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Time is Something We Do, Not Something We See

kitchen window

If you could somehow go back and review your life, the way athletes study game film, you’d notice a particular trait shared by all the moments in which you felt content.

Everyone knows the type of moment where everything is fine and nothing is missing. Often there’s nothing especially noteworthy happening. Standing on the porch as the rain turns from drizzle to downpour. Folding laundry on a sunlit bed. Making a sandwich in a hostel kitchen.

When you’re experiencing contentment like that, sensory details seem significant and beautiful. At a concert, you might be absorbed by the violet light and the bass notes in your chest. In the hostel kitchen, it’s the sun in the frosted window pane and the voices of the Dutch couple in the next room. For all their ordinariness, these scenes seem complete and feel satisfying.

In these moments—in all of our best moments—time is gone. It’s just not important, or even perceptible.

And I don’t think it’s just a matter of losing track of time. It’s just not included. Time is something we add to the present, an idea we map onto our actual direct experience of the world.

We had to invent time, at some point. Clearly we evolved from animals that had no concept of past or future. Life, to them, consisted only of what was happening. Gradually, they began to benefit from impulses that took advantage of the fact that conditions change—fattening up as the weather gets cooler, hunting more when the moon is bright. But they didn’t impose any math onto their experience. They certainly didn’t see a given sunrise-to-sunset experience as numbered rectangle on a grid.   

Our brains got bigger and we gained the ability to picture what life might look like under the next full moon. We learned to pretend, for an instant, that life has already changed into something else. It became useful to create in our minds a kind of “map” of these possibilities, in which right now—the only part of life we ever know—was only a small part of a vast territory. We worked this concept into our languages, with words for tomorrow, later, then, when, if.

Standing in the Territory, Lost in the Map

The ability to imagine and account for experiences we aren’t having is useful, but gradually we became a little obsessed with this framework, and then very obsessed. We began to think we could actually see time extending forwards and backwards from where we are, when it was really just some high-level thinking. This thinking only happens here and now, of course—at the same time as the glance at the moon that triggered it.

We began to have trouble seeing so much as a common rainstorm for what it really was, for its actual raindrops and thunderclouds, without mapping it onto what we knew about farming cycles and the likelihood of a good yield this fall.

Bring on the industrial revolution, with its mathematics-based approach to work: this many man-hours at this rate of production at this price equals this profit margin, and the first thing to go is our relationship with right now.

We do this “abstracting” so much that we barely realize that life happens here. As in truly, only here—in front of our faces. Life is an experiential, right-now experience, and that’s it. We can speculate, remember, plan and fear, but those experiences too only happen here: between your ears, in this room, now and only ever now.

There’s nothing wrong with planning, evaluating, and speculating with respect to time. They’re necessary abilities for a modern human being. But it’s kind of like saying there’s nothing wrong with water when your house is flooded up to its eavestroughs. The problem is how much of it there is, and how little of it is serving us.

Time makes the present into a problem

The result of all this habitual imagining is stress. It’s fairly rare for us to see a moment strictly in terms of its actual reality, its feel and smell and taste, without jumping right to what it might mean for our interests over time. We are constantly identifying potential conflicts and inadequacies in the present, aspects of it that we need to avoid or protect.

We can’t feel content at the same time we feel insecure. But you can never feel secure at any moment when you’re preoccupied by what that moment means for the future.

Any moment is a problem if you analyze it enough. A piece of carrot cake ceases to be a satisfying sensual experience and instead becomes an internal battle between fat you and fit you. It becomes a gym membership. Or maybe a skipped breakfast tomorrow to make up for it.

This is why your cat is probably happier than you are. He doesn’t feel the tick of the clock. He doesn’t see his moments in terms of their future value. He isn’t preoccupied with the future course of his life or anyone else’s. He is enjoying every moment of that 14-hour nap. He isn’t comparing it to other naps, or weighing the tradeoff between a little more napping and a little less playing.

