Perceptions of Time

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between  
past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
-Albert Einstein

Long ago, around the year 2001/2002, I went to my first Vipassana meditation retreat, where I had some extremely powerful experiences. It was there, amidst the eternal silence of the majestic redwoods, the pure mountain air, the organic and healthy food, and love untainted by expectations – it rejuvinated my hungry, parched psyche – that  I first became aware of the dynamic quality of time, and time as an un-understood, or grossly misunderstood entity that impinges on our consciousness. Up until then I had considered time as a given – the chronological one dimensional entity that is measured through the tick-toc of watches and clocks. So enmeshed and subjective had time been in my daily existence that I had not been able to separate from it and observe it objectively, because after all, who observes and experiences their kidneys, or the air that goes thru our nostrils? Like a good mother, they just are – to be taken for granted. I had existed in a symbiotic union with time – it was a part of me, and I was a part of that eternal truth.

On my 8th day there, some psychological ground was broken through and I spent 14 hours a day meditating on the concept of time.  I didn’t understand what it was, I could not verbalize what I felt, but my experiences were vivid and potent. Upon returning from the retreat I tried to cognitively understand my experiences, and tried to read tons of books – Stephen Hawkins, Einstein, Jung and even von Franz among many many others, but none of them really touched my own experiences. So I would lose interest in them halfway, and would stack them on my bookcase which they still adorn, waiting to be heard. Perhaps some day I will touch their wisdom again. I realized that the more I read, the more disonnected I became from my own truth, my own experiences. So eager and excited to learn was I, that I would categorize and fit my experiences into the framework provided by these esteemed authors. My truth was being influenced by theirs. What was experienced within – the pure, uncontaminated – couldn’t remain so. The wise old man, Father Time, hadn’t been ready to accompany me in my journeys. I had to let go, to patiently await the unfolding. I stopped reading in an attempt to shut off the external chatter, and I let the experiences drop down into the psychic folds, where they germinated at their own pace, in their own “time”.

For the last 8+ years since I have tried to make sense of those experiences, and many more I have had since, I have added my clients’ experiences of time to the potpourri of my stirrings, my thoughts and to the accumulating trove of experiences. I have tried to make sense – but have also let go when those experiences threatened to overwhlem, or when I  became too anxious, or too eager. Whatever will be, will be. I have held faith in the process of being and becoming. I have held faith that the stillness of the center would allow for such unfolding automatically.

This expression here is a way of organizing that which has been fertilizing at the core of my psyche. It may seem haphazard, or unbelievable, or disorganized, but that because I may have been premature with my expression and that the experience needs a greater gestation period. In other words, perhaps I need more “time” to make sense of my experiences! 😉

One significant aspect of my inward journeys was the awareness of the universe being like a blank canvas upon which humans project their own idiosyncracies. The physicists write their gospels from their own projections, and call it the essential truth of our time. The transcendentalists write up their own projections and call it the essential spiritual truth. The biologists, the psychologists, the chemists, the geologists – everyone has their own experiences that they try to make sense of by observing the external world and attributing internal to the external. If these were prehistoric times, these sciences would be crowned as new gods of our times, fighting for hegemony. But the experiences arise from within us. And since everyone’s experiences are as valid, then the universe must be all encompassing, something that is a superset of all human experiences. What would such a reality look like? Which brought me back to Advaita Vedanta philosophy of a nir-guna (devoid of properties), nir-akaar (devoid of shape or form), a neutral Brahman. Any naam-roop (name/form) that we ascribe to it, is a gift of Maya – and enables perceptual and cognitive grounding. But the Maya that we see unfolds in our own minds, so that our minds can remain grounded. It is a defensive strategy, optimised for survival.

So then are Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Psychology etc all sciences that explain the various aspects of our material world…all different naam-roop of the same universal material of the cosmos? Perhaps all religions too – perhaps they reveal various aspects of the same universal material of the creator and created – assuming the creator is also the created. And are these internal truths too? They have to be, especially if the creator is also the created. And if we can accept that these are different names and forms of the same material truth, then I fail to understand how the 33,00,00,000 gods and goddesses of Hinduism, and 5000 different religions and their gods cannot be understood in the same context? Modern sciences sport different logos, different labels, they are written in a different text, with different gammatical and physical structure, by different priests, but  they comprise of essentially a similar kingdom with a cohort of nobility and their ignorant public, they represent a courthouse full of gods that hold knowledge and power over certain aspects of our material reality and we mortals accept their commands. And this observation again brings me back to the concept of time. If we are still living in that Kingdom, then, I mean….we are stuck in time, aren’t we?

