Winifred Gallagher On Living a Focused Life

focused life

“The American dream is no longer just to get rich quick, but also to enjoy doing it, the new captains of industry offer various best-selling decalogue for achieving this goal. Their tips range from philosophical (learn from your failures) to the practical (never handle the same piece of paper twice). There’s one insight into both productivity and satisfaction that they inevitably share, however: the importance of laser like attention to your goal, be it building a better mousetrap or raising cattle. Unless you can concentrate on what you want to do and suppress distractions, it’s hard to accomplish anything, period.” — Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

I’ve been exploring my ability to focus lately. It seems,  the more we practice and the more we try to become aware of when our focus slips away, the better and more productive we become. Being in this moment — not the past and not the future — is something I’ve learned through yoga and philosophy.

One thing that really helped was to identify and systematically remove distractions from my life. This made it easier to work on awareness, that is, staying in the moment, or as Gallagher, paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, puts it:

Stay focused on the moment, (Csikszentmihalyi says), even when you’re engaged in routine tasks or social encounters. Practise directing and mastering your attention by any enjoyable means.

What does, ‘by any enjoyable means’ actually mean? The more I try to be aware of how my focus ebbs and flows, the more I realize it’s intrinsically tied into the activities I’m participating in.

According to the under-appreciated mid-twentieth-century psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, the way to ensure this calm but heightened attention to the matter at hand is to choose activities that push you so close to the edge of your competence that they demand your absolute focus. In a variation on James’s recipe for interesting experience – the familiar leavened by the novel – Hobb’s ‘art of choosing difficulties’ requires selecting projects that are ‘just manageable.’ If an activity is too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If it’s too hard, you become anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to concentrate.

If you are an avid reader this should sound familiar. This is where learning happens. This is how we get better. Back in early May I wrote a post about how Kyle Bass feels freediving enables better decision making. A good chunk of that post echoes the statements that Gallagher makes above. If you are looking for challenging work or leisure that will help you maintain and even improve your ability to focus, I think Hobbs puts it best when he says the secret of fulfillment is, “to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become.”

To put it simply, you will know when something is worth your time because it will be engaging to you and focusing at those moments should feel almost effortless. Inversely, if you constantly find your mind wandering and you’re struggling to maintain your focus, it’s probably time to reassess how you are using your time. This is not to say that self-discipline and perseverance aren’t important, but if you want to be as productive as possible, asking yourself why you are doing a specific activity is just as important as hammering through it.

Once again Gallagher puts it nicely:

There are different formulas for the fulfilling experience variously described as ‘interesting,’ ‘peak,’ or ‘optimal,’ but rapt focus is central to all of them. Whether the equation’s other integers are the novel balanced with the familiar or the challenging with the enjoyable, they add up to the same thing: engagement in activities that arrest your attention and satisfy your soul. If most of the time you’re not particularly concerned about whether what you’re doing is work or play, or even whether you’re happy or not, you know you’re living the focused life.

Why Our Relationship With Ourself is the Most Important of The Three Marriages

“We are each a river with a particular abiding character,
but we show radically different aspects of our self
according to the territory through which we travel.”

The Three Marriages and Mastering Yourself

The most difficult of David Whyte’s three marriages, found in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, is the marriage to the self, which lies beneath both the marriages of work and relationships.

Work, Self and Relationships: Together these form The Three Marriages.

What is heart-breaking and difficult about this inner self that flirted, enticed, spent time with and eventually committed to a person or a career is that it is not a stationary entity; an immovable foundation; it moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit.

In the midst of a life where we work hard to put bread on the table and foster a relationship, we often neglect “the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside.”

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.


If we are involved in the outer world in ways that betray our conscience or deeply held beliefs, then even simple internal questions can become very difficult to ask. As if we intuit that drinking from the well will clear our eyesight and help us see what is real in the outer world and that once we have built that outer solid wall, brick by brick over long years through equally long effort, the gift of seeing that reality is the last gift in the world that we want.

We can easily become afraid of the internal questions and the silences that illuminate them — which is why of the three marriages the marriage to oneself is the hardest.

The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.

In a world that doesn’t sleep, where we are bombarded from morning to night, this is the most difficult marriage.

