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On Time

I have always been fascinated by time. It has often seemed to me that if I could understand time, I might come closer to understanding reality.

Turning to our scientists and philosophers does not easily clarify the matter. Newton, Kant and Leibniz all had varying opinions of the real nature of time.

To begin with, we have come to understand that our universe seems to be embedded in four dimensions – that is the three dimensions of space plus the dimension of time. I keep asking myself, “Why is time differentiated like this from the dimensions of space?”

One answer may be that we believe we are so short of time – that we live a life of finite magnitude and then are overtaken by death. Time then seems to come with our feelings of mortality embedded in it. The other dimensions of the universe don’t threaten us in this way. People complain far more about running out of time – hardly anyone complains about running out of space!

In the Sanskrit epic, the Bhagavad Ghita, the hero Arjuna confronts the god Krishna not as a creator, but as a destroyer.

“Tell me who you are?” he asks Krishna.

And the god replies:

“I am come as time, the waster of the peoples
Ready for the hour that ripens to their ruin.”

This sense of running out of time creates in us a terrible sense of time pressing us with a feeling of “be quick before it’s too late.”

As the Persian poet, Omar Khyam says:

One moment in annihilation’s waste
One moment of the well of life to taste
The stars are setting and the caravan
Starts for the dawn of nothing. Oh make haste!

The human species has evolved to measure space directly but time indirectly. Why should time be different in this way?

We seem to need motion to define time. Initially we measured our lives in days which reflected the earth turning on its axis and years which reflected the earth’s passage around the sun. Then we invented clocks which counted the swings of a pendulum. Today’s most accurate timepieces rely on the movement of atoms and subatomic particles – but nevertheless movement. Scientists say that before the “big bang” there was no time. And it seems that if the universe were to run down, allowing the second law of thermodynamics to eventually result in a cold and motionless universe, there would be no time either.

The thirteenth century theologian and mystic, St Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles:

God does not move at all, and so cannot be measured by time; neither does He exist “before or after” or no longer exist after having existed, nor can any succession be found in Him … but has the whole of his existence simultaneously.

We use one word, “infinity”, to describe that which encompasses all space and another word, “eternity”, to describe that which encompasses all time. But the sages tell us that both these concepts are a product of dualism and that really all of infinity exists at every point of space and that eternity is completely present at every point in time.

Meister Eckhart proclaimed:

The Now-moment in which God made the first man and the Now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the Now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one Now. Look! The person who lives in the light of God is conscious neither of time past nor of time to come but only of one eternity.

These concepts are not exclusively Christian but seem embedded in most of the major belief systems. For example one could say that the primary aim of all Buddhist practice is simply to awaken to the Eternal Present.

The ninth century master of Zen Buddhism, Huang Po said:

Begingless time and the present moment are the same …You have only to understand that time has no real existence.

In D T Suzuki’s translation of the Gandavyhu Sutra ( which is the last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the most influential scriptures in East Asian Buddhism, written some 500 years after the death of Buddha) he writes:

In the spiritual world there are no time divisions such as the past, present or future; for they have contracted themselves into a single moment of the present where life quivers in its true sense.

In the Awakening of Faith, which is a text of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism it is written that:

The realisation that Mind is Eternal is called Final Enlightenment.

The Indian, Ramana Maharshi, who was a twentieth century Vedantic sage stated:

Apart from us, where is time and where is space? If we are bodies, we are involved in time and space, but are we? We are one and identical Now, then, forever, here and there and everywhere. Therefore we, timeless and spaceless Beings, alone are … What I say is that the Self is here and now and alone.

So then is time just another device of dualism which differentiates one from another using a temporal illusion? I think so. I stated before in another blog that two of the primary devices of duality are ego and time. I believe that is true.

Albert Einstein had this to say in capturing the essence of dualism:

A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.

There is no other time but Now. All our remembrances of the past are current constructions that we experience in this moment. All our prognostications about the future are also experienced in the timeless, eternal Now.

I have referenced many poets, mystics and sages in this blog. It is time now to provide a reference for the more rational of my readers!

Louis De Broglie, the French Physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics had this to say:

In spacetime, everything which for each of us constitutes the past, the present and the future is given en bloc …. Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of spacetime which to him appear as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting spacetime exist prior to his knowledge of them.

