Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Discipline of Taking Time

"New Every Morning"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

A recent article in the New York Times reported some interesting psychological research about how people behave in art museums:

 Upon entering any vast art museum, the typical traveler grabs a map and spends the next two hours darting from one masterpiece to the next, often battling crowds, exhaustion and hunger.

Most people want to enjoy a museum not conquer it. Yet the average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art. And the breathless pace of life in our Instagram age conspires to make that feel normal.

Upon reading this observation, I immediately thought of one of my own museum experiences at the Louvre in Paris where the crowds were so thick and the pace so frantic that we could barely even catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, much less enjoy it. People were literally "running" from masterpiece to masterpiece frantically and continually snapping pictures as proof that they had "been there, done that."  

I am also reminded of the way I would often approach our "family vacation time" in years gone by.  We would arrive at our destination and before we would even unpack our bags, I would have a map of the area out on the table along with a series of brochures detailing all the local sights so that I could plot out all the places we "needed" to visit and things we "needed" to do.  After all, we only had a week and so we should do as much as we possibly could in the little time we had. 

As I think about it now, I would often get back from those vacations feeling tired and exhausted, and going back to work was often a "vacation from the vacation."  

The museum research reported in the New York Times article  suggested that many people move at such a frantic pace while visiting an art museum,  and they feel so compelled to document it all by taking pictures, because they want to be able to go home and "brag" about where they have been. The frantic pace of flitting from masterpiece to masterpiece is fueled by a desire to be held in high esteem by others.  

The researchers in the Times' article concluded that the only way a museum can ever really be enjoyed is by slowing down and taking the time to "engage with the art."

If you do choose to slow down, to find a piece of art that somehow speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than seconds, you will most likely connect with the art, with the person with whom you are touring the galleries, and maybe even with yourself, feeling refreshed and inspired rather than tired and exhausted.

It seems to me that this is good advice not only for touring an art museum, but for living the routine of everyday life.

When I look back at my younger years, I think perhaps that my frantic pace of life may indeed have been inspired by a desire to have others hold me in high esteem, "Look where I have been in my life, all the things that I have accomplished." 

When we went on a family vacation I probably did go home and brag about all the many places we had been and the great things we had seen; but in doing so had I sacrificed an opportunity for us to simply "be together" with one another, enjoying each other's company? 

In my later years I have come to think of "time" very differently than I once did when I was young. I have come to realize that time is indeed a precious gift that will someday come to an end.  But I have no desire to do as much as I possibly can in the years I have left. I don't have an endless checklist of places I need go, things to see, tasks yet to be accomplished. 

I have come to realize that I find my greatest joy and deepest peace when I am able to practice a "discipline of taking time," slowing down and "engaging the moment," whatever comes my way. It's just like slowing down in an art gallery.

From the "Sayings" of the ancient Desert Mothers and Fathers, comes this observation about "time"

An old monk once said,
'if you lose gold and silver, you can  find something as good as you lost.
But the one who loses time can never make up what he lost.'

All we ever have is "now." I do not want to lose this precious gift. I want to "enjoy life, not conquer it." 


  1. How true. For as long as I can remember even before starting kindergarten all I wanted was my time to spend. I was angered to find out I was required to go to school. I hated school all my life.

    Now I'm retired and for the last 5 years I've had all my time. Little money, little desire to go here and there. Though I would like a car to see the sights and photograph them. The Oregon coast is magnificent. But even so just spending time in the yard and in the house with my 8 cats is rewarding and I feel richer than some of my relatives who fly around the world at the drop of a hat and never seem to sit still and yet always give me the feeling they are not satisfied.

    1. Thanks for this--I totally get it.

    2. Here's a poem I wrote about feelings like this a few days ago. It's some of the things I do with my time.