Fragments of Whole Time

Sun, May 9, 2021 16-minute read

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.” 

T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland came up several times last month. I have to admit that it’s been a cruel time of transition, with all of the growing, edgy pains of something new forming, and the accompanying shedding of old skins for compost. 

Perhaps I have come to rely on these journal entries as posts to drape the duration of an endless pandemic where, captured by the words of John Steinbeck: “from nothing to nothing is no time at all.” Yet truthfully, I just haven’t been in the space to write. The part of me that feels committed to a particular pace and discipline of writing here is deeply irritated  – every day passing stacks up another vague let down. Yet who or what am I letting down? What is this supposed pace of output that I have become so attached to?

So I allow the urgency of writing to slowly drip off me, trusting that right time will come. And in the stillness of letting go, I feel my soul stirring again. 

 

The Passing of Time 

Over the course of April, I felt stretched between different pace layers of change simultaneously occurring, each with their unique quality of time: agonizingly steady like a long-distance marathon, fearfully breathless like I’m already many steps behind. Sometimes, time as thick and abundant as amber honey – like I can spend a lifetime just circling reverently around a trunk of an ancient tree, in deeper and wider circles.

X and I moved homes in mid-April. Two weeks of packing and the two weeks of settling-in sandwiched a chaotic day of heaving everything we own from one physical place to another. Cruel Chronos reigned during this time period – relentlessly ordered, linear clock time. Life became a teetering jenga tower of tasks, errands and to-do items. Years-honed project management skills firmly kicked into high gear and my mind brimmed with elaborate maps and systems of sequential tasks that needed to be anticipated and accomplished. 

Over the course of moving, I also became hyper-aware of and curiously intimate with the physical materiality that surrounded me. Suddenly, I had to touch every object in my home and wonder: “What is this thing? What is my relationship with it?”. Each item I picked up to pack into a box  – a beautiful vase from X’s grandmother, a campy trinket that we picked up in Japan, a creased copy of Crying of Lot 49 from my undergrad days – held the dangerous potential to become my Proustian petite madeleine, an encounter where I become flooded with precious experience. 

And then on the other hand, I would pick up an old light bulb and face the infuriating complexity of responsible waste disposal: How do we get rid of our old electronics? The old paint cans gathering dust in a corner? Our antibiotics? How on earth do we keep accumulating this veritable mountain of material trash? Where [literally]on earth does this all go!? 

These thick moments are what Heidegger describes as the phenomenological encounter with an object that becomes a thing – a thing that is deeply complex and materially entangled. Confronting the uncanny thing-ness of all the stuff  around me was a strange-making process with everything that felt so familiar, safe and comfortable in its gestalt. Whatever constituted the warm wholeness of “home” was progressively broken down into component parts to be packed into cardboard boxes, revealing dust and dirt in shadowy spaces that I had never noticed, lost memories in hidden corners. 

And even then, my presenced relationship with thingness only happens for so long, until one realizes that the movers arrive at 2pm tomorrow and remaining objects are carelessly flung into boxes with the hastily scribbled label “MISC”.

It is only now that our new place feels less like a storage locker and captures that mysterious quality of home again, I reclaim the space and time to explore the thick temporics of these weeks.

 

The “Rightness” of Time 

In striking contrast to the urgency of moving, I was simultaneously enmeshed in another practice of a very different temporal quality. In the midst of the flurry of packing and unpacking, I would create a little sacred clearing amidst the cardboard boxes, open up my laptop and commit to the virtual practice of presencing. And in the process of fitting headphones around my ears, closing my eyes and allowing rivulets of voices from contexts across space and time stream into a deep reservoir in the center,  my own time-and-space-bound context begins to loosen and weave into the collective mesh. 

