Friday, February 1, 2013

Basic Facts About Time

Okay, lets keep it simple, really simple -- no tricks, nothing up my sleeve.

#1. Time only exists in the moment. Period.

#2. The past did exist in the moment at an earlier time.

#3. The future will exist in the moment at a future time.

#4. The present is now -- you reading these words. This moment. The past is #1, #2, #3 you read earlier.

The future is the rest of this blog -- if you continue reading.

In a sense everything that happens, everything that is real is time-stamped. Nothing is real unless it has that time stamp -- even our speculations -- as those speculations, imaginations, fantasies, etc. happen in time -- even our thoughts about probabilities or our delusions happen in time.

Yet the human perception of time, which is linked to memory, which in turn is rooted in brain functions, is quite different from time stamps and clock time. 

As living beings with blood going through our veins, we are always moving through time. With every breath and every heart beat, time moves forward -- and not just by seconds  like a clock's second hand, but continuously in tenths of a second, or millionths of a second, or nanoseconds (billionths) or even picoseconds (trillionths). We are always in time, we can never be outside of time.

I believe much of the confusion about time is due to mistaking our artificial divisions of seconds and minutes -- which are quite useful for managing time -- with the fundamental nature of time which is indivisible;  it is an unbroken stream that flows continuously.

As I quoted in an earlier blog in this series:
A deep-sea fish has probably no means of apprehending the existence of water; it is too uniformly immersed in it...
Sir Oliver Lodge, British scientist
What could a fish tell you about water? Probably not much. It lives in water, it is surrounded by water, it floats and moves in water; water is the world that it lives in -- so a fish is probably unaware of many of the properties of water. I doubt, for example, that it could understand the concept of wetness.

And so, like the fish, we live surrounded, but not by water but by time. There is no way out -- no way around it. While we work with it everyday and every moment, we are so immersed in it, we have trouble grasping its complexities.

Common phrases about time provide some hints about how we operate, phrases like, "she's been through a lot" -- implying that time is something we move though and also that there is no way around it, there is only a way through it.

But even when we try to simplify and focus only on the now moment and the present time, there are complications:

At no point is the present only now, some of it is always future and some always past -- and without this connection between past and future, the now moment and time itself could not exist.

Time keeps on slippin', slippin', 
Into the future 
Steve Miller

Neither from nor towards; 
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. 
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1936, Four Quartets

Consider this: 
At every moment in the present 
you are reaching into the future 
and letting go of the past. 

From the point of view of the passengers in the boat, the wake of the boat is the boat's past, the bow
 and direction is its future, and the passengers are in the present.

In this shock wave photo of a plane breaking the sound barrier, past, present and future are all in one shot: the nose breaking into the future, a passenger in the middle of the plane in the present and the past trailing behind.

The 'arrow of time' has often been used as a metaphor to describe the relentless headlong movement of time. The now moment is like an arrow that flies always forward: the arrowhead piercing the future, the tail trailing behind and the shaft in the middle, in the present and between them. Without all of the parts: arrowhead, shaft and tail, the arrow could not fly.

My point is this:

Past/present/future are not separate from each other -- this is a misunderstanding and one which can cause a number of problems.  

Further this lack of separation is not only true moment to moment but also day to day, week to week and year to year. Past/present/future are inseparable and intertwined.

All photos in this article are courtesy of

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