I think we could gain a lot by noticing the relationship between happiness, stress, and the habit of seeing life in terms of time. Whenever we’re 20130429-DSC_0166stressed, we’re interpreting the moment’s apparent value across time. Whenever we’re content, time is gone.

It is worth stopping now and then to consider our map, but it shouldn’t be a prominent feature of our lives. Time is a very useful idea that we should consider on a few occasions a day, to inform a few decisions and make a few plans. But we’d experience a lot more ease and happiness if we mostly concerned ourselves with direct experience.

There’s a Nietzsche line I’d get it tattooed on my forearm if I wasn’t so afraid that I’d eventually forget what it means:

“Glance into the world as though time were gone, and everything crooked will become straight to you.”

It’s an unpublished bit of dialogue from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I could never find its context, but it doesn’t need one.

It’s deceptively simple practice. Just look into the moment as though time were gone. Look out into the world from where you are right now, and imagine time isn’t there, even if you don’t believe what I’m saying.

You can still see motion and change unfolding, but you can’t see time. You can’t see what was or will be. You can only ever imagine it.

You might notice a particular quietness, an understated beauty to the experience, as if the entirety of life is what you are experiencing right now. Imagine that it has always been like that. Maybe it has.


Kitchen Photo by Trixi Skywalker, Cat photo by David Cain
Curtis Smale December 14, 2015 at 2:25 am

“Whenever we’re content, time is gone.”

That’s my favorite piece of micro-poetry in this article.

As you expand on meditation, David, you have insights on it that I have not read elsewhere, and I’ve read significant amounts of Daisetz Suzuki and Paul Reps.

Thank you.

David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:20 am

Thanks Curtis.

Aga December 14, 2015 at 3:23 am

wow. as someone who has recently started meditating, and attempting to practice mindfulness, this rings so true. not only a beautifully written piece today, david, but a very apt one in our culture of ceaseless (and prideful!) busy-ness.

David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:21 am

Thanks Aga. I’m really interested in the idea of how different cultures can vary in how time-conscious they are. All I know is I definitely grew up in a culture that is obsessed with time, as though it’s always there, in the air or something. But it’s just a thinking tool.

Anna December 14, 2015 at 3:35 am

my dad has just died a few days ago.The quote from neitzsche and your article is very comforting at this moment even though I’m not sure exactly why yet. Thank you for your thoughtful articles. I like your new portrait picture it is much more optimistic looking. I found myself smiling at your picture. ( I don’t mean that in a weird creepy way. I am happily married and not a stalker or anything) xx

David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:26 am

I’m sorry to hear that you lost your dad Anna. I find the Nietzsche quote extremely comforting too. It gives me a sense of okayness about unsettled things.

Steve December 14, 2015 at 6:54 am


Brilliant stuff here. This line really spoke to me:

“This is why your cat is probably happier than you are.”

I always notice my Mom’s cat every time I visit. He’s an indoor cat, has beat cancer, and strolls around the house at Florida retirement pace.

I’ve said to my Mom more than once, “This cat looks like he’s at the Day Spa every moment of the day.”

You’re right on target telling us humans to be more animal when it comes to our perception of time.


David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:27 am

Haha… all cats look like they’re permanently at a day spa. The cat in the photo is my Mom’s cat, Chico.

MouthyGirl December 14, 2015 at 9:28 am

The same line struck me and I quoted that paragraph when I shared it on bookface. My cat is huge fluffy ball of happy and I am constantly telling him how easy he has it and has no idea…that’s the beautiful thing, he doesn’t have to worry about it. I should try meditation..my muses of late aren’t working for me anymore.

Thomas December 14, 2015 at 7:28 am

Interesting, as someone with ADHD I feel like I have more or less the opposite problem as what you describe here. Living in the moment is kind of a default setting, though more in the sense of being absorbed in one specific activity instead of being mindful about my surroundings. Either way it’s hard to keep a coherent internal narrative running about what my goals in life are beyond the next hour or so, for example it’s a little too easy for me to eat the carrot cake because I won’t remember I’m on a diet until half an hour after I ate it. Obviously this is not exactly an ideal way to live life, as it’s very hard to work towards any sort of long-term goal.

