Whose Time Is It Anyway?, or, Advanced Mind Hacking

One of my favorite little books on meditation, mindfulness, and all that jazz is the classic “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

It opens with the story of a father who never has time for himself. Maybe this will sound familiar: housework to do, career stuff, children demanding time in so many ways. Even a child’s wish to play with a parent is just one more thing that must be addressed before getting “Me Time.”

Eventually, however, the father figures out a secret to getting limitless time for himself: he counts it all as his time. By bringing all of himself to the activity at hand—bathing the baby, helping with a math problem, washing the dishes—all of that time is his. Brilliant and beautiful: I love this kind of reframing.

As the gentle Thai monk points out in the next chapter, however, chances are quite good that the father doesn’t remember to bring all of himself to all of his activities, all of them time. One reason for that, he suggests, is that we all need practice and training in mindfulness, so that our habits support us rather than carry us away from that goal of limitless time.

But I know something the monk doesn’t, at least not as lived experience. Or maybe he is just too kind and gentle to point this out: sometimes, living on someone else’s time is easier. A mom can spend a full day living on family time: getting kids up and ready for the day’s activities, driving, shopping, cooking, mediating arguments, taking care of bedtime, planning for tomorrow. Even in 2011, you get Good Mom Points for spending a day this way. You’re busy, so you must be important, and you put your desires last, if you can even remember what they are.

It can be exhausting, true, but the dirty little secret is, you spare yourself the labor of choosing how to use your time, and so you absolve yourself of the responsibility of what happens with it. Dissatisfied with how the day went? Well, what could you do—you were never on your own time.

Even in a relatively healthy family, it’s not unusual to see each individual’s time get tangled together with everyone else’s. Kids rely on mom to be their engine, waiting for her reminders to get ready for their own activities. Dad counts on mom for maintaining social connections and organizing what happens around the house. Mom plans vacations and weekends around what the rest of the family would enjoy. There’s nothing malicious or insidious about this state of affairs: part of it is training kids, part of it is efficient division of labor, part of it is the joy of making other people happy. Still, it’s the rare family woman who doesn’t find herself wondering, like the father in the story, where her “Me Time” has gone and—much more challenging—what she would with do if she ever found it.

This is a mind hack Triple Salchow: be fully present in the endless loop of household activities, acknowledge the choices that you’re making, and acknowledge your own desires. You gotta get the first part right, or you won’t be set up to land it at the end.

I trip on all of these sometimes, but I’m worst at the last one. I admit it: sometimes I will do something for the kids or for my husband because it just feels too hard to think of what to do for myself. My birthday’s coming up this week, though, so I’m going to work on sticking the jump at least once, as a gift to myself.

About mina

Like a rock: sometimes hard, sometimes crumbly, occasionally brilliant, sometimes dense.

Posted on September 19, 2011, in Children, feminis hmmm. . ., meditation, mind hacks, stuckness. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. In a slightly different way I was discussing this very thing with my oldest friend last night. I was acknowledging that my sense of self is very relational and perhaps, always has been. I don’t remember a time (even in childhood) that I didn’t take into consideration how others might feel about decisions or choices I was making. I usually make decisions in favor of the collective good, rather than prioritizing myself. This makes me a good mom, a good friend, a good partner, a good daughter, etc, but when it comes down to making a decision about how I spend my time (as simply as what I want for lunch sometimes) that does not directly affect someone else — it can be hard for me to know my own mind. It’s an interesting paradox. I’m a bit of a loner, but I’m a very collaborative loner. Now that I’m the only adult living in my house, and my oldest is launched, and my younger children aren’t here 24/7, and my partner lives 100+ miles away, I’m confronted by self-defining choices for the first time in a very, very long time.

  2. Tabby – I feel like it must be very exciting to be confronted with trying to figure out who you are, and what you want. Not always exciting in a good way, but exciting nonetheless.

    I guess we all have the opportunity to be self-explorers, at any time, not just when we find ourselves trust into undiscovered territory.

    I bet there is a book or workbook that asks you questions to help you figure out who you really are and what you want to do with yourself. And, if there isn’t a great one, maybe we should write it!

  3. I really, really, really want to launch a new career before my kids leave home, which will be in about 5-7 years. However, they require so much energy and time right now, but if I only had the discipline to MAKE time for myself, I keep thinking I should be able to do it all. I know women do it all all the time, so what’s wrong with me? Do I need more drive? Discipline? A better vision? I do think I use my family and activities as an excuse but I haven’t been able to find my resolve.

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