To the outward striver— that is, most of us— it can seem as if this internal marriage is asking for a renunciation of the two outer marriages. Feeling this can come as almost a relief, a way out, for in the name of our many responsibilities and duties, we can use it as the perfect excuse not to look inside at all, feeling as if our outer world will fall apart if we spend any time looking for the person who exists at the intersection of all these outer commitments.


The Need for Silence

All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us.

Equanimity, in the Buddhist tradition, roughly translates into “to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.”

Almost all of our traditions of instruction in prayer, meditation or silence, be they Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim advocate seclusion or withdrawal as a first step in creating this equanimity. Small wonder we feel it goes against everything we need to do on the outside to keep our outer commitments together. Intimate relationships seem to demand endless talking and passing remarks; work calls for endless meetings, phone calls and exhortations. In the two outer marriages (work and relationships) it seems as if everything real comes from initiating something new. In the inner world we intuit something different and more difficult. It can be disconcerting or even distressing to find that this third marriage; this internal marriage, calls for a kind of cessation, a stopping, a fierce form of attention that attempts to look at where all this doing arises from.

For the busy, Whyte argues, it is nearly impossible to stop and read the following:

In the beginning of heaven and earth
There were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately sees the surface
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.
Tao Te Ching (translation by Witter Bynner)

In an argument reminiscent of the one I made in my webinar on being more productive, Whyte says:

“Thank you,” we say, “but I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, surely, then, there’ll be time enough to spare.” Trying to be equal to Lao Tzu’s opening remarks in the Tao Te Ching when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from that spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.

The third marriage to the internal self seems to be to someone or something that in many ways seems even less open to coercion or sheer willpower than an actual marriage or a real job. Not only does this internal marriage seem to operate under rules different from those of the other two outer contracts but it also seems to be connected to the big; we might even say unbearable, questions of existence that scare us half to death and for which we have no easy answer. Like a skittish single unable to commit to the consequences of a full relationship, we turn away from questions that flower from solitude and quiet.

The marriage with our self is the most difficult. It’s “connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away.” In our world of non-stop busyness, the cracks of silence that open can reveal an unfamiliar character. Developing this inner relationship, “we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth.”

This is where we live. This is where we die.

The sudden absence of our partner waits for us. The end of our work or our retirement waits. The hospital bed waits. Right now, in some obscure medical appliance company in a corner of a bleak industrial estate, the very bed on which we will lie, trying to get the great perspective, is perhaps being manufactured as we read. We don’t want to know, of course, but all our great contemplative traditions concerned with this marriage, say, this willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence, are not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait, especially until your faculties have atrophied or your youth has gone, or you have lost confidence in your self? Why wait, to be, as the poet Mary Oliver says, “a bride to wonder”? To become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

Whyte’s book is a fascinating exploration of the three marriages that challenges our conventional notions of balance.

Why it’s easier to describe “what makes us happy” than answer the question “what is happiness?”

what makes us happy

A passage from Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide explaining, in part, why it’s easier to describe what makes us happy than answer the question what is happiness.

I can say that I’m happy when I find myself in the company of the people I love, when I listen to Bach or Mozart, when I’m making good progress with my work, when I’m stroking my cat near a nice open fire, when I’m helping someone come out of a period of sadness or misfortune, when I’m enjoying a seafood platter with friends in a small harbor by the sea, when I’m meditating in silence or making love, when I drink my first cup of tea in the morning, when I look at the face of a smiling child, when I’m out hiking in the mountains or strolling through a forest … All these experiences, as well as many others, make me happy. But is happiness simply the accumulation of such moments? And why do these moments give me happiness, when they wouldn’t necessarily make everyone else happy? I know people who hate nature and animals, Bach and seafood, tea and long periods of silence. So is happiness merely subjective, is it realized only through the satisfaction of our natural preferences? And why am I sometimes happy to be living through a particular experience when at other times I’m not—when my mind is preoccupied, my body ailing or my heart anxious? Is happiness to be found in our relations with other people and external objects, or rather within us, in a state of inner peace that nothing can disturb?

