In the Western world, our lives are often characterized by hurry and overwork. Almost everyone I talk to at any length expresses angst about not having enough time. Between work and other responsibilities, there is barely enough time to know how we feel or what we need, much less what our deep personal fulfillment looks like.
Annie Dillard famously wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. And in that light, we are each called to examine our lives, to see if they hold up to the light of our values, and make choices. We weigh the value of our cultural norms of efficiency and productivity, against our wordless longing to explore and experience our selves, whether creatively or simply by sitting and staring into space. Yes, productivity can lead to more monetary wealth and material comfort, but at what cost? Do we hold a balance? In excess, we are slaves to productivity. When productivity denies us the time to reflect and to be curious, we loose our ability to be truly present in our life, and loose a sense of the sacred.
So the question is raised of what is a “life well lived”? Each of us answers this question ourselves, but that answer undoubtedly does not come from what others tell us the answer is. Answering this question takes time, and the willingness to engage with our selves without distraction, and often in solitude, in order for the answers to float up.
In her wonderful blog “Brain Pickings” website, Maria Popova writes “Although some have argued that today’s age is one where “the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning”, there is an unshakable and discomfiting sense that in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life”.
Is there a trade off between presence and productivity? What is it to be truly present? What allows us to feel truly present to the moment and to our own lives? I propose, as many others have written over centuries, that plenty of time is the foundation. Time to reflects, walk in the woods or beach, to really watch the natural world and those that inhabit it, and then feel our place on this planet that is not only beautiful but is in a delicate balance that sustains us. Your true deep self must be coaxed to come out and speak to you, to speak of its deepest longings, and what fears hold it back, and how it wants to express its unique gifts to the world. This requires time without a defined goal, without the requisite “productive” outcome, and often solitude.
Anne Lamont writes that we don’t find time, we make time – and the priorities we set define our destiny. Time often gets juxtaposed with money – it is either one or the other. Has our busyness and the “culture of rush” caused us to become so distracted that we have forgotten the things we care most deeply about?
In Japan, a culture that is traditionally excessively focused on responsibility, appearances, wealth and status, it is interesting to find a strong movement of people dedicated to embracing a life focused on time over money. A growing number of people are disillusioned with these values and find that the stress and lack of time inherent in their current lifestyle does not allow for a fulfilling life. Many Japanese are moving to the mountains to live a life of simplicity, growing their own food, taking time for art, music, activism and service. They have decided that connection with community, creativity, and contemplation is the key to a life of more meaning and a sense of wholeness.
Henry David Thoreau often wrote about the value of a person’s life being measured according to the time he has for true leisure, as it allows one “to improve his soul’s estate”. He noted that work for livelihood may be satisfying, but only if it is kept in balance with free time. “I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery and if I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society… I am sure that for me there would be nothing worth left living for…”.
And so the question might be asked: What is “wealth” or abundance? Does it come with the security of what you have in the bank? What is it that really makes you truly feel like you have everything you want and need? Sometimes distractions hold out shiny promises and we forget what we really need and want. True wealth, or a sense of abundance, is often more about what we experience than what we have. Connecting with people outside your intimate circle can create a wider sense of family and community, and connecting with nature and one’s deep self, can create a greater sense of the world. These are the things that often bring the true sense of peace that we long for.
That is not to say that money is not necessary. Of course we must give it importance too. But how much is enough and what is the price for your free time? Alan Watts writes that the business of making money is not bad but “the actual trouble is that profit is identified entirely with money, as distinct from the real profit of living with dignity and elegance in beautiful surroundings…”
So how is it, now, that so many of us find that ourselves living hurried lives that do not allow for the time and space needed for our hearts to unfold? How did we let our culture tell us that this is the only choice?
If we can choose a little less productivity, less perfectionism, and give ourselves space to breathe, we might find ourselves talking to others outside our family and close circle, feeling the joy of connecting, feeling less protective and afraid. As we find a sense of “home” inside ourselves, that sense of home can expand to a feeling of home with others and the planet. With connection to ourselves we find connection with each other and with life.
If we take time to care for ourselves, then we will take care of each other, and the earth. When we find love for ourselves, then we can love each other.