This is Loch Laidon on Rannoch Moor in Scotland. Perhaps half a dozen times in my life, I have gone there and just stood. It is perhaps the most timeless place I know. The nearest road is several miles away, the nearest settlement perhaps thirty. Even though many years sometimes pass between visits, on each occasion that I visit, for all intents and purposes, it is exactly the same. It is there now – being more or less exactly the same as it always is. Maybe a few trees have fallen, but that is about it – nothing very perceptible, in a landscape whose bones are getting on for 500 million years old.
On the other side of the Moor, near Loch Ba, there is a viewpoint by the A82 road, where the view is so stupendous that people voluntarily interrupt their journeys quite literally just to stand and stare. If you can access Google Earth, you too can go there now, stand and scroll through 360 degrees: the effect will be at least a little the same.
There has been much gnashing of teeth in the British media recently about the effect on our perception of time of the lockdown, entering its fifth or sixth week. I don’t know which: I’ve stopped counting. Or rather, I never started.
A piece in The Guardian yesterday commented on the way in which time itself distorts under such circumstances, and how it is incredibly difficult not to go mad without a tight drumbeat by which to live one’s life.
I disagree. If you want to experience the true nature of time, go to somewhere like Loch Laidon. Ideally, do it on one of its less inhospitable days, when the sun is shining, and the water clear and blue in the way you forget water really can be, if you live in, say, East London. Sit on the small beach by the loch and feel the sun on your skin, breathe in clean air, wine-like in a way it never normally is in, say, North London. Watch the wind rustling the heather and bog grasses – and realise that it has been doing this – exactly like this – every day for at least the last ten thousand years. On one occasion when I was there, a stag appeared: jumped out of the trees a little way up the hillside; stood and stared at me for a few moments, then trotted off down the path, back into the trees – and out of (my) time, forever.
Even if you are there in a storm, as you shelter, appreciate the place’s shift to a brooding melancholy as something happens that has come – and passed – countless times before down the millennia.
The problems that people have with Time are not of Time’s making. They are to do with the ways we are conditioned to use – and think about – it. I suspect this is a relatively recent, and largely western phenomenon. Contrary to popular thinking, indigenous peoples across the world tend to spend plenty of time just sitting around or doing things that are low in the list of survival essentials. The same appears to have been true of our own ancestors. Buddhists are known to approach such things in a very different way.
We, on the other hand, have allowed ourselves to become defined by constant action – and in particular, constant consumption – for which we must also constantly work. It is all about consuming life itself, where quantity appears to governing rule, but which may not be fundamentally in our own interests. We are encouraged to consume without thinking, moving ever onward, before we have even digested what we encountered last…
So the problem with people who are struggling is not Time: it is themselves. I don’t say this to be unkind – but to point out that all human routine is simply conditioning, and it can be changed. Quite often it is conditioning that we did not even choose to receive; much derives simply from growing up in certain societies and being subject to their influences. When it comes to the pace of life, each new generation picks up where the last one left off. Change may not be easy – but it can be done.
Routine and habit of course give shape to daily life, but when we lose the ability to regulate the drum according to our own needs, those things perhaps become less beneficial. Much of the beat originates from forces that have a vested interest in our dancing to their tune; it is not in their interests for us to be able to define the purposes of our own lives. The most obvious examples of this are economic, since we have built an economic system that requires constant consumption in order to keep it functioning – and more importantly for those who control these things, the flow of income into their offshore accounts. Their empowerment is our loss – and it is more than just financial.
The same forces shape the world of work: while productivity pays our monthly way, I have my doubts that the pace and duration of modern work is strictly necessary. Much of it is directed towards objectives that themselves are largely confected, the benefits of which I suspect tends to accrue to others rather than ourselves. It is really necessary that so many things be done by yesterday? Go and stand on the beach at Loch Laidon and ask yourself the same question.
It’s not that there is no benefit in speed: it can be exhilarating. But when speed comes to rule us, its effect changes. Its adrenaline becomes addictive: the problem some people are having with slowing down is simply that they are not used ever to having to do so. They have become so used to living life as though it is supermarket sweep that they simply don’t know how not to do it like that. If you are used to living in a constant state of external hyper-stimulation then like stopping any other dependency, it will be difficult.
