After reading the first part of the article of Tim Ferriss about the letter of Seneca to Paulinus entitled “On the Shortness of Life”, I decided to read the entire Seneca text. At a quiet Sunday morning, I sat in the garden and started to read the English translation. I had some trouble with the old school English, so I turned to the Dutch translation, since this is my native language.
The short summary of the letter from Seneca is: do not waste your time. Seneca in this text does not explain extensively which activities would not constitute time-wasting. In stead, he devotes a large number of paragraphs to explain why he thinks a great number of people are spending too much time on chasing money, power, fame or easy sensual pleasure.
I have to make an income, so I work. Would Seneca consider this a senseless activity? To me, it is a necessity.
Seneca argues that if you do not give in to distractions, your life seems longer. I agree with this completely. It is what my zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls: “Achieving more by doing less”. For me, this means: do not waste too much time with zapping the television or chatting (as I did) with a number of people on the Internet. What I find remarkable is that if you are zapping TV channels or senselessly surfing the Internet, time seems to fly by and at the end of the evening, I used to ask myself: “where did the time go?”
Picture courtesy of Uwe Eischens
Once you stop with things like that, other, more meaningful opportunities open.
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.
In the letter of Seneca, the author stresses that you should not let others claim your time too much. The example that Tim Ferriss gives is that if somebody would ask you to give him $ 100,-, you would kindly decline, but when somebody invites you to a 2 hour meeting that has no interest to you personally, you would be much more reluctant to decline.
This is definitely something I can relate to. As a young IT specialist, I was known within my family and friends as the guy they could call if they had some problem with their computer. This has cost me a lot of time back then, and I also found out that people would take my help largely for granted. Then one day, I decided that I would stop playing the free help desk, helping nobody anymore, save a few close relatives. I also like the T-shirt that says: “No, I will not fix your computer!” and I think that if you are a physician, people would also ask you medical details during birthday parties or receptions and you would also have to maintain the “no help-policy” for your own protection.
But what, according to Seneca, constitutes the beneficial ways to spend your time? I know from Googling about his work, that this would be a life in reflection, practicing philosophy and reading books of wisdom. This is what I miss in this letter, because here, Seneca does not write much about why these activities are good for you.
As a practicing Buddhist, I believe in mindfulness (being attentive to what you do), concentration (focus on one thing) and insight (that comes when you practice mindfulness and concentration). Focus on the essentials, daily meditation and keeping your balance give a feeling of calmness and having more patience with others. I do not know if this has any resemblance to the ideal activities in Seneca’s mind, though!