Zen and Time


Tesshin used his talk this week to explore the concept of time – definitely not a small topic!  How does the concept of time affect our practice and how does our conditioning affect our perception of time?  Tesshin mentioned that we have been conditioned to think of time as having intrinsic meaning and value.  We commonly measure what we have accomplished relative to a time period.  We even do this in Zazen.  For instance, how many minutes did you go until you noticed your mind was drifting?  Is this fixation on relative time a stumbling point for our practice?  Tesshin invited us to carefully examine this.


Tesshin next mentioned that our relationship with time has changed over the past year with Covid and the resultant quarantine.  For many, time has slowed down as our lifestyles have changed and potentially slowed down.  In the absolute sense, nothing has changed with time, but in our day-to-day relative life much has changed.  This tension between the relative and absolute should come as no surprise to those committed to practice.  Tesshin reminded us that this tension will continue long after Covid fades into the mists of the past.


Tesshin next provided some examples about how time plays a big part in our understanding of progress and achievement.  For example, he cited the Perseverance probe’s “7-Minutes of Terror.”  This is a precisely timed sequence of steps from when the lander first hits the Martian atmosphere until it is safe on the planet’s surface.  Tens of thousands of labor-hours were invested in complex hardware and software to pull off this feat.  The entire process can only succeed with timing down to the second.  “7 minutes of terror,” sub-second timings, ten thousand labor hours.  Do you see how we are conditioned to bring time into everything we do?  Tesshin invited the group to think about how we do this on a day to day basis in our own lives.


Tesshin next noted that this attitude is opposite to our work on the cushion.  There is no time in meditation.  There is no meaning and achievement in Zazen.  Stated simply, “Time is Ego!”  Everything we attach to time is our ego wanting to be in control.  We have an opportunity on the cushion to be free of the tyranny of time.   We have all had the moment during sitting when we wonder when the practice bell is going to ring.  If we are honest, that kind of thinking is missing the opportunity which Zazen provides to us. 


Tesshin wrapped up by asked if we can we liberate ourselves from time and ego.  When we see time popping up during our sitting, we need to realize that the ego is reasserting control.  What to do?  Unsurprisingly, Tesshin recommended coming back to the breath!  In a way the breath is an absolute.  Siddhartha breathed, the patriarchs breathed, you breathe.  We all share this thing independent of time and space.  The breath is our best connection to transcend time and ego.