BOOK EXCERPT - Now and Then: an integrated approach to every moment
Time is one of the most mysterious and elusive things. It is experienced by everyone but understood by no-one. We feel the stream of time flowing through us, or us through it, but we cannot clutch or capture it. The mysteriousness of time has bewildered and beguiled philosophers for millennia, the modern physicist much the same. Still, there is no consensus on what it is, or even that it is at all. Regardless of our understanding of the temporal nature of existence, or lack thereof, its grip on us is relentless. We are bound to it and must learn how to live in flow with time, instead of against it. We cannot deny our subservience to it, and if we do, eventually the starkness of its reality will hit us, perhaps abruptly. And now in the post-industrial era, the pace of time has been heightened. “Time, once passive, is now aggressive,” as Simon Garfield has put it. Many of us, now more than ever, feel powerless to overcome the overbearing tide of time that bombards us in a deluge of events, channelled through an ever-tightening schedule and are left feeling that we don’t have the chance to take a breath.
There have been many devices created to tame time, to bend it into our control: clocks, calendars, planners, reminders, time-capsules filled with childhood memorabilia. All have their usefulness, but none can still the flux of time. And there is the wishful possibility that many have of building a time machine so that we can visit the unforeseen future or even undo a past filled with regret. The time machine perfectly signifies our conflicted relationship with time: we live in the present while our minds and hearts yearn to journey yonder to other temporal dimensions – to escape a present that seems too one-dimensional and paper-thin to us. The opposite approach, one that seeks to give less attention to the past and future and cling to the present, is mindfulness. Mindfulness, a practice that is longstanding and presently in vogue, is seen as a way of staring time in the face by being present each moment instead of being dragged off into the past or future. This is obviously an essential self-development tool, especially in the age of hyperreality in which fantasy based on things past and future infiltrates our minds from every angle. More often than not, we are not present to the present; our minds hover in neverland. But like most things in life, there are limitations to mindfulness if taken in isolation from other practical and spiritual tools.
Now and then: these words both refer to moments in time. Now refers to the present: “Change your life today. Don't gamble on the future, act now, without delay” (Simone de Beauvoir, emphasis added). Then, on the other hand, can refer to either the past or the future: “Then Gyges, when the king was fallen asleep, entered privily into the chamber and struck him dead” (Herodotus, emphasis added); “When the exhausted Sun takes up his cycle then my prophecy and threats will be accomplished” (Nostradamus, emphasis added). Hence, this is a book about time, and how we live in it and with it. This exploration is both an extension of the mindfulness movement and a critique of it. It seeks to affirm many aspects of this practice, which are worthwhile to maintain, but also point out things that do not make either logical or practical sense and in their place introduce other facets of a holistic life that correspond to the nature of time. Hence, it is important to first reflect on time itself.
The nature of time
The paradox of time is that things change – there is flux – and yet all we ever directly perceive is this present moment. Mysteriously, this slippery moment constantly and seamlessly transforms itself into the next moment and the next. This change seems to contain the element of duration, but the only thing we can experience directly is the present moment. This ambiguous state of affairs has made many believe that there is no such thing as time. According to this view, time does not exist – it is a mere illusion, a figment of our imaginations, a conceptual construct that we project onto reality.
One of the first philosophers to theorise about the nature of time was Aristotle who believed that without change, there is no such thing as time. Time does not exist independently of temporal events. Others, on the other hand, have held that time exists apart from these events. Today in philosophy there are two broad camps with their respective theories: the “A Theory” of time and the “B Theory” of time. Theory A states that past, present and future are real temporal properties. That is, events have the attribute of pastness, presentness or futurity. According to this view, time flows from the future to the past independently of human perception of it. On the other hand, Theory B states that past, present and future all co-exist and are equally real. Theory B is currently supported by physicists such as Carlo Rovelli as much current scientific evidence supports this idea. For instance, in his book, The Order of Time, he explains that there is no true time, only different times that exist in relation to one another. The difference between past, present and future arises out of our own “blurred vision”. This relates to Einstein’s theory that time, along with space, is relative; it changes depending on the speed one is going, which differs from Newton’s view that time is fixed and permanent. Still today, some physicists believe time is a real property of existence and some do not. Others believe it may be an emergent property arising out of the complexity of the universe.
