Tag Archives: this world

What is Time?

Few of us would be surprised to learn that clocks and calendars were among the earliest human inventions.  Although nature has given us day and night, seasonal changes and the heavens as markers, humans have been eager to find more precise measures.  These days, most of us are slaves to calendar and clock, gearing our lives to fit their incessant demands.

We take it for granted that time is something that exists and moves in a linear fashion and sweeps us along in its current. But is that assumption accurate? Is time a universal force that can’t be avoided, like gravity? It may sound silly to pose those questions, but many quantum physicists now feel sure that time does not actually exist.

No doubt you’ve heard some version of the ‘twin paradox’ explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity. In a nutshell, one 25 year old twin stays on earth while the other blasts off into space at 90% of the speed of light. The space twin makes a round trip that lasts 20 years and returns at the age of 45, but the twin who stayed on earth is now 71. This happens, in part, because gravity warps both time and space. The closer we are to a gravitational pull the faster time is, the further away we get, the slower it is. The key point is that absolute time does not exist. And no matter how accurate our clocks are, there is nothing tangible ‘out there’ that keeps universal time.

This may be fascinating information, but since you’re probably not going to be taking any trips in outer space anytime soon, it’s not relevant to your personal relationship with the clock. However, scientists are discovering that even when we’re all safely on earth, each of us experiences time differently.  One of the factors that determine our experience of time is the methods we use to mark it:

Chaotic time perceives the world in terms of major events. These events could be global or personal, extremely negative or very positive, but their common thread would be the deep effect they had on you emotionally and/or physically.  Since chaotic time is made up of a random, disjointed group of events, it often feels uncontrollable and beyond comprehension. In chaotic time the past, present and future seem disjointed and unreal. Time is often scrambled and reset whenever another important event takes place leading to greater discontinuity.  This is a child’s first experience with time but many adults, especially those who have been through horrific events, continue thinking in terms of chaotic time.

Cyclical time is obviously linked to the seasonal cycles of nature or any other repetitive experience. Cycles often focus on ritual, community and connection, which offer a feeling of security within constant change.  Although cyclical time works more like a spiral than a line, it offers hope of renewal and change.  Cycles of any length can be created and used to measure any set of repetitive events, giving a strong sense of fluidity between past, present and future.

Linear time assumes that time is a viable force of the universe that is constant and real. In this context, time is a stream; a progression that we expect will be accompanied by continued, linear improvement.  Linear time is particularly seen as a commodity that can be traded and used. This view leads to goal setting and a strong desire for achievement that can be measured ‘over time.’ It appears to be impossible for linear time to stand still, so it’s assumed that world conditions must constantly change, either improving or disintegrating. Linear time also lends itself to a strong sense of history and both positive and dire predictions for the future based on past events.

Each of us uses a mixture of these methods to mark time, which means that we each experience time differently. Why? Researchers tell us that time is actually a construct of the brain, a system of relationships that help us navigate the material world. We mark time based on the rate our brain takes in, filters and files information. When the brain has decided the information that’s its receiving is unimportant, it has little work to do and time seems to go very fast. Many older people complain that time seems to be speeding by, but the real problem may be that they’re not taking in enough stimulating information to keep the brain busy and engaged.  And conversely, children believe time drags by very slowly because they are constantly interested in something new, and the brain must assimilate the dense inflow.  This phenomenon also explains why a terrifying experience like a car wreck, earthquake or tornado feels like it’s taking place in slow motion.

Crazy as it seems, when we talk to someone on the phone at 5 o’ clock and agree to meet them for dinner at six, we each experience the ‘hour’ between the call and the meeting in a different way. And after dinner, if we go to a movie that one of us enjoys and the other doesn’t, time will be different for each of us. The only thing about time that was stable was the way we agreed to mark it out with our calendar or clock. Since time is so plastic, how can we begin to create a new understanding of it?

Around the 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea, proposed that motion is an illusion. Instead of time, we experience ‘instants’ that are very similar to a snapshot or one frame of movie film.  Each instant is equally real, but the instant is not in time; instead, time is the instant. Rather than time passing, consciousness strings these instants together like a series of still frames. The result?  The brain experiences a continual flow of virtual ‘now instants’ that appear as seamlessly as the separate frames of a movie. Quantum physics supports Zeno’s theory; time, rather than being a force of the universe, is a tool the brain uses to help us navigate the world.  We’ve been taught that eternal means endless time; it’s not, its timelessness.

As you may have noticed, the previous paragraph refers to both the brain and consciousness constructing the illusion of time. Here things get exceptionally interesting; quantum theory is demonstrating that everything exists within consciousness, including the body and brain! What we have assumed to be a material world is made up of electromagnetic waves that the brain interprets as sensory experiences. The eyes see nothing, the hands feel nothing, the ears hear nothing, but within the blackness of the brain they all appear, feel and sound real. We are pure consciousness projecting a virtual reality; we do not exist in time, time exists within us. Since you are the one projecting time and the stories that appear to happen within it, what story do you choose to tell? It’s up to you!

It’s no wonder that Jesus promised, “I shall give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human mind.” (Gospel of Thomas) We can choose to live as slaves of time, but it’s a slavery of our own making:

Periods of months and years and time in general are ideas of men, who calculate by number; but the true name of eternity is Today—Philo

The human mind…is forced to impose the framework of space and time on raw sensory data in order to make any sense of it at all—Immanuel Kant

The One is neither a thing, nor a quality nor a quantity. It is not moving or standing still It is not a place or time—Plotinus

What is ordinarily called God’s foreknowledge is in reality a timeless now-knowledge—Aldous Huxley

Your essential nature is not at all in time or place, but is purely and simply in eternity—Meister Eckhart

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Chuang Tzu: Lessons in Uselessness

If you’re reading this sentence, it’s probably because your curiosity got the best of you. After all, why would anyone want to intentionally teach uselessness? From the time we’re quite young society conditions us to be useful and promises the more useful we are the more rewards we’ll receive. Chuang Tzu, like other Taoist masters,… Continue Reading

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Filed Under: Tao