Time as a couch, not a tool

Last week, I did something I rarely do. I went to evening mass on Saturday. A middle-aged man stood by one of the confessionals, watching his daughter or granddaughter running up and down the aisle. He seems a little distracted. I looked again, and saw that he was texting. None of this surreptitious in-your-pocket stuff; there he was, standing in full view of half the church, busily sending SMSs as the priest did his bit on the altar. I thought perhaps it was just the one message – a life or death situation – but when I looked again, some ten minutes later, he was still at it.

Of course, I should have been saying my prayers and not wondering how others were spending their mass time – but I wasn’t. I should have been paying attention to what the priest was saying – but I wasn’t. I should have been present, in the church, at mass, head focused, brain in gear – but I wasn’t. Instead, I was getting more and more annoyed at a complete stranger. Irrationally so. I didn’t know him from Adam. And his texting during mass would have zero affect on my life once I left the church. So why was I so distracted by him? More to the point though, have I completely lost my ability to concentrate and stay focused on one thing for more than five minutes?


The year 2012 has been one of serious introspection for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the alignment of the planets.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. I do know, however, that every little detail of my life has to be parsed and analysed. Every action has to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why it happened. Every conversation has to be replayed to catch the nuances and inferences that I might have been missed first time around. Am I going mad? Is this the onset of menopause? Or am I simply a victim of 21st-century navel-gazing?


This week’s pre-occupation, brought on by my texting-while-at-mass stranger, is with my attention span, or lack thereof. I’m a great advocate of what the likes of Ekhart Tolle and Antony de Mello call ‘being present’ and what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’. I try to concentrate on one thing at a time but it’s quite difficult when the levels of oestrogen in my body naturally lend themselves to multi-tasking. I try to be present. I do. Really. Yet it seems as if the world is conspiring against me. There are so many distractions. So many gadgets. So many interruptions.


It’s as if I have forgotten how to relax. Every waking minute has to be put to productive use. I read on the tram, the metro, the bus, standing in line at the post office, waiting for a friend to show. If I’m not reading, I’m updating my diary, tidying my phone messages, sorting the contents of my handbag. In Malta recently, I took a day off. Determined not to switch on my computer for a whole day, I even left my phone in my room and took myself off to the pool, with my book. But could I relax? Hello no. I tossed and turned on the sun-bed. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had a string of things running through my head that I should have been doing. I was planning my work for the coming week, mentally arranging various meetings and appointments, scheduling my writing tasks. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t switch off.


Back in Budapest, I tried again. One day. No computer. No phone. Just me, myself, and I. I managed to sit still for five minutes before spotting a cobweb – eight hours later, my books were sorted in alphabetical order by author, my wardrobe was colour-coded, and every loose sheet of paper was filed in its proper place.  I tried again – this time venturing outside the four walls of my world. I figured I’d simply wander the streets and take time to the empty city.  A four-day weekend found just me and the tourists in town. Out on the street I was faced with an insurmountable choice: turn right for the tram, left for the metro. Because I had no plan, no specific place to be, no one to meet, I couldn’t for the life of me make up my mind which way to turn. Rather than waste valuable time, I headed back inside to sort my spice rack.

Where did we go wrong? When did we lose our ability to relax? When did we get so fixated with productivity? John F. Kennedy suggested we use time as a tool and not as a couch but I think we’ve gone a little too far.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2012.

11 Responses

  1. What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare . . . You’re not the first to have this trouble. Meditation is the answer. You can’t stop thinking unless you switch off completely, in which there is no certain future, but you can concentrate on something of choice, preferably of the truthful and beautiful variety.

  2. so true..I went on hols last week and left my phone charger behind..panic stoke as I looked at the 20% left on my phone with 5 days to go until I could get home! ;))

    1. A few quotes on being busy that I thought might be relevent –

      If work and leisure are soon to be subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness – then utopia and melancholy will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.
      Gunther Grass

      Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

      From the time we’re born until we die, we’re kept busy with artificial stuff that isn’t important.
      Tom Ford

      Here, on the river’s verge, I could be busy for months without changing my place, simply leaning a little more to right or left.
      Paul Cezanne

      Must say I started by looking in my copy of ‘Awareness’ besides realising that it was time for me to read it again, I realised it really does contain the answers to lifes problems………

      Take care………….loved the dog picture!!

        1. The Cezanne quote was my favorite……….
          I think that this subject maybe relates to our upbringing or perhaps we react to what our contempories are doing………..it can be easy to believe that the alternative to being busy is being lazy, not sure………sometimes when I see people are who have taken this alternative route and see how happy many of them are I feel quite envious!
          I do believe though that if you are lucky enough to be ‘busy’ doing things you enjoy life is not a chore………..it is bliss.
          Still think that a good break can help.

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