Become a Connoisseur of Time
An Interview With Joel Bennett, PhD
"Held" by Betony Coons / betonycoons.com
What we really want is to experience our lives in ever-richer ways. And that means getting off the clock. Here, a master outlines how to do just that.
We know we’re only here for a short time. So, we don’t really want to get more efficient at spending our time. And we don’t really want to cram it with more distractions. What we really want is to experience our lives in ever-richer ways. And that means getting off the clock.
Here, a master outlines how to do just that.
S+H: Let’s go back to the early days of Spirituality+Health. You sent me your first book, Time and Intimacy, and together we created a magazine feature. Then we met at the American Psychological Association convention in Honolulu…
Bennett: And I called to ask where we should meet, and we were already standing in the same room.
That’s funny. I had forgotten that. What I remember is walking out on Waikiki Beach, where an odd set of connections enabled us to jump into an outrigger canoe with Nappy Napoleon, probably the most experienced paddler in Hawaii. He was a master of those waves, and he got us on one, and we rode it for what must have been a quarter of a mile. It was magic! The magazine article we had published was called “Navigating Time.” That guy had us literally navigating time! So, here’s my question. How seriously should we take synchronicities?
That’s a tough question. Synchronicity is one of what I call the four Soulful Capacities: Acceptance, Presence, Flow, and Synchronicity. I believe that the most meaningful, purposeful, and pivotal points in a person’s life happen around these four capacities. The first three are well-explored by both religious traditions and by science. We basically know what they mean. Synchronicity, however, is the most difficult to grasp. People have a hard time believing that you can cultivate synchronicity—that it’s a skill.
So, let’s define it first. The definition that many people give is a classic Jungian definition where two seemingly random events come together and they’re meaningful. For example, I pick up the phone to call somebody that I haven’t talked to in years, and they’re already on the line. [Laughs] Or we’re already in the same room at a huge convention. So how are we there?
That’s what I asked.
I think we all know there are forces at work beyond anything modern science deals with, and these forces are very powerful in shaping how we make meaning in our life. But what’s important in this conversation right now is that synchronicities jolt you into the present. When we’re experiencing a soulful capacity like a synchronicity, “clock time” immediately goes away. Now we’re in a realm where we experience life as it happens. It’s not about what I have to get done. It’s about how am I living my life. You’re starting to unshackle yourself from clock time.
Those four Soulful Capacities are happening all the time. They’re all right now. Where’s acceptance in your life? What are you present to? What synchronicities have you noticed? What’s flowing? What’s not flowing? The simplest way to wake up to these capacities is to bring more contemplation into your life. And that’s possible whether you are a single parent, whether you are a factory worker, and even if you’re living in extremely dire circumstances, because it’s a mindset. It comes from an age-old practice of returning to presence.
Let’s back up a bit. Your day job is in workplace health promotion, stress management, and addiction research—that kind of stuff. You’ve trained thousands of individuals. You’ve trained some enormous number of trainers, all over the world. You’ve got a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Wellness Institute and were recently recognized by the Surgeon General. What got all this started?
That’s another kind of tough question, but you can use this if you want. My mother passed away when I was 22, and her death was due to a combination of things. One of the most important was heartbreak because my father was a philanderer. They divorced when I was 12, and that led to her becoming overweight, depressed, and drinking. We didn’t have a lot after my dad left. She slept on a couch in the living room. So, the simple answer to your question is that her death could have been prevented. It should not have happened. I was lucky in the sense that about a month before she passed, she said to me, “I’ve raised two good boys.” And I’ve always felt that was her way of telling me that she was ready to go. But it should not have been her time. My career has been largely devoted to coming up with evidence-based programs to prevent alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
The first thing we have to recognize is that we’re not talking about time. We’re talking about what is actually happening. And that means understanding four universal forces that I call Radiant Forces. There’re cosmological, metaphysical, deep forces that are inescapable and are part of everything that happens. The first Radiant Force is Chaos, or entropy. Entropy is a given. Everything is falling apart. Everything is getting more random. Chaos…
Hold on a second. Milli! Get down!