Here, in the quietude of this candle-lit space – snugly contained in the two-hour time slot of Collective Presencing or Communal Reveries in my Google calendar – the pressure of moving dissolves along with the tension held in my body. A unique [and spiritual] quality of time arrives with the field of presence, gesturing to Kairos, or “right or opportune time”. Time – rather than horizontally moving from past, present to future – begins to develop a vertical quality, where insights, images, words slowly swim up to me from a very deep Source below; or from above, like a sudden clap of illumination. Here, I notice, the right time for speaking and for action cannot be anticipated or pre-scripted in advance. I become available to what emerges through the deep surrender of not knowing. Here, I focus on trusting what is present.  

What is present is not always wise – sometimes, what unfolds can be slow and clumsy, awkward and sudden – yet what matters is felt resonance. For me, the discernment and intuitive resonance of “right time” folds in qualities of intensity and integrity that are not sense-made by the mind (rationally “making sense” on a single plane) but senseful in a way that is deeply embodied and sensorially felt (weaving together manifold senses, known and not known). 

Intensity gestures to the quality of deep listening and receiving: it moves like waves swelling and crashing through the container of my body.  I still feel immature here: when something is offered or surfaces in the field that feels too intense  – the pain of grief and trauma, personal and collective; the numinous reverberations of fear-tinged wonder and pleasurable awe – I notice the immediacy of my resistances, how I subconsciously block out the frequencies that feel too much. My mind is alarmed by what it does not recognize; my nervous system is stressed. So here, I breathe slowly through my body, building my senseful capacity to stay with the waves. Rather than resisting, abstracting or fixing what I perceive to be the “cause” of the intensity (through the well-honed, quick-acting defenses of the mind), I begin to trust that it can be held within the container of my body – a body with deeper and wiser capacities to hold and metabolize what my conceptual mind cannot. And the more I practice, the deeper the capacity – as though the energetic field of my body is expanding to receive more fully, and with more integrity, the intensities of what is present. 

Integrity gestures towards the truth of what is channeled and sourced –  is my body attuned to the frequency of what is surfacing and becoming? Do I feel a sense of right alignment? (and when I begin to wonder what I’m seeking alignment with,  it takes me –  perhaps –  to that timeless place of Origin, or the Tao ). When someone shares an experience that personally devastating to them, do I indulge an automatic impulse – unconsciously honed by social scripts of politeness – to say: “Oh, I’m so sorry,” – or do I pause, sense into what recieving the experience does to me, into what is happening in my body, and then perhaps, when it feels right, act from here? 

Because in that pause – where my body becomes porous to receive and hold intensity – an event is happening. An event that is impossible to forecast or predict.  

In fact, any forward-thrusting intentions or preconceptions (even subconscious, well-intentioned ones, like “I want to come across caring, wise or good”) seems to disrupt the integrity and verity of what is present. The act of deep listening and witnessing is a transformative event – not in a linear, cumulative manner, but in a deepening, revealing manner. When I sensefully witness intensity; something is in the process of disclosing– a deepening connection to ancestral resilience, spiritual capacity, cosmic flow –  from a mysterious potential that is latently held within me. And integrity is holding true to this newly disclosed potential: am I perceiving with clarity and transparency what is present, and flowing with and through it? And as I manifest the potential through enactment, am I channelling the warm data in its tone and frequency. 

In the event where I radically trust what channels from the alchemy of this event, I experience the unbearable lightness of “right time”. I simply fall into rhythm with something that is larger than the self – a greater Creative flow. 

 

The Embodiment of Time 

As I relate the horizontal dimension of chronos (as past, present and future) with this seemingly “vertical” dimension of kairos, what is the energetic nexus of the middle but my body? Somehow, when I centre and ground myself here, rippling out from a body stretched in the oscillating tension between the vertical and the horizontal, I expand and flesh out more towards to a radial fullness of time.

My lived phenomenology of time is fundamentally embodied and organic. It is my body that enters a kind of physical flow state on moving day, becoming this resilient sinewy animal that tirelessly lifts boxes for hours (until I collapse later). When something resonates with me, it is with an energetic sense of “rightness” that trembles through my body. We are not these divided creatures, where our spirits are separate from flesh. 

