The Speed of Time

Older people feel that time passes faster as they age. But time isn’t going faster for them–except subjectively. This unpleasant sense of being rushed through life can be relieved; we can adjust our perceptions so that time “passes slowly” for us again.

In normal day to day states we “come to” from time to time; we come out of the free-association daydreaming state–”Gosh, it’s three o’clock already!”–and time seems to have gone by very rapidly since the last time we emerged. As we get older, or generally sink into a state of inattentiveness, it’s as if you’ve taken a movie film and removed half the individual frames, and then glued it back together. Watch it that way, and that fragmented movie  passes too fast, and too choppily, because we’re missing key perceptual moments from it.  For various reasons–perhaps associations spawned by memories, or a tendency to withdraw attention to save energy– elderly people in particular tend to be caught up in a subjective state that makes time seem to rush along like a film missing half its frames.

But if we adjust our perceptivity we no longer feel dragged along, passing too rapidly through life.  This re-tuning of our perception of time–and of life itself–can be adjusted through certain forms of meditation. Basic Zen meditation, Vipassana meditation, Gurdjieff’s self-remembering methods,  or the mindfulness  methods of Jon Kabat-Zinn, allow us to exist more fully in the now, constantly returning to what is. Through certain meditative techniques we learn to actively return to the present moment, a process that takes us out of identification with the random churning of the ordinary mind. As we make contact with this wider perception, we’ll notice that time will seem to slow in an agreeable way.  It feels miraculous when it happens, but it’s simply the result of an adjustment of attention. And it doesn’t have to be done sitting in a meditation posture–it can be done while doing housework, or taking a walk. “Walking meditation” is common in Zen and in Tibetan Buddhism.

When I am engaging in a form of mindfulness meditation one second seems to take, perhaps, four seconds to play out, or even more, but in a pleasant way. I don’t feel like “time is dragging”.  Time itself, of course, moves at whatever rate it chooses. I’m simply perceiving more of it. The apparent slowdown happens because in the meditative state I’m not caught up in free-association or daydreams. As such times I’m not on the hamster wheel of the mind; I’m not in the usual ruminative state, which sucks up so much attention. Of course, daydreaming has its uses, and the mind’s ability to free-associate is vital–but the problem is its seductiveness. If we let it take us over entirely it becomes a way to be asleep while walking around only nominally awake.

In the meditative state I take in more information; the sounds around me are heard consciously, one after another, in a consistent stream; the sensation of my body is contemplated in an unbroken continuum with  smells, sights, the feeling of a breeze or just the air on my skin.  It’s all one holistic, unified impression. In this state of active consciousness there is a globular encompassing of everything I experience. When that state is achieved it does not allow for daydreams and mindless free association because there’s no room left for any of that. The mental space usually taken up by the vagaries of free-association is occupied by a total perception of the now. Your mind is fully active but only as a receptor for the present moment. And in that state, time “slows down” because I’m perceiving, cognitively taking in, more of the productions of time.

This process is a great relief. In it–whether for thirty seconds or thirty minutes or more–we are no longer caught up in the cycle of worries, fears, and anxious planning. At such times I’m freed up, and a feeling of refreshment flows over me. Equally important, after repeated meditative efforts, the brain gradually “resets” to take in more information, in a painless, objective way. And by degrees we learn to “slow time” so that life doesn’t pass us by.

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