Of course, it is possible to live well, and even quite happily, without wondering what happiness is, or what can increase it. This is the case, for instance, when we live in a highly structured world where the question of individual happiness hardly arises, where we draw our happiness from the thousand-and-one experiences of daily life, occupying our places and playing our roles in the community to which we belong, and accepting our share of suffering without demur. Billions of people have lived this way and continue to live this way in traditional societies. You need only travel a bit to realize this. It’s quite different in our modern societies: our happiness is no longer immediately linked to the “immediate data” of everyday, social life; we pursue it through the exercise of our freedom; it depends more on us ourselves and the satisfaction of our numerous desires—such is the price of our insistence on autonomy.

True, we can also, in the modern world, be more or less happy without asking ourselves too many questions. We seek the maximum of things that give us pleasure, and avoid as far as possible the things that are tiresome or painful. But experience shows that there are sometimes things that are very pleasant for a while, but later produce negative effects, like drinking a glass or two too much, giving into an inappropriate sexual urge, taking drugs, etc. Conversely, disagreeable experiences sometimes enable us to grow, and turn out to be beneficial in the long term: making a sustained effort in our studies or in the practice of some artistic activity, undergoing an operation or taking a nasty medicine, breaking off with people we are emotionally tied to even though they make us unhappy and so on. The pursuit of the agreeable and the rejection of the disagreeable do not always give us accurate bearings when we are trying to lead a happy life.

Life also teaches us that we have within ourselves various brakes that check the realization of our deep aspirations: fears, doubts, desires, impulses, pride and ignorance and so on. Likewise, we cannot control many events that may well make us unhappy: a deadening emotional environment or relationship, the loss of a dear one, a health problem, a setback in our careers … While we aspire to being happy—whatever this adjective may mean for us—we realize that happiness is something subtle, complex and volatile, and seems totally random.

A Guide to Meditation

A Guide to Meditation

If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, Lodro Rinzler’s Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation would be it.

Rinzler walks us through 10 steps. Step 1 is about knowing your why, your intention. Step 2 is learning a meditation technique. Step 3 is cultivating mindfulness and awareness. Step 4 is about consistency. Step 5 is developing a deep understanding of gentleness. Step 6 is discovering how to work with obstacles. Step 7 is learning how to move away from getting caught up in your emotions. Step 8 is about connecting with your “inherent peaceful state.” Step 9 is becoming a practitioner. Step 10, the final step, is “learning to rest in the present moment even when you’re not on the meditation seat.”

I’m not going to cover all ten in this article, but I’m going to give you enough to get started today.

What is my motivation for wanting to meditate?

Don’t skip this part. This is the foundational aspect for everything that follows.

The most common reasons for exploring meditation are to be less stressed, live more in the present moment, or better deal with emotions. But before you get started it’s important that you ask why.

Whenever someone tells me that they are interested in meditating I always ask them why. They sometimes are surprised, thinking I would simply be overjoyed to learn that they are even remotely interested. Often I am and am just displaying an awesome poker face. However, I’ve found that if someone is not clear about why they want to meditate, they will soon find out that meditation is not necessarily easy and end up discouraged early on, not pursuing it in depth.

We have an intention even if it’s unconscious. More often than not we go through life without a clear understanding of why we’re doing things.

We never pause and develop a conscious intention and, as a result, things tend to get messy down the road. … I’m a firm believer that when you live your life in line with conscious intentions, as opposed to unconscious ones, you live a fuller, happier life overall.

When you get stuck or disheartened you can look back at the why and say “Oh right. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to be kinder/more self-aware/less stressed out all the time.” This is something I’ve been missing. In yoga class, for over a year now, we’ve been setting an intention for our practice. But no one ever told me what that intention was supposed to be fore; this is where you come to when things get difficult.

Learning the Meditation Technique

The meditation practice that Rinzler walks us through is called shamatha, or “calm-abiding meditation.” That doesn’t mean it’s going to help you fall asleep — just the opposite. This is intended to wake you up to what is going on in this very moment, through training in paying attention to something that embodies this very moment: the breath.

As Marcus Aurelius says:

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come–for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest-and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

The point is all we own is the present. The here and now and yet we never really focus on it. We’re always focused on the past or the future but never the here and now. When you’re with your friends, you’re thinking about all the things you have to do. When you’re out running errands, you’re thinking about what’s for dinner or next weekend. When you’re at work, you’re just wanting the day to be over. These are all examples of how we’re never really present in the moment.

