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 stressed, 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.