Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why Do Humans Have No Sense of Time?

Mara here.

Being a human is hard.

I never really thought about how complicated it was to be human until I had to try and explain to my daughter the various phases human experience. I had a similar experience while I was teaching her to drive: I never realized how dangerous driving is until I was trapped in a car with someone who had no idea how to do it, yet felt indestructible. I was positive we were both going to die at any moment. 

Growing up and becoming an adult is a complicated process. I don't remember it being hard because I think one of the big faults of humans as a species is that most of us don't have any sense of the many ways in which we're deluded. When I was 10, I thought I was ready to be an adult. When I was 18, I thought I was an adult. At 30, I felt very grown up and adulty. Now, at 42, I'm feeling positively matronly. 

Having conversations with my daughter, who is 16, makes me rather sheepishly remember how awkward I felt when I was 16. I thought I was already grown up and that my life was settled and wouldn't change. And so I thought that I'd always be awkward, unhappy me—both as a 16 year old and as I got older. 

Even now, although I'm a lot older and somewhat wiser, it's hard to remember that things change—constantly. When I'm having a particularly tough day, I feel as if things will always feel tough. It's so hard to believe that change will happen. As a species, we seem to have difficulty staying present in the moment even though the only thing we can experience is the now. We can't be in the future, but we constantly think about it anyway; and when we do, we see ourselves in the future as we are now. It gets very confusing. 

Humans also seem to have difficulty remembering that the future happens whether we want it to or not, and that we can't know what things will be like in the future, as much as we think, hope, and pray that we can make it turn out a certain way.

A few evenings ago, my daughter was feeling a little funky. She is experiencing typical teenager angst about friends and boys. And I heard words come out of her mouth that I remember coming out of my mouth—that worry that she will never get married. My 16 year old kid is convinced she will "die alone." With my eyes rolling—probably a rather patronizing sight to her—I'm pretty sure my response was similar to the way my parents responded: "You won't die alone. You're still very young," etc., etc. 

In hindsight, I know that I was overly emotional and dramatic when I was a teenager and I see that in her now. She, however, can't know that. She is worried that she will feel exactly like she feels now forever, even though she knows she already feels differently than she did just a few months ago. 

Time is difficult for our brains to comprehend. Or maybe it's simply that emotions feel timeless and permanent, so it's hard for us to realize that they are changing...and will continue to change. Our emotions and our reactions to things are always changing to incorporate our current interpretation of all our life experiences. 

I fall into this trap myself. When I am feeling depressed, it's easy for me to fall down the rabbit hole of worrying that I will always feel depressed. Or even to forget that there are times I don't feel depressed. It feels so all encompassing in the moment that it's hard to keep things in perspective.

But as I discussed life and growing up with my daughter the other night, I realized that it does help to remember that everything moves forward. We move forward emotionally. We forget old things and we experience new things. We physically move forward. We grow. We age. Time is always ticking by. Even if my daughter wakes up tomorrow and feel anxious, there will be new things that come along. She will meet new people. She will have new experiences. So things might feel similar, but they won't be the same. Life doesn't just freeze.

It helps for me remember that for myself. Even though I feel grown up, I am actually still growing. When I think about myself tomorrow, in my mind I am seeing myself as the same exact person I am today. But I won't be the same and things around me won't be the same. So I can't know what tomorrow will be like. It might be a lot like today, but it might not. And I can spend today worrying or I can try to just remind myself that no matter what I do, tomorrow will never be exactly the same as today. 

It's hard to remember that time never stops. We know from the dates on the calendar that time is going by, but we don't always feel it physically in our bodies. It almost feels like magic. We go to sleep and wake up and yesterday—a whole day—has passed by. 

So for my daughter, it's hard for her to understand that she won't feel the same forever. And it's only after decades of proof that things don't stay the same that I can confidently assure her that she won't always feel like an emotionally wobbly teenager. She will change. Her life will change. 

Time is elusive, even when we don't want it to be. Sometimes we wish we could slow time down and sometimes we wish we could speed things up or simply skip a day or two. But without fail it passes by...even when we don't realize it.

Here are some questions I asked my mom on this subject:

I know when you were a teenager, you went through some very difficult life experiences. Did you have the same concerns my daughter does—that you would feel the way you did as a teenager forever?