Meditation instructors tend to lose me when they talk about enlightenment. The point to meditation, a lot of people would have you believe, is to move toward enlightenment. I’ve never really bought into that … until now. Rinzler did the best job of connecting with me on this subject. Let me see if I can explain how it clicked for me.

When you think about enlightenment, what is really meant is that you become “in tune with the way reality is.” This is also one of the key components of rationality — your mental models line up with the way the world really is and not your idea of how the world should work or some notion of how it could be. It’s a pragmatic view of life. That’s enlightenment.

Ok, on to the good stuff. How can we meditate?


Begin by taking a comfortable seat on a cushion on the ground. If it will hurt to sit on the ground you can sit instead in a chair. In either situation, sit with your butt firmly in the center of your seat. You want to feel a sense of being grounded, physically, which will help ground you mentally. Feel the weight of your body on the earth. If you are on a cushion, loosely cross your legs with your knees falling a little bit below your hip bones. If you are in a chair, place your feet firmly on the ground about hip-width apart.

From this strong base you expand upward toward the sky. Elongate your spine in order to sit up straight. Don’t throw your shoulders back or you will end up sore and in pain. Actually connect with your skeletal curvature and use that as the basis for your support. If visualizing is helpful I always recommend imagining a string at the top of your head, pulling you straight up. … I promise you that it gets easier over time. For now please exert yourself to stick with this upright posture. Do not lean back if you are in a chair.

Now drop your hands at your sides for a moment. Pick them up at the elbows and drop them, palms down, on your thighs. This specific positioning should allow for a bit of extra support for your back. …

Your skull rests at the top of your spine. The only thing you need to do positioning-wise there is to slightly tuck in your chin. Relax the muscles in your face, particularly in your forehead, around your eyes, and your jaw. That might mean that your jaw hangs open, which is preferred. You can place your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, which slows down the swallowing process and allows for clear breathing.

Finally, rest your gaze about two to four feet ahead of you on the ground. It may surprise you that I recommend keeping your eyes open. It’s a matter of view. If you intend to become more awake to what is going on around you it seems counterproductive to close your eyes.

Meditation is not “an intellectual exercise,” but rather a way to “connect with what’s going on in your body.”

Now for the hard part. This is simple but not easy.

Wait, how hard can it be? We breathe all day right? The problem is this isn’t something we normally pay attention to. Try it. Stop right now and pay attention to your breath for one minute. Do nothing else.

Not so easy is it?

Our mind is habituated to running amok, not staying focused on something as basic as the breath. This is why meditation practice is difficult. We have spent years habituating ourselves to do anything other than be present with what is going on in this very moment. The breath serves as our anchor to the present. So feel your breathing, as it is right now.

You don’t need to alter your breath from its normal pattern and you don’t need to place an emphasis on either the outgoing or incoming breath. Just breathe like you normally do. Relax. “Let your body naturally do its thing. In some sense, the true object of your meditation practice is appreciation of your very being.”


You will get distracted from the breath. It may be a few seconds or it may be minutes but you will get distracted. That’s also very natural. Since we are not used to being in the present moment the mind habitually gravitates toward the past and future. For instance, you may attempt to be present but you start reliving a conversation you had with someone who annoyed you earlier. From there your mind jumps to the future and how you will tell that person off the next time you see them.

In any such case where your attention gets stolen by the past or future just remember that your intention is to be present with the breath. If your mind is lost in big thoughts that take you out of the room you can silently and gently say “thinking” to yourself as a reminder that what you are doing is very normal but not what you want to do.

Labelling this as thinking allows you to bring your attention back to the breath.

That’s it. That’s the basic shamatha practice. The power is in the simplicity.

We don’t need extra practices or new techniques to challenge ourselves. For the course of our work together please use this shamatha practice. Its power is in its simplicity. Over time you will get to see yourself more clearly. You will become a connoisseur of your own thought process. That is what a meditator is; someone who appreciates the many flavors of their own mind and is able to be present with all of them.