Our notion of time is confused by the common assumption about the “arrow of time”. We have come to believe that time is uni-directional, moving from the past to the present and thence to the future. In his book, The Intelligent Universe, Fred Hoyle, the eminent English astronomer, showed that electromagnetic waves can be reversed in time.

He asks:

Is it conceivable that the possibility of a reversed time-sense future to past, is an exception, pretty well the only exception to this general rule of natural parsimony (the arrow of time)?

He then gives his own answer:

I have long considered that the answer to this question must surely be no, and I have for long puzzled about what the consequence of such an answer might be.

Hoyle’s dilemma would have been solved had he understood that time is everywhere, all at once!

The unenlightened might ask then, “Is here and now all there is?” as though “here and now” were really of little significance. But the enlightened might respond, “Here and now is All!” and there can be nothing of greater significance.

And now we can see why William Blake might have written:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wildflower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

Or perhaps we might understand the sentiments of the Buddhist sage, the Zen Master Dogen:

It is believed by most that time passes; in actual fact it stays where it is. This idea of passing may be called time, but it is an incorrect idea, for since one sees it only as passing, one cannot understand that it just stays as it is.

Perhaps I should finish with a quote from the Australian scientist Darryl Reanney. Reanney was a distinguished contributor to both microbiology and biochemistry. He wrote two marvellous little books Music of the Mind and The Death of Forever which I would commend to you. Reanney was an extraordinary author being able to meld the essence of science, mysticism and spirituality together in cogent form.

He ended the former book with this statement:

A simple crystal of insight tells us how the world is built:
Knowing unites in eternity what matter creates in time.

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  1. 7 Comment(s)

  2.   By Greg Brown on Dec 9, 2009 | Reply

    Time, like nothing else defines humans. The knowledge of our mortality only exists through the concept of time and almost nothing causes more fear to the ego than our mortality. Without time most of us would consider the Universe to be a static “dead” place. Absence of time in most people’s minds is akin to death. We often define death as “eternal rest” (absence of time). Time therefore becomes a thing to be feared by most of us. We can’t waste it. I’ll quote Roger Waters from Pink Floyd:

    We run and we run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking,
    racing around to come up behind us again,
    the sun is the same in a relative way but we’re older
    shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

    Bet you never thought you’d get a quote from Pink Floyd in your blogs Ted 🙂

    Through correspondence with Phil Harker recently I have been prompted to think about the idea of time quite a lot. My own conclusions I think, but Phil gets 100% credit for the ideas. Phil is working on a book that expands on these concepts and plenty of others. Look out for it.

    Time is the 4th dimension and it is necessary for us to understand the underlying other 3 dimensions of space. If you can not move around an object you can not fully appreciate its 3 dimensional structure and in order to have movement you must have time. The object we define as the observer can’t be in 2 places at the same time, can it??

    If you delve deeper it also becomes pretty clear that to fully understand or perceive any dimension you need to be one dimension above the dimension you want to know about. We all live in the time dimension (the highest directly observable dimension) so by this definition we can not fully understand that dimension. This does not tell me what reality is in relation to time, but it does tell me that my perception of time is definitely incomplete and most probably incorrect. This thought has allowed me to open my mind to such concepts as the eternal present or the singularity of time. I have not sensed this but I appreciate that others may well have and are attempting to share there intuitive observations.

    In the same way that time and mortality/death invokes fear for our ego, awareness that our perception of time is almost certainly incorrect is for me and my insecure ego quite liberating. If time is a construct of consciousness so is mortality.

  3.   By Father Robin on Dec 9, 2009 | Reply

    Time is what keeps the Light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time. And
    not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections; not only temporal
    affections but the very taint and smell of time.
    A typically littleoverthetop
    Meister Eckhart, medieval Christian mystic

  4.   By Ted Scott on Dec 11, 2009 | Reply

    Great quote Father Robin. I will store it for further use!

  5.   By Father Robin on Dec 12, 2009 | Reply

    Hmmm…

    How about “Time is the moving image of Eternity”
    Plato.

  6.   By Father Robin on Feb 22, 2010 | Reply

    Time has no foundation. Shifting sands.

    Nothing is permanent.

    Including You and I.

  7.   By Father Robin on Feb 22, 2010 | Reply

    How about ‘Time’

    Pink Floyd

    ‘Dark Side of the Moon’

    Or about ‘Time’

    Steeleye Span

    ‘Time’

    Are they total ratbags?

  8.   By Father Robin on Feb 22, 2010 | Reply

    I suspect we all may well be.

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