How do we spend our time?
According to the Office for National Statistics, my life expectancy as a middle-aged female is currently 87 years, with a 10% chance of making it to 99 and beyond. I’m not trying to extend my human life past its natural end (indeed, I am looking forward to going ‘home’ when the time comes), but I was curious about what the average life expectancy is these days. When we compute this figure in days (31,755) or even hours (762,120), we realise that’s an awful lot of time to fill. Even those people with the most demanding schedules would be hard pushed to use it all up.
Of course, that figure is just an average. Some of us touch down on the planet only very briefly, while others, like James Lovelock who passed on this week, make it to 103. But regardless of how long we spend here, it prompts the question - What is our time here for?
There is a quotation by George Bernard Shaw that suggests, for him at least, life is meant to be spent in perpetual endeavour. He states, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.”
Considering that we humans are now working longer and harder than ever before, even filling our leisure time with active pursuits, we could expect to feel an increasing sense of satisfaction from all our busy-ness. And yet this is not the case. Particularly in developed countries, the statistics definitively show us that we are more stressed than fulfilled. We don’t really need data to tell us that, we know it already in our own experience, and from seeing those around us. Even children these days are increasingly robbed of their play time; spending it instead on computers, or in various structured activities.
When I was young, nobody gave me a guide as to how to spend my time. I, like almost everyone else, fell into the same activities that were going on around me; school, work, personal and leisure activities. Not once in my youth was there a conversation about which aspects of life were important, or a priority. And certainly, the notion of seeking something outside of the norm, or inside myself, was never remotely mentioned.
It was not until I was 21, when I ‘detoured’ from the path laid out before me, by heading to Asia to study in ashrams and monasteries, that I encountered the idea of spending time in pursuit of inner knowledge (in which I am engaged to this day). However, in stepping onto that new path, and leaving the old one behind, it became patently clear that I was going against the norm. Why did society want me to spend my days learning and working, raising a family, earning and spending money, consuming a daily dose of media, but not question why I was here or what it was all for?
My experience is not an isolated case. It is an inevitable continuum of human behaviour that goes back centuries, and maybe even millennia. As a consequence, we as a race, have increasingly spent our precious hours, days, weeks, years, decades – whole lives - in not attending to the central questions of life, nor what constitutes a wise use of our time here.
Of course, as conscious beings we have free-will, so we’re ‘free’ (at least technically), to make choices according to our preferences. But given that our upbringing ushers most of us down the same road (more a 6-lane highway) with rather high barriers on each side (societal disapproval), is it any wonder that so few of us really walk our own path, let alone towards the kind of perception and understanding that supersedes the collective worldview.
This is not to suggest that certain activities are inherently more worthy of our time than others. It’s more a question of the understanding we deploy while we’re doing those activities – and crucially, the motivation for doing it. For everything we do says something about what we believe; our outer world reflects our inner world. And all that belief is shaping our shared physical, emotional and mental landscape. Given that, as of last month, there are 8 billion of us here, filling our days with thoughts, words and deeds – that’s a lot of input to the collective.
In order to reveal our priorities, we can imagine starting from a blank slate – where our needs are met and our days were completely free to do as we choose, both as children and adults. What would we choose? Who would we spend time with? What would we move towards? And what would we leave behind? It’s tempting to think we’d spend it all in leisure, seeking personal satisfaction, but anyone who’s had unending time knows that sooner or later, we start feeling the itch to seek something new, and if we’re honest, something deeper.
What is it we’re really after?
This is the question I wish someone had posed to me in my early years. In my case, I soon found the answer on my own, but not without some inevitable side enquiries! But if this question were more widely asked, encouraged even, perhaps it would cause us to discern what really matters, and how best to pursue it, so our time here on Earth can be used on what we’ve come for, why we’re really here.
Even though most humans spend their lifetime in meeting their immediate needs, in socialisation, and with a bit of leisure squeezed in here and there, something else is always calling to us. That call is a constant presence within. It makes itself known through a feeling of longing for a deeper kind of fulfilment, contentment and love than worldly affairs can offer us.
It’s not that we don’t hear that call – we do – it’s that we try to answer it by running after temporary activities that can’t inherently provide us with the qualities and experiences we instinctively seek. Thoughts, words and deeds, by their very nature, pass. And we are hearing the call of something that is always present; eternal and sustaining. It calls us to go within (to the very place where the call originates). When we do, we find something that we’ve been looking for all along.
The energy we connect to when we go within (once we make it past the physical sensation, emotional weather and mental habits of our human persona) is the primal energy of Life itself. It is the fabric of our being, our world, and everything in it. It is not there to usurp our interest or engagement in daily life, but to inform it; to enliven our thoughts, words and deeds from a place of beauty, harmony, power and most of all - love.
How different would our world look if we knew this when we were starting out in life, were encouraged to develop it at school, nurture it through our adult years, share it freely with others? How might our institutions and places of work be structured to acknowledge this? How differently might we be welcomed into the world, cared for while here, and waved goodbye at the other end?
The world is the way it is because of us (and the legacy of those who came before us). But human understanding, thinking and behaviour can and must change if we are to come closer to a more equitable and humane world. To go about our day with love in our hearts and kind words on our lips would change the world overnight, and cancel out the conflict we seem to gravitate towards in the name of ‘progress’.
To make a dedicated contribution to our quest for inner knowledge, or contribute to the evolution of society, no longer requires us to sequester ourselves in monasteries and mystery schools (although that is still a valuable option if we choose it). Connection, alignment and conscious awareness can be accessed in our everyday lives without having to make drastic external changes.
I admit, it’s easier to suggest it than pull it off. Lots gets in the way (and was ever thus), but the obstacles are a vital part of the learning. It can be done. And the only way to get there is to use every waking hour with the intention to bring that about.