What Is The Nature Of Time

December 24, 2012

Salvador Dali's rendition of Time.

Salvador Dali’s rendition of Time.

This time on last New Year’s Eve, I was in Times Square, New York, among a million others marking the turning of the clock with a ritual. Though deep in my heart it felt contrived. I could not shake the truth that the concepts of New Year, the turn of the Millennium, December 21st 2012, were all human fabrications. As such they have a life only in our collective imagination. But make no mistake, the human imagination is very potent.  To illustrate with another example, think of the famous photograph of planet Earth taken from space, The Blue Marble. What is most striking about this image is the absence of borders and boundaries. Prior to that picture we were used to seeing our planet in atlases, sliced up with black lines and contrasting colours. The Blue Marble shows the reality of Earth as a unified whole. And yet those imaginary lines dividing nations are still very real to humans. So real we are prepared kill or be killed for them. Similarly, the concept of time is imbedded in our psyches so profoundly, we find it hard to accept it as a fiction. We cherish special dates (Year 2000) or give significance to end of world dates (some even disposing of their property in anticipation).

Which is odd really. Because each of us suspends time on a regular basis. Each time we sleep, the very concept of time vanishes from us. Even in our dreams time is very elastic. A two-minute dream can feel like it played all night. You might age forty years within a thirty-second dream. I know under my heart attack coma I lived through several lifetimes, each one vividly real to me. While simultaneously, for my family in the waiting room, the seconds felt immovable. I know because last month I sat in the very same waiting room while someone else underwent a heart attack.

Time is also very elastic as we age. I recall as a child when being told to wait for five minutes, it was an eternity. As I age I now complain,”where have the years gone?”

Then there is the whole issue of when the counting of the clock began. It all depends on which culture we are referring to. For the Hindus this is year 5121, for the Chinese this year is 4710. Then there is the issue of solar calenders versus lunar calenders. Therefore, dates, months, hours, minutes exist in our imagination as solidly as the waves on the ocean.

Does that mean there is no such thing as objective time? I don’t know. That has been debated by greater minds than mine for generations, with no consensus. What I do know is that time commemorates the interval between two events, it marks change. And for change to be noted,  a changeless background is essential. Take a movie for example, it requires an unmoving screen for the changes in the film to register to the human brain. Project a piece of film over a stormy ocean and Mr. Brad Pitt will not be seen leaping off canyons. So then the question becomes: what is that universal unchanging background  upon which the passage of events, is perceived?

Surely it is consciousness. I do not believe the concept of time can ever be considered without consciousness. It is something like the old philosophical question of if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound? Similarly, if events transpire and there is no consciousness to witness them, has anything happened? Has time elapsed? What of the countless galaxies that implode in remote vacuums of the cosmos? Or what is the meaning of time for the suns which are pulled into black holes like water into drains? Or come to that, does time exist in the depths of our oceans where there is no life to experience it? And if there is life, how is time experienced by those creatures?

I recall years ago I was sitting in meditation in a temple in India when I heard a buzz of insects all around me. I opened my eyes to find the whole temple floor carpeted by these moth-like creatures. Some were crawling, others were mating, and some had shed their wings in their death throws. I was assured by a local that this was normal. Once a year, during the monsoon season, these insects erupt, and within a few hours live out their full lifespan: they grow up, they mate, they die.  I have also been in the midst of California Redwoods that were 5000 years old and growing. How can time be experience uniformly by creatures with such varying lifespans?

What is that unchanging, uniform background that makes the passage of these events noticeable? Surely it has to be universal consciousness. And that greater consciousness is called eternity. Many people mistake eternity for a long period of time. Eternity is the absence of time, it is the centre point around which time rotates.

And that eternal point is within each of us. It has to be. How else would we know the passage of time?

Will time ever end? The end of time did not happen on 2012 for all humanity, nor will it on any other date. Each of us will reach that point at his or her own pace. But reach it we will. Not as abstract as it sounds.

In moments of deep mediation, we can reach that stillness which is eternity. At these moments the mind ceases to exist. All that is left is the pure awareness. With practise a day will arrive when the mind ceases permanently. Stillness alone will be our experience. And that is the end of time.

Happy New Year.


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