Thursday, November 22, 2012


Photo by Elizabeth Snowden
22 November 2012

A few days ago, in a conversation with my daughter, I realized that time is the topic I want to explore next. The phrase “sense of time” refers both to our immediate awareness of “the time” and to our broader awareness of time’s dimensionality. The latter sense of time is what interests me. That they are separate phenomena is borne out, I believe, by people I know who are famously oblivious to time in the immediate sense, but retain a sharp awareness of time in the larger sense and how they fit within it.

The experience of time, in both senses, is arguably a personal trait that reveals itself haphazardly, even to ourselves. That there are people who run habitually late or, conversely, are habitually punctual is something we learn through our encounters with them.Their awareness of time’s dimensionality is much harder to grasp, but one way we encounter it is when our respective views of a sequence of events are at odds. (I won’t say “the same sequence of events,” because no one views anything in quite the same way.)

It may be helpful to set down my own awareness of time. I have a good sense of immediate time and am fairly punctual. My awareness of time’s dimensionality reflects my associative memory, which means that I experience time as a series of threads. Perhaps “paths” is the better word: time past for me is like paths in a wood that, even if they overlap to some degree, have their own coherence when I’m on them again. There is a kind of collapsing of time when this happens, yet I’m aware of the “weight” of the time involved, so any given event along the way is put in perspective or given a sense of proportion against the whole. Even a path which seems to have run its course remains open-ended for me: if the person I shared it with were to surface, we would pick up where we left off. In consequence, absence doesn’t register for me with the same urgency it seem to for others. 

Why is this? In his account of Heaven, Swedenborg explained that angels move differently than we do, using time rather than space as their medium. What he described corresponds in a way to how I experience time’s dimensionality. In dreams, too, events that are nominally divided by spans of time are in fact connected, allowing us to move seamlessly from one event to another, aware of real time passing within each event, but working the transitions by association, without any intervening passage of time. (Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty includes several examples of what I've called "dream logic" elsewhere. In that film, objects like an umbrella provide the means of transition.) 

Absence doesn’t register for me so strongly, therefore, because time’s distance doesn’t feel so distant, doesn’t actually diminish the feelings that attach to people and events over time. This is not a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” but rather a palpable sense of others when they come to mind, since they come to mind in totality: the totality of my experiences of them. This reflects a memory that is holographic as well as associative. (Let me stress that this depends on an unclouded temperament, which is not always what life has on order.)

Emerging from a personal crisis some years ago, I understood that what I had suffered from was a sort of “time disease” in which the past actively arose in the present, uninvited, to the point that I was sometimes "seeing" in two times at once. It was like being a ghost, living partly in a world that was at a remove from the real one, unable to participate fully in it, and grieving for it like the dead for the living. Viewed in retrospect, healing required that I part ways with my grief-stricken facsimile

Let's call him the ego, a kind of phantom or daemon that we concoct early on to reassure ourselves. We do so, I believe, to ward off death, which we experience initially as a frightening separation from others whom we imagined to be part of ourselves. Love, A.H. Almaas argues, enables us to dispense with this "protector" and be "alone with others," in Stephen Batchelor's phrase. As when we were toddlers, this sense of innate connectedness is unconscious, a byproduct of love itself. When we’re left stranded by love’s collapse, we find that our old and false companion is still there, tying us to the very moment when love parted us. Stuck there together: this was my "time disease." To emerge from it, we have to embrace life as it is, embracing time's dimensionality, the integrity of every path, and the fact that as life unfolds—as time unfolds—we unfold with it, regardless of what we may have had planned on the side.

What the Buddhists call “mind” is, I read, the whole world of our experience, which we encompass as a created universe, a reflection of reality that is uniquely our own. This is our "time past, present, and imagined future." We can choose to be with time (in both senses, past and present), in the Buddhist sense of “sitting with it,” or we can take a more possessive view of it, privileging parts of it over others, wanting it to unfold in certain ways and feeling anger or sadness when it doesn’t. These are human responses—the Buddha wasn’t condemning our humanity when he pointed out that being with it can save us from suffering from it.

The longer I live, the more clearly I see how these individual paths through time have their individual reasons. (Sometimes another's path crosses ours so quickly that it seems singular, more like an event.) I’m always surprised by life, which is much more wondrous than we usually credit. We make plans, a necessity in real time to make things happen, but life’s unfolding, the milieu through which time moves, is a much vaster phenomenon, rich and unknowable, even in its particulars. We even surprise ourselves.

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