Time to Unplug

Time to Unplug

Your relationship to time may be the single most important relationship in your life.

Summer is the season for letting go. It’s our time to be unserious and reasonably irresponsible. “Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability,” as Sam Keen says. Amen to that.

Unplugging is harder than it sounds, of course, in our push-or-die world. There are five primary reasons for this, themes that keep us stuck on the wheel of virtue and running as fast as we can: time, guilt, desire, vice, and the siren call of abandon.

Time, as you know, is our primary challenge. I’ve been reading a book this summer that illuminates our time neurosis. It’s called Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein, a New York writer who spends time on the Greek Island of Hydra, trying to understand the Greek ability to unplug. He studies a a group of elderly men at the local taverna who spend their days playing cards, gossiping, and drinking retsina, oblivious of the hours passing by. The author notices the father of one of them, a 90-year-old who sits in the corner, twirling a rosary of worry. “Is he worried? ” Klein asks the old man’s son, who laughs at the question. On the contrary, he tells the freaked out New Yorker, komboloi beads are used a tool for helping to space out time, to make every minute last and savor the slowness of being.

How different this is from our clock-watching world where time is viewed as the enemy, an endangered commodity that threatens to kill us, a gift that is never enough. Western philosophers have likened God to a great watchmaker in the sky, tapping His wrist with disapproval to remind of how much remains to be done, and how unlikely we are to finish. This traumatizing approach to time is a relatively new invention, tied closely to the Industrial Revolution and slice-dice effects of technology. For most of our history, humans have lived in far greater harmony with time’s slow passage. There are still indigenous tribes in the world today that have no word for time in their language. If you visit a Moken village in Indonesia, for instance, after a twenty-year absence, you’ll be greeted as if it were yesterday.

We have misplaced the sacred dimension of time. Mircea Eliade confirmed this 50 years ago: “The modern West is the first culture (in human history) that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world,” he wrote. That’s why a book like The Power of Now caused such a sensation when it appeared. Eckhart Tolle was reminding us of what the mystics term nunc stans, or eternal time, as opposed to nunc fluens, or hourglass time. “The now that passes produces time. The now that remains produces eternity,” as the seventh-century philosopher Boethius said. The antidote to time-as-the-enemy is the practice of present moment awareness. When we change our relationship to time, we open ourselves to the eternal dimension.

In fact, your relationship to time may be the single most important relationship in your life. Still, it’s easy to feel guilty for changing this relationship in a culture that measures being through doing. Guilt is the second pitfall when unplugging. The iron maiden of emotions, guilt locks pleasure into a twisted contraption meant to keep us docile, obedient and pure. Guilt is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of a spacious life in which we’re allowed to feel innocent. How rare it is to spend one’s life feeling blameless and innocent. To live with this generous attitude toward ourselves. Do you tend to feel guilty or innocent most often? That’s a question worth the asking. Do you live your life on the hook or off it? Recently, a student of mine expressed a terror of losing herself, of “getting lost.” She couldn’t quite explain what that meant except to know that it made her feel guilty, irresponsible, and immoral. And yet, she longed to lose herself; that is what she pined for the most. To put her “self” aside now and then and ease up on the pressure of Being Productive that she uses to hold her life together.

How exhausting to think of your life as something you need to hold together. When we take time to question our free-floating guilt, what we find is that this chronic oppression is linked in some way or other to desire. Desire is the third challenge to unplugging. Though desire is the lifeblood of a passionate life – “What makes the engine go?” asked Stanley Kunitz in a poem. “Desire, desire, desire.” –– many of us are ambivalent toward our desires because we don’t know where they will lead us. Exposing our desires, like exposing our truth, is vulnerable making. Desire is a free agent that couldn’t care less what others think, which is why we lead such buttoned– down lives. But denying desire is no use either. Suppressing desire only leads to acting out and over-indulgence, gripped by the insuperable need for release. That’s because desire is an energy and, as such, arises with the need to be used. This doesn’t mean we indulge every desire that we have, willy nilly, regardless of timing or consequences. It means, instead, that we aspire to an orientation of openness, acceptance, flexibility, non-judgment, humor, and blessing toward our own desires, especially the need for play. “In every real man a child is hidden who wants to play,” as Nietzsche said. Play balances our existential burdens, compensates for loss and suffering, and reconnects us to our own innocence. At play we are also our most creative. Ask any artist, inventor, scientist, or creator when their best ideas come to them and it’s rarely with their brows screwed up, trying to have a good idea, but in moments of playfulness and abandon, rather, succumbing to freedom not fighting it.

Unplugging is also connected to vice. Vice is a much-underrated component of living a fully human life. By vice, I do not mean addiction, mindlessness, or setting ourselves back with bad habits. Vice in its positive, enlivening form is any subversive activity that frees us of the compulsion toward progress. When you sneak a piece of chocolate, when you play hooky at work, when you behave in some naughty, transgressive way, you satisfy the need for vice in a balanced and happy life. We’re taught to think of vice as the opposite of virtue, but this is nonsense. Self-righteousness tries to split character into imaginary, opposing halves, when, in fact, vice is a part of virtue. One definition of virtue is “integrity” (being whole) and it’s ludicrous to pretend that one can be whole while denying ulterior impulses, the appetites of the so-called shadow, the aspect of oneself that is sick to death of trying so hard to be good all the time. As human beings, we need to be foolish, too, absurd, excessive, dechainee –– to be far less than we can be –– to remind ourselves that life is short and, in the end, we’re meant to enjoy it.

I have never met a soul who did not enjoy some form of vice (and this includes spiritual masters). The more we accept this truth in ourselves, more spacious, passionate, and tolerant we become. Also, there’s an important link between vice and intimacy. It is in unscripted, indulgent, off the record moments that we bond most deeply with other people, letting our guard down, dropping the mask, and getting down with our peeps (notice the expression is not getting up); interrupting the incessant need to clean up our acts. We’ve cleaned up our act enough.

Finally, we cannot unplug without practicing abandon. Abandon is another word for freedom, for self-forgetting, for relaxing the rigid muscles of striving and simply allowing ourselves to flow. The Italians have a wonderful expression for such flow: dolce far niente. It is sweet to do nothing. When we abandon ourselves to the present moment, we taste the fruit of spiritual life, the experience described by the sages: an ability to be one with existence, harmonize with things as they are, drop our conflicts, our tensions, and our worries, and taste the depths and sweetness of living, allowing ourselves to fall out of time. What a relief this is. What an enormous, mysterious blessing it is to stop, to make way, to simply be; to remember to breathe and observe and delight in the great unfolding within and beyond us.

To abandon ourselves is to awaken, in fact. That is how we reclaim our innocence on the path of an enlightened life.

Mark Matousek
Mark Matousek

Mark Matousek is the author of two award-winning memoirs, Sex Death, Enlightenment: A True Story (an international bestseller) and The Boy He Left Behind: A Man's Search For His Lost Father (Los Angeles Times Discovery Book), as well as When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living and Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life. A featured blogger for Psychology Today, Purple Clover, Huffington Post, he has contributed to numerous anthologies and publications including The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine (contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Yoga Journal, Details, The Saturday Evening Post, AARP, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and many others. A popular lecturer and writing teacher, he is the Creative Director of V-Men (with Eve Ensler), an organization devoted to ending violence against women and girls. His latest book is Ethical Wisdom for Friends. Join him at