I hope that stays in the interview [laughs]. The dog came in. Try as hard as we might to keep the dog out, the dog comes back. I know people who have dogs named Chaos.
Ok, I have managed to dump the chaos on Mary.
We shall see. In any case, the Buddhist take on this is suffering or dukkha, and my understanding is that dukkha is not just personal suffering. The whole thing is suffering. That’s the first Noble Truth. It’s all going to shit.
The second Radiant Force, and its standing in dynamic opposition to the first, is Form, or gravity. Gravity brings things together. It creates form and order. But the point for now is that Form/gravity is happening and Chaos is happening.
The third Radiant Force is what I call Time Shaping, which is basically cause and effect. Most of Western culture is focused on agency and Time Shaping and creating new forms. We’re always looking to create the next thing—to a fault. For example, big pharma is trying to solve the opioid crisis by creating a nonaddictive pain pill rather than deal with the workaholism and stress and burnout that’s causing so many people to feel pain.
The opposing force to Time Shaping is Nurturing Conditions. Nothing comes into being unless conditions are ripe. For example, I can try as hard as I want to have the person I’m in love with fall in love with me, but it won’t happen unless the stars are aligned. Nurturing Conditions is the force that we least understand, appreciate, and even look at here in the West because we’re so focused on Time Shaping.
Everyone is familiar with personality types like Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram, but I think the idea of types is misguided. We are too dynamic for types. Instead, I use the word attractions, and our attractions change over time. For example, a person who is predominantly attracted to the entropic, to the chaos, is a person who just wants to dance with life. They’re not looking for form or structure. They’re asking, what are we going to do next? Sometimes these people think they have ADHD, but what’s really happening is that they’re attracted to the idea that life is a blur. At a basic quantum level, life is a blur. So, let them be attracted to the blur. The opposite attraction is Gravity, and those people are drawn to organization, structure, and routine.
Personally, I’m attracted to Nurturing Conditions. For example, in my resilience teaching, I always ask how even a crushing stress can become transforming; a crucible for change. I’m also attracted to the chaotic. It's hard for me to have structure and routine in my life because I’m not attracted to it. And yet, over the years, I have had staff who are much more grounded, so I’ve had to become more structured, just as they have had to become more creative by virtue of working with me.
The point is that when we look deeply at these attractions over the course of life, we see it’s not just clock-time and not-clock-time, but the dynamic stages of life. What has the journey been like? Where am I being drawn to next? Life becomes so much more spacious when we look at ourselves through this dynamic lens.
I think what people are most interested in are what I call the “Treasures.” What you see on the left are the four Radiant Forces: Form, Chaos, Nurturing Conditions, and Time Shaping. And at the top are the four Soulful Capacities: Acceptance, Presence, Flow, and Synchronicity. The Treasures are where the Soulful Capacities and the Radiant Forces meet up. So, the treasures of life are our experience of life happening, experiences that have nothing to do with clock time. They arise when a Soulful Capacity recognizes a powerful force.
For example, when my Acceptance recognizes Form, I experience the treasure of ordinariness—a calm, abiding, take one-day-at-a-time kind of reverie. Another example is when Presence recognizes Chaos. It’s when I’m present to wonder or be amazed, seeing my place in the grand scheme of things. That’s awe/humility. Or let’s look at savoring. It’s when I’m in the Flow and the conditions are nurturing. This is where the wine connoisseur fits. It’s a relishing; knowing there’s more here. I really want to know where the grapes came from and what conditions brought about this amazing vintage.
This chart is from book five of your series, and it’s not out yet. Can we run it in the interview?
Sure. I guess so. It’ll immediately tell people, “Whoa! Book Five! We have to wait till Book Five?” And yeah. They do. [Laughs]. A single retreat can lead to an epiphany, but that transformation typically doesn’t survive the trip home. It takes practice. Each of the books have practices that can be done with other people. The idea—and the hope—is that book clubs or meditation classes or church groups or other groups will work through the books and practices over time.