Despite the paradoxical nature of time, many philosophers still believe it exists. Some philosophers hold to a view called presentism. This is the idea that the present is the only thing that truly exists. The past and future are not real in themselves; these conceptions arise out of our experience of the ever-changing present. If presentism is true, then time travel is not possible. On the other hand, the Universalist view is that the past, present and future are all equally real, while the Growing Universe Theory is that both the present and past exist but not the future, which, temporally speaking, means the universe is getting “larger” as more events come into existence. What Carlo Rovelli himself believes is that as human beings, we are currently unable to fully comprehend what this thing we call “time” really is. In fact, he acknowledges that time may not even be an inherent feature of the universe but may instead be a purely human projection. That said, he tries to explain the phenomenon that we are talking about when we say “time”, and that to him is entropy: the randomness or uncertainty of the arrangement of atoms, low entropy representing order, high entropy representing disorder. According to Carlo Rovelli, the only reason we experience time is because of the movement of the universe from low to high entropy. This, he admits, is just a theory.
So, then what is time? Does it exist at all? It truly is a mind-boggling thing. We experience life in the present so immediately and tangibly, and this is what is so believable about the presentist view of time. All we ever immediately experience is the present moment. Therefore, it appears that is the only time that exists. However, we can also predict the future and remember the past. Many of our predictions about the future constantly come true. Each day we subconsciously predict that the sun with again rise the next day, and it does. And although we can’t directly experience the past, we know that things from the past once did exist. Dinosaur bones, for instance, prove this to us. There is evidence all around us of things that used to exist. But what does it mean for something to be present and then no longer be present? Does it still exist in some sense? Time is truly baffling!
Much of our inability to think about and discuss time is because of the limitations of our language, especially our tense. Language is a social construct through which we view and experience the world. Linguists, psychologists and philosophers of language will forever debate whether words do or do not dictate our world-view. And the Zen master will ever remind us that words are not the “thing-in-itself”, a point that the 18th-century philosopher Kant himself would also have acknowledged. But on the other hand, philosophical debates aside, couldn’t we say that most words hint at something, and while they may not contain objective truth, they may point in its direction? The fact that we have words, such as, now, later, before, after, soon, while, present, past and future, seems to imply that there is some reality beyond these words towards which they are pointing. They may not capture the essence of this reality, but the words themselves suggest that there is some dimension out there, which we experience and are trying to express, though clumsily, in language.
But beyond words there are also other more “objective” signs that time does exist, in some way. As Aristotle pointed out, movement and change are two key companions that give us the experience of time. We do not live in a motionless universe where nothing changes. We live in an ever-expanding universe, which according to science, has transfixed itself in drastic ways, from the chaos of scattered cosmic dust of billions of years ago to the majestic order of the orbiting spheres of today. And in our own human world, change is even more apparent. Aside from the geological and geographical changes that the longstanding records document, there are the changes that occur in society and culture. And today these changes are even more wildly salient, fashion and technology never content with a final form. All of these changes mentioned are physical changes that we witness or infer. In them we can see change in three-dimensional form which takes place in and across the dimension of time. How could change occur without this last dimension? Another problem we have with trying to understand the nature of time is that we use spatial reasoning to do so. We often conceptualise time as an arrow going from the future to the past. When we speak about the past, we may point to the left and for the future point to the right. We use visual metaphors to try to convey a dimension that is beyond what we can see.
My own view of time is essentially presentist. To me time does exist, and the present moment is the only thing we can directly experience. However, I think it is important to remember that this present moment has the quality of flow, and things come into and out of existence in this present moment. The past is what used to exist; the future is what will (probably) exist. How do we know this? Through induction. Induction is a method of investigation and reasoning in which we use evidence to arrive at a conclusion or develop a theory. When talking about the past, we are using our powers of induction to decipher what once was. For instance, we discovered fossilised dinosaur bones and arrived at the conclusion that dinosaurs once existed on the earth. The past is what used to exist, but we have evidence of this in the present e.g. fossils, graves, lines in tree trunks, layers of rock. We cannot immediately perceive the past, but as intelligent beings, we can infer its previous existence. When referring to the future, we are also using our powers of induction, which we also develop by looking at the present and back at the past in order to predict the future. In another sense, things just change form in the present. Nothing comes into and out of existence. A foetus morphs into a human body and eventually a pile of bones, but each moment it only exists in one of these forms.
To me the presentists are quite right in an important sense: the present is the most tangible and immediate aspect of time. But what is also important to remember is that while the present is all that exists, what we call past and future are characteristics of this present. The concepts of “past” and “future” describe the way things come in and out of existence in the present, the way things constantly change form. We know that the present is constantly changing, and we have the capacity to predict and plan for this change, what we call the future. From this perspective, the pragmatist would say that the present and the future are the only aspects of time that are important. What we need to deal with is the present as it exists in the moment and the present as it will exist after change has occurred. What about the past? In what sense is the past important to us? As we shall see, it helps us learn about what has passed so that we can make the present and future richer and more fulfilling. In this sense, “past” and “future” are useful terms for talking about time’s flowing nature.