If you blast through life in the fast lane, simply trying to sweep as much as possible into your trolley as you go, you tend not to leave time to reflect on whether what you are doing is either helpful or necessary. The human brain does have a physical limit to how quickly it can process information; the more demands we place on it, the less likely we are to be able to deal with anything in more than a cursory way. In that situation the immediacy of Quantity trumps the subtlety of Quality.
But right now, quantity is suddenly in short supply – and people are being forced to sit and contemplate the quality of their lives. I suspect it was apprehension about this that caused the consternation of some weeks ago. But along with those who are still struggling, there is now much evidence that people are finding new things to do with their time, as I suspected they would, and even quite enjoying it. They are perhaps beginning to see more clearly what many have sensed for some time – life as it has recently been is neither good for us, nor even as much fun as it was supposed to be.
I’m not the only one talking about a rediscovery of core values, of community and self-help, and hoping that at least some of the current calm will continue once the health crisis passes. The Slow Movement has been saying as much for years, of course, and now Danny Dorling has joined in, too.
I suspect that individual struggles are largely in proportion to the levels of conditioning. People are not fundamentally so different – but the ways in which we are conditioned (or condition ourselves) perhaps are. Those who are most used to having their lives filled externally probably will encounter most difficulty when that changes. Perhaps it’s thirty years of having been ruled by hourly lesson-bells that cause me to relish, rather than fear, the sense of time stretching endlessly ahead, to be used just as current circumstances suggest, moment by moment; hours when I rule my time, rather than it ruling me.
If there is a knack for doing this, I think it comes down to expectations. If you perceive time – and hence your own life – as a constantly-moving conveyor, a bit like the last stage of The Generation Game, with an endless supply of goodies passing in front of you, your only job being to grab them – then the point when the conveyor stops will be difficult.
It’s not a lot better to consider it as a jigsaw puzzle – because then the value of each piece is only its relation to a picture that you may only see fleetingly at its very end.
But time is a slippery concept. For all that Physics says it moves forward, there is plenty in the way we experience it that can make it seem to slow down or even stop. Change may be endemic – but it does not always happen at breakneck speed. In fact, for large tracts of time, left to its own devices, not much happens at all. It is breakneck that is the lie. That, I think, is the lesson of Loch Laidon.
There are things you can do to assist this: practising Mindfulness is one, where you learn to focus on just your own breath; sitting watching the play of light and shade on the wall of a sunny room is another. Contemplating a still-life painting is another: things that are not dependent on the passage of time, of constantly living in the future at the expense of appreciating the present. Ironically, the more you do this, the more the burden of time seeming to drag, recedes.
The health benefits of natural environments are widely-known; I suspect these too stem from the sense of un-changingness that they exude. Time spent experiencing the wind, the movement of the trees and the plays of light and shade – things that have been going on for millions of years – can give us an entirely different perspective on time – one where the future is characterised not by the next deadline or appointment – but by their absence. Of sameness – which is perfectly alright if you accept it – and of apparent randomness, of things that just come, pass, and go, a bit like the stag. Of its being entirely acceptable to exist in each moment, as it happens, just for its own sake. This too can become a form of conditioning – one that actually enhances the quality of our lives, where we experience things at a pace more in keeping with our own comfort and understanding and ability to savour.
I think another trick concerns how you define the ‘purpose’ of something. The pleasure of daubing paint on canvas for its own sake can be far greater than the reputation or wealth that most of us will (n)ever get from doing it. Playing a musical instrument is no ‘use’ to most of us, except in the pleasure it gives to do so. The trick is to do it for its own sake, rather than simply as a step on the way to something else that somehow never arrives. I think it’s no surprise that many people seem to have resorted to cookery and are finding again pleasure in a thing that is often debased as a chore to be got out of the way, rather than done for its own sake.
The whole point of standing by Loch Laidon was just to stand there. It all depends on what you define as the journey, and what the destination.
Much of what we rail about in life, what stresses us, concerns our unrealistic expectations of time. When we slow down, we can start to focus on detail rather than a blur, and we can perhaps rediscover that life does not need to be lived at break-neck speed in order to be fulfilling. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. It is possible to travel across Rannoch Moor at sixty miles an hour on a train – at which point one admires the distant views but sees no more than a blur of the never-changing minutiae of that place. It’s only when you get off the train, that you can really drink it in.
A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.