But you know you’re a connoisseur when you understand all this?
That’s right. I also talk about treasures in the eBook and in Book One. But I devote all of Book Five to them, and I decided to do that because it’s a big mistake to think the journey is all about the treasures. Treasures are in every religious and spiritual path. The problem is that people fixate on them. Think of Joseph Campbell and the whole mythic hero story. There’s preparation to be done, but people just go for the treasure. They’re not ready, so they get swallowed by the dragon instead.
Ouch! I hate it when that happens. What about Time and Intimacy? And time in general. Nobody I know thinks about time from all the perspectives that you do.
It’s all part of that same story. Time and Intimacy started with my master’s thesis, which was on love and power in romantic relationships. We looked at what’s called the “principle of least interest,” where a sociologist named Waller proposed that the person who has the least interest in the relationship has the most power. We asked a hundred couples two simple questions about their love and their power. We actually proved Waller’s hypothesis.
What were the two questions?
“Could I be doing better than what I’m getting in this relationship?” And, “How happy am I?” We asked both questions to couples of all ages who had been together for different lengths of time, and I saw a clear pattern: If one member of the couple had a high “comparison of alternatives level”—that is, if that person thought that he or she could find a better relationship—then the other member was low on that scale: that person didn’t think he or she could do any better.
What that study taught me is that a relationship that stays together is in a dynamic pattern, and yet psychology has no theory of time in relationships. Typical surveys attempt to understand very powerful, complex situations through snapshots. The analogy I used back then is that if you take a photograph of a murmuration of a flock of birds, you have no clue what’s really going on. The critical dynamic is time.So, for example, what does time have to do with addiction?
People who struggle with addiction are essentially struggling with presence. They’re not present to their lives. The only thing that’s on their mind is the next hit. I’ve been in lots of 12-step meetings and recovery meetings where the turning point for recovery is a person realizing that they’re missing out on life. The bigger idea is how to prevent addiction in the first place, and that gets to the core of my work: the need for a new model or language of time.
Let’s go there. What’s the core issue?
Our culture is an addictive culture. It’s a consumer culture. And it’s all on the back of clock time. It stems from the industrialization of work and the need to have people show up on time and have synchronized schedules so that they can produce in a factory. The invention of the clock, and then the spread of simple, inexpensive clocks and watches, made this whole thing start happening. And because we’re now on this clock-time treadmill, we’ve forgotten that there are other indigenous, powerful clocks that are not mechanical, that are organic and natural. Clock time is a catastrophe in all kinds of ways. We’ve entered into a phase of human history where we’re not present to what’s happening.
On an individual level we try what I call time compression. We have this terrible time urgency, the feeling like we don’t have time. Time pressure leads to the overuse of fast foods and ultra-processed foods that don’t allow our microbiome to do its work properly, which loops back into more stress and constant anxiety. At a corporate level, we have managers make very poor decisions under time pressure, and thus feed a culture of hyperreactivity. On social media, we are constantly bombarded and feel we have to react, so we say senseless things to each other that cause more reactivity. At a planetary level, we can’t delay gratification even to save our own kids.
People don’t understand that there is an alternative to clock time—and the alternative is a much better way to experience life. So, I wanted to make sure that I took the time to create something that would teach those who are interested. You can’t do that in a workshop. You can’t do it in a week. It’s something you have to experience over time. So, I’ve created five books.
What you propose sounds very time-consuming.
That very phrase assumes that time is something we consume. But that’s not true at all. That’s the Kool-Aid we’ve drunk.
So, if we’re not consuming it? What are we doing with it?
