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Time Out of Mind: बोधिचित्त (Part II)

“Kairos time is here” (Romans 13:11).

This verse is a fascinating blending of time and space. The passage goes on: “The hour for you to wake has come.” In other words, Kairos is about being awake, about the present – about being present – not only now, but here. The moment of grace has broken in, not only in time but in space. It’s both imminent and immanent. Whereas Kronos leads invariably to sleep, to death, to nothing but a virtual life, Kairos leads to life, to redemption, to a real life. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth (aka here) as it is in heaven.” Where there is Kairos time, there is incorruptible space. Kairos is Kronos redeemed, Kronos transformed. Which is why Jesus, the gospels tell us, after he is raised from the dead, is truly here in a way the rest of us are not… quite… yet. He walks on water, phases through walls (to use a term from the Flash), and yet he also contains the food he eats and bears the scars he was given.

My homegirl Flannery O’Connor put it this way in a letter to a friend in 1955:

“For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified” (The Habit of Being).

Which is why the phrase, “Time out of mind,” as it relates to Kronos, is so appropriate here: the present becomes something we no longer experience, no longer are in touch with, when we are buried in Kronos time. As a result, we’re no longer in touch with ourselves. We’re no longer here. We’re not really even somewhere else. We’re just nowhere. Time out of mind. Spaced out.

Since moving up here and leaving the regimented life of the postmodern urban dweller behind, I’ve found myself blissfully unconcerned with Kronos – with clock time. At the same time, I’ve been more aware of of the days and nights that surround my life up here and their passage. I’ve been more present, which means that past and future are ancillary concerns right now. They have their place, but they’re not front and center.

The phrase, "time out of mind," has always intrigued me, especially as it relates to our present situation. And by “present situation,” I mean the life we find ourselves in now where we interact more with technology than with each other, and that when we do interact with each other, it’s almost always through the medium of technology. What does this do to our sense, not only of each other, but of time? What happens when you spend the balance of your day in a virtual space, not really anywhere?

Time out of mind: it’s defined as an idiomatic noun phrase, meaning “the distant past beyond anyone's memory. A lengthy duration of time, longer than is readily remembered.”

And that got me thinking: at a point in history and in a culture where we spend most our time nowhere in particular, are our days, as they are presently being lived, time out of mind? In other words, is our present already a “distant past beyond our memory”? Time, of course, is related to memory, and memory to direct experience. So what happens to a culture that doesn’t experience much of anything directly anymore but only virtually – second-hand, as it were; that forgets itself because it can’t remember anything that isn’t recorded? What happens when most of our experiences are media-ted, when existence itself becomes a spectator sport?

One of my favorite bands, Steely Dan, has a song on their Gaucho album called “Time Out of Mind,” and there’s an intriguing lyric:

I am holding the mystical sphere It's direct from Lhasa Where people are rolling in the snow Far from the world we know

With its oblique reference to Buddhism (Lhasa being the sacred center of Tibetan Buddhism), it makes me think of a time and place where people, in this case, people “rolling in the snow/ far from the world we know,” aren’t so concerned with the passage of time, aren’t preoccupied with the future nor trapped by their pasts, but are consciously present to themselves and to each other and to the world around them. In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s a term, bodhicitta, which refers to an awakened and fully present mind, a mind that strives for awakening, and empathy, and compassion for all other sentient beings.

My own religious tradition holds up these same qualities, but does so from a different starting point and, as a result, ends in radically different place. But in both Buddhism and Christianity, the effects are much the same: being more aware of our surroundings, of ourselves and of each other, and of the world around us and, at least in the case of Christianity, in the divine nature of God, whose Spirit is shot through all of existence.

But, to quote Steely Dan, doesn’t that seem like a place “far from the world we know”? How many of us spend any appreciable time any more simply being as opposed to doing? And by “doing,” mind you, I’m painfully aware that often, it isn’t doing much: catching the latest status update on social media, checking the latest score, reading the latest headline, getting the latest stock market numbers, checking out the latest TikTok trend… basically staring at a screen. Indeed, when you’re involved in those kinds of activities, you’re not really doing anything. And if you’re not doing anything and you certainly aren’t being in the sense of being aware of your surroundings, being awake to those around you, where exactly does that put you? Somewhere between not being and not doing. Classic literature has a name for such a place: Limbo. Where is Limbo? Well, according to Dante, it’s the first circle of Hell.

Evelyn Underhill, in her classic The Spiritual Life, says this:

We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, in the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual—even on the religious—plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs has any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life… The people of our time are helpless, distracted, and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come, largely because they have lost this sure hold on the eternal; which gives to each life meaning and direction, and with meaning and direction, steadiness.

I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's classic meditation on evil, The Screwtape Letters, and the senior devil's advice to his nephew, Wormwood, on the best way to damn a person, which necessitates reaching a state of "dim uneasiness" (what Thoreau called humanity's "silent desperation"). In this state, Screwtape advises Wormwood, much of Nothing is possible:

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”.

Turns out, if you’re always in a hurry, you’re always out of time. And if you’re Nowhere to begin with, then you don’t end up anywhere better. Of course, if you're already doing nothing, well then, mission accomplished (at least as far as Screwtape is concerned).

Kairos time is here. Where are you?

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