The Illusion of Time 02-24-2020

Tonight’s Dharma talk is based on a chapter called “The Illusion of Time” in Mark Coleman’s book From Suffering to Peace. As an introduction, he cites Judy Garland: “We cast away priceless time in dreams, born of imagination, fed upon illusion, and put to death by reality.” 

One of our most persistent mental habits is to imagine what will occur in the future. We worry about catastrophes that seldom actually happen, and we daydream and fantasize about plans that do not materialize. Even when we rehearse conversations beforehand, they rarely end up the way we planned. 

It’s easy to scare ourselves with stories about potential hazards that await us. Anxiety and worry about future scenarios can thwart constructive action. Blinded by angst about what we anticipate, we miss the fullness of the present moment and fail to pay attention to what is right in front of us. The poet Hafiz cautions us, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you living in better conditions.” 

Modern societies are ruled by clocks, watches, computers, and calendars. With our cellphones and devices, we expect one another to be connected and responsive anytime, anywhere. Time is treated as a precious commodity. Many lawyers and psychiatrists bill clients for quarter-hour periods of professional attention. Olympic competitions are often won by a fragment of a second. Measuring time can fool us into thinking that time is an object that can be cut up or lost. Such thoughts promote fears that time is running out or that there will never be enough of it. 

In protest against carving up time, a creative friend gave Mark and me a clock that he designed with only one hand and a face that reads “one-ish, two-ish, three-ish, etc. Just looking at that clock helps me slow down my pace. Whenever I bring awareness to my moment-by moment experience, I recognize that rushing will not gain me more time. It is only when I pause intentionally that my priorities become clear. 

I am reminded of a poem by Robert Frost called A Time to Talk.  

When a friend calls to me from the road

And slows his horse to a meaning walk,

I don’t stand still and look around

On all the hills I haven’t hoed, 

And shout from where I am, “What is it?”

No, not as there is a time to talk,  

I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground, 

Blade end up and five feet tall, 

And plod: I go up to the stone wall

For a friendly visit.

How often do we postpone friendly visits with loved ones? Mark teases me about my habit of becoming so absorbed in writing projects that I don’t even hear him entering my office to speak with me. On our weekly date nights, we enjoy connecting fully and listening deeply to each other. These moments motivate me to not take for granted any of our time together.

Last fall, one of my friends went on a pilgrimage to Irish ruins and castles. Although she and I have had a number of meetings since then, it wasn’t until months later that we were together long enough for me to listen to an in-depth account of her journey. We both realized how satisfying—and overdue—it was to relax during an extended, friendly visit. 

Sessions of Guided Imagery and Music involve what music therapists call “elastic moments,” when time seems to slow down, speed up, or pause. Sometimes a person who is traveling in a journey evoked by classical music has a peak experience of expanded consciousness that seems to transcend normal limits of space and time. In apparent timelessness, healing insights arise, and conflicts resolve. Similarly, meditation practice can give us direct, immediate contact with expansive, available time. On retreats, I benefit from connecting to moments that seem longer and fuller than usual. 

The human brain is wired to anticipate future events as a survival mechanism. The concept of time is a useful convention that allows us to prepare for what is to come and to review what has occurred. Planning in advance has helped us adapt to weather and seasonal changes. And yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that extreme weather systems due to climate change are out of our control. 

Although scientists have been predicting rising temperatures and sea levels for decades and warning about disastrous droughts, floods and wildfires, world leaders have been slow to take preventative measures. Denial has led to devastating consequences such as widespread raging fires that killed many people and over a billion animals in Australia. As time seems to be running out to prevent or reverse environmental damage, we can feel anxious and worried about impending calamities. 

A journalist named Alex Ross brings a long view of time to the issue of ecology, and his broad historical perspective merits our attention. He writes about bristlecone pine trees, the oldest known species, some of which have survived in the White Mountains of eastern California for over 4500 years, since the time of the Great Pyramid of Giza. One of these scrubby, windblown survivors is named Methuselah. 

Detectable differences in bristlecone tree-rings document changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen, and when volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings appear. One of those frost rings dates to 43 BC, after the assassination of Caesar, when Plutarch wrote that the sun was obscured for an entire year. Modern scientists surmise that the cause was a volcanic eruption from Mt. Etna in Sicily. Gradually, at their own rhythm, bristlecones impart information about the past that sheds light on how current climate conditions may affect our future. 

Unlike the verifiable historical records held in those ancient trees, our concepts of the past are mental constructs. Coleman notes how we tend to treat memories as if they were a data bank of facts. Like producing a movie, by editing and manipulating hundreds of hours of footage into a two-hour film, we make up stories about our past, selecting slices of experience to create a personal narrative. We don’t remember everything that happened, and what we do recollect can focus on salient events that distort our perspective. 

If I look back on my teenage years at boarding school, I can emphasize different narratives. One features lonely periods of feeling homesick, and another highlights fun and creative times with friends. Neither story is the whole truth about my experiences there. I see that the stories I tell myself about the past can be sources of pain or delight. If I focus on traumatic moments or actions that I regret, memories weigh me down. If I focus on memories of fulfilling relationships or beautiful moments in nature, I feel uplifted.

Coleman reminds us of the Zen saying that thoughts are like fingers pointing at the moon, but they are not the moon. A thought about the past or future is a fleeting mental image that is not actually real. With mindfulness, we learn to hold all thoughts of past and future with spacious awareness. Our direct experience of reality is that past, present and future all happen in the immediate present. The future happens in thoughts that arise in this moment. The past is gone except for memories that surface in the here and now.

All we can do is be present for and take care of this moment. This is all there is and ever was. When we understand this truth, we are free from panic about the future and what Coleman calls the prison of time scarcity. He concludes, “Life is simply a series of experiences unfolding in this ever-present moment. To know this is to be released from the trap and burden of the concept of time.”

Let’s practice Coleman’s exercise called “Mindfulness of Time:”

Sit in a comfortable meditation posture.

Close your eyes and bring attention to your immediate experience. 

Observe how the five senses happen only in the present. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch occur only in this moment. 

Note how the gift of sensory stimuli—like the sound of birds, the movement of breath, the aroma of coffee, the gradations of darkness and light, the tastes in your mouth—invites you repeatedly into the present. 

We can recall a previous experience of hiking or imagine a future one, but even those thoughts are happening in our mind at this moment. 

Remain aware of your unfolding experience of breath, body, sounds, and sensations.
Notice how easily the mind’s attention drifts from the sensory present into the conceptual mind, which imagines and prepares for the future. 

If your thoughts drift to planning, observe how real that image of the future feels. Watch how easily you become absorbed in a world that feels as real as the physical sensation of breathing.

Can you see that the future scenario is just a thought?

Mindfulness practice helps us wake up from futuristic dreams over and over again.

Similarly, notice if you start reminiscing.
Observe how a memory of the past feels real, as if you are actually reliving it. 

We become as lost in memories as we do in fantasies. 

They both seem compelling.

Mindfulness helps us see and release these conceptual meanderings so that we return to the aliveness and preciousness of the present. 

With this awareness, notice how two-dimensional past and future scenarios are compared to the richness of the here and now. 

As you end the meditation, set an intention to notice throughout the day when you become lost in future landscapes or mired in memories. 

Observe how it feels to return to this unique moment.