Ever feel like life is passing you by and flowing so quickly it’s hard to keep track? Your “subjective sense” of time—a concept referring to the perception of how quickly or slowly time passes—may be faster than others’. A recent study found that long-term meditators reported a slower sense of subjective time than non-meditators.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed an expansion in my sense of time after attending meditation retreats. In the aftermath of retreat, it’s as if driving, eating or interacting with friends lasts longer than they once did. Without the constant squeeze around there “never being enough time,” it’s as if my present moments quite literally loosen up. Though I may find myself occasionally more likely to be late to a meeting, or miss a deadline, these seem balanced out by the pleasure of being more fully present for the tasks and interactions with which I am engaged.
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The recent study tackled a related question: Do the time perceptions of meditators differ when compared to non-meditators? To examine this inquiry, researchers administered a number of experimental tests to assess how accurate participants were at judging how much time had passed. They also collected questionnaires assessing subjective time and psychological characteristics that influence subjective time (to statistically account for the possibility that these psychological factors might influence their results).
The 42 meditators and 42 non-meditators were equally accurate at judging the passage of time, it turned out, contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis. But meditators reported experiencing slower retrospective subjective time; i.e., less time pressure, a general slower passage of time, and a sense that recent time had passed more slowly than non-meditators.
The researchers explain these findings by theorizing that increased present-moment awareness of oneself and one’s environment slows down the subjective passage of time in individuals who practice mindfulness. Because this study was cross-sectional (i.e., assessed at one point in time), we cannot infer whether the slower subjective sense of time in meditators was attributable to mindfulness meditation, or some other pre-existing factor.
How many times have you “woken up” while driving somewhere, only to realize you followed a familiar route and ended up going the opposite direction as intended? Or looked down at your empty bowl after eating, wondering on earth where it all went? When we are immersed in the “mind-made world,” speeding forward into the future or dwelling on the past, time seems like it passes much more quickly than it actually does, fostering a scarcity complex. The less time we perceive that there is, the less we are present for our lives, as we rush to squeeze everything in. In the process, our bodies, experiences and relationships, thirsty for our attention, can languish.
In my own experience, I observed that my perceptions of time scarcity made it more difficult for me to engage in meaningful relationships and produce quality work. Mindfulness meditation freed me from this scarcity complex, and I’m now able to make better use of my time, accomplishing more while worrying less and having more fun in life overall.
Curious to explore this on your own? Create “mindfulness moments”—a specific behavior or reminder each day to re-engage with the present moment. Every time you brush your teeth, engage in conversation, or take a child’s pose, choose to stay in the moment. With increased mindfulness of the present moment, you may find that your perception of time passing expands and along with it, your bandwidth for balancing productivity, self-care, and relationships.
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