Engaging with life

My coach recently challenged me on the idea from my last post regarding our accountability to our lives. That framing gave the impression that there was a sort of value scale to different moments or ways to engage with time. Her question helped me realize that some of the ideas were not completely consistent with one another. In particular, I used the terms “time” and “life” almost interchangeably, and spoke of “engaging” with time without clearly defining that term. This made my final conclusion a bit murky.

Untangling Time and Life

To make an attempt at clarifying, “time” as we normally discuss it is a conceptual model that we lay over our experience of change in the world to make sense of it. I’m not talking about the physics dimension of time, but rather the mental model of time we experience and tell stories about as we make sense of experiencing change. I’m going to call this framing of time the psychosocial concept of time.

Psychosocial concepts of time have changed throughout history. Whether it is spendable, how valuable it is, how precisely it can be tracked, what it’s relationship is to our lives and our work. All of these notions have been modified throughout history to suit the needs of society.

Thus, because our concept of time is made up to suit our needs, it is not a thing-in-the-world (again, not talking about physics). Only the present has any substantive reality, and the present is fleeting by definition. It cannot be caught or pointed to, so I’m reluctant to even include it in a model of time.

So then what, or where, is the present? I have a notion that the present is how we relate to our awareness when we try to fit it into a concept of time. It’s sort of a hack solution, but it allows us to make a distinction between what happens in our minds when we are remembering/imagining versus when we are “being present”, aka “engaging with life.”

The “experience of being,” what I think I’m referring to when I use the word “life,” is something that happens in the present. The phrase “engage with your life” would then mean, “actively experience the experience of being,” set your awareness on it. Be present.

My response to the question

Anyway, now that the technicalities are out of the way, here is the response I wrote, lightly edited, which elaborates on what I mean when I say “engage” with life and how to navigate the reality that we cannot predict or control the meaning each moment brings.

The original question was:

True that we can’t get moments/time back, but time that we consider to not be well spent or wasted may ultimately serve a purpose by teaching us something or opening us up to something we couldn’t have known would be of value to us. How can we learn to balance our commitment to engaging with time in a meaningful way without being too rigid in our judgement of what is “worth” engaging with?

My response:

The question maintains the framework that time/life is or should be worth something, whether by our value system or one we can’t anticipate. Letting go of our internal notion of value to accept that there may be value we cannot immediately see, or putting a positive spin on otherwise “wasted” time is still insisting that time/life have some value in relation to our goals. I’m trying to move away from that framework. I’m trying to say that we can and should engage with life no matter what. I am not suggesting we “engage in a meaningful way.” Just that we engage. There’s nothing to balance because we don’t judge moments as meaningful or not. Part of that is because, as you say, we can’t know, but part of it is actively letting go of the need to create a value narrative.

And of course, I’m talking on a spiritual level here. To function day-to-day in society, I do believe in playing the game when we deem it useful or appropriate. Then balance becomes important. But I think that balance comes from drawing in the spiritual understanding from that other level, and recognizing it’s just a game, with made up rules, and we can change them or walk away or play another game.

The best analogy I’ve encountered is dance. You can dance well or poorly, to good or bad songs, but the important thing is to get off the sidelines and dance. And to say a particular dance was done meaningfully or was wasted means we are expecting it to serve some other purpose, which is to miss the point of dancing.