Blog #46 – Being present
One of the things that we often hear said is that the years go by faster as you get older. Objectively speaking, we know this cannot be true – time does not speed up when a child becomes an adult and, neither does it further accelerate as an adult moves towards middle-age – and yet, on the level of lived experience for many of us it genuinely seems that way. The fact that so many of us experience this perceived speeding up of time as we age begs one obvious question – Why?
When we look back on different times in our life, we can have the intuitive sense that one period seemed to move more slowly than those that followed. A classic example is when people reflect upon their schooldays. For many of us, as we look back, the six years that we spent in primary school feel like an even longer period of time, whereas the six years in secondary school – while certainly not zipping by – don’t feel to have taken quite so long, but by the time the college years have come and gone, many of us will have become aware of that feeling of time somehow gathering pace. Fast forward a few years into our full-time working lives and time seems to move even faster, then you blink, and another decade has passed. Well, perhaps it’s not quite as stark as that, but you presumably get the point I’m trying to make.
This brings us back to the question we posed earlier – Why? Why do so many of us report that we experience life in this way? As with so many questions posed in this blog series, there are several potential answers and perhaps no one definitive explanation that trumps all others, such is the nature of psychology.
That said, at least one answer relates to awareness. On a simple level, children tend to pay more attention to the world around them because so often they are seeing things for the first time or behold with wonder what to older eyes might seem banal or familiar. We know that those early years are characterised by constant and rapid learning. Kids are sometimes referred to as “blotting paper”, because they are said to absorb everything they see around them. This turbo-charged period of learning is a marker of natural development, but for our purposes it is important to note that it implies a level of ongoing awareness that may become somewhat lost to us later in life. However, even if this is so, that then raises another question – is that shift away from conscious awareness inevitable or not? It is a question worth pondering.
Here is another one worth thinking about: How much time does the typical adult spend effectively on auto-pilot in their daily life? Many of us slot into somewhat predictable daily patterns and routines that lend themselves to slipping almost into a trance and becoming lost in our own thoughts – typically daydreaming or thinking about the past or the future and therefore being less than fully engaged in the present. How many times do we come home in the evening after work, look at our watch at a certain time and wonder where the day went? This is alien to the way the typical child engages with life, with a curiosity and desire to learn that can anchor them very much in the now, as opposed to the adult in any given moment – whether stuck in yet another traffic jam on their daily commute, staring at a computer screen in their office, or flicking channels at home at night – wondering about what happened yesterday and grappling with anxiety about what tomorrow may bring, frittering away the here and now in the process.
Of course, it can be difficult to understand just how much we lose to auto-pilot, or even to recognise the tendency, unless and until we somehow break the pattern. Generally speaking, we need to get away from those routines and expose ourselves to fresh surroundings in order to break through the fog and get a sense of how much time we spend not really being present in our ‘normal’ life and seeing how that can correlate with our sense of how fast or otherwise time passes, along with the unease and perhaps even distress that those perceptions bring.
I mentioned the Camino de Santiago in an earlier post, in the context of the benefits to well-being associated with exposure to nature. This long-distance hike/pilgrimage and others like it are also relevant here. Many individuals who undertake such lengthy treks (some spend weeks or even months hiking) report that one of the most notable effects they feel out there is a shift in their perception of time passing, i.e., it extends. It is not unusual to read of accounts where individuals talk in terms of days feeling like weeks and weeks feeling months, to the extent that when they return home they feel like they have been away for much longer for much longer than they have been. They also speak of how this tendency brings into stark relief the degree to which their ‘normal’ busy life is led on auto-pilot and how this links directly with that sense of time passing ever faster as they get older.
Ultimately, what we’re moving towards in this conversation is to focus on mindfulness – the idea of cultivating conscious awareness in the moment. Next time, we will move towards engaging with these ideas directly.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.