Mindfulness and Awareness: The Ultimate Tag-Team Combo

Practice can be challenging. While the intent is to have a “calm-abiding” meditation it can feel like your mind is going crazy.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for beginning meditators to feel as if they have opened the floodgates and there is a barrage of thoughts pummeling them, as if they were standing at the bottom of a waterfall and thoughts just hit them with that level of speed and velocity. It can feel that overwhelming.

The good news is (and trust me I speak from experience here) it gets easier. As you begin to meditate consistently, you start to gradually see an increase in the ability to stay with the breath and be more present, both on the meditation cushion and with various elements of the rest of your life.

Two tools that help us with meditation are mindfulness and awareness. First, let’s define them.

The Tibetan word for mindfulness is trenpa, which, if we want to get long-winded about it, can also be translated as “the ability to hold your attention to something.” That is pretty straightforward, right? If you want to be mindful of the breath that means you are holding your attention to your breathing. If you want to be mindful of a conversation it means fully engaging that discussion. If you want to be mindful while you eat it means paying attention to and enjoying your meal. Mindfulness is the simple act of being fully with whatever you are doing. “Ness” in this sense implies the essence of, so when we say “mindful ness” we are saying we are cultivating the essence of being mindful, or being present.

Mindfulness is an inherent capacity that we all have. … This tool, this drill, is already on our tool belt. We just need to learn how to use it. I use the example of the drill because mindfulness is a precise instrument; it specifically keeps us attuned to the present moment. While it may feel uncomfortable or difficult to be mindful with the breath, it is in fact just applying this tool to retrain our mind to do something it’s very accustomed to doing in other ways.

In a way we are always meditating on something. Whether it’s an upcoming work project or our home renovations, our focus is always placed on something other than what is going on right now. This is the difference between seeing and observing.

Our mind is accustomed to meditating on the future and the past, but we need to retrain it to come back to the present. That is the power of mindfulness: we learn to be precise with the breath as an anchor to the present so that later on we are more mindful with the rest of our lives.

The next tool is awareness.

The Tibetan word for awareness is sheshin. She can be translated into English as “knowing,” while shin is “present.” In other words, we can think of this phrase as “presently knowing,” or knowing what is going on in this very moment. It is a sense of awareness of our environment, both our physical environment and our mental environment. This tool of awareness is, not unlike mindfulness, something we already possess.

Mindfulness and awareness work together to keep us engaged in the present moment.

They are the tag team of meditative tools. In the case of our physical environment, we may be going about our day and we hear our phone ring. In this example, it is awareness that says, “Oh. Hey. My phone is ringing.” Recognizing that a noise occurred and that it is your telephone is an awareness of your physical environment. Then you pick up your phone and begin talking to whomever called you, and become fully engaged in that conversation. That is mindfulness bringing you to the point where you are truly in the moment with a dialogue. Maybe the person on the other end of the phone starts to bore you at some point and you lose your sense of mindfulness. When they call you on that and say, “Are you even listening to me?” your awareness will snap you back to what is going on in the moment and you will once more be present with that person.

In the case of our mental environment, awareness is that aspect of our mind that notices when we are no longer present with the breath. You know how you can be sitting there meditating, then all of a sudden a few minutes have passed and you have been plotting out that vacation you may or may not ever take, and then you catch yourself and say, “Whoa! Get back to meditating on the breath”? …

Another way to think of awareness is that it is the sheriff of the small town of your mind, constantly and kindly keeping watch and enforcing your ability to come back to your breathing.

“Every moment has its energy; either it will ride us, or we can ride it.” — Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

If we do not live our lives with mindfulness and awareness we are missing a lot of opportunities to enjoy all the little moments throughout our day. We are instead letting our habitual patterns play out randomly as the energy of the moment rides us. It is a bit like listening to some horribly indulgent elevator music on a never-ending ride where every stop along the way opens the doors to self-involvement and suffering. If you are able to be in the moment and recognize the energy of what is going on, you can live your life with intention. If you cannot ride the energy of this very moment then it will ride you; in other words you will live a life based in unconscious intentions, held hostage to whatever discursive whims your mind cooks up. No matter what floor of the elevator you get off at it will lead to pain and inner turmoil.

Applying these tools to meditation and life will help you flourish.