Two nights ago, as I watched the fuzzy belly of Meowbot move rhythmically up and down with her breathing, I became struck with the heart-wrenching realization that she is aging much faster than me. In this moment, I felt suffocated by the intense enormity of the love that I felt for this moody creature (and then breathlessly tried to collect her into my arms, to her pained annoyance).  The truth is, I will never escape the cruelty of my biological body –  and the bodies of my human and more-than-human kin – aging and dying. Yet at the same time, “we” are made up of many organisms going through many lifespans, continually propagating and dying in the complex, fractal ecosystems of bodies.  

The life world or umwelt of every organism – a human, a cat, a cell, is differently sensed and experienced – it has its own space-time. For example, biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll describes how the umwelt of a tick has no space and no time; it is a deaf and blind creature that simply sits motionless at a fixed place until it “senses” a mammal to feed on (where the definition of “mammal” to this tick is 1. the smell of sweat aka 1-Propanecarboxylic acid; and 2. the feeling of warmth at approx. 38ºC). The moment of the tick meeting the mammal is its event, impossible to forecast or predict. 

The phenomenological umwelt of a human is painstakingly and poetically expressed by Martin Heidegger as Dasein, to be thrown into and to embody time. As he describes, “time temporalizes itself only to the extent that it is human.” As humans, we are hyper-aware of the passing of time. Time is made more real, and also more meaningful, through the existentially cruel awareness of our fleshy, mortal bodies. And I feel and experience temporics in my body in such radically plural ways: from the scarcity-driven urgency of clock time to the spiritual rightness of Kairos. Choice always meets its conditions halfway: my biologically-organic sense of time is influenced by menstrual and seasonal cycles, by the genetic material of my Chinese ancestors living in my microbiome, in the psychic experience of getting lost watching a spider slowly traverse the landscape of my ceiling. 

Building on the work of cultural somatic practitioners like Tada Hozumi and Resmaa Menakem, we can also explore how we inhabit cultures as living, collective bodies, with their own umwelts of space-time. There is a form of colonization with “mainstream” global culture – a cultural soma and collective nervous system staked in battle with Cruel Chronos, in active control and resistance with quantitative time. We rebel against the patriarchy of Father Time by inventing expensive ways to slow him down through anti-aging skin products and cyronically preserving our bodies, or creating numbing escapes through trips to the Bahamas and Netflix. Yet at the same time, we are desperately attached to our greatest enemy as “progress” – the growth of our global economy depends on increasing efficiency measured through clock time, there is an obsession with compressing time into the highest frequencies for financial trading. We desperately reinforce exactly what we desperately resist, haplessly clutching onto linear time as our “lifeline” in the simultaneous acceleration towards our deaths. 

Even our relationship with the depth of Climate Crisis is colonized by a sense of urgency – so how do we free ourselves, decolonize our lifeworlds towards time freedom? We intellectually know that there are other umwelts of time elsewhere – the expansive Haudenosaunee temporics of seven generations, the fourth-dimensional time of physics. Yet how do we begin to embody it? There is a paradox we must hold in our bodies even if our minds cannot make sense – captured in what Bayo Akomolafe succinctly shares from his Elders: “The times are urgent, let us slow down.” 

 

Dwelling in Time 

What does Jean Gebser in “Ever-Present Origin” mean when he writes of this mysterious notion of time freedom?  I keep circling around this notion of “time freedom” slowly, again and again. What does it mean to be freed from time? To become free with time? Is time freedom a kind of timelessness? Is it to live without time? 

Perhaps we free ourselves from time by embracing time; to find home in time by being fully present. 

Heidegger writes: “To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.”  As humans, we dwell on this earth in terrestrial bodies that hold plural horizons of being and time. We live in and through bodies that seek homes; we feel liberated by a psychic sense of healthful and right dwelling – in our physical bodies, in the cultural ecologies of relationships with other living beings on this planet. 

