Taking Time to Live

In his book, Creating True Peace, Thich Nhat Hahn describes what life was like a number of decades ago when he was young, living in Vietnam, and people took time to live. He describes how people would organize a gathering– a poetry reading, birthday party, or party to mark the anniversary of a family member’s death, and how people would walk or bike to the reception, even if it took them all day or they had to leave the day before. When as many as four had arrived, they would be served food so they could eat together with others. When a fifth person arrived, that person waited for three more to arrive so they, too, could share their meal together. People sang, recited poetry, talked, and time was open and flexible so you could leave whenever you chose.  (p. 67) I’ve been trying to imagine what a life where relationships and being human together was more important than getting things done, where we have space to truly, deeply listen to each other and be heard, and when I came upon this description. I felt I got a glimpse of what that life might look like.

Thich Nhat Hahn describes another example that beautifully illustrates a way of living where people took time slowly, experiencing time in what I can only describe as deep living:

“Years ago in Vietnam, people used to take a small boat out into a lotus pond and put some tea leaves into an open lotus flower. The flower would close in the evening and perfume the tea during the night. In the early morning, when the dew was still on the leaves, you would return with your friends to collect the tea. On your boat, was everything you needed, fresh water, a stove to heat it, teacups, and a teapot. Then, in the beautiful light of the morning, you prepared the tea right there, enjoying the whole morning, drinking tea on the lotus pond.” (p. 68)

How astonishing and lovely that description is to me–to think that people had time to live like that. It’s interesting that these examples are found in his book about how to create peace, and this suggests to me that to be at peace has something to do with valuing time differently. Hahn asks the reader to consider, “Are we engaging in a lifestyle that touches the beauty and goodness within and around us, and leads us in the direction of compassion and understanding?… If what we now take refuge in—work, food, material comfort, television—cuts us off from our feelings, our family, and our society, it is not really a place of refuge. If our lifestyle numbs us to the reality of our suffering and that of others, we are moving in the wrong direction. We are isolating ourselves, and we are committing violence in the form of exclusion.” (p. 66) Beauty and goodness are values to be nurtured, and to nurture them requires space and time to grown organically if they are going to be places of refuge that enable us to give back to the world.

Thay’s quote reminds me of the quote I’ve included in earlier blog posts where Thomas Merton, quotes Douglas Steere, explaining that there is a “pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” To be peaceful, or to be a peacemaker in this world is difficult. It doesn’t mean doing good deeds. It’s more difficult. It means learning how to be peaceful, and that means making different choices in our everyday lives.

“Nowadays,” Thich Nhat Hahn says, “you may have a lotus pond, but you do not have the time to look at it, let alone enjoy it in that way.” Nevertheless, Thich Nhat Hahn clearly directs readers to understand the days given to us are our life, and are “much more precious than money.” How can we truly live quality lives today in a world where our social structures generally function in a way that make it easy for us feel like we are Charlie Chaplin in the film, Modern Times, where his job is to constantly focus on the next item coming down the conveyer belt? Chaplin doesn’t have time to scratch his nose when a fly distracts him, much less find time to take life slowly enough to savor it. If we don’t have time anymore to make lotus tea like Thich Nhat Hahn describes, how can we at least learn how to savor our lives so that we are not merely focused and productive at work, but are living fully?

It has been several weeks since I’ve begun including a short, close observation practice into each day with the aim to see how the practice might open up a space for seeing how I might live differently. It’s not been easy finding the time each day for this practice, and admittedly, some days the observation has only been a few seconds long–a remembering to glance at the light coming through the window as I continue on, working, focused on my responsibilities. Even so, during the day, the thought surfaces periodically–pay attention, pay attention to your life–and I realize I am so focused on my work, that awareness of other aspects of life narrows in a way that lessens me.

It might happen that I spend the whole day inside simply with the goal to be prepared for the day that follows. What, then, happens to the importance of family or close relationships when I do this? What happens to my awareness of the wider world around me? How am I being a model of wholeness when I say to others that these are important to living? Over time, if this pattern continues, I will be losing something very valuable. That small glimpse at the light through the window while continuing to work reminds me, that I’m supposed to be observing life so I can learn how to live. I’m put on earth to live. I am here to be alive, not merely to breathe and move and perform a function. The sense of obligation and commitment to my responsibilities at work wins out, even while the lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter Long Black Branches” in her book, West Wind, come to mind,

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.