So because of this I seem to be developing a different attitude towards mindfulness. For me it’s still very much about channeling and learning to control attention and focus, but with the aim to be able to take a step back from the immediate moment, so that I’m made aware of my surroundings in a temporal sense. Meditating often leads me to spontaneously behave in a more thoughtful, future-aware way, as clearing out the first layers of impulsive thoughts is crucial for giving me the mental resources to do that.

Anyway, just wanted to share this because it’s really interesting to me how the same tools can be used in both directions. I guess in the end it’s all about reflecting on your predispositions and making a conscious choice about them, no matter where you are on the “time-awareness” spectrum.

David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:34 am

That is interesting. I don’t have any experience with ADHD, so it’s hard for me to understand. When it comes to mindfulness, one crucial factor is whether you are aware of what you’re currently aware of. One meditation teacher I had brought us all outside at night during a retreat, had us look up at the sky, and said, “Please be aware that you are seeing.” I would imagine that a state of distraction includes the attention on the present-moment stimulus, but not this awareness that you are currently aware.

With mindfulness, there is a kind of “stepping back” that’s necessary, in order not to get attached to any particular stimulus. Even in formal breathing meditation, it is encouraged not to “zoom in” on the breath, but just notice it arising in awareness, without letting the rest of the moment get blocked out.

Lorrie B December 14, 2015 at 7:29 am

Good post, David, really enjoyed this one. I get a kick out of people’s reactions when I try to explain to them that time isn’t real, or that colour doesn’t exist outside our brains, or that we are all made of stardust and so damn insignificant. They just refuse to believe it! And some people get downright ornery about not believing it. Time is a measurement that humanity is happy with, but the only reality I subscribe to (we only know what we know until we know better) is that everything is in a constant state of change and that molecules are always moving. We’re not getting older so much as we’re expanding to the point of self-disintegration. Meditation and the beautiful philosophy of buddhism has helped me realize this…

David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:38 am

That’s a concept that really interests me, but it’s hard to talk about: how we’re so used to thinking of our experience in certain ways, that we lose track of what’s the map and what’s the territory.

Existence is really strange when you break it down. Color doesn’t happen out there, it happens in our brains. There are no objects; only experiences. And so on.

Carla December 14, 2015 at 7:48 am

I decided, in a conscious way to take the TIME to say well done, well written and you have a cute kitty! Also, Thomas who comments above, has an interesting take on time management as well. Thanks all for sharing. I am glad I took this moment to read this! Time well spent.

David Cain December 14, 2015 at 8:38 am

Thanks Carla. His name is Chico.

Elliot December 14, 2015 at 9:27 am

Hey, David! Awesome stuff man! Thanks for sharing!

Thehappyphilosopher December 14, 2015 at 9:53 am

I really love the way you write about mindfulness from so many different dimensions. Really insightful stuff. Teach me how to write out all these crazy ideas bouncing around my head as eloquently as you ;)

Ah, to be a cat though…that may be an essay all in itself!

David Cain December 15, 2015 at 8:23 pm

“I have lived with several Zen masters, all of them cats.”

-Eckhart Tolle

Al Fonda December 14, 2015 at 10:13 am

I have a delightful running discussion with a pen pal who is a remarkably thoughtful and erudite Catholic. Your essay arrived just as we were discussing the certainty of knowledge, some of which exists, he claims, *a priori*; not as a result of experience. Not the least of which is extrapolation back to (he claims) a First Cause. Sparing you the details, after I quoted you in brief I added the following comment:

Now where does this leave Creation, and the Creator, as you see them, Frank? Only as an a posteriori construct, inferred from our high-level thinking about our collected memories of immediate experience. Only as a supposedly benign entity, somehow causing the first cause we can imagine. Only a peaceful refuge from our worries about time. A possibility we are entitled to entertain, even as “a prominent feature of our lives” — but not as a **certainty** we are required to acknowledge.

