Reduce Stress by Exercising Present Awareness With Buddha Standard Time

Time-related stress is the result of our fast-paced modern American life. Reduce stress and find inner peace by introducing Buddha Standard Time into your 24-hour day.
By Lama Surya Das
July 2012
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Life in the 21st century moves at breakneck speed. Learn how to experience the Eternal Now and discover an alternative to the ceaseless hustle and bustle of modern American life in “Buddha Standard Time.”
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Kick addictions, reconnect with nature and enter the realm of timelessness where every choice, every action and every breath can be one of renewal and infinite possibilities. Buddha Standard Time (HarperOne, 2011) by foremost Western Buddhist teacher and national bestselling author Lama Surya Das offers an alternative to the ceaseless hustle and bustle of modern American life. Incorporate Buddha Standard Time into your life and reduce stress, find greater focus, fulfillment, creativity and even wisdom. The following excerpt was taken from the introduction, “Making Peace with Time.” 

"To be able to be unhurried when hurried;
To be able not to slack off when relaxed;
To be able not to be frightened
And at a loss for what to do,
When frightened and at a loss;
This is the learning that returns us
To our natural state and transforms our lives."

—Liu Wenmin, early sixteenth-century poet

For eons people have been grappling with the concept of time. From Sophocles to Ben Franklin to Einstein to Mick Jagger, the wisdom has been passed down to us: Time is the stuff life is made of. Time is money. Time is of the essence. Time flies. Time is relative. Time is on my side. Time is a cruel thief.

We measure time. We lose time. We kill time. We are strapped for time. These days, that last sentiment is what I hear most often from people. With varying degrees of vexation, agitation, or despair, they are constantly telling me, “I don’t have enough time!”

It’s not surprising that many of us feel this way. The pace of life today is far more frenetic than it was a generation ago, and unimaginably faster than what it was in the ancient world of Moses or Confucius. Trying to keep up with today’s tempo can take a huge toll. That stress shows up in our suppressed immune systems, high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke, insomnia, and digestive ailments. Stress contributes to the inability to think clearly or make competent decisions, to short tempers, and to sloppy work. As a result, we have more everyday problems: arguments at work and home, car accidents as we speed and yak on our cell phones, and unresolved grief because we don’t have time to mourn properly. Stress also contributes to fertility problems, turns hair gray, and wears out bodies before their time. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving us more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, weight gain, and substance abuse.

I learned for myself some stark lessons about the daunting acceleration of life when I came back to the United States in the late 1980s after spending almost two decades in the East. I had lived in India and the Himalayas for most of my twenties, in a slow-paced, natural-rhythm, electricity-free zone. I then spent my early thirties in a traditional Tibetan Dzogchen meditation retreat at the Nyingma Retreat Center in the thickly forested Dordogne River valley of southern France. When I finally returned home I felt like Rip Van Winkle: The complexity of the world had increased so exponentially that modern American life was almost unrecognizable to me. I wasn’t used to the rampant commercialism, the constant clamor of products being hawked. Even meditation centers and ashrams had become veritable spiritual supermarkets, with boutiques and cafés selling imported goods and wares to help support their nonprofit status.

As I began to adjust to a Western lifestyle after so long in monastic simplicity, what struck me more than anything else was the new aversion to the mundane tasks of daily life. Thus the ubiquitous time-saving tools— instant coffee, fast food, ATMs, microwave ovens, personal computers—as if somehow life would be better if we could speed our way through it. That message has only escalated since then. These days, young people tell me that they don’t even have time for cell-phone conversations or e-mails. They prefer to text. The instant response that new technology allows has altered our perception of time. And ironically, most of us seem to feel we have far less time as a result.

Many of us feel that the modern efforts to save time have backfired, bringing onerous new problems of their own. Our technological advances and constant availability have blurred the line between leisure time and work. No sooner do we wrap our minds around a new computer program than it becomes obsolete. We can end up wasting precious minutes stuck on the phone with someone on the other side of the world, trying to figure out how to reset the computer brain in our dryer, or stove, or espresso machine. It takes time to learn how to do online banking, connect with friends on Facebook, master the complexities of smartphones and GPS units, and download a best seller to our e-readers. When Excel crashes and the work is lost after we’ve spent an hour entering data for a deadline, our blood pressure skyrockets. There’s even technology to fix the stress created by technology. I recently learned of an experimental Google feature called Email Addict that shuts you out of your inbox, forcing compulsive e-mail checkers to give it a break.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we’re living in an amazing age, as miraculous and futuristic as anything out of the Star Trek and Jetsons episodes of my youth. I love being able to talk on my laptop face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world or to download a book or piece of music in a minute. The problem for a lot of us is figuring out how to disconnect from all this intensity for some peace and quiet. And how much of the time-related stress in our lives comes from trying to accommodate every single person who wants a piece of our day? Do you suffer from the “disease to please,” striving to satisfy all those who make a claim on your time? Many of us are torn between the desire to be generous with our time and the need to conserve our own energy. It takes only a few seconds to read a 140-character Twitter message, but the cost of the total distraction lasts far longer. The thinner we spread ourselves, the more we skitter over the surface of our lives, never going deep. And since we can be tracked down just about anywhere, anytime, it seems there is literally no escape.

