Are you wrestling with Time or dancing with(in) it?
Our relationship to time as a line of development - from Struggle to Flow and from Chronos to Kairos
For many of us, time seems to be a tyrant. Life often feels like a race to cram as much as possible within the span of our waking hours - always a losing battle.
“So much to do, so little time.”
“Not enough hours in the day!”
“Wish I had more time!”
“There is no time!”
“Make the most of the time you have!”
“Rushing against time!”
“Running out of time.”
In our modern lives in the Western world, we seem to have lost touch with the subtlety of time. It has mostly become this linear, finite thing that is external to us, mostly beyond our control, and perpetually, suffocatingly dictating the pace and rhythm of our lives. I can think of few things more anxiety-inducing than our relationship to time. But that is not all that time is.
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Chronos (pronounced ‘hroo-nos’) and Kairos (pronounced ‘ke-roos’) are two Greek words that both mean ‘time’.
Chronos refers to linear, clock time, the time we measure in minutes, hours, days, and years. Chronos is what most of us think of when we speak about time - the sand falling implacably from the top to the bottom of the hourglass of our lives. It is Chronos we rush against in our day-to-day lives. And it’s always outside of us - we are ‘subject to’ it. It is the clock that bears upon us with its unstoppable beat - always the same, always ruthlessly finite.
Kairos on the other hand is much more subtle and describes the time outside of time and inside of us. It captures the ineffable quality of ‘timeliness’ - ‘the right time’ to be, to act or not act. Kairos is neither linear nor finite - it can expand and contract, it can be universal time or the magic of a moment of fully being present in time. Kairos describes the time that lives in our hearts, in our bones, in our relationships, the time we can sense into, weave and play with. Kairos is ever-changing and infinite.
As I got deeper into my research on adult development, I was surprised to discover our relationship to time is in fact a line of development in itself - it grows more complex and sophisticated as we access later (more mature) stages of development. At the earlier stages, individuals have a mostly short-term time orientation, and as they develop their time horizons expand. At the later stages, we also start to discover how we might tap into Kairos - sense into the right moment to act, or slow down deliberately, taking a ‘balcony view’ on what is happening in our lives and, from that higher, broader vantage point, consciously, purposefully choose our next action. Thus, later-stage individuals become increasingly capable of something Prof. Bill Torbert calls ‘timely action’.
So if Time is a developmental line, how might we nurture our capacity to notice and utilise both Chronos and Kairos and relate to time in ways that energise, instead of deplete us?
Here are a few ideas - and invitations for you to experiment. None of these is a recipe (you might know by now, reading this newsletter, that I don’t believe in recipes for human growth). I am, however, a big believer in experiments. So please regrad these next ideas as thought starters and nudges to explore further.
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Slow down - even a little bit
One thing I noticed in my work is that Kairos is virtually invisible to us when we are rushing from one task to another. Slowing down (mentally, as well as physically), even for a few moments, can open up that awareness and pull us out of the whirlwind of Chronos into a higher perspective.
This ‘slowing down’ might look like a moment of connection to our breath, or a moment of shifting attention to our senses - the taste of your morning coffee (which, if you’re like me, you might be gulping down while rushing to get kids ready for school or you might absently sip it while reading the news). For some, the slowing down comes as a daily ritual - exercise, a walk or a few minutes of meditation. Whatever path we take, the ‘slowing’ seems to happen best when we fully come into our bodies, connecting with our here-now experience.
From that vantage point, we might notice the rush we are in, the whirlwind of activity, the low-grade level of anxiety, or the tensions in our bodies that the constant struggle against Chronos seems to fuel. We might start to get curious: What are we rushing towards? What is the intention? What is truly important today? Does ‘action’ have to be our default every time, or is it possible at times that intentional inaction, patience, waiting, and reflecting can be the right kind of action?
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Notice and learn from your moments of naturally tapping into Kairos
Nobody is stuck in linear time permanently. We all have those expansive moments when we feel in flow, when time seems to disappear, we seem to achieve our goals effortlessly and feel energised instead of depleted in the process. The state of flow is often a great indication you are tapping into Kairos. Can you catch those moments and notice what is it that happens then, which allows you to shift into that state of ‘timelessness’?
While the science of flow has a lot to teach us about what this state is and how to access it, we are each different, and what puts us in a state of flow can vary - as do our obstacles to flow. For me, fragmentation of my day (many tasks, ticking off boxes, multiple meetings) is one of the biggest flow-killers. So I’ve learnt to block out chunks of uninterrupted time for important things - especially creative work - that require concentration and escaping the tyranny of Chronos for a little bit.
What are some guardrails you can put in place to create the conditions for more flow in your life - both at work and at home? When do you do your best creative work? What can be learnt from those moments, and transferred into those other hectic days when life seems to be rushing by and you seem unable to catch up with it?
