Monday, 30 May 2011

Bodil Jonsson on Time

Summary of the book "Ten Thoughts about Time" by the Swedish physicist-turned-philosopher Bodil Jonsson.

"I hope you will find some of what I say of interest to you. For me, writing this has been a sheer pleasure. Sorting out past ideas, finding new ones and rearranging them in different patterns has been as enjoyable as picking a bunch of flowers."

Problem of Time:
conflict of humanity & technology

Four components: 1/ Inner Self, 2/ Friends & Family,
3/ Creative Activities & Things, 4/ Money
We spend too much time on 4/! (necessities & boulders)

Time is your Best Asset

How do you use your time? Time-saving for what end?

Q. Are you using it right? What could you do better?

0th step: Acceptance
1st step: Awareness
2nd step: Methodical System for organising one's time
3rd step: Clarity & Enunciation of ideas
4th step: Evaluation & Discipline


"I like the philosophers' approach to debate. The arguments are taken for walks, as it were, but made to return to certain points from different angles and at different times. This is how one learns, after all. Learning is not about once-and-for-all answers or exact repetition, but finding out about the variations that may or may not lead to the same result. Also, though it is impossible to deal with anyone's relationship with time once and for all, it can be crucial to learn to recognise the symptoms of it foundering. When a time vortex threatens, it's useful to have a trick or two up your sleeve. The best thing is to be able to laugh at yourself. Laughter always helps."

Anxious of time slipping by faster and faster, the feeling of losing one's grip on the flow of events and then finding out from an older friend that the flow only tends to get faster, thus began the author's private project to "stop time" — to stop dashing about like a crazed rat and do nothing for a set period, though not exactly nothing, but to stay at home and not travel or look for other things to do, to do away with "what do I need to do next?" and "what have I forgotten?" and just be… to recover the feeling of time stretching to eternity & "plenty of time". The trick can always be repeated, usually on a smaller scale, and it helps to always know that it can be.

Though one might not always feel like one has plenty of time, one begins by coming to realise and appreciate a greater awareness of time. Then you will change your priorities both with regard to your activities and your time allocations. You have to be selective to do what you really want — prioritise & re-prioritize, and to make sure to leave time free to treat yourself, time and space to think and innovate, and above all to stand up to minor distractions and interruptions that threaten to dominate and direct your life and with the support and understanding of family, friends & those around you to disengage and evade them.

This does not preclude you from juggling many balls at once, but you need not juggle them all simultaneously and you can rather use peaceful moments to catch them one at a time. But how many is too many? As with many things in life, the trick is to look out for warning signs. One such is the lengthening of the interval between thought and action; then cut down and re-focus or you'll be in danger of dropping every last ball. Re-discover your rhythm. Less is sometimes more. But some degree of diversity and interleaving of activities is good. It provides change and stimulation. On the other hand, it might lead to pauses (as you take the time to start up again) and also to the wrong things, the quick easy choices, being given priority. I used to think that as I got older, life would become ever more restricted and uniform like slipping down an ever-narrower funnel, but experience is enriching and the flow is the reverse, to a wider space.


Having exchanged my delusion of always being short of time for one of always having plenty of time, the transformation was a delight — to see time as a huge gold-mine instead of as a dwindling stream. Having persuaded myself, I really did seem to have time to spare. Though still doing far too much, I regained a sense of orderliness, and time stretching to infinity. My first principle was to allow for "set-up time" and protect it from encroachment. My second principle was to become aware of the difference between undivided and sub-divided time and to try to make sure not to sub-divide life into too many little fragments, but to pool the bits together into larger chunks of time. A good example of this is the distinction between train journeys and plane journeys or unplanned holidays and an organised tour.

Suppose I want to talk to somebody. Conversations are best in a relaxed, quiet, uninterrupted setting. To be allowed to focus on talking can be truly inspiring and a source of new knowledge, emotions and impulses. Most people have the capacity to develop and enrich one another. But to act as each other's mental midwives — to help each other develop new thoughts and ideas — can be time-consuming. Interrupted deliveries are often inconclusive. We have the same problem of interruptions with the continuous stream of advertisements & trailers on tv.

