Time Psychosis, Omnipotence, and the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth
April 14, 2017
A habit I label time psychosis causes me to often run late. It results from omnipotence, a form of magical thinking. It relates to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
(How’s that for loose associations?)
I describe the problem, offer a few examples, and provide solutions.
Time psychosis causes me to consistently distort time. For example, I work out at a gym near my office. When I have an unexpected hour free, I’ll dash over there. By the time I’ve changed my clothes and started working out, I typically feel angry. I’m furious I have only a half hour available. I’m usually late to make my next appointment because I fail to accurately account for the time required for showering, dressing, and walking back.
Omnipotence is a theme with which I, and many of my patients, continually struggle. The word means all-powerful. When applied to making plans in life, it is also a form of magical thinking. When I get the free hour to hit the gym, I somehow imagine the hour has expanded. I distort reality, thinking I have more time than I do. I find myself frenetically pulling on the rowing machine, lifting a few weights, and stretching out. I’m often in a rush, and for no reality-based reason.
Omnipotent thinking creates as much stress as any exercise removes. It builds up cortisol levels which erode immune capacity. And yet, it’s not all bad. Omnipotent thinking motivates. It accounts for some of culture’s greatest achievements. But, on a personal level, it offers more negatives than positives.
How does it relate to Buddhism?
Back around 400 BCE, the Buddha, born into a noble family and bored by its mundaneness, set off to find personal fulfillment. He learned about the great religious traditions of his day. He tried a variety of ascetic and other spiritual methods. He ultimately stumbled onto meditation. From it, he gained insights regarding human suffering. Shortly thereafter, he delivered a sermon, in Sarnatha, India, where he explained the four noble truths — his version of how to alleviate suffering. I briefly summarize the first two.
First, the Buddha noted, suffering is ubiquitous. We suffer because, as psycho-social-biological entities, we live in a constant state of need. If you’re hungry and enjoy a good meal, it will only be a few hours until you feel hungry again. You can map this same craving, followed by satisfaction, and then by recurrent craving, onto just about any need you can imagine–shelter, food, water, sex, love, warmth and so on ad infinitum, including absurdities like shopping for office supplies. On and on it goes. The first noble truth, then, is that we suffer because we crave.
Second, we cling to our search for need-satisfaction. We hoard, obsess about our next dinner or sexual encounter, and otherwise endlessly seek forever-elusive satisfaction. Our grasping to such impermanent states prolongs our sense of dissatisfaction. My time psychosis represents just such a clinging. Rather than surrender to the limits of my available time, I imagine I should have more.
In other words, I wish I could somehow make a two-hour break out of a one-hour one. By analogy, we spend too much time imagining life and not enough time living it. We look at maps instead of walking the terrain. Instead of enjoying my work-out, I feel upset about lacking sufficient time to do so. Absurdly, I suffer because I imagine a lack that’s not even there.
Imagination lies at the core of suffering.
Many of my patients struggle with variations of the same problem. The cliches you’ve heard about letting go are terrifically accurate. Letting go is an immensely important life skill. It is simple to understand cognitively; it is difficult to achieve pragmatically.
Regarding current life themes, many patients struggle to realize their romantic relationship has ended, their job bores them, or their lifestyles numb them. Some feel lonely, unable to achieve intimacy with others; some have difficulty finding meaning in work or recreation.
When digging into the past, patients often hear the echoes of unresolved childhood trauma. Some were ignored by their father, lost a sibling, or were bullied in elementary school. Others have never accepted unchangeable features of being — their physical appearances, their personality styles, their socioeconomic backgrounds. Some have unconsciously harbored hurt or angry feelings towards significant others, preventing them from potentially gratifying relationships.
These common life difficulties, whether relating to current or past events, share clinging or grasping. For example, a person with unresolved anger at a parent is, by definition, clinging to the anger. They need help letting it go.
Wisdom from the West and the East work in tandem to facilitate letting go processes. For example, the depth psychotherapies help persons identify unresolved grief, injuries, conflicts or deficits. Through varieties of interpersonal influence, and working in partnership with their patients, depth psychotherapists uncover the roots of these difficulties. More importantly, they help patients change, let go. Most conflicts (internal or external) can be resolved, grieving processes facilitated, and deficits addressed.
Eastern traditions, particularly meditation and mindfulness, fit seamlessly into these more individually-oriented, Western methods. They bring the second noble truth into sharp focus. Further, they facilitate a capacity to live in the moment. They help people be present.
The various psychic injuries I described above also feature an inability to live in the moment. Whether still reeling from the death of a parent, or continuing to harbor fury at a boyfriend, persons so-engaged are, by definition, missing the brilliance of each moment.
Fearfully oversimplifying, I hope I have nonetheless described a few common human problems and explained how traditions from the East and the West may offer relief.
Awed and humbled by the mystery of time and its limits, I send my best wishes,
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