Absolutely. For various reasons, I was depressed when I was a teenager, and I worried about a lot of things, including what you mentioned—whether I'd ever find love.

I write about this depression briefly in my second book, How To Wake Up. It's in the chapter about how we treat however we currently feel as permanent. I refer to it as "clinging to an identity." We suffer when we do this because all identities are impermanent, just like everything else. Change is tough for all of us, but I like to say that it can be our friend. We can use the fact of impermanence to remind ourselves that how we feel now is not how we're going to feel always. I didn't see this as a teenager. I defined myself as "depressed person." I thought "This is how I will be the rest of my life."

But when I left home to go to college, the depression lifted. So that was a real lesson for me except I was too young to see it as a lesson. It's been something I've had to learn over and over again in life. I love the way the poet Rilke expresses it: "No feeling is final." If we could all remember that, life would be a lot easier for us. It's good to keep reminding ourselves of that: no feeling is final.

When dealing with your illness, even after all your years of Buddhist study, do you ever still find yourself stuck in the mindset of "being sick" as something that's external to the inevitable changes that come with time?

Oh yes. Actually this relates to the question above because that feeling of being stuck happens when I'm defining myself as "sick person" just like I defined myself as "depressed person" when I was a teenager. Yes, I am sick, but I'm much more than that. So I try not to define myself by my illness or by any one particular thing. That said, there are days I do feel stuck in the identity of "sick person." It can be triggered by many things such as having to miss something I want to attend. 

For me, the key to getting unstuck is mindfulness. That's a word that is over-used, but I'll tell you what I mean by it: becoming aware of what's going on in my mind—in this case, that I'm taking one aspect of my life, illness, and blowing it up until that's all I am: Toni Bernhard, sick person. That's a stuck feeling and it's very painful mentally.

Sometimes just becoming aware that I'm defining myself in this narrow way is enough to get unstuck. Sometimes it's not. When it's not, people who've read my books know that my fallback is always to go straight to self-compassion. Sometimes I even speak silently to myself. In this case, I might say, "It's hard to feel sick all the time; of course sometimes you're going to feel stuck." I try to be very sympathetic with myself regarding whatever is happening to me. It alleviates a lot of mental pain and that helps me get unstuck.

I do better when I keep myself undefined and stay away from identities. Even positive identities can make us feel stuck. For example, when my first book came out, I took on the identity of "published author," something that lot's of people want to be. As "published author," I spent a lot of time on the internet looking at stuff like book sales statistics. It's amazing what you can track on the web, for example, how many books of yours sold in Philadelphia two days ago. Spending what little energy I have in this way was not a good use of my time. Even worse for my mental state, I'd feel bad if there was a week of poor sales.  

I finally realized that I was creating a lot of suffering this way; when I let go of that "published author" identity, it was a huge relief. I said to myself: "The book is out and will make its own way in the world." It was a little moment of liberation.

So I try to stay undefined and that helps me not get stuck.

I keep a journal to help me track the fact that I do actually feel different day-to-day. It's easy for me to look back on a week and simply tell myself that I felt "bad" that whole week. But if I take time to write down more specifically what's going on in my mind, then I can look back and remember that there is always variation to what's happening in my life. Have you ever done that with the physical symptoms of your illness? 

I did that in the first couple of years after I became chronically ill, but I don't do it anymore. That said, I do keep track of my symptoms if I want to assess the effect of a medication on them. So, for example, I'm doing it now because, although I was successfully treated for breast cancer, I'm supposed to take a particular type of medication that lowers the risk of the cancer recurring other places in my body (something I didn't even know could happen). But the medication exacerbates the symptoms of my chronic illness. Currently, I'm on the fourth different type of this medication, and if this one doesn't work for me, I'm out of options.

So, I do keep track of how medications are effecting me. The reason I don't track my symptoms otherwise is that I pretty much feel the same way day-in and day-out. It's pretty monotonous. This isn't the case for most people with chronic illness and, for them, daily tracking of their symptoms can be extremely helpful. They can match a change in their symptoms with something they did or didn't do. They can keep track of things like the effects of a particular diet or of napping during the day. So I highly recommend it. It just isn't something that hasn't been helpful to me because my illness is so monotonous (as I call it). I pretty much feel the same way every day.

By the way, Mara, I really enjoyed your essay on how we humans have trouble understanding the workings of time.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.