In the pages that follow, I’ll teach you how to wean yourself from the addictions that sap time and energy, to clear out all the debris and distraction— in much the same way that a snow globe becomes calm and clear when you stop shaking it and allow the flakes to settle. You’ll see, for example, that we can stay at our desks or in a traffic jam and, however momentarily, genuinely give our attention to the present moment as a way of finding inner peace.

I want to show you how to coexist peacefully with the inevitable, inexorable march of time. As a Buddhist, I’ve long studied the question of how to live authentically and joyfully in the present moment, and how to remain mindful, centered, and harmonious no matter what challenges come my way.

In a way, Buddhism is a profound study in time and time management, because the better you manage your mind and spirit, the less hold time has on you. Every moment can be lived fully, free and unconditioned, and every moment holds infinite possibilities and opportunities for a fresh start. Every moment of heightened consciousness is precious beyond price, for awareness is the primary currency of the human condition. Buddhism for me is a study in how to live fully and authentically, not only in our earthly time zone, but in what I call Buddha Standard Time—the dimension of timeless time, wholly now. 

In recent years, I’ve had so many people ask me for help with finding their spiritual center in their out-of-control lives that I decided to make it the topic of this book—to show how we can discover a more calm, vibrant, and gratifying way of life. We can become masters rather than victims of a packed schedule and constant change, and feel composed in any situation—neither rushed nor overwhelmed, but peacefully in the moment. We can learn to set our own pace, a pace that makes sense in relation to who we are and what we need for our life journey.

One of the main obstacles to making peace with time is that we tend to experience it linearly: we keep moving forward, doing and accomplishing things, rather than just being. We are human beings, after all, not human doings. It costs us dearly to live only on the linear axis of time. We lose connection with our deeper and most authentic selves, too often mistaking mere movement for purpose and meaning. We adapt to a faster and faster tempo that keeps us feeling busy, but rarely with a sense of accomplishment. Staggering forward on a treadmill of events, we gather momentum until we lose any sense of how to stop. We are expert adapters, but the complexity and speed of our world require something other than merely adapting to its pace.

If we cultivate clarity, detachment, and equanimity, we can learn to remain still and calm amid the torrent of commitments, no longer allowing our overscheduled lives to rob us of the time we need to recalibrate and connect to the natural world, ourselves, and each other. For time moves on whether we are hurtling through life or savoring it. The big transformations can take place outside our daily awareness, until a stark reminder catches us up: hearing the new crack in the voice of a teenage son, perhaps, or seeing the unwelcome surprise of a gray hair, or wondering how it “suddenly” became winter.

We’ve also lost so much of our connection with the natural world that it doesn’t seem to matter to many of us whether it’s day or night, hot or cold, summer or winter. We control the climate at home, in the car, at the office, in the mall. We watch ball games at night under powerful lights. We eat food with little regard for season or source. These artificial means keep the rhythms and cycles of nature from us, further removing us from indicators of time passing. As we use up our limited natural resources, watch the ozone layer thin and glaciers melt, and hear about the extinction of species after species, it seems that the earth itself is gravely impermanent, a victim of time and change as surely as we all are.

We all experience time differently, depending on our frame of mind. When I returned home to Long Island for a visit after my first few years in India, I encountered not only a culture clash but a time clash with my parents. My mother didn’t want me to meditate. Good Jewish mother that she was, she was fine if I napped every afternoon, but she felt that meditating was a waste of time—time that she felt I could have been spending with her and my father.

She was absolutely right in one sense: she hadn’t seen her eldest son in years, and shutting myself in my room or wandering off into the backyard to meditate deprived us of precious hours together. But I had experienced another reality, a different way of being. I had learned that a meditation practice and a dedicated spiritual life lend time an infinitely expansive quality that would enhance every moment I spent with my parents. I knew that time need not be an either/or commodity, and that we always have the possibility of breaking out of linear time into a deeper dimension. When I rejoined my parents after an hour or two spent tapping into the timeless, I was a happier, more present, more patient, more aware, more engaged human being.

