“The Space to Be a Person,” or Why You Need Slack Time

Call it idleness, slack, non-action, pausing, or just plain “doing nothing.” Whatever you call it, too frequently today it is skipped, degraded, and seen as a less than noble use of time. The United States of America — where I was born and have lived all my life — is especially known for its “never slow down” mentality.

I mentioned a few weeks ago in my annual review that I’d spent a long period of the summer suffering at the hands of (self-imposed) outrageous work requirements. And during that period, when I was taking ever less slack time and ever more time ostensibly working, I started to find myself more frustrated, frustrating, and most of all just wishing I had some time. “The space to be a person” was the phrase that echoed through my mind for months .

What “the space to be a person” meant to me then, and still does, isn’t about physical space — though that matters too — but about the sense of space afforded by time when there are no expectations of you and no tasks you’re supposed to be doing. In that kind of space, you really can just be. That’s one of those things that people frequently regard as new-agey and very “woo-woo,” or just simply vapid. But the difference between doing something and simply being is undeniable if you pause to consider it.

When you’re just being, you’re (forced to be) in contact with what’s actually going on. You’re made to feel that you’re restless or bored or whatever. You’re also, with that space, hopefully able to take some time to get intimate with that feeling and learn (or at least experiment with) how you can be and work with it effectively. And that stuff matters.

What’s more, slack time is time when you can pick up a task that hasn’t been done but should have been. A time when you can finish off that thing you were hoping to do earlier, or work ahead on that thing you anticipate being a time-crunch coming down the pike. But the important thing about slack time is that  you don’t have to do any of those things. It is fundamentally this allowance and possibility for a whole array of different tasks, doings, and non-doings that makes slack time so valuable.

When your time and life is scheduled end-to-end and you’re just barely able to do in a day or a month all the things that you have to have accomplished in that period, you feel like you don’t have space to breathe. And any small setback can easily accrete into a catastrophe that’ll throw everything else out of alignment.

Slack time is, in many ways, the ultimate wealth. Slaves never had it, because while they had periods where they weren’t working they weren’t free to do whatever they wanted with that time. And today, people forced by economic conditions to work two full-times jobs surely know better than most of the softer middle class the value of slack time. Throw in a houseful of kids and, well, this 20-something bachelor can’t even imagine.

But to the extent you can claim it, I really think you must build some slack time into your life. Hopefully regularly and in volumes high enough to really allow you to feel into it. An hour a day isn’t bad, but a few days of nothing per week is really the sweet spot. It lets you be yourself better, fulfill your responsibilities with more ease, and really be in contact with what your life is actually like.

Practical Philosophy

Seeing Through Nouns

Nouns are a part of speech most people understand, and they’re common across all human languages. And yet we know of very fews nouns that aren’t simply an aggregate of a number of other nouns. Further, those aggregates of other nouns are, by the very nature of their compound-ness, temporary.

Recently someone presented an idea that blew my mind a bit: in reality, there are no nouns. There are bits of energy assembled and masquerading as nouns for periods of time. For some things — as fruits of a tree — this illusion is very short. The period of time during which an unharvested apple or plum remains an apple or plum is no more than a few months. So while we see the atoms of an apple taking that form for a while, we’re also well aware that it’ll form a brown sludge on the ground where it fell if left untouched.

Most bugs are living, flying things for a mere matter of days. All the parts of a fly — the eyes, the legs, the body, the wings — are combinations of atoms that will be a living corporeal creature for a few weeks. After that, they may stay together — unworking — for a few months. But eventually they’ll get processed through the digestive system of a frog, or decompose, or something else, and all those atoms will become other things.

Some things last for much much longer. Our sun has had the form we call by that name for about 4.5 billion years. But before we would have identified it as a star or our sun, all the atoms in it existed. They just hadn’t joined together into the unit that we recognize. We’d think of them as free hydrogen atoms floating near each other; the accretion of them into a cluster of mass sufficient to be recognized as a star, and to give off the energy of a star, and have the physical processes of a star, took time. But the atoms were there before. The sun, as all things, is a process that we identify much more than the concrete entity we can mistake it for.

Literally nothing that we know of in this world is permanent. Flowers, people, rocks, and planets: all of them will, in some period of time, cease to be those things we recognize them as today. There is nothing so certain as change, and the fact that things aren’t what we mistake them for.