To find home in time that feels right, present, and whole is to dwell in it fully, to embrace what feels cruel and painful in the wholeness of living. And I want to stay with the experience that it has been a cruel and long several weeks, rather than resist it. It’s been a month of fighting with X and having the comfort of our dwelling place be disturbed by the most banal of life transitions. A month of what has felt like the most exhausting and desperately lonely COVID-19 lockdowns in Toronto, and the cruel comparison of the relative privilege of my pandemic experience with the inequity of what is happening in India. 

I also embrace the painful intensities around seeing the accumulated trash hidden under the safe comfort of “home” – revealed to me through the disruption of moving – that forces me to confront my hand in contributing to what is happening to this Earth. This is the cruelty of growing planetary consciousness – or what Joanna Macy calls the “Great Turning” –  we are called to witness and be transformed by the uncanny reckoning of the non-human actors and things that we are intimately entangled with, that weave together the fractal lifeworlds we call “home”. 

So when “right time” isn’t limited to the scheduled two-hours of presencing in my calendar, I can embrace the “right timing” of Capricious Spring, where the snow melts away to force us to confront all of the dog shit, the ugly garbage, the brown ugliness hidden under pristine snow in the sleepy hibernation of Winter; where the green shoots of hope unfurl on a warm sunny day, only to be followed by a vicious frost that freezes the flowering buds. 

And when I choose to fully experience and dwell with all that is present –  in the full intensities of cruelty,  joy, wonder, and deep agonizing love –  an event is happening. An event that is impossible to forecast or predict. 

 

Designing with Time 

Having been trained as a systems and foresight designer, I think a lot about the future. Design has always signified that vital human desire, described by Hebert Simon, to  “devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. As a systemic designer, I work to co-create visions of preferred worlds and realities, and then design pathways of interventions to manifest them into being. Yet increasingly, I sense that design is trapped in what Jean Gebser describes as the mental structure of perspectival consciousness –  we represent the future(s) as something we move towards from now, as a better and preferred destination we must reach in the distance. Yet when we try to “create” our visions of the possible, plausible, probable and preferable futures (in the classic futures cone), we are limited to synthesizing from the known – we do horizon scanning for signals and trends and try to “make sense” of the possibilities.

I wonder about reframing the role of a designer as someone who draws together temporary dwelling places of presence – sanctuaries – to be poised for the arrival of the unknown future.

Because there is something terrifying about genuinely disrupting the continuous grounding of linear progress, to make a discontinuous leap into the unknown. To dislodge onself from the global consensus reality of Modernity, “leaving the mainstream” to become lost in the labyrinth of rhizomatic reality tunnels. As we move into the uncanniness of ecological thinking, we face the dread and horror of decentering the human in the Anthropocene, only to become frighteningly exposed in the wild. It is like reading a horror story about being lost in a dark forest, and to suddenly take the perspective of the starving bear who hunting me for sustenance. 

So in these ungrounding times of transition, how does one begin to come home? 

In the wise words of Ursula Le Guin, we are always coming home. We arrive at temporary dwellings in the on-going process of living time, dwellings that can house a kairotic pause. And in that stillness of that pause, in receiving the fullness of “right time”, an event is happening. And this event is impossible to forecast or predict… 


and in the still point of the turning world,
the borderlands where past and future are gathered,
we create a clearing,
a clearing for an event,
an event that is impossible to forecast or predict.

and here where the veil shimmers,
what always was and will be,
becomes transparent.

we are always coming home
in the radical revealing of the Present.

--

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

-- TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

“All revealing belongs within a harboring and a concealing. But that which frees—the mystery—is concealed and always concealing itself… Freedom is that which conceals in a way that opens to light, in whose clearing there shimmers that veil that covers what comes to presence of all truth and lets the veil appear as what veils. Freedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way."

- Martin Heidegger, A Question Concerning Technology