So, this weekend, something radical happened: I set my work obligations aside. Yes, and here’s the brief chronicle of what occurred: My husband and I talked during breakfast with family members at some length who’ve been in Italy for a month. We went grocery shopping, after which we took the metro across town to check out a new sporting goods store that might have shoes for the climbing club my husband works with. Using the public transport, we packed ourselves into the subway car with what must have literally been a thousand riders. It was a hot, tiring adventure that took most the whole day getting there and back. We had lunch at a market where we also bought a box of milk and had something repaired before returning home. After an hour’s rest, we went to a friend’s housewarming party where we met a number of new people, participated in several interesting conversations, and lit candles for an early celebration of the Indian Diwali holiday.

This morning I read the news, then weeded in the community garden with my husband. Later, I talked briefly with a friend I saw as I walked over to swim in the pool. After swimming, I worked on an art project in the clay room. This evening, my husband and I made dinner together, after which we watched a detective program on the computer.

It’s been ages since I’ve taken time off like this when not on a holiday. Actually, I feel as if I’ve had a holiday. I feel so alive! I could say it seems it takes so little to be so happy, but taking a weekend off isn’t really a small act. I don’t know how often I can put time aside like this, but I can truly say I feel more whole, more alive. I feel prepared to meet my students as a human being, not just as someone who has worked very hard. As a result, I have some questions about responsibilities that I didn’t have before. I have a responsibility to meet my students’ needs, to help them improve their skills, yes. But is the purpose of education only to help students compete eventually in a market place–on a job? I think not. The purpose of education is to help students discover who they are and how they can contribute to the world meaningfully. To live meaningfully means we also have a responsibility to live fully. To live fully means to pay attention to and nurture relationships with family, society, and the earth. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we all took time to grow these relationships? If we can’t do that, in whatever work we are involved in, we help those around us, including our children to do that. If we can learn how, then we will make it more possible for those around us to be able to live in ways that enable them to be more fully alive as well.

Some days my noticing practice has been a brief, purposeful glimpse through a window. Other days, observations seem to ride in to me on waves. Is the practice of daily observation leading me to see how to make a larger space for being, or was this past weekend a one time occurrence because of a natural break in a workload? I don’t yet know. What I do know is that the weekend has felt so enlivening, as if I’m living in a miracle, aware of the abundance of relationship. I am hoping to continue further down this path. I take my responsibility to my students at work seriously. To do that requires time. To live a full life requires giving oneself the space to be whole. This, too, requires time. Can the two be done together? Others have learned how, and maybe I can too.

Maybe you have some wisdom of your own about this path, dear readers. What does your journey look like? How does it feel?

2 thoughts on “Taking Time to Live”

  1. Hi Anna,

    Whew. I’m on that work hard, soccer mom drivin’ frenzy, no time for art frenzy. But Friday, when my school walked Big Basin to the Sea, I did stop and groove on the beauty. For the first time, I did not lug a big camera along, but I did stop and notice. And those were small but powerful moments. I’m so happy and thankful that you’re making living your mission this year. It both inspires me and makes me miss you and Michael so much. Melissa

  2. I’m so glad to learn that you have some moments in the midst of your work that allow you to consciously notice what you are experiencing. Cameras can be a tool to help us see but they can also sometimes get in the way of our seeing. I wonder if you were experiencing your hike differently because you couldn’t capture it with your camera since you didn’t have one with you.

    What life is, is certainly a mystery. Even what is constant is always in the process of change. Pausing to notice what it is we are living serves to make us more conscious of the mystery and miracle we wander in–an adventure called time.

    I’m missing life in Santa Cruz tonight in particular as October’s smoke creeps under the door. The smoke in the air, a fine white mist, was my observation on my walk this evening.

    Thinking of you in beautiful Santa Cruz.

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