However, some degree of division is necessary to provide structure and to aid memory. Memories become meaningful in an ordering of before and after. Seeing yesterday's events and reminding oneself of plans for tomorrow allows the present to flourish. Repetition and routine provide a stable platform on which we may build. But if we want to be truly in control of life, we must be able to make snappy decisions, to interleave activities with barely a pause and to have the freedom of undivided time. Do I seem to contradict myself? The use of time is complex (as opposed to complicated) and like a tapestry (as opposed to a tangled ball of yarn), it cannot be pulled apart to simplify and understand it, but must simply be studied and observed. It takes time to think about time!

Bertrand Russell wrote in his autobiography, "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: Longing for Love, Search for Knowledge & Unbearable Pity for the Suffering of Mankind." I believe you will find yourself more fully present in the here & now, the more fully you manage to share these three passions of Russell's. If they set you goals that prove elusive in reality, then we can use our imagination and enter into an inner space. Being able to withdraw into yourself is a precious gift and a child who has been allowed to dream will later in life find it easier to accomplish these three important tasks of longing for love, looking for knowledge & empathising with the suffering. Dreaming sustains the mind until he or she feels able to begin. There is an interesting parallel with the three essential features of a creative environment as prescribed by the Indonesian Prof. Gede Raka: Friend-friendly, Learning-friendly, and Oriented towards doing good. Perhaps we should not be so surprised by the analogy — being present in space and time provides a framework for personal creativity. This also brings to mind the medieval tenets of a good education: Good Company, Good Discipline & Good Spirit, also the three axes worth keeping in mind when faced with any difficulty: Good Will, Competence & Courage. It's clear that only two of these three is not enough. We must have Heart as well as Mind as well as Spirit; fraternity, egalité et liberté (as the French anthem goes in reverse!). Let us conclude by quoting Kant:

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another.
The immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another."


Stillness and movement enhance different characteristics. Who you are in a big situation or a challenging context might be totally different because a whole new personality comes out and only in the dynamic state can dynamic qualities be observed. While the static qualities of reliability & persistence are valuable, even more so are the dynamic qualities of creativity, sensitivity & initiative.

The present is an important concept. In principle you are free to lay plans to meet almost anyone and do almost anything right now. Now contains the seeds of the future. But contemporaneity also poses moral dilemmas. If a country threatens to reduce its neighbour's water supply, the conflict requires immediate solutions; but when mismanagement by anyone, anywhere, endangers the water supply of future generations, the act has a lack of immediacy that usually means postponing any attack on the source of the trouble. No talks can take place between opposing sides — those who cause the trouble and their victims.

While we may claim to want to live only in the present, it's clear that we cannot. Not only morally, but because without expectations and plans, say for what we are likely to do next month, our grip on the present becomes too weak to the point of paralysis. The same applies to the past and memories. It's curious how we remember little of when things went smoothly and how our strongest memories are of unexpected successes and difficult episodes. What we value is having endured and coped with the difficult and this strengthens our willingness to try new things, including a new relationship with time. Then, now, and later are pivotal concepts to movements within life. And it is often useful to look at time backwards instead of forewords in terms of ends instead of causes.

We return to our premise — "Time is Our Best Asset".

We view this in a spirit of joy as a stimulus for thought and as a challenge.


As well as standard mechanistic "clock-time" which everyone uses, try to become conscious of your internal sense of time or "lived-time" and develop your awareness of it.

Every task has a "set-up time" to prepare or get into the zone for, so space & time need to be set aside to concentrate and get things started, what might be called "without-interruption-study-time" (WIST) or time to go through a warm-up routine. Once things are in the flow, they take on a momentum of their own and with discipline and perseverance we ride the flow to a successful conclusion.

