We all grapple with space and time—we feel crowded, we feel exposed, we’re rushed, time drags. These apparently inexorable forces shape our days and offer the seemingly fixed ground of our lives. They rule, we follow.
I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, especially here in the lovely Hamptons summer. Not only do I cherish this time of year and the privilege of immersing myself in one of the most spectacular corners of the planet; I look forward to summer as I time to catch up on writing (hence, this blog!), reading, and planning the best for the busy “school year” to come. Alas, it is already July and I have done precious little of any of this. Where did the time “go?”
Alternately, when I am on one of my extended teaching tours in China, with seven- or eight-hour working days running four or five weeks straight, time can drag. I start feeling homesick, counting the days till I board the final plane home. As a kid, my ever-restless mind (yes, it started early!) would reach states of near-panic on long car trips: “Are we there yet, Daddy, huh, Daddy huh?” I’d wail, my nose pressed to the glass of the station wagon’s rear window. Each schoolday brought the excruciating clock-watching countdown, which dragged every slower toward 3:00 release. To this day, I cannot teach in a room with clocks, whose presence seems to mete out my time as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. Depending on what’s going on in the room, time alternately drags and rushes, pushing and pulling me off course and trifling with my game plan. Visit my home: you will see that when I am fast at work, all clocks are turned backwards and all electronic devices with LED clocks unplugged. I need to slip into “non-time,” or slide out of time to be fully present where I am and completely engrossed in what I am doing.
Space can mess with us too. My New York City apartment seems quite spacious until I return to East Hampton, where I expand into square footage way beyond my needs. For the record, my Manhattan shoebox is shorter than my dad’s Suburban: stretching a mere 17 feet at its longitude while the monster SUV consumes a generous 18! Then I visit Tokyo, where hotel “rooms” can consist of mere shelves (think the couchettes or sleeping berths on old-fashioned trains): domestic living reduced to the space required to lie down. One of the reasons I like the Hamptons (and Manhattan) is the small scale: within a stone’s throw of here are ocean beaches, farmland, marinas, bay beaches, nature preserves, slick retail villages, aimless highway drive-bys, and even our token shopping center (quaintly titled Bridgehampton Commons—as though it were truly a place where all could gather). In the city you can traverse an astounding range of neighborhoods and cultures within a few square miles. When wanderlust seizes me, I often do a loop from my West Village studio across to the East Village (1980s hipsters supplanting Eastern European immigrants) down to the Lower East Side (90s hipsters edging out old-time Jewish dairy restaurants and deep-discount retail),Little Italy (getting littler every day), Chinatown (spilling over to engulf the Italians), Soho (Disney-fied high-end retail having replaced art and artists having replaced sweatshop factories and warehouses and the tenements of those who worked in them). Thus, I get to enjoy the passage of time as well as the clash of spaces. Beats going through security screenings and transferring your beloved toiletries to 3-oz bottles in search of the exotic.
Conversely, beam me down onto the Utah desert and I succumb to agoraphobia. Too much space, not enough markers. You can’t even tell how fast you’re driving, as endless expanses warp our sense of time. As Einstein said, it’s all relative. And even amid the massive mountains of the American West it’s possible to feel claustrophobic: unless you at the top of the highest peak, you’re basically in an enormous salad bowl with opaque sides. You can look up but never out the way we ocean-lovers do. Last year I visited Tiananmen Square, infamous now as the site of the 1989 massacre of student protesters. What strikes the eye, however, is how it’s really possible for a grand public space to be too big. In erecting this massive plaza (or razing whatever was there before to create the square), Mao inadvertently dis-integrated the collection of government (read: power) structures framing the space. They’re just too far apart to hold any collective impact. The designers of the extensive “Forbidden City” proved much more adept at the sliding scale game: this ingenious sequence of palaces and courtyards contracts and expands in ways that take your breath away at each new vista.
So where am I going with all this? Back to yoga, of course, or at least to the Tantric philosophy behind Anusara Yoga. The Tantrikas figured out centuries ago that space and time are elastic—if not physically, then at least in our experience of them. They grouped space and time under the “psychic” category of the kunchikas, and reminded seekers that basically, it’s all in your head. I think we all know this intuitively: time flies when you’re having fun. Hours on the beach zip by, minutes doing my taxes craawwwwl. We know this culturally: “social space”—the distance between two strangers deemed acceptable—varies widely around the globe. In public places—bars and restaurants, planes, and yes, beaches–Americans tend to be loud, colonizing more than their share of the communal turf. It’s no wonder we have foreign wars going on in places we don’t belong—our culture seems to think, as the Brits once did, that we and our ways of doing things are welcome anywhere.
Then there’s “cyber-space”, that intangible, immeasurable realm where most of us spend way too much of our precious time. Listen to the words computer geeks and Internet maestros have come up with to create the feeling that we are somehow reaching others across this no man’s land: we “link,”, we “friend,” we “connect,”, we “follow.” Whereas in fact the only actual contact is between our fingers and the keyboard (sorry, touchpad), the true space that between our eyeballs and the screen.
The good news (and in Tantra, there is always a bright side!): you can shift how you experience space and time, and this is a key part of our yoga. Jammed into a crowded subway car at rush hour? Close your eyes and explore the inner terrain.
Feeling rushed? Put down the to-do list and focus on the task at hand. Time dragging? Reconsider the people you hang with and the work you do. In my experience, boredom triggers the slowdown, so chances are you’re just not fully engaged in whatever’s going on.
As my teacher Douglas Brooks says, become a master of time (and I would add space)—don’t let them master you. Tantra has no patience for victimhood, but instead asks how you can make the most of what you’ve got. The clock is ticking . . . don’t let me keep you from what you love!