We hear all the time that life is short. But if you ask people how old they feel inside, they will usually say somewhere in their late teens or early twenties. Somehow our consciousness retains its youthfulness, even as our bodies change and age.
So why is life experienced as going so fast, and yet we secretly still feel young inside? If time is going by so quickly, shouldn’t we be feeling our age rapidly increasing? And if we are still so young inside, why do we experience life and children moving past us so fast? Why do we exclaim incredulously to kids about how much they have grown, as if we are witnessing time-lapse photography?
But even if time is racing by for us, you never, ever hear a child or a teenager exclaiming, “Wow, my childhood is just flying by!” If anything, they are complaining that it is taking them way too long to grow up. Time for them is a great waiting period that they are eager to get through before they pass out from impatience.
This should tip us off that time is a moldable commodity. It is not fast or slow, except as our consciousness experiences it. You may notice this if you have ever attempted meditation. Even a ten-minute period of sitting quietly can seem endless. But when it comes to getting things done, your time is always up before your list is finished.
Is it possible that we can shrink or lengthen our experience of life, just by the state of mind we are in? Can we make our life seem longer, just by how we focus our minds? Do we shorten the experience of our lives just by what we pay attention to?
The answer is yes. To a large extent, we are in charge of how fast life goes. There are people with short lives, by the calendar, who feel they have lived long lives, even lifetimes, in terms of their experiences. And there are people who live a long time by the clock and yet feel that just yesterday they were starting out. Where did all the time go?
Time is determined by which part of the brain you are using. Generally speaking, time goes fast when you are spending a lot of time in the left hemisphere of the brain, but it slows and fades away when you are using the right hemisphere of the brain. If we are using both sides of the brain, time is not only slowed but expands into an experience of full and enriched living, in which we are getting a lot done while enjoying every moment.
The left hemisphere of the brain is machine-like. Time is a bunch of sequential dots, punctuated by the pressing things we have to get done. We think in words and abstract labels, grouping our experiences into categories, each like the last. All soccer games become similar, each trip to the store is a repetition. Events go by in a rush, jumping from category to category. We work in order to get stuff done, and as soon as it is done, another task pops into its place. It is the brain equivalent of whack-a-mole.
The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is the timeless realm of direct, vivid experience. If you have memories that particularly stand out in your mind, you were in your right brain at the time. Nothing is ordinary at those times because nothing is categorized as being just like something else. Time does not fly by; it expands into each moment the way light fills a room. Our experiences absorb us, and time hovers gently. It is as though clocks are forgotten and the present moment holds everything we need. We do not push ourselves prematurely into the future because the present is complete.
The right and left brains have different sets of values. To the right brain, precious moments are the reason for living. To the left brain, moments are just part of a list to be defined and prioritized. The problem is that once something is put on a list, it loses its preciousness like a flower loses its life once cut. The specialness lingers for a while, but soon is abstracted and conceptualized into an idea we label, not a precious moment we live.
When we grow up, we are told that the list-making mind is the only guarantee of success and productivity. Actually, the only things it guarantees are that time will fly, you will not enjoy it, and you will worry a lot. That is why our sense of identity tends to get stuck somewhere around late adolescence, which was the last time we felt allowed to live in the moment. In our hearts, we are forever young, freeze-dried at that last point of being open to enjoying life’s new experiences.
If you want a longer feel to your life, fill it up with enjoyment, not just “success.” Pay attention mindfully to the sensory impressions of the moment. This has never happened just this way before and never will again. Seen from the right brain, all is new and fresh because no moment is categorized as more-of-the-same. It is encountered directly through the senses and the emotional aura of the moment, leaving a rich, beautifully complex impression in the brain. Go back to the left brain when a list is needed, or if you need to remember clock time, but shift into the right brain as often as possible. Use the left brain to amplify memories by describing our experiences in words. Our left brain can add language to anchor our memories vividly, like naming the incredible scarlet of that unusual leaf on that glowing tree at the end of a verdant lawn.
Making lists and living life in one big hurry is a lifestyle that empties our lives. Life becomes short; jobs become longer. But when you are mindful enough to notice life’s details, to be aware of your feelings and dreams, you will find time expanding. As you do this, you will live life still feeling like a teenager inside, but also like an adult who has created a full life. That’s what we want, not just a long life—because we may not get to choose that, ultimately—but certainly a full life.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Sherry Kulakowski.