However, some proponents of mindfulness adopt a presentist point of view that denies the existence, in any real sense, of the past and future. Past and future to them have no real place in a mindful approach to life. They often like to express time’s continued existence through terms such as “the Now”, a present that ever extends itself, or “the eternal present”. Mindfulness schools of thought that are grounded in non-dualism often hold to this conception of time. Non-dualism is the concept that there is no distinction between any aspect of reality, including between the Divine and the human being. Non-dualistic mindfulness treats the present as the only thing with real existence, and therefore, the only thing worth focusing on. But there is something that this view does not do justice to, namely, the experience that we all have of different moments in and across time. In a sense, this view ignores time’s flux. We are able to remember times long ago and also able to predict and plan what is to come, to varying degrees of course. We are bombarded by changes in the world, and these changes are at least a clue to the dimension we all call, “time”.
Now, it may certainly be true that what we perceive as the flow of time could be a mere illusion. It may simply be that our biological apparatus that interprets reality, the brain, processes sensory information in such a way that time is perceived as a real dimension of reality when it is not. For instance, scientists believe that we can contemplate the future through the use of the brain’s frontal lobe. However, this does not prove that the future is a real dimension. But while this is true, that our neurological networks may lie to us, our perception of flux is inescapable. So, whether or not time exists objectively and is constituted by flux, we are bound to our neurological constraints. This means that living a full life can only occur by embracing the experience of life’s apparent flow. So, putting physics and philosophy aside as to whether time does exist, or what time actually is, this book works from the premise that there is one aspect of human reality, which is connected to movement and change, experienced by every human being, and exerts its full force on our slowly growing and then withering bodies: time. And it is also acknowledged that the words we use to point at different moments in time – now and then – are pointing toward something, not nothing. Therefore, one important goal of this book is to develop an approach to life that embraces time in all its dimensions in a way that is real, practical and fulfilling.
Our struggles with time
Even when we accept time’s existence and our incapacity to grasp its exact nature, it remains difficult to live with time. We often ignore the present and wrestle with the past and future. And all too often we are left baffled at the sheer “speed” of time’s flux. One of my favourite sit-coms is the Office (US version), which is about the daily lives of the employees at a paper company. One very memorable episode for me is when Dwight’s aunt dies, and he invites certain co-workers to the funeral. To his own surprise, the accountant Oscar is invited. In private he says, “We're not even that close. I've only known Dwight... 12 years. 12 years! Time is a son of a bitch!” Though I believe in God and the divinity of His creation, including the dimension of time, I had to laugh at this line since I can completely relate to this experience. (Note: Though I do not believe God has a gender, I use the pronoun “He” instead of “It” to indicate that God is not impersonal or lacking consciousness.) Most people have some kind of issue with the passing of time. All of us come out with our own lines, such as, “I can’t believe it’s already November!”; “I’m almost 40, 50, 60!”; “Oh no! Not another grey hair!” Or perhaps it’s the opposite, that time is not passing swiftly enough: “This is taking forever!”; “I’ve been in this line for 40 minutes!”; “Nothing ever seems to change!”
My biggest confrontation with time came when I was 14 years old. Up until that time I had had an ideal childhood, carefree and full of fun. But one night I was lying in bed, and out of nowhere came the thought: one day I am going to die. Before then I had always known that I was going to die someday, but I had never really contemplated it in any depth at all; I had not understood the fact that I would die. I was shaken to the core and calculated what my 14 years had felt like and estimated how much experiential time I would have left, if I lived to old age, calculating in the depreciation of lived experience, the way time seems to move faster the older we get. This gave birth to a severe anxiety disorder which was in full effect until I reached about 18. But I like to be grateful for this traumatic inner experience because it led me to search for a way out, and thus led me to discover philosophy and then spirituality.
