The Future Is Now
Have you ever tried to capture and hold a special moment? Ever tried to freeze-frame time, only to discover you can never grasp it? The present moment is elusive--here now, then gone as soon as it arrives. The fickle finger of time pushes on, indifferent to our desires or fears. Omar Khayaam expressed it well:
The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
And yet, time does seem to be elastic. Ever notice how it slows down when you are waiting for a kettle to boil? Or how it zips by in a flash when you are really enjoying yourself? How does time speed up or slow to a crawl, yet the clock on the wall ticks away at its regular rate?
Time remains one of our deepest mysteries. It has inspired and frustrated philosophers, scientists, psychologists, and spiritual teachers the world over. Philosophers, in particular, have argued over the nature of time since . . . well, since time immemorial . . . and scientists have turned it into a dimension of space (thanks Einstein!).
Some folks even say time doesn’t really exist--it’s just an illusion. There is only now, including past and future. One thing seems clear: Somehow, time and consciousness are intimately connected.
The Paradox of Time
We know it intimately, yet when asked to define it, time leaves us scratching our heads. Even more than consciousness, attempts to define time pull us in circles. Time, it seems, cannot be precisely explained, expressed, or defined in language.
Try an experiment: See if you can come up with a definition of time that does not depend on a word that itself depends on the notion of time. I suggest it cannot be done. For example, “Time is the difference between before and after.” “Time is what flows from past to present to future.” “Time is the succession of moments or events.” “Time is duration.” “Time is change.”
All the italicized words above require an understanding of time for their meaning. The very nature of time appears to be tautological--it requires itself for its own definition--and, therefore, resists precise, clear definition. Nevertheless, time is so central to our experience and way of life it seems too important to leave uninvestigated.
So, what is time? If we can’t define it, how can we know it? Perhaps we can indicate it or approach it along a via negativa--by describing what it is not, by pointing out its opposites, or its absence.
Without time, the world would be utterly static. Nothing could happen; we might say, whimsically, that time is the “hap” in “happening.” Yet even a totally static universe is unimaginable without enduring, and duration involves a sense of time. Even an eternally static universe must endure, and therefore must be threaded on some fiber of time.
The Future Is Now
There’s no time to wait, the future is now!
Blindspot: Besides the contradiction of tenses, we must decide “which future?” Do we mean the next second or fifty billion years from now? If we mean that all futures are “now,” then we are effectively saying there is no distinction between any future moments. The next minute is no different from a moment fifty billion years hence. It amounts to saying the future has no future.
The same is true for every past moment that once was “now”--right back to the Big Bang. There would be no difference between the past, the present, and the future. In other words, NOTHING EVER HAPPENED! But for this absurdity to be possible, we would have to say that no time ever existed. Without time, what meaning do the words past, present, and future have?
If the notion of time is to preserve any meaning, a fixed relation between before and after must exist. If what was once before were to become after, then language breaks down and those words lose all meaning and usefulness.
The Arrow of Time
Time implies, even requires, duration. In other words, time consists of moments not timeless instants. Each moment endures or “smears” itself out in time. Unlike instants, moments are continuous--they flow into each other, in one direction.
Duration extends into the past (and preserves it), but it does not flow into the past. Its direction is future oriented; more accurately, it creates the future, since there is no future yet for it to flow into.
Our lived experience of time defies the limits of language. Time is indefinable, the present moment forever ineffable. The best human minds can do, it seems, is to reach deep inside the psyche for metaphors that may communicate something of the essence of time, by-passing the intellectual faculties and touching a nerve of emotion or intuition.
Communication about time is a poetic affair, not a matter of technical discourse. Time is intimately related to consciousness and cannot be divorced from an experiencing subject. All efforts to objectify time yield a lifeless shell, an abstraction. Time and consciousness flow together.
To know time, it must be experienced.