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How Our Perception of Time Shifts (When We Are Present)

When we get caught up in worry or regret about the past or future, we bring those emotions into the present moment, says Matthias Birk. Here are three ways mindfulness can help us connect with what is real right now.

A friend of mine, who is a successful and very busy lawyer, recently shared an insight with me: “It’s not about finding time, it’s about making time,” she said. She told me her realization had greatly helped her move from perceiving herself at the mercy of her busyness to committing to some of the things she always wanted to do but never “found” time for. My friend leads a much busier life than I do, and so I was happy for her and inspired by her insight. I know for myself how hard it is “to make time” and stick to priorities.

I also wanted to share with her an insight that arose through my own practice of mindfulness and that greatly changed my life: Namely the realization that time does not exist at all—that it is just a notion of our mind. But I was worried she would find it too woo-woo. And had she asked me what I meant by that and how on earth this was supposed to help her deal with her busy life, I would have been hard pressed to answer. Still, my conversation with her helped me realize how fundamentally this realization had changed my own life, and how important and practical it can be, especially for busy executives.

Your Busy Mind is an Overwhelming Place to Live

Let’s start with the obvious: many of us lead very busy lives. We have emails to answer, meetings to attend, deadlines to meet, etc. Usually more than we can realistically handle in the allotted time. Most of us, especially those of us in senior leadership roles, can feel like we’re in a constant rut of overwhelm. There is always more to do, remember, and achieve than hours in the day. And when we do one thing, our mind tends to remind us of the dozens of other things that require our attention, or that we believe can’t get done in time.

Our minds react to this with stress and often anxiety. We worry that we won’t be able to deliver on time or get it all done, and then we worry about the consequences of that. That’s understandable. The problem however is that our mind perceives this busyness as real. As if it was happening right now. To the mind, future and past always happen right now. When we engage in memories from the past we relive the memory in the now, we can even re-feel the joy or pain of that moment. The same is true for our ideas of the future. When our mind creates thoughts about the future, of potentially negative consequences (catastrophizing) our mind experiences them as if they were happening right now.

When we engage in memories from the past we relive the memory in the now, we can even re-feel the joy or pain of that moment. The same is true for our ideas of the future.

And that is where mindfulness meditation comes in. Time is an illusion created by our minds. This may sound odd, but it is of course impossible to directly point to the past or the future, you can only point to the now. And you can only live in the now. When we are thinking about the past or the future we really are just experiencing memories, ideas, and thoughts in the now. Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to step out of the conceptual into the experiential, or put another way, it allows us to “wake up” to what is real right now. Any thought you have about the future or past is just that: a thought. In our thinking minds of course time feels very real. And we need that thinking mind so we can plan the future and reference back to (our memories of) the past. The trouble begins, though, when we confuse our thoughts about the past and future with reality. It’s like confusing a model of something with the real thing.

Thoughts Are Just Thoughts (Even at Work)

The fact is that there is only ever the now that we need to deal with. Of course this doesn’t mean we don’t need our watches and calendars, or don’t need to show up to meetings on time or don’t need to cook dinner when it’s dinner time. But it means that we give our mindful awareness to what is real now. When it’s time to make dinner, we make dinner. When it’s time to attend a meeting, we attend the meeting. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans. We do make them in the now. And then we let go of them—knowing that the plans are just thoughts.

I recently had this experience while being in one of the many Zoom meetings I attend these days: I felt distracted and worried about all the things that still would need to get done that day. A glance at my calendar revealed that I was booked up for most of the day. I had unanswered emails sitting in my inbox and I wondered when I would get to the many to-dos I had jotted down on my to-do list. It felt for a moment like trying to solve an impossible Tetris puzzle. As my mind was taking off in every direction, I took a moment to simply make space for all the emotions that had come up. Anxiety, a feeling of overwhelm, tension in my body, stress, a sudden loss of energy and joy, a feeling of strain. My mind had left the meeting for an anticipated idea of the future, including missed deadlines, disappointed colleagues, and late work nights.

As I noticed this, I took a moment to straighten my back, place my feet firmly on the ground and check in with my belly breath. As I was doing this I started to “re-awaken” to the meeting I was in. Re-grounding myself in my body and my breath, and moving my conscious awareness back from an anticipated future into the present reality, I felt an immediate sense of calm, energy, joy, and serenity return. I realized how much my body was experiencing these thoughts of imagined future strain as reality right now. Of course none of it was real. What was here right now, was me breathing and attending a Zoom meeting. I realized I had allowed my mind to go off into a fantasy of what would happen in an imagined future. And then my body and mind had felt anxiety about that. By returning to the present moment, I was able to deal with what was actually here right now. Now, you can argue that none of the “re-awakening” to the present moment made the emails go away or the to-do list any shorter. And that is true. But I could approach each of those with presence, and energy, because my mind was present to them, as I tackled them. And I didn’t allow the fantasies of my mind to put unnecessary extra weight and strain on me.

Take it One Thing at a Time

There is a scene in Michael Ende’s beautiful book Momo that expresses this so well: The street sweeper Beppo is asked how he deals with sweeping a seemingly endless street in front of him without getting overwhelmed by the enormous task. He responds by saying: “Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept […] That’s not the way to do it. You must never think of the whole street at once. You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.” That’s it. There always is just that one stroke, that one breath, that one word we say. Nothing else. When we live our life like that, not only will stress dissipate, we also are more efficient (after all, some studies indicate that we are distracted half the time), better listeners, more present partners, colleagues, and bosses.

Now, all of this remains a philosophical idea unless we sit down and practice. Really experiencing reality beyond our thinking mind requires us to meditate. To sit down and gently train the mind to let go of thoughts and return to the present-moment reality of the ever-moving breath. One at a time. It requires actual practice, to get our mind and body used to returning to the present moment. There are a few ways we can do that, but I have found three particularly practical.

3 Ways to Return to the Present Moment

1. Daily re-awakening practice

Our minds are so busy hanging out in ideas, fantasies, and assumed future possibilities that it takes regular daily practice to “re-awaken” to the present moment. I do mine first thing in the morning and right before I go to bed. I sit down, set my timer and refocus my mind on my breath. Often when I start sitting down my mind feels like a highway of thoughts. Gradually, gradually I return to the present moment.

2. Stepping out of the narrative in the moment

Like many busy people I spend the bulk of my day in meetings (virtual these days). During most meetings my mind is often caught in some narrative: What point I need to convey, how I want to be perceived, what I want to get out of the meeting. When I notice that my mind has gotten lost in thoughts, I return to my breath right in this moment. By breathing and stepping out of the mental narrative it often feels like a veil is being lifted and I can actually be with the other person in the conversation (rather than with the thoughts in my head).

3. Having a reminder

A friend of mine, a busy CEO, has a Tibetan singing bowl on his desk, that rings at random intervals. He says that whenever it rings it reminds him to let go of whatever he is working on for a moment and re-center. He says it allows him to let go of the “intensity” that he can fall into otherwise. It can be powerful to have a reminder that allows you to realize you got caught in your mind’s “intensity” (there are plenty of apps by the way that do the same—no need for a fancy mechanical Tibetan bowl).

I think, when my lawyer friend and I speak next, what I might say to her is this: “Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed and overwhelmed, and you sit down and completely focus on your breath for a few minutes, time disappears?” I am curious to hear what she will say. And I smile, as of course my mind just created another idea of what might happen in an imaginary future.


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