Lets forget the “normal” definition of time that is crafted and handed over to us by our contemporary gods, the gods of science. How would you, as an individual, define time? For me, I do not know what time is. There is birth, life, and death, the aspects of reality that is symbolized by and associated with the trinity of Brahma Vishnu Mahesh. This cycle has been the universal truth, since time immemorial. In Hinduism, all information about birth is collected and maintained in the file that is labelled as Brahma. All intelligence about maintenance and sustenance is filed away under the label of Vishnu, and simialrly the intelligence about death is the realm of Mahesh, or Shiva. Alternately, one can see these as different functional departmental heads in a larger organization called God’s Kingdom. Different religions can have different ways of organizing this information – just like different nations break up their lands, and their financial budgets, and their political and social lives in different ways, which leads to diversity. And we fight about democracy and capitalism being “better” than communism, for instance, but we forget that democracy and communism are modern day religions. We just have tagged them differently. So we’re standing still in time, fighting the same wars, but calling them different names.

When we see this, when we can experience such displacement of names, and experiences, then we see how the construct of time is hollow delusion of human mind. We merely perceive that the past present and future exist, or that time is linear, but if time really was linear, we would move forward or backward in time, like we do in space. But it seems that we stand exactly where we are, unmoved, and the leela of the world unfolds. What is more, no matter where we stand, the events of our life repeat, regardless. Our past always becomes our present, and our future. Could that be because we haven’t moved at all?

This is a bit dense without examples, so lets take an example. The concept that we explored enables us to see for sure that we live in the same spot today, in the same kingdoms today. We fight the same wars today, and we do exactly the same things today that we did ages ago. Human nature has not changed, neither has the environment, nor the instincts, nor the needs and desires, the outcome of our actions is still the same. Nothing has changed. It just is differently clothed. But we do have a delusion, an illusion of change, simply because we wear different clothes, and carry different gadgets and drive different cars. But that is like the slope of a line, or a plane, in co-ordinate geometry. At any point, the slope is the same, exactly the same numerical number, even though any point on a given line occurs at different x and y and z axis. 

To demonstrate this further, I’ll use some personal experiences and the experiences of my profession, and our therapeutic session. In psychology, it is well known that in therapy, there is an unfolding of the earliest patterns of relating. People re-enact their early trauma again and again in the world, and this re-enactment is captured, studied and used to create insight in therapy – and this insight is what pushes the psyche towards change. In other words, change becomes the property of the psyche, and happens only in the illuminating light of consciousness.  So if  as a child a person has been betrayed by his or her parents, the child, and the later adult will carry betrayal as a lifelong theme, and will be subjected to repeated betrayals in life. Unaware of his theme, he can go through a life full of betrayals. It is as if the first betrayal creates a ditch into which he falls and stays in, he stays glued to the original complex and has to undergo the journey of repeated traumatisations. In other words it is as if a person is stuck in time. Psychologically speaking, we assume that a repetition (Repetitive Compulsive disorder)  takes hold, the person will become subjected to a need to recreate the primal trauma. But we assume this because psychology only studies the psyches that are damaged in the journey of life. What if this was a fundamental property of evolution? What if each one of us carry a theme that repeats thru life, to a smaller or larger extent. What if we stood in one place, until the illuminating light of insight, our consciousness, forced the psyche in another “direction.”  What would that mean? How would that be?

I wonder if the un-illuninated psyche exists in the timeless, formless form, undifferentiated with the universe. I wonder if our bodies – identified only thru a reflection – create a sense of perception. (Remember Narcissisus?) This sense of “I” – is it a consequence of simply being able to look at itself ? Do birds, who have no idea of how they look like, have an I? It is the I who morphs in a way that allows for the experiences of chronological time (all in my opinion of course). The awareness of a body creates an ego, and a self. If I couldn’t see myself, I perhaps would exist in greater harmony with the universe. The mirror allows me to separate myself from my surroundings. But the eyes, being given for purpose of ensuring survival, are defensive in their very functionality. They encourage separation, discourage unity. Perhaps that is why meditation and non duality is promoted when vision is blocked thru  closed eyelids. The deconstruction of the perceieved separation becomes easier. And chronological time perhaps is consequence of such a constructed world. Just like the constructed I – the ego – time is also a defensive construct that has been created by the brain to ensure survival. And any survival oriented faculty has to be divisive, separationist. Like the lines of the latitude and longitude, it exists only in our minds. The Self, enmeshed with the world, appears to be standing in one “place.”  The body can move across in spatial dimensions, but the psyche stands still in this spacetime matrix, until there is a deliberate movement. Just as the movement in space is initiated by an external or internal force, and is negotiated by overcoming the force of inertia, and just as resistance is the offspring of inertia,  there has to be an external or internal factor that pushes the psyche to move in the psychic world, in the world of time, and psychic resistance must need to be overcome. And just like in space, no movement is possible without this, the psychic movement must be similarly, or differently mediated by some psychic resistance. Without the external force, the material body, and the immaterial psyche must not move. The laws of “physics” have to be the same, or similar.