Ah! Now we can begin! It’s not what are we doing with it. It’s how are we are being with it? That’s the difference. None of this is woo-woo. One of the things I write about in the books is that the traditional notion of time management—the science of managing clock time to help people become more efficient—is misguided. And my point was demonstrated recently in a study done in Canada. What the researchers found is that time-management training is more related to life satisfaction than it is to productivity and efficiency. That’s enormously important. The basic truth, when you look deeply, is that people are not trying to prioritize their time so they can work better. They’re prioritizing their time so they can enjoy life more.
Let me say that again: We think we want to manage our time to be efficient so we can get more done or have more experiences. But at a deeper unconscious level, there’s something else going on, which is this: We know we’re only here for a short time. It’s in our brains. It’s on our minds. It’s wired into us. And time seems shorter as we get older. So, we don’t really want to get more efficient. We want to become more present—to experience our lives in ever richer ways. That’s really the core goal here. It sounds trite to say it’s all about wellbeing rather than well-doing. But it’s true. And it really isn’t about how much or little gets crammed in. It’s what you experience. If you’re going to become a connoisseur of anything, why not choose what’s most precious?
Hang on a second. I can’t see my notes anymore. I gotta turn the lights on.
[Laughs] You’re still missing the point.
A Real Treasure Story
A real treasure is where your soul comes alive to the effervescing cosmos—and it’s not (entirely) magic. A real treasure is where life happens outside of time. Specifically, it happens when the Soulful Capacities have intimacy with the Radiant Forces. Then, presto! There’s a treasure!
As part of my own quest for presence, I have collected many treasure stories from students, friends, and colleagues. But here’s one of mine. See the bolded terms and check out the “16 Treasures” chart for correspondence.
For almost thirty years, my wife and I have vacationed on the Bolivar Peninsula in Texas, a drive fulfilled by a twenty-minute ferry from Galveston. We always get out of the car to watch for dolphins. If we pass at the right time, we see them leap high in the air from the bow wave of a giant tanker or container ship. They emerge effortlessly and unpredictably.
We started these trips long before there were cameras in our phones. I remember children, families, and young lovers oohing and aahing as they caught the spontaneous light and wonder of a leaping dolphin. Often, they would turn to us, smile, and share their next spotting:
“Did you see that one?”
“Wow! Look at that!”
Nowadays, however, our fellow ferry-goers lift their phones and scurry to frame the moment when a dolphin or pod emerges. Unfortunately, they almost always miss the sighting while fumbling with technology. I have had this experience as well. What’s missing, I believe—and what I also hear more and more of from my clients and students—are the precious treasures of light: the experience of right there! A dolphin smiling right at me!
Why struggle to capture the moment when I can be in the moment?
A dolphin encounter may last a second, and yet there is an adoring cadence, rhythm, and arc every time a dolphin appears. To fully experience that moment is to literally reset the brain to joy.
Let’s return to the ferry ride so I can explain more.
On the way to the ferry, I feel optimism, a positive anticipation of a momentous sighting that I’m sure hikers and bird-watchers understand. Many times, however, we don’t see any dolphins at all. So, I have learned to cultivate patience while scanning the waves. And, on rare occasions, calculating their cadence just right, I feel a sense of victory because I predicted when they would pop up next. This prediction always comes from my gut, a resonant sensing of the waterscape.
Then the ferry pulls into the dock. I look back along the wake as the engine slows, and something else gets me every time: it’s over. That went by too quickly. There’s a tinge of longing, poignance. But also savoring. And always, without missing their own timing, in the next moment, ordinary seagulls and pelicans—sentries—just waiting for our arrival.
You can make what you want from this experience as a metaphor for one’s life. For now, I’ll leave it to your imagination. But timing isn’t everything; rather, it is our full embrace of our whole time here and our soul’s capacity to catch the light as it goes. —Joel Bennett, PhD
Adapted from Connoisseur of Time, by Joel Bennett, PhD. A free eBook available from presencequest.life.
25 Years: From the Archives
Joel Bennett shows how audacious acts breed polarized responses—and how to make your next big act a catalyst for good. “7 Traits of Positive Audacity,” September/October 2016.