"The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
~ Albert Einstein
Time As Experience & Concept
Most of us have had experiences in which time seems to slow down (or space-time expand) -- say in the midst of a crisis situation, or when we’re “in the zone” during an athletic competition. Similarly, most of us have experienced time seeming to “fly” -- to pass very quickly -- for instance when we’re engrossed in an activity that we very much enjoy. And yet, most of us, when questioned directly, tend to align with the belief that time is a “constant” -- that it is some “thing” that exists objectively, and that “flows” at a constant rate, from past to future.
So: how is it that our experience can be so at odds with our belief, in relation to what we call “time”? Let’s explore .....
The truth is that we never directly experience time. As human bodyminds, what we do perceive is movement, motion, the kaleidoscopic transformations of phenomenal appearances (i.e. patterns of energy). Out of these perceived patterns of movement our minds then create “objects” and “events.” The notion of “space” is used to order objects, and provide a context for their movement. The notion of “time” is used to track what we call “duration” -- the rate at which these (supposedly essentially unchanging) “objects” travel. What we are in the habit of referring to as “time” is, in actuality, simply the perceived duration of motion. The psychological experience of “time as some actually-existent thing” is no more than conceptual elaboration.
Clocks, Planets, Space & Time
This duration of motion is a measure based upon a clock. And what is a clock? A clock is an instrument which moves at a constant speed, and which we use to measure the duration of all other movements. For those of us living on planet Earth, all such movements are rendered in terms of the movement of the Earth through one complete revolution upon her axis. This is how we define “twenty-four hours.” For the sake of convenience and precision, we keep track of the earth’s rotation upon its axis via the seconds, minutes and hours of our various twenty-four-hour clocks. For all practical purposes, when I look at the face of my watch, I am looking at a miniature representation of the earth, rotating upon its axis.
What’s important to notice is that clocks themselves -- as physical objects -- do not “run” (i.e. move) in time. They “run” only in space. Physicists have simply defined “time” as the “duration of movement” as measured by clocks. In other words, physical time is actually nothing other than motion, rendered by physicists as a technical term. [We should also note here that there are now mathematical models which translate motion into “space” -- e.g. Einstein’s space-time; and Rob Bryanton’s time-as-duration as the fourth spatial dimension.]
What we might call “psychological time,” on the other hand, is nothing other than a conceptual designation. It’s how we (as human bodyminds) conceptually interpret movement, once we’ve elaborated (via the process of labeling) “objects” and “events.” In other words, psychological time is a point of view -- a conceptual frame of reference -- into which we’re in the habit of translating our experience of motion. Depending upon our cultural context, the point of view might present time as being linear/sequential, or it might render time as being more cyclical, circular, spiraling. Both are equally conceptual -- since time, as such, has no independent existence (or even an appearance, separate from the objects and events we use to infer/create it).
How then do we begin to unwind this conflation of the perception/experience of movement -- of the fluid transformation of the ten-thousand-things -- with the mental overlay, the conceptual construction of psychological time (with its fixed “events” and “objects”)? From the point of view of nondual spiritual practice, the key lies in taking our stand as Pure Awareness -- a position from which we can begin to see more clearly, i.e. become mindful of, the conceptual processes at play. Instead of becoming drawn into the movie that the mind is projecting, we can remain as more-or-less neutral witnesses to the unfolding drama.
Disentangling Conception From Perception
Such a process -- of disentangling the initial moments of perception from subsequent conceptual overlays -- is described beautifully in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. For instance, in chapter three, verses 4 & 13-17 (translated/interpreted here by Swami Savitripriya) Patanjali first describes the cultivation of a calm, quiet, focused mind (via “concentration, meditation and samadhi”) whose stability and rooting in nondual awareness is then applied (via “Becoming the Object”) to the task of extricating ourselves from such conceptual overlays:
verse four: These three practices -- Concentration, Meditation, and Samadhi --- when practiced together in sequence, one after the other -- are called the practice of Becoming the Object. This threefold practice enables you to enter into the underlying subtle field of matter which composes the object you are observing in order to enter into non-dual oneness with it, because the only way to truly know an object is to become the object. This is the aim of this Psychology [as articulated via Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras].
verse 13: This explanation of the successive stages of transformation that occurs within the mind-substance during the three practices which allows you to Become the Object also explains the sequence of transformation that occurs over time within all physical objects that are composed of neutrons, protons, and electrons, and which can be perceived by the senses; and explains how particular characteristics of objects can only be described in terms of an event that appears in a frozen state of animation within separate, individual space-time frames; and in terms of which time frame is being viewed.
verse 14: All of the characteristics of an object that appear over a period of time --characteristics which appear in time-frames that have disappeared into the past; characteristics which can be seen in present time-frames; and future characteristics which have not yet arisen -- are inherent in the subtle level of matter which composes the gross physical form from the beginning, and which only arise under particular circumstances and conditions.
verse 15: Different visible characteristics that appear as changes in brain cells and external behavior patterns, which can be seen arising in successive space-time frames, are merely outer manifestations of a transformation that has occurred on the opposite, inner, psychological level of the mind.
verse 16: Through the practice of Becoming the Object of the orderly sequence of transformation that occurs within the mind-substance over periods of time as the result of the three practices of Concentration, Meditation, and Samadhi; and gain an understanding of how sequential changes take place, you will gain personal knowledge of the transformations that will become visible within the mind-substance in the future.
verse 17: Through the practice of Becoming the Object of the difference between the mind hearing a particular combination of sound vibrations; putting those vibrations together into a word that denotes an object, which then appears as a visual image on the mind-screen; and subsequent ideas about that object that arise from memory, based on past experience and beliefs -- three separate mental functions which, because they occur so rapidly, become superimposed upon each other and thus are usually experienced as a single event -- you will be able to understand the meaning of any sound produced by any living creature.