Last Saturday, I left my house without putting my watch on, something I rarely forget to wear. My right hand kept touching my left wrist looking for it, and each time my fingers only touched skin, I was surprised yet again. I mentioned this to a friend after the renewal minyan at our synagogue. She said, “Well, it’s Shabbat anyway, so you don’t need to worry about time.”
I understood what she was saying. Shabbat is about sacred time, about stopping in time to sit and being present. It’s “the pause between the notes” so to speak, which is integral in creating the beautiful music itself.
Still, I felt a little lost not knowing the time. It reminded me of this great watch I saw years ago that I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t buy. It had a wide leather strap and a big face with an image of sand and sea with no numbers or hands. Instead, the word NOW was written across the face. I tried it on and it looked great but it was eighty dollars and I realized that as much as I could relate to the sentiment and as great as the watch looked on my wrist, I still wouldn’t know what time it was.
But I wish I had bought it anyway.
Time itself can be flexible. Last week I was rushing in the shower to make it to the 6:00 am sitting at the Marblehead Zen Center. I felt like I was a contestant on that old game show, “Beat the Clock.” As I was drying my hair watching the clock tick tock its way to 5:42, I realized how late I was getting. My mind played its mind games totally stressing me out about the fact that now I was going to be late for Zazen (Zen meditation) and why didn’t I get up earlier and how come I had such good intentions about getting there this morning but now I’ve ruined my plans?
Let me just say rushing and stressing out about being late to sit and meditate sort of defeats the point.
As I finished drying my hair with the clock inching toward 5:50, I had a thunderbolt thought. I’m very late to make it to the 6:00 am sitting, but after the first sitting and walking meditation, they sit again at 6:40 am. I could make it for that sitting with no problem.
In a split second, I went from stressing about being late, to having more time in that morning than I knew what to do with. With the slightest change in our minds, we can experience the flexibility of time.
We race, in this culture. We all have so many places we are going, so many responsibilities to uphold, so many people with whom to meet. But I think the bigger question about our time has to do with understanding sacred time. We might find it in religion or in a spiritual practice, or in ways that speak to us on a level that goes beyond the everyday time commitments of our lives.
Do we know how to stop, really stop, and just be present to what is?
Do we understand time not by a watch or a clock, but by the shifting angle of the sun, the changing colors of the leaves, the first peak of the crocus from beneath the soil? A hand that reaches out for ours?
Do we know how to stop in the midst of a million and one things to do, and practice the art of doing nothing? If we are constantly living by the clock, trying to get through a TO DO LIST that by its very nature will never be fully completed, we will have missed so much of our lives.
There’s an old Chasidic tale that goes like this:
Looking out the window on a weekday morning, the Chasidic teacher, Nachman of Bratzlav, noticed his disciple, Chaim, rushing along the street.
Reb Nachman opened the door and invited Chaim to come inside. Chaim entered the home and Nachman said to him, “Chaim have you seen the sky this morning?”
“No Rebbe,” answered Chaim.
“Have you seen the street this morning?”
“Tell me, please, Chaim. What did you see in the street?”
“I saw people, carts and merchandise. I saw merchants and peasants all coming and going, selling and buying.”
“Chaim,” said Nachman, “In 50 years, in 100 years, on that very street there will be a market. Other vehicles will then bring merchants and merchandise to the street. But I won’t be there and neither will you. So I ask you, Chaim, what’s the good of rushing if you don’t even have time to look at the sky?”
How many of us are looking at our watches spinning a tale of what we are rushing to or from without looking at the sky?
The following chant often concludes a day of Zen practice:
“Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.”
Yes, we have alarm clocks to “wake us up,” and watches to keep us “running on time” during the day. But sacred time, time set aside to allow for that deep connection with ourselves and something beyond ourselves is what truly “wakes us up.” Sometimes we are so busy being busy, we become what Wayne Dyer calls human doings rather than what we are meant to be—human beings.
If I ever see that NOW watch again, I am going to buy it. I realize now that the time read on that watch is the most important time of all. Not 1:00, 2:00 or 3:00 but NOW, this very moment, is the second to fully enter. Time passes, and we give it meaning when we step into the moments of our lives with gratitude and mindfulness and being fully present. What’s the point of showing up “on time” if your thoughts are far away from the meeting you are attending? And what if you are late to an event because you stopped to help someone in need? Time is flexible. It’s how we truly wake up to our most authentic selves and show up to the moments of our lives that really count, and you don’t always need a watch for that.