Keeping time with our body

I once had a job creating graphics for a T-shirt and embroidery company. It was a pretty nice job where I took a logo and created a computer version of it, with all the thread colours drawn into the file. Essentially I spent all day drawing things like Lions, Unicorns, football crests and company names, in colours on the screen.

The days wizzed by. I turned up, did some work, had lunch, did some more and it was time to go home. There were two of us in our room and we had the radio on all day. It was a pretty nice set-up.

This ought to have been my dream job, but after a couple of months I started to feel very uncomfortable …about time.

Working on a computer is a bit like being in the holo-deck in star-trek. There is no sense of time. Computers don’t have time, they do have clocks, but once we are in a virtual space we have no sense of the passing of time.

This was having a strange effect on me and I was really feeling that my working week was outside of time.

I have had plenty of computer based jobs before but I had never felt like this. I wondered if this was different because I was actually engaged with what I was doing. I was enjoying the work, it was essentially like a computer game. Draw the logo, make sure the threads will all sit over each other neatly, for the embroidery machines to produce it. I was in a flow state, and being paid for it. Surely that was a good thing?

I remembered a story I had read when I was a little, about a bored child who finds a magic ball. There was a silver thread coming out of the ball. When the child pulled the thread time passed very quickly. They took it home, and realised that this ball would be a fantastic way to skip all the boring things they had to do every day.

They worked out just how much thread to pull, to skip the dull classes at school. That was ok for a bit, then it seemed easier to just skip all of the school days. The child woke up in the morning, pulled the tread, and then it was time to go and play after school. This was wonderful. No boredom, no waiting, just all the good bits.

When the child grew up they had to get a job, and they continued to skip through work days, then they skipped the odd winter, to get to the summer again. It was a life of summer holidays, easy evenings and fun things to do…. and then it ended. The thread ran out. They pulled and pulled and the last of the thread came away in their hand. The ball itself was now old and it cracked and fell apart.

They sat there. It was an unexciting autumn day with no plans. The clouds moved hurriedly across the sky. They sat and watched the clouds. Time passed really slowly. Minutes went past. They started to panic, thinking, ‘What will I do? I am trapped in this endless feeling of nothing, passing really slowly, with nothing to do’.

Then a bird flew in front of the window and landed on a bush. The bird looked about and then started to preen it’s feathers, holding out its wings which caught the light. Then it heard something and it disappeared, darting away in the wind.

They wanted the bird to return. As this tiny event finished and the space fell empty again in front of them, they felt a wave of the deepest sadness. Tears welled up in their eyes, and their chest ached. As the wave of sadness rolled through them, it was followed by a huge sigh. The world was so beautiful, and they had never noticed. They had never had to sit anywhere and wait for anything before now. They had never had time.

Waiting for something else to happen they noticed their own breath. Rising gently and falling again, this gentle action was keeping time. Noticing this rhythm helped them to quell the panic. Their aloneness seemed different if they noticed they were with their own body. That seemed very odd, to be comforted by their physical self, like there were two of them. The mind, unattached to anything, and the body keeping track of time passing, waiting patiently.

I decided to quit my graphics job. I felt like the child with the magic ball, skipping through my life. I remind myself of this experience when I spend a long time on the computer.

The story was written a long time before computers and smart phones even existed, but the child with the magic ball teaches us about time and about perception.

Computers allow amazing creativity, and when we use them our mind is unleashed, but it is also un-tethered from safety. If the mind floats free without time, it cannot process reality.

The mind has no inherent sense of time, and so for the mind to feel safe, and to feel connected to reality, it has to listen to the body.

We know how time alterations, sleep deprivation, and messing with the circadian rhythms can create psychosis and anxiety.

We also know that the brain processes a sense of time using information about the physical body. [This is explained by A.D Craig, the neuroscientist, in his book, How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self].

Our mind’s only connection with reality is through our body. Feeling what is going on in your body is called Interoception.

Practicing staying in touch with your body, by using your interoceptive sense, helps your mind to stay calm. You can do these exercises daily, and also invent some of your own.

What does Interoception feel like?

Notice your breathing. You don’t need to do anything to change it, just watch it gently happening. Count ten normal relaxed breaths. This focusses your awareness inside your body. To do this ‘inside focus’ you will be using your sense of interoception. That’s it!

Lots of relaxation and quieter types of exercise and movement ask you to focus inwards, and it is very relaxing for the mind, but there are other ways you can do it too.

Exercises you can do now to increase your interoceptive skill:

1) Feel your feet. How do the tops of your feet feel? and how do the soles of your feet feel?

2) Sit quietly and see if you can count your heartbeat. Do this without touching anywhere that has a pulse near the surface (like your wrists or neck). Count twenty beats.

3) For a more advanced internal meditation, notice what feels different inside, on one side of your body to the other. For instance, your stomach sits more to your left side. Can you feel a difference between your left and right side, under your ribs? How would you describe the difference?