Reflections (2): On Wasting Time

I am back from a very long walk with lots of interesting observations. Here’s one of them. Many people these days are very impatient because they constantly seem to be “losing” or “wasting” time everywhere. Steering one’s ship around the whirlpools of time drainers like traffic jams, conference calls, tax filings, etc. and to “save” time has become a fetish of our age.

If we look at it more closely, the very idea of “wasting” time hinges on two premises:
a) the notion that there is a limited amount of time, and
b) the notion that there is somewhere to get to, or something to achieve within this limited time-frame.

I’ve written about the illusion of time before (here), so in this post I want to focus on the second aspect.

We all know too well that the game our Western societies are founded upon is based on the importance of “doing” and “becoming”. Before we pursue something we are conditioned to ask ourselves: “what do I get out of it?”, and make sure it serves a purpose. Implicit in this way of evaluating our actions is the belief that there is always something to improve, that it is never good enough as it is. In that logic, doing something that serves no purpose means missing out on the opportunity to create a better future and so sustaining the status quo is considered a waste of time. Not making progress is often stigmatized as failure, laziness or anti-social behavior. Thus, when we “waste” time, we usually feel frustrated or guilty.

The way we are taught to think about life in Western societies is that the future always promises something that the present does not yet provide. Things could always be better. Constantly living for the future, though, means never truly living in the present. And that way, we trade our whole lives for a future that never arrives because it can never be settled into.

How to be more present in the present has been a topic of philosophical discussion and debate for millennia. One of the highest attainments in Hindu philosophy is non-attachment or renunciation of the fruits of one’s actions, that is, acting without a particular notion of purpose to gain merit in the future. All spiritual methods of the East ultimate aim at entering this “state”. For example, Zen can be understood as the art of acting just for the sake of acting. Accordingly, the Zen method is meditation which, in its strictest sense, is the one single activity serving no purpose whatsoever. In Zen meditation one just sits: not to get anywhere or achieve anything but just to sit. Because of our “doing-to-get” mentality, though, it is one of the most challenging tasks we could ever take up. Boredom, guilt, restlessness, meaninglessness are some of the symptoms of our conditioning that will come up and which need to be overcome to make friends with what is and to live in the present.
Other methods, like Rinzai Zen or Advaita Vedanta, try to induce experiential realizations of the infinite and endless ground of existence. Such insight not only undermines the notion of time, collapsing the future with the “Now”, but it also leads one to conclude that there is nothing to get or nowhere to get to in the future that would not always be here now already.

To live truly it is important to realize that any possible future point in time will be the same “Now” when it finally arrives. Our cultural assumption of creating a better future is fundamentally flawed. To make our days brighter we don’t need to change the world or ourselves but our internal relationship with the world and ourselves, that is, we need to change the way we “see” things. This is the meaning of “true happiness comes from within”.

In that sense, the royal road to a fulfilling life is paved with unconditional acceptance, of ourselves and of the world as it is. When we say yes unconditionally the rat race of seeking happiness elsewhere stops instantaneously and we settle into the present. Then we will realize the “dirty” little secret of our social game that the only way to waste time in life is to think that we could ever waste time.

“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat.”
~Lily Tomlin



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