Ordinary time consciousness leads to dysfunctional living.
At least that’s true for literate, civilized humans. If so, since you are reading this, it’s true for you.
The good news is that this isn’t a problem without a solution. Once you understand it to be a problem and that there’s an alternative, you may choose the alternative as a way of ameliorating dysfunction, in other words, as a way of living better.
So what is it and what’s wrong with it?
Time consciousness is just consciousness or awareness of time.
Ordinary time consciousness is taking each moment of time as nothing but a stepping stone to the next moment. Ordinary time consciousness is taking the present as nothing but a means to the future.
For example, let’s suppose that you are hungry. You take some money to the market? Why?
To buy some food. Why?
So that can take it home, prepare it, and eat it. Why?
So that your hunger will disappear. Why?
So that you are not bothered by hunger, which will enable to focus on whatever you want to do next.
When you are going to and from the market, it would be ordinary to think about preparing the food. While you are preparing the food, it would be ordinary to think about eating it. While you are eating the food, it would be ordinary to think about what you’ll do next. And so on.
Notice that this prevents living well because it prevents satisfaction: there’s always a next step, always something more to do, always some future event to consider.
What, though, is the future event? It is a thought. In fact, it’s imaginary. Since the future doesn’t exist, it isn’t real.
Therefore, living this way entails that all your real experiences are infected by being in the service of unreal ones! That is dysfunctional living, living poorly.
The alternative is to let go of thoughts about the future. Yes, they can set present behavior. If you didn’t want food later, there’d be no point going to the market. Present experiences can lead to future experiences, but the best way to have good future experiences is to have good present ones, which means ones that are lived fully, without separation.
The trick is, once you set a future goal, let it go. Forget it. If you don’t, your life will be one of slavery rather than freedom.
I think this is what Sengcan, the third Zen ancestor in ancient China, meant in the oldest Zen document: “The wise do not strive after goals; / the foolish put themselves in bonds” [Rochester Zen Center translation].
That initially puzzled me. It took me years before I even thought I understood it. He’s right!
When we focus on future goals, we are focusing on what isn’t real. We are separated from what is real, namely, present experience.
If, like me, you habitually have fallen into the bad habit of focusing on some time to come, you are, unintentionally, creating suffering for yourself (and those around you).
It’s not an easy habit to break. It is very simple to break, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To break it, practice focusing only on what is available in the present moment.
It helps to remind yourself as frequently as possible that the future is unreal, that it never arrives except in the guise of the present moment. The future cannot be experienced.
Furthermore, the present moment may be your last moment.
The quality of life depends upon the quality of experience. To be separated in thought from present experience diminishes the quality of present experience, in other words, it causes suffering.
If you practice shifting from ordinary to extraordinary time consciousness, you’ll diminish suffering.
I hope that you test that for yourself to determine its truth. If you do, you’ll be glad that you did.