According to physics, time is relative. But what does that mean? Thanks to a remarkable history teacher and her Navajo friend, I started asking this question in 5th grade.
Nancy Priest had two long gray braids, stood around 5’5”, and towered over our middle school egos. We loved and respected her because she expected a lot out of us. She didn’t use textbooks and memorization tests. She asked questions, told stories, created traditions, and made us think. Her connection to indigenous cultures informed her style.
Nancy and her husband Ben had established a warm friendship with several Native American tribes including the Navajo and Hopi Nations. I was among a lucky group who took an extended class trip with them to the desert southwest. Along the journey we made traditional fry bread in a remote canyon where a Navajo Elder gathered us by a fire.
The Elder said time is hard to explain to modern people who think time is linear. The Navajo language has no verb tenses for past and future. We don’t separate time, he explained. Time is always now. We were totally confused, so he asked us to think about what one minute means. He said one minute is not linear, it’s relative. One minute with your hand on a hot stove is not the same as one minute kissing someone you have a crush on. Amidst the squirms and giggles a jolt of “a-HA” struck me. If a minute wasn’t a minute, what was it? It wasn’t 60 seconds anymore. It was now.
It’s impossible with my cultural conditioning to fully understand how the Navajo traditionally experienced time. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was about speed creating changes to time, and I imagine if he and the Navajo had a fireside chat they would have enlightened one another. One thing is clear; our modern culture relates to time in destructive ways.
For the future, we put time into linear blocks on a digital screen. We tuck time into these blocks to scale and produce incredible things that we hardly experience as we fixate on more productivity for an imagined future. People literally eat while pooping to get more done in less time, missing out on both wonderful parts of the day! When we feel present long enough to notice, we skip around screens to distract ourselves. We have scaled time to speed it up so much that we never have enough. We’re so worried about being ON time that we’re never IN time.
When it comes to the past, Nancy Priest said history doesn’t tell us what happened, it tells us about who is telling it. History is subjective; we can only see it from the present edition of ourselves. When you think about your past you get a real-time physiological response based on how you feel about what you think happened. In this way the past isn’t fixed, it’s relative to your present. What does your story about your past say about you today? How can you use your body’s signals in real time to understand what it currently means? Can you work with that using breath, the ultimate way to be here, now?
The past and the future are not written, they are created today relative to our ability to be present with what is.
By questioning how we relate to time we can show up with awareness to behave with integrity to our values and the reality of this moment. How does that change your relationship to your history? How would it shift your relationship to your perceived future, which only emerges from how well you show up in this time, now?
It’s hard to be present ‘all of the time’ unless we realize there is no time other than now. Maybe the indigenous people of the planet can help show our ‘civilized’ culture how to be in time more fully. Maybe that could help us manage the diseases of behavior and disconnection we are suffering from with more skill.
Brian and I are cooking up some incredible resources to help. Sign up to be the first to know when we release a renewed version of Mentorship very soon….