Another word for meditation in Tibetan is gom. It can also be translated as “become familiar with.” In the process of meditation we are essentially becoming more familiar with our own mind and our habitual patterns. Now that you are beginning to look at your mind you can treat it like a new acquaintance. You may at first view that waterfall of thoughts that occurs when you sit down to meditate and say, “Um … I don’t know if I want to get to know you, Mr. Mind,” but you persevere and as you continue to apply mindfulness and awareness you become more accustomed to the eccentricities of your own mental being.

“In practicing meditation,
we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite.

We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.”
— Pema Chodron

Your mind may sometimes be chaotic; it may sometimes be peaceful. In either case, if you can investigate it through simply being present then you are becoming more thoroughly who you are. You are more able to be with your experience, whether it is good or bad. As a bonus, when you continue to apply mindfulness and awareness while meditating you will find that they will naturally manifest more as you go about your day-to-day life. You will end up being more present with friends when you go out to dinner, or lovers when you are in bed, or family members even if you are in an argument. In all of these situations you can tune in to the present moment. You can be mindful of what is going on right now. You can maintain awareness of your environment and who you are relating to. With the tag-team combination of the precise drill of mindfulness and the rapid-fire snap of the measuring tape of awareness you can live a fuller, more content life overall, in tune with the way things are.


Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation is totally worth exploring in its entirety over a glass of wine.

Aristotle on Time

Aristotle, in The Physics, produces a “a statement of the difficulties about the attributes of time.”

Next for discussion is time. The best plan will be to begin by working out the difficulties connected with it, making use of the current arguments. First, does it belong to the class of things that exist or to that of things that do not exist? Then secondly, what is its nature? To start, then: the following considerations would make one suspect that it either does not exist at all or barely, and in an obscure way. One part of it has been and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet. Yet time—both infinite time and any time you like to take—is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.

Further, if a divisible thing is to exist, it is necessary that when it exists, all or some of its parts must exist. But of time some parts have been, while others have to be, and no part of it is, though it is divisible. For what is “now” is not a part: a part is a measure of the whole, which must be made up of parts. Time, on the other hand, is not held to be made up of “nows.” Again, the “now” which seems to bound the past and the future—does it always remain one and the same or is it always other and other? It is hard to say.

(1) If it is always different and different, and if none of the parts in time which are other and other are simultaneous (unless the one contains and the other is contained, as the shorter time is by the longer), and if the “now” which is not, but formerly was, must have ceased to be at some time, the “nows” too cannot be simultaneous with one another—but the prior “now” must always have ceased to be. But the prior “now” cannot have ceased to be in itself (since it then existed); yet it cannot have ceased to be in another “now.” For we may lay it down that one “now” cannot be next to another, any more than point to point. If then it did not cease to be in the next “now” but in another, it would exist simultaneously with the innumerable “nows” between the two—which is impossible.

Yes, but (2) neither is it possible for the “now” to remain always the same. No determinate divisible thing has a single termination, whether it is continuously extended in one or in more than one dimension: but the “now” is a termination, and it is possible to cut off a determinate time. Further, if coincidence in time (i.e., being neither prior nor posterior) means to be “in one and the same now,” then, if both what is before and what is after are in this same “now,” things which happened ten thousand years ago would be simultaneous with what has happened today, and nothing would be before or after anything else.

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship


Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

Few books I’ve read contain more marked passages and pages than David Whyte’s passionate and thought-provoking book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, which argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance.

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

Whyte argues that we come to a sense of meaning and belonging “only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”

Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

These three lifelong pursuits, Whyte believes, “involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.” Neglecting any one of these “impoverishes them all” because they are not mutually distinct but rather “different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.” Our flirtation with each differs and yet we are left to inter-weave the vows into a cohesive person, consciously or unconsciously.

Whyte’s premise is also his conclusion:

We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

… [E]ach of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. … (once we understand they are not negotiable) we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.

Perhaps this resonates with me more than most because I’ve always found the argument that we should live a balanced life lacking. At its heart this implies we should trade one aspect for another, compromising as we go. To me this trimming of excess in one area to prop up another serves to remove, not create, meaning.

The other argument that Whyte surfaces penetrates the fabric of our human needs: the constant tug of war between our social desires and our need for space. This is another area where we naturally try to find balance and in so doing compromise part of ourselves.

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship “dispels the myth that we are predominately thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragons of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective.”