Yes, time is definitely a crook.

A big birthday and the New Year bring time to mind.  As I’ve meditated more regularly since my retreat last summer, I’ve learned a bit more about how easy and how difficult it is just to pay attention.

Time, or more precisely thinking about time, makes it difficult.  Time steals the present moment because while we’re thinking about time, now slips away.  I don’t think that O’Hara in Beat the Devil meant it this way, but that’s the way I’m taking his wonderful quote, which I’ve discussed before:

Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.

Paying attention becomes easier once you tell yourself you only have to pay attention to this breath.  Don’t fret that you were just thinking about the news.  You missed that breath.  So what?  You can’t go back.  And you don’t have to worry about attaining and remaining in a state of concentration for the next 20 minutes or so.  Just stay with the breath you’re breathing.  Don’t worry about the last breath or the next one.

During the first sit of the first day of the retreat I had a glimpse of this insight. I told myself not to keep thinking about doing a five-day silent retreat.  I was only doing this sit.  I didn’t learn this from any guide on how to meditate.  No, I learned this from Daniel Holden, the central character in the series Rectify.  He survived years on death row by not doing time, by living in the time between the seconds.

I may have celebrated the idea of living in the time between the seconds when I heard it three years ago.  I may have used this insight of not doing time to do a five-day silent retreat without getting frustrated or bored.  But it has taken the last six months of sitting silently to realize how far I still am from simply being aware of breathing.

I’ve gotten far enough to realize that the breath to which I’m attending is a sensory-mental image of the movement of air through flesh and blood, movement occurring in the time between the seconds.  I have an idea of that process, but I haven’t experienced it as it unfolds yet.

There is nothing mysterious or mystical about working on paying attention to the moment.  We’re practicing being aware of we’re doing.


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