Realizing that nouns are really just temporary assemblages that came together and are currently in the process of “verbing” that noun is a clarifying new lens through which to see the inherent ephemerality of the material world we inhabit. Nouns are comforting and useful — try to communicate effectively without them… — but when we forget that they’re not real, we set ourselves up for heartache.

Most people understand that nothing lasts. But we also forget it. A lot. And that’s why remembering the non-existence of nouns is useful. It brings us back to the reality that there are no nouns. The material world is really built out of very slow verbs.


It’s Just About Time and Attention

It seems that we only have control over two things in our life: the hours allotted to us, and the things we put our attention on in those hours. But that’s a fact that’s easy to miss.

We worry about how pretty we are. About how smart we are. About how kind we are. About what people think of us. And what we’re worth. But none of those things change the heart fact that we’ve only got control over our time and attention.

We can spend time and attention to get smarter. We can spend time and attention to work on being more kind, or fit, or to have a bigger bank account. We can spend it being entertained by the latest novels or the dumbest television. But fundamentally what we’re doing here is taking the time we’re given and spending it on the things we give our attention to.

Want to be more productive? Think seriously about where you’re actually putting your time and attention and where you’d feel most productive putting your time and attention. It seems almost comical in its simplicity, but that’s really all that productivity comes down to.

The heart of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, for example, is a study of why people are really bad about managing their time and attention and spend it in all the wrong places. When we’re not strategic, we can easily drain of our time and attention rehashing the same decisions over and over again rather than acting. Or when we make ourselves remember tasks to do, we waste energy (which is essentially the compound form of time and attention) on the act of remembering.

I’m ever more certain that all things that matter in life are stupidly simple. But that simple doesn’t mean easy. And the fact that productivity comes down to the decisions and stratagems that we use to decide how and where to use our energy seems to fit. You don’t get to make more time, and you may sometimes find it hard to control your attention. But realize that those two things are just about the only variables you really control and you’ll find yourself ahead of the game.

Practical Philosophy

The Hourglass Neck of Now

Time expands out away from us in either direction. In the present moment, right now, there aren’t all that many possibilities you need to consider and worry about; there isn’t really much to do. Now is simple because it’s so close. As we get further away — in either the past or future direction — we get the option to entertain all kinds of possibilities like “What if…?” and “It would be nice if…”.

Time, in this way, works a bit like an hourglass. And the present is the small narrow neck of the hourglass through which everything that was the future travels on its way to becoming the past. But when you really sit and stay and live in that hourglass neck, you realize you don’t have much to worry about or stress. After all, grains of sand will keep coming down the hourglass until they don’t. You just need to rest in that present moment and the sand will go about its business. Where each grain ends up? No need to worry. Where exactly this one came from? Not something you have to know.

The power of “now” is that you really can, if you open fully and accept it, rest comfortably in it forever. We find this very hard to do because we get distracted. We find it hard to stay because all these curious grains of sand are floating by. If we want, we can follow and chain out into an imagined future forever. If we want, we can follow those grains back into their past forever, or in any of a million directions of fantasy.

A common objection we raise to the idea of hanging out in the “now” is that we can’t  strategize there. That it blocks us from learning from the past or projecting and planning about the future. And there is wisdom in the complaint. But it is worth recognizing how little actual time we spend doing those things — learning from the past and planning for the future — and how much time we instead spend idly speculating and entertaining ourselves (or worse yet, getting ourselves worked up and worried) instead of wisely using the past and future for places we journey to for guidance from time to time.

The neck of the hourglass is narrow. But it’s got a beautiful and reassuring simplicity in its narrowness. It can be a great source of confidence and comfort. We can rest there and be safe and secure, knowing that trouble is busy elsewhere. It’s not easy, but when you really are able to stay, many other things become quite clear.


The Long Game of Kindness

Living creatures, by their nature, find it hard to think, plan, and act for the long term. For millennia life on this planet has survived because it acts, first and foremost, to do what it is best for it in the short term. This near-term greed allows living creatures to keep being alive, and that’s really their most important quality. Anything else they may or may not accomplish is secondary.

As I’ve been spending time thinking about why kindness is so difficult to do on a consistent basis, one of the things I’ve realized is that it has little benefit in the very short term. Surely there is some small short-term glow after an acknowledged kindness, but even that is rather fleeting.