Difficult and important tasks often have longer seemingly unproductive set-up times that need to be set aside and worked through. Sometimes a period of apparent evasion and focusing on smaller easier jobs can mask the actual set-up time of a harder task. But how can you tell that you're not fooling yourself let alone persuade others of it?

The internet has led to significantly shortened set-up times because of the ease & speed with which it allows one to find relevant information, thus allowing one to pursue even more ideas and lines of thought. Revolutions of technology and global challenges in general call for new patterns of thought, which for all of us set in the old ways of thinking can take time to realise and sink in. We can either be parrots and do as everyone else does, or chameleons embracing change to blend in, or we can be hawks, high in the sky, taking in the big picture and leading the way.


  1. "being the way".


    "old mind" ... I like that idea very much.
    To recognize the "old mind" .

    I have often been described as an " old soul " .
    I never really understood what they meant. And was curious that so many people, across the time of my life, would describe me the same way.
    I finally just figured they'd all read the same book ... lol

    But as I evolve into my " oldness " I think it is that recognition that people share, quite often without even realizing it, of an " old mind ".

    An "ancient and ageless" ness that describes the integral thread that weaves the fabric of our character.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    For "synchronicity" to occur, one must be " in time " ... eh ?


  2. That was a great read, thanks okei!
    Have you ever read Krishnamurti's and David Bohms "The Ending of Time", interesting dialogue by two brilliant minds, though I am little disturbed usually by Krishnamurti's dry way of talking, interesting nevertheless.
    For me I loved the most the director Linklater's vision of time, adapted from P.K.Dick's theory that it is always 50 AD and time is just a continuous distraction. Linklater goes on and says that there is only one instant, and in this instant God is asking us whether we want to be one with eternity. Time, then, is just our constant saying “no” to God’s invitation.
    But even with time being an illusion everything in the blog was very perceptive and true.

  3. Gosh, I know I'll need to read this. I'll come back and read it thoroughly. It's 7 pm here and I'm still at the office!

    I know I've left a Birthday message for you on your birthday, but I couldn't seem to find it? It was strange, I couldn't post a HTML greeting for some reason, so I just typed in my wishes for you. I must have screwed up a bit there.

    Anyway, just in case you never got it, here's wishing you a Happy Belated Birthday, and I hope you've had a blast!

  4. Thanks Tamara, I'm not sure what "old soul" means either. Maybe one with ageless wisdom as you say...

    And you're welcome; not my thoughts, but Bodil Jonsson's thoughts. But having said that, I wrote this up originally by hand over a year ago and just got round to typing it up, and there are definitely shadows here of conversations I'd been having on Multiply with you I think (about complicated versus complex), with Shahrizat (about juggling many balls at once), and others which I've forgotten by now.

    "For "synchronicity" to occur, one must be " in time " ... eh ? "

    Ummm... I guess?

    This is the point where I quote you quoting Borges

    "" Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a Tiger that devours me, but I am the Tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. " ~ Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) "

    Does this make sense to you? LOL!

  5. Hille, I've read a bit of Krishnamurti online and I really like him! But I haven't read that dialogue you mentioned... and I still haven't seen that film by Linklater which I'm sure you've told me about before.

    " there is only one instant, and in this instant God is asking us whether we want to be one with eternity. Time, then, is just our constant saying “no” to God’s invitation. "

    Cool idea, and no, I hadn't come across it before. I don't think, hehe. I just used "before" in that sentence, so I guess I was saying "no" right there, lol. And yes, Bodil Jonsson is very perceptive (especially for a physicist, he jokes).

  6. Shahrizat, I'm sorry you're having to work so late. Really, you don't "need" to read this because you've lived it and could teach us, but I know you'd like to and the ideas here would resonate with what you've already discovered for yourself. I meant to share this earlier, but never got round to typing it up till now.

    I'm sorry about my "no html guestbook"... I got a sense you'd tried to leave a greeting from the Viewing History, and I'm sorry but Multiply must have eaten it.

    Thanks for the wishes, and thanks Tamara also!