Since then my relationship with time has been less intense. Having also found God, I am no longer as scared of the passing of time that will eventually lead to my physical death. Of course, Circumstance may steal my life from Time’s hands before then. I am still stunned by the passing of the seasons, the sudden growth of children I know, especially my son, and the constant advancement of technology. Sadly, my hair is turning white: luckily, I’m also going bald! Time’s flux ever awes and bewilders me. But I have more of an acceptance of life’s fleeting nature, and I have tried to discover ways that I can live with time and utilise it. One of the obvious ways to embrace time is through the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the act of becoming aware of the present moment – to be here now. There are other ways of referring to it: living in the Now, accepting what is, being present. These terms all refer to the same thing: centring your thoughts on the present moment, not the past or future. For many people, mindfulness is the answer to their struggles with time. Like myself, they have wrestled with the same kind of inner anguish, be it anxiety, depression, guilt, trauma, addiction or something else. Mindfulness has provided them with a way out of that suffering by tying their attention to the present moment.
This practice, while previously quite esoteric, is becoming more and more mainstream. The mindfulness craze is ablaze around the world and influencing even those who do not consider themselves “spiritual” or “new-age” in any sense. But this approach to life is nothing new. Mindfulness practices have existed for thousands of years in the spiritual traditions of various world religions and spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and ancient Yogic practices. While some scholars believe that mindfulness has also existed in the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, especially Sufism, its use today by the general public is mostly due to the impact that eastern traditions have had on the modern mind. Initially, the practice of mindfulness was only really undertaken on the fringes of modern western society by those who dabbled or even at times submerged themselves in the traditions of the East. It is only a relatively new thing for the modernite. Yet now we cannot only hear about mindfulness in the traditional settings of a Yoga or Buddhist meditation class but even at the health club or a well-being seminar at the office. This modern, secularised form of mindfulness has been termed McMindfulness, which will be examined later.
Why is it becoming so popular? Because it works. People report that they are happier, and many studies have concluded that meditation and other mindfulness practices have a positive effect on the body and mind. In The Healing Power of Meditation, a number of health experts report many benefits of practicing mindfulness. According to Dr. Frederic Rosenfeld, certain practices of mindfulness can lower blood cholesterol levels, slow down the aging process, alleviate rheumatism, relieve digestive issues and heal skin conditions. Richard Davidson found that Buddhist monks in the Himalayas could overcome a genetic disposition to negativity. Furthermore, in an experiment on mindfulness, Sara Lazar Ph.D. found a decrease in the density of grey matter in the brain which correlates with changes in stress levels. Along with these important health benefits, many are turning to meditation and mindfulness as a way to transcend a life that is preoccupied with materialism and seek a life that has more depth and purpose.
Explanation of the book
While the value of mindfulness is acknowledged, this is not another book exclusively about mindfulness – there are enough of those around, many of which are excellent contributions to human learning and progression. But we don’t really need yet another book to tell us to be present; after we’ve read a book or two, we just need to be present. Of course, we can go back to those books to help us gain focus, but in the end, we have to put down the books and be. The purpose of this book is broader than mindfulness. Though mindfulness does offer a way out of inner suffering, and indeed the chance of very deep inner transformation, a life focused solely on mindfulness is rather one-dimensional, as to an extent it ignores the other spectrums of time and other dimensions of ourselves. This book then seeks to offer a more expansive and integrated approach to life, and in particular, this thing we call time.
As Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd explain, there are various approaches to time, namely, past-negative, past-positive, present-fatalistic, present hedonistic, future, transcendental future and holistic present. These time perspectives significantly affect how each person lives. We all have our own temporal habits and preferences of which aspect of time we place our attention on, and this may not be balanced or nourishing for our sense of wellbeing. For this reason, we need to approach time holistically.
In the first part of the book, we will focus on the present – the reason why we need to be present and how and when we should be present. We will also explore the limitations of living a life exclusively in the present moment. The second part of the book deals with the past and future. Although these dimensions of time cannot be encountered directly, we need to learn how to relate to them so that our present moment is richer and more fulfilling. The past provides us with many lessons and also roots to ground us. The future is something we don’t need to worry about but proactively plan for with hope because it will soon enough become the present moment. In the third part of the book, we explore the role of the mind and heart in living with time. We are not mere animals relying on instinct and our senses. This means our relationship with the flux of time is much more complex. Our intelligence, knowledge, intuition, creativity and feelings all come into play when approaching the past, present and future. Finally, in the conclusion, it is all brought together. The various dimensions of time and personhood are interwoven so that we can understand how to approach life in an integrated and holistic way.
Dear reader, from the outset I must say that while I have written this book about mindfulness and reflection I am not claiming to be another spiritual master. I am not enlightened, nor do I claim to know what that even means. I have not reached “the top of the mountain” and returned to show others the way. I am still climbing the mountain and based on what I have learned from my own struggles and the teachings of others, I am sharing my reflections on the path with you. I hope you find meaning and purpose in our shared journey up to the shrouded peak!