And almost necessarily, to be kind you must also give up something else of value to you in the act. Whether it’s time, energy, money, or all three, kindness is never free. Definitionally, an act that is kind cannot serve your short-term self-interest. If it did it wouldn’t be an act of kindness, but of greed.

Kindness can have tremendous benefits in the long term. When it comes back to you, if it comes back to you, it’s almost certainly in the form of someone making for you the same trade that you made initially. They forfeit some short-term energy, money, or time so that you can have a better day, year, or life.

Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from your kindness.

And it may be the case that you kick off a chain of kindness that doesn’t affect you, but has a positive effect for others. And while such a chain could come back to you, it’s never certain to. If it does, it will almost never do so immediately. Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from any single act of kindness.

That is one of the central obstacles to kindness. As we move through the world, we’re characteristically short-sighted. We’re focused on the next activity, obligation, or event and not on the longer term questions of what will help others and ourselves to feel better and more satisfied as we move through the world.

We’re far more likely to bask in the warm glow of a received compliment than ask ourselves how we can increase the likelihood that we and others can bask in such a glow more regularly. While giving unprompted compliments on a consistent basis is almost certainly the easiest way that you can receive them regularly (people love to bounce compliments back) it’ll almost never cross our minds.

This shortsightedness has served living creatures well for thousands of years. But it makes kindness harder. The best way we can cope with it, I think, is just to be aware of the tendency. Awareness in itself doesn’t change anything, but it makes it much easier to see and change your behavior around this misplaced focus. If practiced regularly, awareness can shift your attention to the longer-term.

Another idea is to keep a memory vault of all the good that’s come of kindnesses you’ve done. Kindnesses done for you, or even those you’ve witnessed and felt were commendable can help. This vault may be light at first, and can be hard to fill, but remembering the long-term good that has resulted from short-term sacrifice can be a powerful way to be more aware of and ready to do similar kind actions.

Kindness is a long game. Maybe the longest of all. That makes it really hard for us bumbling myopic humans to do it all that well. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth learning to do. And well.


Living in Retrospect

“In retrospect, it was a bad idea.” “One day we’ll look back at this and laugh.” We all understand that our views on things are not fixed forever. That looking back on things with some critical distance from our actions we’ll likely see more clearly what was going on and what the wiser course of action would have been.

I think the best way we can hope to live is to always see events as we would see them with the critical distance of a few years. The goal of a mindfulness practice, I believe, is simply to see all things with the critical distance that time naturally provides for us much too late. Such that we can use our clear vision of how things really are to act wisely, rather than on to react to what we misunderstand to be unfolding.

This is both one of simplest ideas anyone ever had, and the most difficult. It’s simple. I pretty much captured all that I can about it in two paragraphs. And yet it’s difficulty is real. Even people who’ve dedicated 20 years to mindfulness, or living in retrospect, find themselves undertaking unwise actions from time to time. Actions that they later see quite clearly were inappropriate, and could have been handled better.

Experience and wisdom are shorthand for knowing what is right to do in a given situation. They’re generally born of an ability to see parallels to a previously encountered situation from which it is understood what is likely to work in this situation. But contrary to popular belief, I’m confident you don’t really need either age or experience to know how do something well. What you need instead is a clear vision of all the factors unfolding in a situation and all the outcomes that could occur. If one, even as a beginner, can see these thing clearly they have the potential to do as well as even the most experienced experts to take the best course of action.

When one makes no effort to accurately percieve what is unfolding and what would be a wise way to respond, they only ever come to an adequate understanding through time. But inattentive centuries will hardly make you better at creating intelligent solutions to hard problems than a few weeks of careful attention from someone truly dedicated to seeing clearly and acting wisely.

I am not here to promise that you can be an instant expert in everything if you just learn to use this magical skill I’m trying to tell you about. You can’t, and it would be idiotic for me to try to convince you. But I do know that you’ll learn a lot more if you place yourself mindfully in the situation you find yourself than if you merely move through the routines of your life as if you’re anxiously awaiting some destination you’ll never arrive at.

