It’s About Time

Let this stone help usher you into Real Time, the doorway to Indigenous Knowledge that can ease anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic.Yesterday I shared some video clips of people all over the world singing, chanting, and clapping together in shared solidarity and hope. I asked if seeing and hearing these things made you feel something moving inside you, and suggested that what you felt moving was the deep Knowledge that we are all relations. I also said it’s possible you feel nothing at all when you see and hear such things, and that there’s a physiological reason for this. That reason is rooted in anxiety that takes people out of Real Time — and Real Time is the doorway to Indigenous Knowledge that can help ease anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Real Time is the actual, natural speed — or speeds, since it’s not uniform but ebbs and flows — at which events unfold or take place on their own. Flower buds, for instance, open in Real Time. You can’t peel back the closed petals to unfold a rose or a zinnia like a piece of origami. Tides come in and out according to rhythms that humans have nothing to do with. The sun rises and sets according to processes we cannot change, only pretend to change. So we might set our clocks ahead an hour for Daylight Savings Time and agree that the next morning it’s going to be 7 am and time to leave for work even though it’s still dark — but our bodies operate on Real Time, not human clock time. So that first Monday of DST sees the start of a day in which people are more likely to have a stroke, fatal car accident, or heart attack (the rate of which jumps by nearly 25% that day). The dissonance, or lack of agreement, between Real Time and the schedule the clock tells us to keep literally throws our bodies into chaos. Then body chemistry and the nervous system don’t work the way they usually do, with serious consequences. Yet we continue to think we can simply change our clocks and somehow change Real Time. Why?

Normally we feel fear during threatening events that have a beginning and an ending. The fear and the body’s physiological response to that fear also have a beginning and ending. But low-level stresses of many kinds can produce a sort of “hum” that stimulates the body to engage in a fear response that never really ends. It just rises and falls, depending on what’s going on. This is the type of stress you’ve probably read about, that over the long term seems to cause an increased likelihood of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and many autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Taking the subway to work, navigating jostling crowds, racing to meet a deadline under the watchful eyes of a predatory boss you feel wants to fire you, trying to balance your checkbook to pay your child care provider . . . all these sorts of daily events trigger the body’s fear response systems at an almost constant level. And of course the demands of our relationships with family and friends whose lives are equally hectic generate a whole other set of equally challenging stressors. The near-constant level of low-level fear associated with all these different stresses — not a fear of immediate death or injury, but a more vague and general fear of threats that can seldom be avoided or resolved — is anxiety.

People often respond to anxiety by engaging in quick activities called displacement behavior that permit the person (or animal, for these behaviors are documented in animals too, especially ones in some zoos), to “bleed off” the distress of being unable to find genuine relief from their stress. If you’ve ever been so anxious while awaiting urgent news or a medical report that you leapt to your feet and began to pace, then you’ve experienced a form of displacement behavior. Real relief for most people’s stresses would involve taking action such as quitting your hated job, not paying the bill you can’t afford, or not talking to your spouse about a problem you know will start a fight. As you can see, in modern life most people would say these are not real options. Almost everyone feels trapped by many aspects of daily life. So the average person’s body does something else, instead of the thing it really wants to do that would truly relieve the stress. Displacement behaviors are that “something else.”

Displacement behaviors like pacing use rapid activity to compensate for an inability to escape stress. Fast-paced displacement behaviors are actively applauded in contemporary culture. We are taught to pour the energy of our displacement behaviors into productivity. At work, we are rewarded for multitasking and taking on tight deadlines that require us to work overtime. Society rewards our children for engaging in extra-curricular activities every weeknight and most weekends. As you can see, the displacement behaviors we engage in to escape the stresses of daily life wind up generating even more stress. The system exacerbates itself.

When people speed up the pace of their lives this way, they step out of Real Time. They may work or be online far into the night, eventually experiencing chronically disturbed sleep patterns. Meals are often irregular or missed and frequently don’t provide necessary nutrients at the times the body needs them. When people engage in habitual displacement behaviors, their activities, meals, and sleep-wake cycle no longer mesh with the daily and seasonal rhythms of daylight and darkness that our pineal glands still sense and respond to with hormonal and other physiological changes. Ultimately, disengaging from Real Time this way causes a mental state called dissociation. A person who’s dissociated has a difficult time connecting to their surroundings and being fully aware of what’s going on. They feel “split”, as if part of them is not fully present. There are many explanations for dissociation, but one way to understand it is to see that a person living by the clock and appointment book rather than by the sun and the seasons experiences a very real split between their mind –which is living by human time — and their body, which can’t help but live in Real Time. That’s precisely the split responsible for increased heart attacks the first Monday of DST.

Because dissociation interrupts or interferes with the mind-body connection, severe dissociation often makes it harder to feel our emotions. So people who have been stressed for a long period of time, who have pushed themselves into a faster and faster pace of displacement activity in order to outrun their own helpless sense of unbearable stress, typically don’t feel many emotions. What emotions they do feel are generally negative ones associated with the stress itself.

This is why I wrote the post I wrote two days ago, when I said I cannot adhere to the constraint to “be short and amusing because people are too busy to sit and read.” It is the frantic pace of our displacement behaviors, which only worsen our levels of stress and make us dissociate even more, that create the inability to take in more than a simple meme or a short tweet. And the more we do this, the farther we pull away from Real Time — and the Real World itself. Indigenous worldview lives in the Real World. I can’t share it with you or tell you about it by racing around at your heels in the artificial world of Human Time. They are two different systems of reality, and the one the sun, moon, tides, and seasons also happen to inhabit is the one that’s Real.

You have the right to feel the sense of connection that exists in those videos, and you have the right to feel it all the time. Because it’s there all the time.

A great deal more, that is healing and restorative, comes with that feeling. The terribly dangerous crisis that’s come to us arrives trailing powerful paradox. There is something here worth paying close attention to, and it can’t be done while you multitask. Let us go on, together, in Real Time.