Some of us suffer from 'hurry sickness' - forever rushing from one task to the next, always thinking about everything that still needs to get done somehow, never giving our full attention to what we're doing right now. For others among us, time weighs heavily. The minutes and hours crawl by slowly, dragging on forever. In both cases, we experience 'time stress' as a result.
So is there anything we can do about it? (It might not surprise you to learn that I'm going to say 'yes', and that meditation can help...)
Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term 'Flow' to describe a powerful experience that he'd observed across many different people in many different situations. The 'Flow' state comes about when someone is engaged in a challenging activity which provides immediate feedback and is toward the upper limit of the skill of the practitioner, but not out of reach. (Think of a skilled acrobat performing a dangerous and challenging routine, or a concert pianist performing a very difficult piece.)
Some of the characteristics of the Flow state:
Interestingly, there's quite a bit of overlap between Flow and meditation. Csikszentmihályi even said that meditation is like a carefully planned Flow activity. It's also true that regular meditators seem to be more likely to experience Flow states and stay in them for longer, perhaps because the skills trained in meditation are so similar to the conditions of Flow.
One interesting point here is that this suggests a way to escape from time pressure. Flow activities are in part absorbing and enjoyable because they distort our sense of time - in Flow there's no room for worrying about the future or obsessing over the past, because we're purely focused on the present moment. Likewise, meditation trains us to come back to the present moment again and again, allowing us to step out of time pressure and into the 'timeless now'.
For people prone to 'hurry sickness', meditation can sometimes feel like just another thing that needs to be done. And some meditation techniques can even reinforce this - some techniques involve quite a bit of setup, a lot of 'doing' during the meditation period, and so on. But if we're looking to tap into a sense of timelessness, we need to emphasise being rather than doing, and it can be helpful to employ a meditation technique which really focuses on 'just being'.
In the Zen tradition, one very popular way of practising is an open awareness approach variously called 'just sitting', shikantaza or silent illumination. The practice is very simple, but can seem initially bewildering to people used to more structured practices. In the open awareness practice we don't use any particular 'anchor' or object of focus. We simply sit, and allow our experience to show itself to us. In a sense, there's nothing at all to 'do' here, but that can be a bit misleading because we very quickly find that the mind likes to wander and get tangled up in thoughts, sights or sounds. A better way to think of the practice might be as 'resting in awareness' - allowing our awareness to be broad and open, allowing absolutely anything and everything to come and go within our experience, while we 'do nothing', simply sitting there as it all unfolds.
Open awareness is a beautiful practice, but one with a couple of subtle pitfalls.
Sometimes people wonder if they're 'doing it right', because it's so hard to tell when there's 'nothing to do'. But as soon as you become aware that you're wondering if you're doing it right, you're already back in the open awareness, aware of the thoughts about whether you're meditating properly. So we can trust completely in awareness to do its thing without any interference from us, and let go deeply into the practice.
The other challenge is what's sometimes called the 'near enemy' of open awareness practice, which is a state of dullness. This is a kind of 'sinking' or 'drifting', a vague, hazy state in which the mind is subtly turned away from what's going on. It can feel vaguely pleasant, but it isn't particularly helpful. In true open awareness practice, the mind should be clear and bright, your attention turned toward your experience in all its fullness.
If you'd like to try stepping into the 'timeless now', you can find two guided open awareness practices in the Audio section of this website, one ten minutes long, the other twenty-five. Give it a try!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!