Shift perspective on time
Another practical, experiential (and a bit playful) way to get in touch with Chronos and Kairos is a non-cognitive, visualising game I learnt many years ago - rooted in an approach fittingly called “Time Line Therapy”. In this approach, people are invited to visualise Time as an imaginary line, thus giving it a physical quality and making it easier to notice how they relate to it.
The way to play with it is to think of an event in the past and one in the future, noticing, intuitively, where in actual space might you place your past/future (there is no right/wrong way to do it - it’s an imagination game!). Once you’re able to locate the direction of past/future, you might imagine a line connecting those two points.
Then you might start noticing where this line is - is it floating somewhere around you, is it running through you - are you, in a metaphorical sense dissociated from or connected to your ‘timeline’? Tad James, the author of Time Line Therapy, suggests that the mere act of imagining shifting our timeline and bringing it closer to us or pushing it farther away from us - might yield some interesting reflections as to how present we can be from moment to moment (what he calls being ‘IN time’ - Kairos) versus how detached we get, planning our days and ticking of tasks off a list (what he calls being ‘THROUGH time’ - Chronos).
In this imaginary play with Time as a line in space, the more ‘in touch’ with our timeline we can be, the more ‘embodied’ our sense of time might become. The farther away from the timeline we picture ourselves, the more distant, outward and outside our control time becomes.
In practice, I have been using this technique to set my mind for the day and calibrate my sense of time with the realities of life at that moment. So, for example, on days when I am going to facilitate a workshop, I might start my day with a small visualisation, bringing my timeline into awareness and imagining myself stepping right into it, in full connection with the flow of time. When I work with a group I want to be fully present - IN Time - not thinking about my emails, about what I might cook for dinner or that client call left unanswered. So bringing my timeline closer becomes a little mental anchor that helps set me up for full immersion. On other days I might simply need to tick off tasks, so taking some mental distance from the timeline - stepping away from it and picturing the flow of the day - THROUGH Time - seeing meetings and tasks like little milestones on the timeline, holding perspective on them all - might help.
If you are, like me, highly cognitive, this type of imaginative/somatic exercise might feel like a step out of your comfort zone. And we do know that vertical development happens when we get out of our comfort zones. So if you are finding it interesting at all, you might take a few moments to picture your timeline and experiment with ‘shifting’ it closer or farther away from you, noticing how your somatic sense of time connects to your cognition.
Build Reflection into Action
This is a practice Bill Torbert calls ‘action-inquiry’ - it is a reminder that while we are acting, moving, and doing we might gain a lot from also staying curious about why we are doing what we are doing, what the real intention is and what the impact might be.
I’ve learnt a lot about action inquiry in practice from my work as a facilitator and from years of training and mentoring coaches. When you are holding space for a group or a person to learn/explore new perspectives you need to be in a space Prof Ron Heifetz calls ‘both on the dance floor and on the balcony’ - the ability to be both immersed in whatever it is we are doing in the moment and also activate an aspect of our mind that acts like a witness - noticing not just what we are doing, but the responses we are receiving, what is not being said (such as the subtle non-verbal cues or energy of a room during facilitation), what we are thinking/feeling/sensing in the moment. That ‘balcony’ perspective then informs our next action.
So in practice, I might notice and call out a tension in the room, an awkward silence during a workshop, or might notice the dynamic playing out between myself and a coaching client and invite that client ‘on the balcony’ with me to make sense of what our dynamic in the moment means and how it might be relevant to the topic we were discussing.
Training that ‘witness’ mind by getting into the habit of asking ourselves constantly not just ‘WHAT is happening here’ but ‘HOW is it happening’ - can be a, in my experience, a great way to tap into both Chronos and Kairos in the middle of the same conversation. As our ‘witness’ gets stronger, we might find it activating on days when we get on auto-pilot, getting stuck in the relentless pull of Chronos. Our capacity to get on the ‘balcony’ might become the nudge we need to slow down, take perspective, reframe what we are doing and create a bit of inner space where Kairos can come in. With that dance between Chronos and Kairos more space might be created and we might just discover we have more agency over our time than we thought we did.
In sharing all these perspectives with you (and hoping they are somewhat helpful), I openly say I am very far from having my relationship to time sorted. In fact, I feel completely squashed under the weight of Chronos on a regular basis, disorientated by its speed and often left feeling like I’m chasing time. So do most of my clients and loved ones. It seems to me that somehow, through the last few years, your already dysfunctional relationship to time has only gotten worse. The world has been changing so fast and time seems to have been speding up. And that is precisely why I believe that reminding ourselves of Kairos and its powerful potential is crucial. More than ever, we need to learn how to dance with(in) time, instead of perpetually wrestling with it.
Befriending time is, I believe, a core aspect of our growth into more maturity and wisdom. As with all other aspects of development, this isn’t going to be a straightforward process. It will be two steps forward, and one step backwards. It will be experimenting, failing and trying something different. I do hope this article has given you some ideas of interesting experiments to try, in opening up new gateways to Kairos. As always, I’m keen to read your thoughts - so do jump in the comments section and share your ideas, questions and perspectives.
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