In his book The Power of Now, Ekhart Tolle explains his concept of ‘psychological time’.
He says that we live un-necessarily shackled to physiological time, which he describes being locked in a cycle of obsessing over past events and worrying constantly about the future:
“psychological time,” which is identification with the past and continuous compulsive projection into the future.”
- Ekhart Tolle, Power of Now
I know that I am definitely guilty of this- wishing I could have done or said something differently and going over conversations in my head that didn’t go as planned. I also can’t help feeling anxious about upcoming events or things I always tend to worry about- like finances or worrying about the pressure of work projects. We all do this often without even realising.
But by constantly obsessing over the past and future Tolle argues that we remove ourselves from the present moment. The only time that actually exists.
Again- the past and future do not exist- only the moment in front of us does.
And yet how many of us spend a significant chunk of our time idly or perhaps obsessively thinking about the past or future?
Tolle goes as far as to argue that our minds actually dislike the present moment. He says that living in psychological time instead of embracing the present moment is what our minds naturally prefer to do.
When I consider this, I think about how many mental health issues find their root cause in being stuck in psychological time... Anxiety, guilt, crippling worry and fear all stem from an un-checked mind allowed to obsess over things beyond its control.
So is the mind really this terribly complex and restless monster that unwittingly leads its host towards mental health problems?
Or is psychological time actually a symptom belying a deeper root cause?
From my interest in paleo-anthropology I believe the psychological time that many of us find ourselves living in today is actually a symptom of the fact that our minds are not being stimulated by their natural environment.
The natural environment for the human brain is in the wild, just like every other living thing on Earth. In the case of humans, this also extends to our natural habitat of living in a tribe. Not as a 2.4 family behind 4 walls, but a tribe of people that was fundamental to individual survival.
When we roamed jungle and savannah between 1 and 3 million years ago, I wonder whether the human brain was in fact completely present in the moment, hunting for food, on the look out for threats, completely immersed in the rhythm of nature as a way of survival?
This trailer for the new film TAWAI perfectly encapsulates that romantic idea. In one scene, we watch as hoards of people fight to board a train and hear a voice telling us:
“It is very difficult to capture the mind. It always wants to chase these worldly things...”
We then cut to a member of a hunter gatherer tribe in the Papa New Guinean jungle- his senses electrified as he focusses all his attention on hunting for birds. Completely and utterly present. The kind of ‘time’ that we have come to know as ‘flow’. Where 'clock' time almost ceases to exist.
Does the mind choose to live in psychological time as a natural state, or does it choose to deny the present moment because the present is so far removed from the world that for millions of years it evolved into?
Is the mind the root cause, or is the mind simply crying out for something we are choosing to ignore?
Elkhart Tolle argues that our mind is the root cause. I disagree.
I believe that the root cause is our modern environment.
Another telling moment in the trailer is the voice of a hunter gatherer telling us,
“I do not know what the day, month, week or year it is. I just roam.”
Let this sink in for a moment. For millions of years we lived without ‘clock’ time- our brains had no concept of seconds, weeks or years. Our time was based around the sun and the seasons. Clock time was invented by modern man and runs almost every moment of our waking lives.
Our truest state when it comes to the concept of time was living in the present as a means of survival- of being in flow, free of the shackles of clock time and instead focussed on the most basic and important drivers in life: safety, security, connection to our tribe and food to eat.
To conclude, psychological and clock time are modern phenomena that are a result of our new concrete jungles. Being absorbed in the present moment or ‘flow’ as we call it, is what our Hominoid brains truly crave.
I know that climbing and being in nature for me is what leads me to my 'flow' state- when I am so focussed on the moment in front of me that my mind cannot be distracted for even a second. After hours of climbing I often emerge from the 'flow' state competely flabbergasted at how much time has passed without me realising. For those hours of intense focus, clock time became irrelevant.
This weekend, why not seek more flow time?
Playing with your kids to the point of forgetting how much time has passed… getting immersed in something creative, learning a new skill, moving through nature and becoming aware of every tree branch cracking and the breeze on your skin, having an honest and vulnerable interaction with someone you love… all the things our hunter gatherer ancestors would have taken for granted every waking moment of their lives- because that was all there was: nature, the tribe, and the self.
Let’s all cultivate more ‘flow’ time in our lives. It may just be the thing we are crying out for.
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