Right now you may still be struggling within the limited perspective of experiencing time linearly. “I can’t do two things at once,” you may find yourself saying. “There are only twenty-four hours in a day!” Even spiritual seekers wonder how they can possibly find enough time to meditate, study, chant, and pray. Our lives are crammed. Our calendars are full. It seems that something’s got to give to allow time for the spiritual development that would allow us to break out of the linear lock. But that’s not how it works. We don’t need to find that impossible extra pocket of time in the day; rather, we can incorporate the spacious outlook of our spirituality into every minute of our life by reimagining and reframing the expanse of time we have.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddha said that if we directly perceived the actual difficulties and sorrows of life, we’d practice to achieve enlightenment “as if our hair was on fire.” A simple definition of enlightenment is the deep flash of awakening to the knowledge that we are much more than our time- and space-bound, material selves living in a material world. Some people awaken to enlightenment by grace, seemingly without effort, but most of us stay obsessively stuck in the past or the future, running our mental trains backward and forward on that track every minute of the day. We have a limited view of ourselves and our capacities. And nothing will change unless we stop the train and get off.

Emaho! (That’s Tibetan for “Hallelujah!”) We can stop the train. Buddhist wisdom teaches that the minutes and hours of our days do not merely march from future to present to past—looming, engulfing us, passing us by forever. Rather, each moment is intersected by a realm of infinite spaciousness and timelessness, known in Tibetan as shicha, the Eternal Now. This is the precious awakened dimension that I call Buddha Standard Time, and it is available to us every instant.

“Let go the past,” the Buddha said, “let go the future, and let go what is in between, transcending the things of time. With your mind free in every direction, you will not return to birth and aging.” When we are in touch with being only in the present moment, only with what is, instead of what we regret, fear, or anticipate, our sense of limits in time will no longer have negative power over our lives. This is ancient, timeless wisdom.

People have been writing about living in the present moment as far back as the Pharaoh Akhenaton, who in the fourteenth century BCE wrote, “He who neglects the present moment throws away all he has.”

This is something we all need to remember every day. We can’t afford to wait to learn that lesson. “It’s now or never, as always,” I like to say. Be present in this moment, as if it’s the only moment. This breath, as if it’s the only breath. That is how we meditate, lead mindful and centered lives, and stay in the now. And that is how we begin to make peace with time and with ourselves.

In Buddha Standard Time, there are no small-minded contortions over a mentally constructed world. It is a place of being, not doing, a much vaster dimension than the one most of us habitually inhabit. I will show you how to get out of your frenzied time zone and into that timeless dimension, no matter where you are or what you are doing. There you will feel balanced, clear, joyful, and able to function at your best.

When you learn to live in Buddha Standard Time, bringing what I call nowness-awareness into your daily life, you’ll be more present and engaged in your interactions. You’ll be better able to negotiate the rough patches, sensing when to assert yourself and when to withdraw. Above all, you won’t fear that life will pass you and your loved ones by, but will recognize that we each have our own pace and way of blooming. You’ll feel clear about your ability to discover happiness and fulfillment. Nowness-awareness is the secret of enlightenment and self-realization: the Buddha within.

You’ll see that living in Buddha Standard Time is in no way antithetical to modern life but gives you the tools to live it sanely and joyfully. Neither planning ahead nor reminiscing about the past need obscure the clarity of our present awareness. The Buddha would say: If you’re planning ahead, just plan ahead. If you’re remembering, just remember. We can look forward or back without fretting or obsessing, or allowing concerns about the future to constrict freedom in the present. Think about it: even contemplating the future or the past is a function of present awareness.

We can always choose how to respond, what to do, how to live. We always have time to take a breath and begin again, revitalized, awake, aware. When we understand and connect with our true, timeless natures, we will automatically slow down. And when we slow down, time slows down as well, so we perceive that we have more of it. The more aware we are and the more quickly our minds process things, the slower they seem to occur—just as time seems to slow down on that first glorious autumn morning, when the colors and the breeze come alive under our intensely focused attention.

We can learn to experience a similar heightened awareness every day. We then have more room to choose, reflect, attend, respond intentionally, and thus make the most of our time and the opportunities given us by this magical life. We can learn to do things sensibly and sequentially when we’re under pressure, turning off the harried mental chatter that makes us feel we must do several things at once.

The more conscious we become of our key stressors and the unproductive habits we’ve developed around time, the closer we’ll be to freeing ourselves from their net. A skillful relationship with the pace of life on this earth means that every choice, every action, and every breath can be whole and complete. We can be fully, vibrantly present. This is the secret, hidden in plain sight if only we open our eyes to see it.

Whether you’re a Buddhist or not, this book will give you the inspiration and tools to reduce the amount of stress in your life and help you find more focus, fulfillment, creativity, and wisdom. I’ll show you how to integrate mini–stress busters into your day, the simple meditative pause that can fit in anywhere, and how to enrich your daily life with true awakefulness. There’s no rule that meditation must be done sitting cross-legged on a cushion. As you’ll see, we can practice meditation on a nature walk or even while washing the dishes. In the beginning, you will learn how to pick up and carry awareness practice with you wherever you go; later, stable mindfulness gently empowers and carries you. This is the blessing of a genuine spiritual path.

From Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now. © 2011 by Surya Das. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers. 


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