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The Enormity of Time

A year ago, I made a deeper commitment to my meditation practice: to sit in zazen (Zen sitting meditation) every day of the year. At that time, I had been steadily increasing my practice over a number of months, using Insight Timer on my iPhone to provide some structure and track my sessions. The app has grown from a simple timer into a world-wide community fostering all types of contemplative practice through online socialization and support groups. At the end of 2016, the founders/developers announced a new “365” group, encouraging the global community to commit to daily practice throughout 2017. I recognized this as an opportunity and joined.

A year later, I am reflecting on this chapter of my journey, both the mundane and the profound. First, I can report that the adventure has been largely a success. While I did not meditate every day in 2017, the number of days I missed was a handful - perhaps 10. The desired effect has been achieved. That is, I have made zazen a part of my daily life. It is comfortable. Days that I miss feel somewhat diminished, encouraging me to sit the next. However, I’ve managed to resist the temptation to become a slave to the commitment. If I miss a day, so be it. Let it go and move on. Sit the next day. Like virtually every aspect of life, what matters most is intention and perspective, not metrics. While the Insight Timer app provides all sorts of interesting metrics and graphs, I do not dwell on them. They represent history and increasingly, I’m committed to live in the present.

But more important than these practical details, this year of sustained zazen has produced a clarity of perception and sense of presence that subtly enriches my daily life. Perhaps the most dramatic example is my awareness of time’s passage.

Like many of my friends, I’ve often felt that the days, weeks, months and years slip by way too quickly, and that, in fact, the rate seems to be accelerating. After a year of daily meditation practice, I now realize that's simply because I wasn’t paying attention. By “attention”, I mean awareness of the present moment. When we practice zazen, we focus attention on the present, on the cyclical nature of our breath, of the subtle workings of the world around us, hear and now, and moment by moment. Through sustained practice, I’ve learned to measure time’s passage on that scale - not mechanistically as a clock measures time, but through direct experience of each moment.

Now, I’m more aware of the basic rhythms of my life - the beating of my heart, the rhythm of my breathing - and with that awareness has come a new sense for the enormity of time. How much opportunity there is in a breath - let alone a day! This has profoundly shifted my attitude about time's passage. Case in point: it’s now early February and my first reaction to the recent rollover from January was, “Wow! It’s only February?” In the past, my reaction often was exactly the opposite - something like, “Wow! I can’t believe it’s February already!”. This arose from my direct moment-by-moment experience of the great expanse of time we call January. I paid attention to all the days of January and they are lovely.

This shift is not simply a willful intellectual decision to feel differently about time’s passage. Rather, it’s a spontaneous result of this enhanced awareness of my daily life - breath by breath, minute by minute, day by day. It springs also from a greater awareness of my surroundings - the rise and set of the sun, the Moon's course in its orbit, the rhythm of its phases, the ebb and flow of modern daily life. Attention to these and other fundamental cycles that have always been present, but are now more fully appreciated, has led to a greater reverence for life's mysteries and the infinite possibilities presented by every minute of every day.

So, now if I find myself wondering where all the time has gone - why it’s slipped by so quickly - I will know it’s simply because I'm not paying attention - and I will rededicate myself to my breathing, to note and appreciate this moment, and the next, and the next...