All this dense paragraph above means, is that unlike the body that ages, the psychic growth may be a consequence of this force – and the force that enables this may be the human experiences – and I tend to lean towards trauma, for the simple reason because the enlightened ones have been mostly also been those that have been the traumatised. One of my patient’s previously diagnosed with psychosis once said to me “the mountains are glorious, but we grow most in the valleys”…and these words were her psychic truths, and hence cannot be negated or overlooked.

In my own therapy/analysis, and in those of my clients as well, I have repeatedly seen (and experienced) that though the people may function like adults in the external world, there are (always) parts of them that have been held back in time. And when that held back part is accessed in the therapeutic sessions, it comes alive and starts moving (growing?) spontaneously. It had been unmistakably arrested in time. or one would say that in the moments that part is “operative” and is “growing” – the person does not belong in this time. It appears that the person simulataneously lives in multiple locations in time, as if time was sliced or fragmented and the person jumps across living one fragment after another, jumping senselessly between moment to moment of his past. Externally, he seems to be living in the present, but really, he is not living in the present at all.  It is by becoming aware of this disperate “jumping around in time” actions that the person can willingly choose to return to earlier stage where trauma occured, heal themselves, and return to the present. A cognitive assimilation is not always necessary for re-integration of personality. To not acknowledge this “time travel” or to say that those fragments of time do not exist within his psyche, would be tantamount to being blind to the psychic unfoldings. And to say that fragments of time do exist in his psyche is tantamount to saying time exists within the individual, not outside of him. And it is this delusion of time that is “broken” in trauma, it caeses to function. The person recognizes he is rooted, he recognizes that time does not exist. In other words, trauma may be destroying our delusions and bringing us closer to reality. What we call time in either case, may simply be a psychic movement, butof course that is not time as we define it generally. Outside  – our external reality – is like a nice view of the surroundings that we get when we are driving in a car, or we are watching the the car being driven in a video. Its only the internal happenings of the car that are really relevent to our truth, our existence. All else is just pure “entertainment” – aka delusion. To operate on the basis on such external truth, is to be delusional.  As the Hindus would say, it is the veil of Maya.

From the above we can see how the past, and the present co-exist – but they co-exist only within the person. and they unfold not in a linear way, but in a self paced, non linear way that is – surprise, surprise – developmentally dictated and driven. Essentially the internal time, the real time, must be some measure, some unit of the psychic movement. And one can see how complex the expressions of verbalisations are, because the only way I feel I can deconstruct time is by ascribing spatial attributes to it. That would make it dissimilar to the normal definition of time. That doesn’t mean it has  spatial attributes, it just means that time doesn’t seem to have many of the temporal attributes that we normally ascribe to it.  We simply attribute them to time because we have been taught to do so. We have been taught to see some things that are not there, and taught to discard other things that are there. But when we casually say to someone “you are being childish” – we generally don’t realise how accurate we are in our assessment of his psychic configuration, and how the person has time travelled to a certain broken fragment of his “inner time” and is, at this moment, operating from that “place” and “time.” A fragment of him is in that proverbial ditch which he was pushed into, and stays in.

So essentially, from these explorations of my psyche, I came to a conclusion that time does not exist, at least not in the way we understand it. An entity that comes closest to the concept of chronological time that appears to have an independent existence, is the concept of personal time. And that, in my opinion is a totally different concept from the concept of chronological time. Personal time is more like a dna, or a fingerprint that has a lifespan, can be stretched and condensed, and has a pattern of dynamic unfolding tagged to it. 

I have much more to say on this topic, but much of what I have to say is dense, and tangential (drawing from physics, chemistry and molecular biology) that I would find it difficult to articulate and make sense of it over a few pages, without a benchmark. So let me close with something that has stayed with me for a long time now and that which I often repeat to my clients. I like to think that the psyche is like a clock, that stays in one place, and its hands go round and round and round, but that is not how we experience time. We experience time differently, as life, in our daily encounters with the environment. Every day is different, every moment we are different, our height shape size is different, our cellular composition is different, we are children, we grow, we love hate and marry and divorce. We have kids, they have kids, and those kids have kids and what we started as, is not the same as what we live, and then end up as. But the hands of the clock – well they just keep going round and round and round. Until someone resets the time for daylight saving, or moves it to a different date/time location. And then there again it keeps going round and round. That is all the psyche does. It is standing in one place, and it keeps going round and round and round. Until. It is. The rest falls in the realm of the godess Kali, who is empowered to destroy all delusions. And I close with the same pertinent quote from Einstein that I opened this post with :

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

10 responses to “Perceptions of Time”

  1. just wanted to say your blog is pretty awesome.

  2. Hello Madhu,

    I saw your post several days ago but it has taken me some time (!) to feel myself in an intellectually able place to read it. I’m not sure why. The previous week seemed to displace me and left me feeling very tired and unable to concentrate. On reflection I think that was partly because I stepped out of my own time, and into someone else’s (a musician’s) completely different sense of time and timing, and that was very demanding. I think I am now emerging and coming back into time with myself.

    Your post is very interesting, and I really like the idea of each of us being in more than one time at once, that makes a lot of sense.

    It also reminded me that in another culture, the Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos – and that kairos is a kind of special time ‘in between’ when perceptions and connections happen – measured time and felt time, experience and insight. I spend a lot of time in kairos and sometimes would like to step out of chronos. People talk about chronos as if the concept of not only change but also progress is inherent in it, your post shows how this is not necessarily the case.

    Karin

    1. Karin,

      Thanx for the words. Long ago, when I lived in Australia, I had done a course in hypnosis. We were taught Timeline Displacement where our sense of time would be deliberately disoriented, and then reoriented. When our subjects woke up, some of them couldn’t get up, some got up could not walk straight, some of them did both, but threw up after taking a few steps and eventually dropped down and closed their eyes, unable to function. At which point we would re-orient it. It helped me become aware and respectful of the inner perception of time.

      I hope you are re-oriented now. We have these experiences, but we have learnt to suppress/ignore them, rather than exploring them. Kinda like what we do with dreams.

      Our measure of these entitities is prehistoric. The measure of space – yard – actually refers to the length of a human arm that was earlier used to measure cloth, and like. So what does it mean when we measure the intergalactic distances and Planck’s lengths (10 to the power of minus 48) in terms of multiples of human arms? What does it mean to an intelligent alien life form that has no arms, has never seen a human arm ? It seems like a nonsensical measure. The measure of time is much much much more ridiculous than a standardized human arm as a measure of distances. What would such a measure mean to someone who was stationed on an astroid that is not rotating around earth but is travelling in a straight line acorss galaxies? Someone who has never heard of earth and sun. Time cannot BE understood in context of earth revolving round the sun ! Time would have to be intrinsic, an innate property. And hence a nonsensical, prehistoric understanding is crystallized into an unshakable concept which is actually very philosophically profound! But it was needed to ground us at the time. To say that time is actually some multiple of the earth revolving round the sun, to me its as silly as saying the sun is a 10 headed god. We have to construct a predictable world, so yes, we go along with it, but must we forget that we live in a house thats constructed out of (the last) straws born of human desperation to make meaning out of the unknown and unknowable ?

      Chronos (or Kronos) and Kairos, of course. Jung’s Aeon. Together the trinity (Chronos, Zeus, Chthonic) seems to correspond to Brahma Vishnu Mahesh in many ways – the departmental heads, each with their own portfolio. Wasn’t Chaos the son of Chronos ? That makes it an apt personification for our times becase we seem to fertilize only Kronos now, at the cost of the wisdom of Kairos who brings, or is of extraordinary moments, moments that actually matter. His is the texture of Carpe Diem, which touches the Buddhist thoughts somewhat.

      Ah! A powerful mythologem of its own, which fits in somewhat with what I wrote, but in this I did not want to furthur complicate and confuse by bringing in another culture and another set of mythologems and make comparasons and draw analogies. Thanx for raising the topic though, it has me thinking more deeply about the juxtapositions of these two ways of looking at time – maybe someday I’ll know or experience the subtle differences, and dare to venture there !

