Commodity Time, Organic Time, and Zen Time

Commodity Time, Organic Time, and Zen Time

Discussion date: Thu, Oct 01, 2009 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Something stirred in me when I first read Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s description of commodity time (in Jewish with Feeling):

We spend most of our days living in "commodity time." just as our movements take us down a particular path over the course of our day, so does our daily life occupy a certain segment along the axis of time. In commodity time the points along that segment – when we get up, eat, work, exercise, spend time with our loved ones, go to sleep – are dictated not so much by our physical needs, far less our emotional or spiritual ones, as by the demands of running an efficient marketplace.

I recognized that I had grown up with commodity time as my primary way, perhaps my only way, of conceptualizing time. I had internalized it – it was my framework not only for getting things done in the world, but also for how I managed my own life and my relationships with others. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi writes what that was like for him:

In commodity time we are our own worst taskmasters. "I need a nap," my body says, and I say, "Later. Here, have some more coffee." "I’m hungry." "No time for a real meal now. Eat this burger and fries, quick." "I have to go to the bathroom." "Soon, soon." "I need to stretch my legs." "Later!" When I live like this I’m always denying something that a Zalman inside of me wants.

In contrast to commodity time, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi offers “organic time.” In organic time one lets go of imposed plans and schedules and flows with the rhythms of life. On the Sabbath, one lives in organic time.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi describes a Sabbath day with images and suggestions that are remarkably similar to the way Thich Nhat Hanh describes a day of mindfulness. We let go of plans and worries; we attune ourselves to our bodies, feelings, and deep aspirations; we more fully experience the life that is in us and around us. In the Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh describes how to drink tea on a day of mindfulness:

after you have worked in the garden or watched clouds or gathered flowers, prepare a pot of tea to sit and drink in mindfulness. Allow yourself a good length of time to do this. Don’t drink your tea like someone who gulps down a cup of coffee during a work break. Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves — slowly, even, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi perspective is that one lives either in commodity time or organic time. The Biblical directive is six days in the world, one day for the Sabbath. It is possible and desirable, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi says, to get a few breaks for organic time in the work day, but one needs to live in the world and earn money. Therefore one must live in commodity time most of the time.

In the tradition of mindfulness practice, however, commodity time and organic time are not in opposition. They can both exist in what I think of as “Zen time.” Even though we have to be at work at 9 a.m. on Monday morning, we can walk to the subway and arrive in each step. Even though the printer needs to be loaded with paper, we can be fully present to ourselves, the printer, and the paper.

We create days of mindfulness and we go on retreats as ways of training ourselves, of allowing ourselves to experience what it means to be more fully present. The orientation, however, is to keep expanding our capacity to be present, so that it infuses each day, each moment:

there is no contradiction between living in the world as it is and “embracing the moment.” Though a retreat may be helpful training, it is just that. Everything takes place in a moment of time — conflict, annoyance, love, peacefulness, anxiety. A moment of time is the only place we are alive, every day, all day long. We want to live all of human life, the good and the bad, but be able to be there for it, rather than try, unsuccessfully, to run away. Being there is more satisfying, more fun, and more effective. So I work with (for instance) caregivers for the dying, using mindfulness and presence to be there with patients and families, with grief and joy. I use it with conflict resolution professionals to help them be more clearly present with their own emotions, so they can help their embattled clients better. (From On ‘Embracing the Moment’, a New York Times web article by Zen Priest Norman Fischer.)

This Thursday after our meditation we will share about our sense of time. In what ways, in what contexts are we guided by commodity time, by organic time, or by Zen time? Are there changes we would like to make?

Also, this Thursday is the first Thursday of the month. Beginning at 6:30 p.m., we will be offering a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. If you would like to attend, it is helpful to let us know by emailing us at

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Oct 01, 2009


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