One unnerving aspect of getting older is that life seems to speed up. Feeling that whoosh as time rushes past can be disheartening and may leave you wondering how to slow down time.
Part of the reason time seems to speed up as we age is due to our perception of time, more specifically our levels of awareness.
“For a 10-year-old, one year is 10 percent of their lives,” says neurologist and neuroscientist Dr. Santosh Kesair. “For a 60-year-old, one year is less than two percent of their lives. We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer.”
And there’s evidence that young children actually experience time as moving more slowly. “Children’s working memory, attention and executive function are all undergoing development at the neural circuit level,” neuroscientist Dr. Patricia Costello says. “Their neural transmission is in effect physically slower compared to adults. This in turn affects how they perceive the passage of time.”
Another reason time seems to pass us by is that time seems to constrict when you encounter the familiar, and when you acquire new knowledge, it expands. Non adjacent experience to the past challege the familiar.
“Time is this rubbery thing,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”
That relationship between time’s elasticity and whether your brain is processing new information gets at why time seems to turn up the tempo as we age. As the world becomes more familiar, we learn less, and sometimes we even seek information and experiences that fit within what we already know instead of trying new things. There’s less adventure, play, exploration, creativity, and wonder to invite and engage with newness. This is why increasing our quality of awareness to presence the here and now is significant in slowing time down.
So we’re not doomed to march to time’s relentless beat unless we’re aware of what we’re doing, and doing different things than before. Our sense of time is weird and pliable — stretching, compressing, and seemingly coming to a standstill. And we can mold our perception of time, to some extent. In other words, we can slow down time.
Our experiences are not only something we encounter, they are also a way to learn using our hearts, minds, and souls, to see the majesty in all of the possibilities life has to offer, even experiences we may initially deem as negative. Time itself isn’t thought, it isn’t a mental construct of the world to avoid being controlled by it, it is the present. Is the possibility of here to something else, and yet we reduce it by thought.
Today, I’d like to share a personally shaping experience with you that explained to me why time slowed down. This happened when I was 20 years old, on a boat trip with my father in really bad weather.
I call it the Catalina challenge, and it’s a moment of my life that has helped define the way I see time. I hope it can provide some insight for you too.
You’re probably aware of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Catalina Island is the only inhabited island. The rest are environmentally protected.
Growing up in California, I had the blessing of boating with my dad from the time I was five years old. When this story takes place, I’d already had 15 years of experience on the boat, a 96-foot vessel named Principia that was built in 1928. With a single propeller and a relentless Caterpillar engine, it was a truly classic wooden boat that was all brass and varnish… A family treasure with many miles to her name.
We frequented Catalina, and most weekends, we did a lot of scuba diving – a passion of my father’s. If you’ve been out to Catalina, you know that the Santa Ana winds get really strong and the seas can get awfully rough.
So, when I was 20, we were out in Avalon and he got news of this condition. We had about 15 guests on board. After some consideration, we decided to go up towards the isthmus. To paint a clear picture, the water was VERY rough – 20 to 25 foot seas.
Even at 96 feet long and with stabilizers, the boat had a round bottom and her draft was a mere 9 feet… This is a boat that can roll.
My dad and I are in the wheelhouse, and we’re going straight into this rough stuff. We came up to White’s Cove and let 13 of the guests off. Even this was a risk, and the potential for injury was high. After, the remaining few of us decided to seek refuge by paddling back into Cat Harbor, and the seas just got rougher.
That trip was one of those moments… I remember it so vividly because I was so scared. Those moments of danger that bring you into extreme presence, with no time to think or plan, just be aware, and find our way to see, sense and feel into how to do what we did.
Water was coming up over the cap rail, and I saw the cap rail just rip off. We had an open hatch on the front of the boat, and water was pouring in. I remember going down into the forward section, and I couldn’t get the bilge pump to work. We were taking on water.
It was an amazing moment of experiencing something in my own inner nervous system that I haven’t really talked to anyone about until now…
There’s a way you stay totally present to the experience that you’re in.
There were several moments where I saw the shore boat go right off the top of the boat, just slide right off because of how far we rolled over.
We were just trying to turn around the end of Catalina, and we’d made turns in rough weather before, but the problem with that position is that when a wave hits the side, the boat can keel over. She can capsize.
We were coming upon that terrifying moment, water still pouring down into the front. It felt like this turn was a gateway… Or if that if we made the turn, things will change afterwards. Kind of like dying and coming back to life.
And as I was watching off the right side in the wheelhouse, looking at the waves coming in and figuring out the timing between, I wondered how we were going to make the turn fast and without losing our lives.