We have so many stories, jokes, and morality plays as a culture about coming to the end of your life and realizing something about the way you lived it. But we have the capicity, rigt now in the very moment, to have the same insight and clarity that we’re so often told only death provides. Most of us are simply so pre-occupied with other things to see that we’re really not treating our family fairly. That we really don’t care all that much about our job. That there’s nothing more important than the people we choose to spend time with. This is the value of mindfulness. The value of striving to live in retrospect.


No Going Back

Sometimes it hits. It’s rarely anticipated. That desire to feel that feeling you felt in the past. Maybe it was your first day of school, or your first kiss, or your first home run. Maybe it was that night when you did that thing, or that afternoon when you did that other thing. Maybe it was just that one time that you don’t remember very well but do remember fondly.

But you’ll never feel quite that way ever again.

One could, of course, question if you ever felt that way you remember yourself feeling. After all, memory is a flawed device that frequently deceives. It’s not only possible but likely that dinners at Grandma’s house were a little less magical than you remember them being. It’s hard to doubt that memories sometimes papers over the worst parts, colors in the bits that have faded with time, and generally makes events from your past look better than they really were.

But that’s a different matter. This is about how you’re no longer the same person you were ten years ago. If that’s true, you’re also not the same person you were five years ago. Or two years. Or a year. Or six months ago. Or three months ago. Or last month. Or last week. Or yesterday. Or 10 minutes ago. Or just a second ago.

This of course could lead us to ask, “Well, who are we anyway?” But again, that’ll have to be left to a different time.

The fact is, any feeling you had in the past was shaped by all the feeling you’d had until that moment. And the second you’ve had the feeling of first riding a roller coaster, you’ll never feel that way again. Your first experience of something colors the way you’ll experience that thing the rest of your life. So does that second experience of it. Every experience changes your relationship to those you’ve had and those you’ll have in the future. Some of these changes are probably for the better, some may not be.

The reason you’ll never get to relive that moment again is not that you’ll never be 12  or 21 ever again. It’s because you’ve already experienced that. And then you’ve experienced other things. And so you’ll never feel precisely that way ever again.

This can be a sad thought. It’s not exactly exuberating to think that you’ll never experience the joys of your childhood ever again. To think that you’ll never feel that way you did again.

But there’s no way to avoid it. You’ll never be that person again. You’ll never feel that way again. Time “marches on, whether we act as cowards or heroes.” We’ll never be the same again. There’s no going back.

OPW, poetry

OPW: “The Future”

Today on Other People’s Words, a beautiful poem by Wesley McNair called “The Future.”

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life’s sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It’s not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn’t want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived—the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn’t know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman’s laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, right now will ever need.

big ideas, personal

On Time

If there’s one thing I wish for, it would be a pause button. I wouldn’t have exclusive control. But it would be a pause button that would allow myself, and everyone else in the world, time for some serious contemplation and soul-searching with no remorse over the time we’re not spending on other things. I think I, and probably others as well, need to spend more unfettered time doing things that should be done and not worrying about all the things that we don’t really need to do.

I often feel, and I doubt I am alone on this, that if I take a week, or even a day, to just pause away from everything and try to figure it all out, that I am by my inaction harming my own future, or those of others. That by my contemplative inaction I am somehow failing my own potential.

I have to say that when I am fully alone, I am less acutely aware of this feeling of waste than when I am with others. Others who are by day or night doing things. It doesn’t much matter to me what those things are, but I regret my not doing them. Whether that is a reflection of some facet of myself, the others, or a combination of the two is something I will have to leave for another time.

The real crux of this issue is that there is so much I don’t know that could influence how I would act in the coming day if I only knew it. If I better knew how other people had made a positive impact on the world I would be better able to make one myself. If I better knew how people got the job I want, I could take the steps necessary to get it. Rather, I am stuck in the predicament of feeling like I am dallying if I do the research I think could help the process, and feeling like I’m rushing into the field without adequate preparation if I am acting.

I have to admit that though it is not a feeling that only I have, the solution will not cannot come from outside. For until, and possibly even after, scientists discover a way to make our bodies need less sleep, I can say with nearly complete certainty that we’ll always have this feeling when I feel the need to spend some time just thinking.

The fact is that we can’t stop. The world will not stop cold simply so that we can have the time to learn all it’s facets. Our lives will not stop cold simply because we desire them to. We have no choice but to move forward. Doing what we can along the way to assure that we are doing it the best way we can.

That is reality. Like it or not, there’s no way to change it.