(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
One of the surviving quotes from the book Fragments by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a contemporary of the Buddha, says, “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” As a teacher, I have found this to be true. However, I have also found it to be true that time is a game played sloppily by children, a game played tenderly by children, and a game played cluelessly by children. If you’ve ever told a kid who wants a bit more time on the playground, “Okay, you can have two more minutes,” then you know exactly what I mean. You could say “two hours” or “two years” and receive the same exact reaction.
At the end of gym class we often play cool down games to decompress before returning to the classroom. One such game is the One Minute Challenge: the students stand up in front of our gym’s small wooden benches and I start my stopwatch. Without moving around or making noise, the students attempt to time one minute in their heads. When they think a minute has passed, they sit down.
The results of this are fascinating. I played this game with a group of younger students recently and one girl sat down after nine seconds. In another, two minutes passed with a few kids still standing, looking bewildered. When I told a boy that he’d sat down after 49 seconds, he responded, “No, I counted to 60.” I attempted to explain that the rate that he was counting in his head was a different speed than the seconds ticking on my stopwatch, but even as I explained it I felt my own understanding of time becoming unglued. My explanation seemed entirely arbitrary. So what if my stopwatch only got to 49 while Derek counted to 60?
Time is a game adults play dully. I think most would agree that the way adults relate to time is not conducive to playfulness. Of course, the practical structure of the adult world makes it difficult to do so. Most employers would not take it lightly if one tried to excuse a late arrival by claiming, “Time is a game—we must play it beautifully!” Instead, we strive to be on time, we clock in, we meet deadlines, we work overtime, and time flies until the dreaded moment when our time is up.
Many of us recognize our time slipping away: it is why we practice. One can begin to understand time differently within the structure of a 30-minute meditation. When I first started sitting, 30 minutes seemed interminable. I was acutely aware of the time, and, like my student who sat down on the bench after nine seconds, I would look at the clock and be astonished that only 12 minutes had passed. Then I’d glance furtively at the clock every few minutes afterwards and wonder if it was broken until the round was finally over. Other times, I would look at the clock and find I’d been sitting for 43 minutes. Where did the time go?
Over the years I’ve become much better at gauging when 30 minutes is up, but becoming a human stopwatch is only a tangential benefit of practice. More importantly, I’ve been able to see more clearly how much time I spend either oblivious to the passing moments or in self-induced anguish because of them. Most of life is made up of such moments. When you pay attention to them and become curious about them however, time reorients you. Your awareness returns to the room, to the meditation cushion, and the present moment. Within this space, it’s easier to find room for playfulness, tenderness, and hilarity.
In “Uji,” Dogen’s esoteric chapter on time from the Shobogenzo, he wrote, “Don’t believe that ‘time flies.’ Don’t see a ‘flowing away’ as being the definition of time. If time were just a flowing away there would be no place for the present because it would fall through the gaps. You fail to experience being-time if you believe it is something that goes “past” you. The point is that the entirety of each thing in the entire world is linked with everything else in and as moments in and of time. All moments are being-time. They are my being-time.”
It would be nice if I could explicate this quote and seamlessly link it to the way children understand time, but the truth is I don’t really understand it. Dogen, like my students in the One Minute Challenge, unglues my notion of time, muddles my conception of something I thought was pretty straightforward. This same process can occur in practice, when you stop simply enduring and ignoring time and instead notice that you are being time. Maybe this is the key to what Heraclitus said some 2500 years ago. It’s not that children play the game of time beautifully, but that they play it at all.
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