The challenge and opportunity of unstructured time

full upI’m currently studying an online course with the Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray – the course is “the somatic practice of pure awareness”. Over the 10 weeks, we (there are some 200 participants) are being offered meditation practices, teachings and reading that deepen the awareness of the body as the prime gateway for “awakening”. I am four weeks in now, and already I am experiencing my body in a very different way. I have written recently about finding ground in the groundlessness as an example – in noticing where I hold in my body, I am able to let go. This is pervading my life and my work – and it’s all very exciting.

Exciting AND anxiety provoking: not the crippling form of anxiety that I have once known, but one that I can and want to have a relationship. My anxiety no longer blocks me from life, but rather draws me deeper in to it; the kind of anxiety that feels an invitation to open up, to go deeper, to be more vulnerable, to stretch myself. It is almost like the more anxiety I feel, the more it is good news – feedback I am moving in the right direction.

An example of this came in the teaching unit of the course we have just completed. Reggie invites us to consider how we spend our time – specifically, how we might orientate our life to offer up more ‘unstructured time’. He views this as critical to all – not just meditators who already “just sit” for 30 minutes a day for their meditation practice. He explains how today’s world bombards us more than ever with information and experiences – we can easily become overloaded. AND, as a whole we make less time to simply be – and “being” is is essential to absorb, digest, assimilate what life brings our way. So alongside having a meditation practice, how else in our life can we have more time where time and space just unfolds; no plans, no outcomes, no expectations?

 As a therapist, I have come to learn this – maybe in part I learned the hard way. When I qualified and set up private practice, I was very successful in marketing and getting off the ground. Within 4 months of ‘opening the doors’, I had hit my target client load. It took its toll, and it has taken quite a while to recover from that period: I now see a fraction of clients that I used to; and I have more space between clients to help me acknowledge what I absorb emotionally, digest the processes, and assimilate in to my experience. One mentor of mine recently shared with me that she knows her retirement from therapeutic work came prematurely – she likened herself to being “an emotional vacuum cleaner” and for her, the motor blew. As therapist we have to learn to empty our dustbags consistently and thoroughly.

Meditation is part of my self-care programme; it is also my gauge as to how I am fairing. But I have come to learn that this is not enough. Re-structuring my working week with the intention to create more space has been a challenging, yet effective process – and I feel I now have the best rhythm for me. What is interesting to me is how in the space I have created, I feel the pull to fill time. With what? Well, time has to be used in a worthwhile manner. I recently wrote about my experience being ill, and the choicelessness that brought – I had to stop. In my well times, how do I make that choice when the little gremlins in my head tell me of ALL the things I could be doing?

Since listening to Reggie Ray’s talk at the weekend, I have been watching what tugs and pulls me to plan and fill time. I’ve been watching how I can be eating breakfast and the pull to check emails, read the news, check the weather forecast etc – when actually I have a beautiful sunrise and Venus to be with. As a mindfulness teacher, I have often taught students the benefit of doing one thing at a time, to challenge the idea that multitasking is best. As the zen teaching goes “When walking, walk. When eating, eat”. I’m pretty good at doing one thing at a time. Working with unstructured time goes deeper – this isn’t just doing one thing at a time with more attention; this is allowing space for being. I find this harder.

For me, the biggest challenge comes when I notice small slots in my day opening up. I can feel the tug from my very viscera to “quick, come up with a plan”. The other day, I was due to finish a meeting at 5:30pm and I knew I was meeting my parents for a meal in town. You would not believe how much cognition was devoted to working out what I could do with the hour or so in between!! One of my plans was to “do a long sitting” – the irony being that I could also have just gone downstairs to the lounge and loafed on the sofa with a cup of tea and play with the cat (if she wanted to join me). Both would be “being”, but the meditation option felt more “disciplined”, I would be doing something useful with my time. Funny no?

My client work suggests this might be one of those issues stirred up by the travails of mid-life. Several clients questioning how they have arrived at the end of the ‘first half of life’ and pondering how different the second half might be have talked to me about the difficulty in giving themselves permission to “not do”. So much of our identity is based upon what we do (cue dinner party conversation: “hello, nice to meet you. What do you do?”); and then we realise there is more to life than that, but we don’t know what it is, nor how we can cope with time and space that isn’t dedicated to the reifying of the identity we once had – its a hard habit to break.

Obviously, Reggie Ray is coming from a Buddhist angle – not only does he see the importance of time and space to witness and hold the impact life’s bombardment has on our soma and the assimilation of our experience(s), he also sees unstructured time as the ultimate challenge to our ego clinging. The Buddhist teaching on the skandas is a useful one to bring in here. And for me, no-one articulates the development of the ego through the skandas more beautifully than Chogyam Trungpa:

CTR skandas

In other words, space challenges the ego – in space we lose all reference points. The ego needs to do in order to feel itself, to know it exists. We feel the threat of annihilation in non-doing. Maybe you have experienced this as boredom and then the search of something to do – what is that pull? If you examine your experience, what is SO bad about the moment (in the boredom) that you need to get away from? I was experimenting in the local park the other day – a coffee in my hand, my favourite bench, enjoying the unseasonal weather and the sun on my face…and even in that beautiful, not needing anything else moment, I could feel my mobile phone calling to me (even if it seemingly was to share my moment with others). Fascinating stuff.

Practicing with unstructured time is why this post is published behind my desired weekly schedule. It’s lateness is, paradoxically, a marker of my success! Maybe those gremlins are losing their grip on me…just maybe.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *