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HOW is it that we seem so securely locked into unidirectional time? Everything but time seems to have more dimensions and directions than we can know. Time is something we experience plainly enough, as life’s tomorrows turn to yesterdays… or do we merely imagine it?
We live on a turning planet that orbits its sun and is itself orbited by a moon; a planet turning at some other speed in some other orbit around some other sun would give its creatures a different experience of the succession of nights and days we call time but how different would the raw nature of time be? Our time is conventionally bound to conditions and perspectives that are unique to our planet, yet different cultures have found different ways to organise concepts of time around those perspectives and “measured” time has been variously understood as cyclic or linear despite broadly similar experiences of days and seasons, flows and tides, hunger and satiation, births and deaths and bodily changes, and contexts of constant change. Measured time has long been problematic, not least because the natural phenomena on which the definitions have been based are themselves variable. (The current scientific definition of one second of time is impossible for us to relate to in our day to day lives — it’s based on the transition periods of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom at rest at absolute zero: 9,192, 631,770 of them….)
So desperately does the so-called “human condition” cry out for illusions of order in the midst of apparent chaos that it’s hard not to imagine that time does not have something to do with consciousness. Does consciousness need some organizing construct to exist? Without the framework of time, would consciousness collapse into disjointed sensation? Do we imagine time as a kind of skeleton, a helpful illusion or construct that’s necessary to give consciousness a form we can experience and utilize? Do we need a concept like time to lift experience from an ocean of chaos and personalise it as a sense of selfhood?
Certainly, a living organism without consciousness (as we think of it) can continue to exist, morphing from one generation to another with no pressing need for individuality and, arguably, with no particular attachment to time. After all, our own DNA carries physical, identifiable remnants of life’s earliest origins. (See: Creation story…)
Without time, would our conscious existence, perhaps more realistically, be just another mystery?
Consciousness, after all — even our personal experience of “time” — is individualistic; and our sensations of it stretch or contract depending on what we’re doing.
Simply “being” is rendered difficult by the album of our memories. First experiences become consequential to a conscious being, memories of them coloring every subsequent approach or aversion. Pull away the struts of time and who would you or I be?
But experience radiates backwards and forwards in time. I walk, for example, through an unkempt field. It is midsummer. Long-stemmed seedheads arch over the purple vetch and mauve clover flowers. A warm breeze sends satiny waves of shade and light through the long grass. Dandelion heads, fragile, grey, sway on the point of disintegration; tiny, white, ten-petalled flowers are knitted into cool, dark spaces close to the ground and, when I part the grass I see a solitary five-petalled pink flower. It is tiny. Above them rise the gaudy yellow blooms of some other weed. There seems no particular order to it all but that does not stop the field laying down a fresh sheet of memories in my being that in some slight but enduring way alters the sum of myself.
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A change has taken place that’s side-stepped my conscious control: something that’s not to do just with the various ways of “knowing” but also with my ways of coming to know. It gently recalibrates the ways I open or close to whatever experiences follow, and even to the memories that have already stored themselves away in the complicated networks of my consciousness.
What is especially hard to imagine is the consciousness that was the sum of “me” before the field. That “self” has passed in an instant. Could I ever return to my earlier engagement with life as though the field had never existed?
For example, how do I now remember the summit of Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand. I vividly remember the day, the friends I climbed with, snatches of 40 year-old conversation, even the feel of the wind on my face. In my being, that peak now seems just a little higher than it was before I walked in the field, the wind a little sharper. There are remembered seas that seem a little wilder, moments that seem sweeter, or funnier. All of them passed long ago, except in my memory, and even there they are susceptible to change.
The malleability of memories is well known. And it points to dimensions of what’s called “learning” that go far beyond skill sets and adaptive, utilitarian “knowledge” to the shaping and shading-in of the “person”. Yet the experiences that manipulate our memories and personhood are not of our own making, and their impacts and effects can only very loosely and unreliably be predicted, even if we have chosen to set out on on a particular path of action and interaction. Outcomes are constructed in the loosest and bluntest of ways. The nuances of meaning are always discoveries after the fact.
Besides, the will we exercise when we make our choices has also been shown to carry the scars and rewards of our pasts. Consciousness is acted upon as significantly as it acts, yet we accept its governance over our lives as the mediator of both our intentions and the experiences our actions lead us into.
We grant consciousness its authority because it feels like the stuff of our “selves”. Moreover, it shapes our interactions with other people and is fitted into the bedrock of whatever society we have become a part of. But it is a mistake to never question its nature or challenge its easily mistaken and often misleading dictates. Our consciousness can lead us into false complexities and unhelpful choices; ways of being that cripple our true capacities and trap us in apparent inevitabilities.
Time is the mainstay of its throne and the linchpin of its seamless coherence. Measured time can become a dictatorship that crushes questions and subjugates the soul, that often opaque inner sanctum of our being, and turns selfhood into servitude. Life, no longer an open-ended adventure becomes a steep pyramid of goals and factitious “needs”.
Letting go of time is the secret to restoring the balance of the self’s countless illusory and sometimes painfully contradictory understandings of what we “know” — all the supposed causes and effects — and the felt compulsions of our life’s apparent trajectory, of its boundaries and possibilities.
One way to step back from time and the rule of unquestioned selfhood is meditation. Meditation is often taught with its own encumbrances and contextual baggage. But at its essential core, in offers simple, effective techniques — a focus on the breath, for example — that banish time from our awareness.
Another way to thwart time is to enter into the experience of sights and sounds that deepen our engagement with beauty — and they are readily available all around us, in a patch of unkempt grass, in the labyrinth-like tracery of a spider’s web, in the natural flow of water, in the muttering embers of a spent fire, in the elegant structure of a flower and the detailed form of a tree, in the gait of an insect, in the gatherings and passages of clouds, in the slow-cycling of the stars… in the letting go of that compulsion to understand and systematize and explain. Nature is at its core chaotic, and when its chaos produces what we recognize as beauty, it has the power to overlay our accumulated memories with a rich cloth of reassurance. It is reassurance without meaning, without particular content: it is a reassurance that comes from transcendence into the intact, undissected coherence of elemental, restorative beauty. Entering into it without anything more than openness to the experience it offers lets the self to get on with that recalibration of all that we are that is sometimes called “inspiration”.
Recognising and accepting the gift of beauty is a respite from the snares of time and the domination of a noise-filled, damaged and fatigued consciousness. It just takes a summoning of the will to see gently and trust open discerningly but deeply… and let the self rediscover coherence in contexts of joy.
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