      I recently asked an eminent, world renown Physicist why Physics accepted time as a one dimensional linear entity, and his respeonse was “only because it is easy, and because that way we can measure it! What else can we do?” So we live in a falsely constructed world, because the gods of Physics are only capable of constructing this one for now, their own gods cannot take them any further ! This is a classic case that demonstrates the unfolding of the name/form of Maya – the delusions that we carry, the ignorance we accept as a cost of being civilized.

      Thanks for stirring my imagination.

      M.
      http://www.madhusameer.com

  3. An interesting article! it makes you think about the only true fact ‘Maya’.
    Thanks,

    1. Susan,

      Appreciate your kind words.

      M.

  4. You originally wrote me in pertinent part: “…it keeps going round and round. That is all the psyche does. It is standing in one place, and it keeps going round and round and round. Until. It is. The rest is all a delusion.” In your post though you put it as follows: “The rest falls in the realm of the godess Kali, who is empowered to destroy all delusions.”

    Whether delusion or illusion, the approach you have described alludes to truth, but it eludes you, I fear, and you fall under the spell of Kali.

    This approach yields a consciousness that is not you, but rather is a false sense of your being all that is real. In philosophy, it is called solipsism. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism. In Eastern religions it is arrived at via the practice of Samadhi. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samadhi. To me this has the potential to lead to a form of self-induced schizophrenia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia.

    In effect, Kali will destroy you. This is more than sad. This is dangerous, my friend.

    When your epistemology takes precedence over your ontology, you face the consequences of thinking you will arrive at the ultimate knowledge of “nothing” as if “nothing” is something. This is nihilism.

    None of us can successfully fight madness by this route for it ends up with a simple resignation and acceptance of it. Take a look at Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBGGAjMg9vw] and you may see what I mean.

    1. Hi John,

      I modified the post to change, correct typos and generally enhance. The subscribers get the unedited first version -I tend to edit it after publishing it.

      We each have a journey to undertake. We take different roads to reach our goals. Some roads are more daring and adventurous, others are safe and secure. Ships are safest in the harbor, but harbor is not where the ships were meant to be. If Jesus (or Buddha) were alive today, I think the modern day psychology would label him as schizophrenic too. Thanks for your concern though. Always a pleasure.

      M.

      1. Apparently you do not want to go deeper into your argument. My response did not please you.

        In reply, then, I recommend you take a look at Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument [http://www.amazon.com/Fallacy-Counterfeit-Argument-Holther-Fearnside/dp/B000X8Y0X2/ref=tmm_pap_title_0], especially under the authors’ treatment of invincible ignorance.

        Modern day psychology has mislabeled many things and people. The focus on “self” and “Self” is not the solution, but is rather the problem.

        To dismiss time as delusion is not only unrealistic, but is also indicative of the misconception of how our perceptions of time work.

        You are too smart a person to take such matters so lightly.

        But then you say you are one who works at “Comforting the Afflicted; Afflicting the Comforted.” I have learned from you to do the same, especially for those I take the time to communicate with.

      2. Hi John,

        It isn’t the question of being pleased and/or displeased. You are an attorney, I can never win an argument against you ! On a more serious note, you come from a perspective that is as alien to me as probably mine is to you. I respect your view, esp your right to it, even if I may not understand or agree with it. It isn’t too much to ask the same of you, is it ?

        One discusses something if there is a possibility of convincing other person thru reason, and experience. When you say Hinduism creates schizophrenia, well what else is there to say? You diagnose 1.5 billion people of the world as being schizophrenic, or tending towards it. What can be the basis of discussion and where would the discussion go ? When I point out Jesus would be labelled schizophrenic too, next instant you say that psychology has deluded humans, so psychological diagnostics do not hold, or do they hold only for me aka Indians who meditate and think deeply ?

        Regardless, I have iterated this before, I have a deep respect for you – your person, as well as your faith. And disagreement on this issue does not affect that. So it isn’t about pleasing me or displeasing me, its the question about how best to avoid senseless arguments that do not go anywhere, but which may have the potential of eroding respect for each other?

        As for my profession, I am a therapist because I believe in my profession, and feel blessed for it – just like you are an attorney because you probably believe in the legal system. Based on the experiences of my clients (rampant infant and child abuse physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, child support cases etc – the law simply looks the other way) I could say I have no respect for the law enforcement and the justice system in US, but that would just be my reality, and I accept that. So to call the entire legal system or the entire field of psychology immaterial or harmful – I don’t know if it is useful in the broader context and more than that, if any good is served by expressing such opinion ?

        Re: my tagline and your acceptance of it, well that just proves that you are more *like* me….not more *different* from me, even though the opinions we hold may be different. 🙂

        M.

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