It was a situation where the only choice was to go through it. There was no opportunity to turn around. We could have gotten in the water lifejackets, but it was wintertime and the water was very cold. It was an option, but not a good one… And if the boat capsized, we would have had to anyway.
At this point, we’d gotten close enough to the island, probably about a mile off. It was the big moment, turning the wheel as far as we could to the left, and I’ll never forget the sensation – a moment of hope, a moment in the invisible hands of faith, succumbing to the experience beyond my control with no certainty at all, just fear.
At this moment, adrenaline is front and center. Your heart is pounding so fast, and you’re trying to maintain a state of mind that’s slow enough to make good decisions.
As we turned, we tipped, and the boat all the way over. One of the remaining passengers, my aunt Jill, was hanging on to a holding area, and as I looked up, I could see her feet dangling. The boat stayed there for about 15 seconds, but it felt like 15 years.
Fortunately, we had 110 tons packed into the hull, and the boat started to come back. Had we not weighed it down, we would’ve been swimming – or not survived at all. We had life jackets, but no one was around to help. We called the Coast Guard, had the distress signal out, but they would never make it to us in time.
It was up to us to make it through, and luckily, we did. When we made it into the harbor, the boat was in shambles. The cap rail was torn off, glass everywhere, broken lights and things tipped over… It looked like the boat could’ve been done right there, but she wasn’t!
This experience, these harrowing moments, are what prepared us for the 5000 mile journey we were to take in 1991… But for all the miles we traveled through the canal, through the Caribbean, and beyond, the roughest we ever faced was right here, right near home.
Now, that’s a whole story… But there are lessons to be found here for leadership and for life. When obstacles arise, sometimes you just have to go through them, to get to a better place. Honesty is often found in knowing when you’re truly powerless to nature’s wrath.
I find so much relevance in this poem by William Stafford that resembles what I experienced:
What happens when you get lost
Out in the mountains nobody gives you anything.
And you learn what the rules were after the game is over.
By then it is already night and it doesn’t make any difference
what anyone else is thinking or doing because now you have to
turn into an Indian.
You remember stories and now you know that the tellers were
part of all they told.
And everyone else was, and even you.
They’re all around you now, but if you’re afraid you will never find them.
And those questions that people always ask-
“What would you do if…”
They have their own answer right now- nothing.
Some things cannot be redeemed in a hurry no matter what the intentions are.
What could be done had to have been done a long time ago.
Because mistakes have consequences that do not just disappear.
If evil could be canceled easily it would not be very evil.
And so, the stars see you.
While you drift away they have their own courses and they watch you.
And listen, they already know your name.
When you’re afraid, there’s a way of slowing down – slowing your breathing to work through the moment, to be ready for anything unexpected. Like the Stafford poem above says, you get lost, you find your way by moving through it. Your learn what the rules were after the game is over.
With presence of mind, patterns emerge even in these adverse situations, and letting go and paying attention will allow you to see the way through. Very little of my 15 years of boating experience was useful on that harrowing day near Catalina, but we learned as we went, and went well beyond our abilities because the danger forced us into absolute presence of mind. And it was this presence, like a field of possibilities that came from the direct participation, ready for anything, expecting nothing, holding space for what was arising—-fear, panic, nature’s way, all of it required a profound respect. IN FACT, THIS 4 HOUR TRIP FELT LIKE IT WAS 4 WEEKS. EVERYTHING BEING SO UNFAMILIAR MADE LIFE STAND STILL. THIRTY YEARS LATER, TODAY REPLAYING THIS, I’M STILL THERE.
And in those challenging moments, each decision was its own. There was no time to correct or go back, and we didn’t even have the time to consider that as a possibility. Instead, we made decisions in the moment, one after the next, and moved ahead. Step by step and moment by moment. There were no predetermined outcomes or expectations, no attempt at forcing our wishes on the future. We had to just show up and work through the moment – and that’s leadership. And it’s what solidified my claim that leadership is the continuous access to the highest quality of expression you can occupy at any moment.
Often being a leader requires an anti-fragility, a willingness to lean into uncertainty with a trust (but not an overconfidence) that the invisible hands around you will allow you to know what to do innately. Just pay attention, show up! Act in an instance, without fear, judgment or certainty, and see with fresh eyes. Reset yourself into this, and time slows down, like savoring what unfolds before you as you go forward.
And so I cherish this memory, those moments of danger that shaped my relationship with my father, my aunt, and my uncle. We shared something, and came through. Just as Stafford describes, being out at sea is like being in the mountains.
No one gives you anything, and you must become your own guide to navigate each and every present moment, as your awareness slows time down.
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