Thanks, David, for the assistance.

David Cain December 15, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Right… I don’t know what God can be except an interpretation of an experience, and if its an interpretation, it’s prone to misapprehension.

Tim December 14, 2015 at 11:55 am

There’s a great book I just read called In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore that is all about our relationship with time. The Society for the Deceleration of Time is also pretty interesting.

David Cain December 15, 2015 at 8:27 pm

I like the sounds of those!

Sebastian December 14, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Having just googled the quote for a deeper explanation i came across this excellent reddit. One answer is so good, i have to share it with you:


David Cain December 15, 2015 at 8:28 pm

I found that thread when I was looking for the context of the quote. Really interesting discussion, I just wish more people had added their thoughts.

jude December 14, 2015 at 1:44 pm

Another post that resonates in my heart.
As a Community Nurse, I spend my entire day running against the clock and noting the start and stop times of activities.
It makes for a challenging work life, but with your help I’m becoming more mindful of the moments – the view of the ocean, a flower, shade of a tree etc. I honestly feel better for this and I am increasing my periods of mindfulness slowly but steadily each day.
Something that I’ve realised – once I arrive at a client’s house for a visit I become very much in the present moment, doing what needs to be attended. It takes as long as it takes, and rushing doesn’t help.
And I focus on what I’m doing at any given moment, not to think about the 6 visits I have left. When a client asks how many more visits do you have, love? I can cheerfully say I don’t really know.
I’m on to something here. :D

Scott December 14, 2015 at 6:50 pm

One of the standout lessons from traveling has been that different people/cultures have very different relationships with time. There’s actually a great book on it, The Geography of Time: http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Of-Time-Misadventures-Psychologist/dp/0465026427

trillie December 16, 2015 at 3:16 am

Thanks for the tip! I’ve put it on my wish list. :)

Burak December 15, 2015 at 2:00 am

This post reminded me a piece of “In The End” song from good old Linkin Park:
“The clock ticks life away
It’s so unreal”

Different practices including meditation may help us be present in the moment throughout the day and stay away from mental clutter. Yet reading this beautiful post, I realized even more that it’s “time” to take my game to a different level.

Thanks once again David.

Delma December 15, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Hi David. I do believe this is one of your very best. Much appreciated.

trillie December 16, 2015 at 3:21 am

I love that Nietzsche quote. I was just musing the other day about how one of the things I used to love so much about recreational drugs (in a long ago past) was their ability to stop time, which was in reality just making you forget that after a certain amount of time, dawn would follow. You can see how attractive that would be to someone keen on being “in the moment” without doing any of the homework involved.

LennStar December 19, 2015 at 8:02 am

God is dead. God is dead and we have killed him!

VS December 22, 2015 at 7:22 pm

One of my favourite posts on this blog!

Ryan December 26, 2015 at 5:24 pm

I can’t recall a single article you’ve written that I havent enjoyed. It’s always pleasurable to suddenly remember I haven’t visited your site and re-upped on my David Cain insight and word wizardry. I just recently spent a number of months in jail for something I could not fight. Despite meditating at different points in my life, I have never been consistent with it. I found a book written for prisoners and meditation. It was my golden find in my 3 months inside. I managed to meditate every day except for missing 2 days in 6 weeks and it was WONDERFUL. When you can’t “escape” anywhere but into your own head (thank the universe for getting ear plugs), meditation carried extra weight as being most beneficial. It’s sad that in the 4 weeks since my release, I have not maintained my meditation practices, and yes my phone does pose as an “escape.” I hope to change that again. Just wanted to write and say I’ve always appreciated you. Thanks for sharing your views in such an eloquent way. I’ll make my yoga stretches and meditation practices the first thing I do when I wake once again.

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