Reflections from our travels — A cultural paradox in time

Over the past few weeks my partner and I have been travelling around Southeast Asia. We aim to visit Thailand and Indonesia at least once a year, as we are often drawn back to the unique culture of this part of the world. Throughout our journeys, we've started to notice subtle differences in how local people live their lives, especially in stark contrast to our experience of modern life in the western world.

There is an obvious divide in the standard of living of first world metropolitan Australian cities such as Melbourne, and that of small towns in Thailand such as Chiang Rai, for example. But modern metrics for standard of living do not necessarily capture a sense of personal happiness and community connectedness — characteristics that are abundant in many less developed countries.

Does our modern culture prioritise core values of happiness and personal freedom?

Even amidst difficult living conditions, a feeling of core, intrinsic happiness does not necessarily disappear. Why is this? A state of deeper contentment arises from an internal frame of reference, not from an appraisal of our external situation or worldview. This state does not occur due to external attainment and wealth, but points instead to the value of human connection and experience for the sake of it.

For example, walking around the streets of Indonesia, it is apparent that many people portray an openness and light-hardheartedness towards life, despite their turbulent struggles in the outer world. Although their lives might be lacking in material wealth, it is clear that their hearts are full. In the west, we instead form complex relationships with freedom and happiness, often striving to acquire more and more — whether status, material possessions, or power as a means to happiness. Ironically, these complex associations often keep us from achieving these exact goals in the end.

There is a certain trap in believing that the more we work towards acquisition and attainment, the greater our happiness level, and the greater freedom we have. Instead, there is a certain freedom in appreciating life for what it is. Yet, millions of people wake each morning to pursue this elusive dream of a future happiness that ever eludes their grasp.

Time = freedom?

We trade time as a commodity, but could this be a unique occurrence in our fast-paced information world?

More and more often in the modern world, we entwine our goal towards personal happiness with the amount of time we work towards it. We tend to barter time much like a commodity, and we place a monetary value on it as though it makes perfect sense. In doing so, those experiences which are beyond quantifiable value can often get pushed to the back-burner on our list of priorities.

Philosopher Andrew Taggart hit the nail on the head in his Aeon article which was published last month, titled 'If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living?'. Taggart made the argument that everything we do in life seems to be more and more geared towards our work, because we hold it at utmost value as the basis of our livelihood.

What is so disturbing about total work is not just that it causes needless human suffering but also that it eradicates the forms of playful contemplation concerned with our asking, pondering and answering the most basic questions of existence. — Andrew Taggart

Taggart prompted us to think about what it is that we give up in our lives when we make work our #1 priority. The 'virtue of busyness' mindset comes at a cost. In such as sad situation in our modern world, time becomes the consequence of experience, not the other way around. It seems we've created a culture in which instead we're constantly out of time, and never fully cherish our life experiences in and through time.

Time lines

In 1988 Tad James and Wyatt Lee Woodsmall published a unique book titled 'Time Line Therapy and the Basis of Personality', which explored how people perceive time differently across cultures. These authors demonstrated that our experience of time is often inextricably linked to our experience of life itself. James and Woodsmall observed that in the west we tend to structure our lives according to a linear and minute-by-minute timeline. On the other hand, in many eastern regions people take events as they come and immerse themselves in the experience of moments, not necessarily basing them on rigid time constraints.

Time is a created thing. To say 'I don't have time,' is like saying, 'I don't want to'. — Lao Tzu

To the western mindset, this rather alternative way of interacting with life comes across as highly disorganised — nothing seems to get done on time, and the concept of efficiency is lost to the wind. It also appears illogical and primitive to many. Yet, there is a certain implicit order in living through experience, rather than living through time.

Alan Watts on the paradox of our times

In a way, from this alternative vantage point, our experiences carry us through life and fall along an emotional timeline, rather than us trying to fit our experiences into a rigid mental or physical timeline. This can be summed up in the contrast between living for quantifiable goals versus living for the sake of experience.

Throughout the travels I have spent with my partner Iza, it has become apparent that we move closer to happiness when we move into the heart of experience, as it draws us nearer to our most inner self. This has little, if anything, to do with quantifiable time-line measurable outcomes like securing a mortgage, earning a promotion, or living to be 100 years of age. It is in stark paradox that these accomplishments that take the back-burner when we turn our hearts inward to the realm of Experience over time.


An interesting paradox noted in Watts' 'Wisdom of Insecurity' is the expectation of self-hood and the roles we have attached to it. Perhaps now more than ever, we live in a world in which people are asked to take ultimate responsibility for their lives, and while governments and corporations wash their hands of as much culpability as possible. We've begun to interface with a world in which we seemingly hold the weight of the highest responsibility, but none of the freedom or power to go with it!

Watts discussed this as the seeming illusion and paradox of self. We're given the seeming freedom of ultimate self-expression, but then limited in how we can express ourselves (we must fit into a given box of social constructs). Left-wing or right-wing — never outside it. Christian or Buddhist — never outside it all. Of course there are minor variations of self-expression, but the push towards fitting into a clear-cut class or category in life is ever felt in our modern culture.

That leads us to the question:

What is true freedom?

In the first book I wrote, 'Hearts in Transcendence', I explored the notion of choice against freedom. These two terms read similar, but are in fact words and worlds apart. Often varieties of choice are given to us from the external world and provisioned from a higher-up vantage point, but true freedom originates from within in unique manifestation — it often even ignores choice outright — as it were, and replaces it will will-power.

From our recent trip: Bali, Ubud

Perhaps a large lesson in our experience of traversing the world relates to cultivation of internal freedom — the freedom to have the emotional and mental space to be as we are. It is the freedom about being, rather than doing… about becoming rather than the attainment of material and set goals within a given culture.

We can learn much from culture which has not been trampled by the capitalistic western paradigm, in which values and truth have not been distorted but arise from a pure and innocent place within. I have several recollections of travelling through rural villages of Southern Africa, through the less tourist-inhabited islands of Indonesia, and through some of the lesser populated regions of Europe in which I have connected with the people in these seemingly-isolated parts of the world — I have witnessed a sense of truth and freedom in their eyes that seems to evade the cookie-cutter culture of our western world.

Evolution as revolution

Aka the Psychonauts' rebellion

There is a certain sense of exploration and original thought that is lost in the cultural mesh of our Coco-Cola and Kardashian-fandom world. Some of the most profound inventions and novel manner of looking at the world came about during the Renaissance, yet we now have 10 x the population in our world since the 1700s and yet much narrower and restrictive ways of conceptualising of our values and path as a human race.

How we view time, value, spiritual growth, emotion, and truth far too often becomes roboticised in our modern world. To avert this sad eventuation, we must embrace not just varied cultures far abroad but also contribute to the creation new cultural paradigms to conceive and nurture our innermost value and meaning. This is what makes us human. Once we begin to delve into the origins of culture, we can glean some of the major paradoxes of our time, such as our relationship with time, value, money, and freedom — expressions of self that often elude us and take a back seat to the woes of the world superimposed and immediate.