Ever wish you knew how to slow down time perception? Does the passing of birthdays and other milestones freak you out?
I used to get gripped by fear upon my momentary (it was only ever momentary) awareness of passing time.
It started happening in my mid-twenties. I might see a cigarette packet, reminding me of my ferocious smoking habit, and suddenly I’d remember that I’ll die one day. Or I might see an old person hobbling down the street.Slowing down the clock isn't about fish oil; it's about doing what you love Click To Tweet
Any sort of ending can be enough to trigger it. I could be saying goodbye to my mum for the umpteenth time prior to catching a flight.
They say that much of our anxiety is death anxiety underneath it all. For a friend of mine, it was starting relationships that made him think of death. Being alive is so awesome, of course we want it to last forever.
Now that I am older and I have learned some more things, I know what that is. I am attached to life; to being alive. The attachment is what causes the suffering. It is the imagined death – not death itself.
But how does a person stop being attached to life? And isn’t it somehow good anyway, to allow yourself to contemplate life’s transience at times? Doesn’t thinking about death help us to live more fully?
This post contains some personal reflections on these difficult questions. I hope it gives you a useful perspective on your death anxiety if that is an issue for you.
The early strategy – anti-ageing
Most of us initially turn our attentions to warding off death the physical/biological way.
I was in my twenties when I started taking things like my nutrition seriously. I started supplementing with fish oil, doing High Intensity Interval training and yoga. And I enlisted in a bit of stress reduction, of course. Stress related disease is the biggest killer there is.
Obviously, I ditched the cigarettes.
Warren Buffet said ‘time can be your enemy or your friend, depending on what you do with it.’
I would, I decided, do only the good things then.
Physical self care helps a lot with feeling positive and having good energy levels. But it does not stop death anxiety. These things do not actually lead to the experience of timelessness – of slowing down the passing days, months and years. (Except the HIIT training. That seems to slow down the time, because it is agonizing.)
At some point, possibly when I started playing around with being mindful, the strategy changed. I started to think about time perception.
Challenging time perception
The passing of time is subjective. We all know this really.
Did you know that when we’re too hot, time slows down? Same when we are in pain. If I had to guess, I would say that’s due to being forced into inhabiting the moment, instead of just running thought after thought, uninterrupted.
What if this was the key to reducing death anxiety? It seemed to make more sense than the fish oil and the exercise.
Creating more time
In Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, Irvin D. Yalom said “the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.”
This makes sense, doesn’t it? I started applying the ultimate test to my days:
If this was my last 24 hours on earth, would I do these things, with these people?
Obviously, this is a little extreme, and not every day’s activities will light us up. As a smart friend of mine said, ‘sometimes Rez, we need to do something today for our future selves.’ But as most people, most of the time, live like like is endless, asking this helps to restore some sanity.
It helped me to restore some sanity, anyway. I started to become even more proactive. I started to reorganize my life for the better and to create a life that I experience timelessness in. The life that never makes me say ‘where did the week go?’, or even ‘where did the day go?’.
Slowing down time perception is less about fish oil, and more about practicing mindfulness and acceptance. It’s also about developing your self-knowledge and living your creative potential, or at least trying.
Eternal immortality – or something close – is about stacking up life a certain way and not treating the days as precious, not some expendable resource. It is about living a values-led life.
Coping with loss of youthfulness
Of course it’s wonderful to be beautiful and sexy and young. But youth is wasted on the young. It is wasted because when we are beautiful and sexy and young, rarely are we aware of it and enjoying it as we could be.
If we were, then teenagers would be less angst-ridden, insecure and mean. There would be more sex for everyone, and more gratitude. Less holding back, and more romance and affection.
It would mean we would stop obsessing over things like weight gain and breakouts. Women wouldn’t resent the catcalls quite so much. We would smile and remind ourselves: ‘this will not last’.
Last year, I met a 62 year old ex model who looked 40. Good genes, I guess. I asked her ‘how do you do that?’ She told me she looked at herself in the mirror when she turned 30 and froze her face in time. I thought, ‘of course’.
I think my route might be a little different though. Staying youthful longer for me might look like avoiding the major stresses, like working ridiculously long hours doing something I don’t like. Because I imagine that doing things you do not get joy from would age you mercilessly.
Otherwise, I’ll resist early ageing by letting things go; by deliberately side-stepping emotional baggage caused by accumulating hurts, setbacks and disappointments.
I’ll use my attention well. I’ll spend it learning and doing the other things that make my days feel endless.
Investing in our ageless parts
I am 34 now and am already less invested in how I look than I was at 23. I still care a lot, but it feels less like a life of death situation if my skin and hair are bad today, or I put on a little weight. Aging gives you more perspective.
I think that a wise strategy whilst your young is to invest a little more in your personal qualities. Become kinder, a better listener, a lifelong learner.
I’m hoping that doing these things means I’ll handle the transition better.