Time: The indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole
– Google dictionary entry
What will not happen will never happen, whatever effort one may put forth. And what will happen will not fail to happen, however much one may seek to prevent it. This is certain. The part of wisdom therefore is to stay quiet.
– Sri Ramana Maharshi
Most of us have so deeply imbibed the concept of time that we have forgotten that it doesn’t actually exist outside our imagination.
A common refrain heard nowadays is ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I am running out of time’ or ‘I am short of time’. Even on a vacation, some of us worry about whether they have time to do everything. Some of us go as far as to worry about whether we have ‘time to do everything we want in life’. ‘So much to do, so little time’ it seems.
And despite that, some of us spend our limited time on useless things we don’t want to do or things that don’t bring us joy or even pleasure. This obvious contradiction seems to escape most of us. In fact, we have gone as far as to systematically enforce this delusion, in the form of ‘retirement planning’. The idea is that we should suffer and waste our time on stupid things we don’t believe in right now, so we can ‘live’ in the future and enjoy ourselves on other stupid and useless things. For most of us, life is a chore, a burden, a never-ending sequence of events and obligations, documents to process, work to complete, things to do, places to see, dishes to eat, sex to enjoy. There never seems to be enough.
But what is time anyway? Let’s start with the past.
Some of us believe the past exists by itself, as if there is some type of long road that the whole universe is traveling on and that in some way, we can go ‘back’ to the past and ‘re-live’ it. Some of us think the past exists in history books or documentaries.
Yes, history can be recorded in books or documentaries, but in order to read them or view them, you have to bring it into the present and experience it in the present.
The truth is that the past does not exist at all. Our minds have memory. We remember things and when we remember them, we are in the present, remembering the past. We can never ‘be’ in the past, we can only imagine that we are there. And that imagination, like everything else, happens in the present.
Even at a physical level, there is no doubt that the past is impossible to repeat. We may be able, in the future, to ‘repeat’ an experience of it but you still have to experience the repetition in the present and then have a memory of the fact that you repeated it. Once again, the past does not exist. For the past to even be perceived as real, it has to be brought into the present. Even if you ‘time traveled’ to the past and were ‘in the past’, you would actually be experiencing it in what would be ‘the present’ for you. Other people might think you are in the past and that would be no different than you being lost in thought somewhere people could not see you. So the whole idea is nonsensical.
The future, for most people, is a lot easier to ignore and most of us actually do it very well when we are sleep. But there are some of us that are so ridden with anxiety, and a desire to control what will and will not happen, that we go to great lengths to ‘ensure’ that it will happen exactly as we think we want it. Western civilization has this pervasive sense of anxiety. So, instead of fixing the root of the problem, which is to give up expectations of a particular kind of future, we medicate ourselves so we don’t have to feel the anxiety anymore and can ‘continue to function productively’. As if the universe depended on yet another account being processed.
But the truth is that things never actually happen the way we expect them to, because most of the time, we have no idea what to expect! That’s actually what makes life so wonderfully surprising every moment. But some of us don’t want it and that’s when we begin to force expectations on this unborn future, asking for ‘commitments’, ‘promises’, ‘contracts’, ‘obligations’, ‘invitations’, ‘RSVPs’, ‘measurements’ and ‘metrics’, all of which capture a very small subset of reality and put some numbers or words on it. Then we convince ourselves that so long as the numbers ‘somewhat match’, as long as it ‘sort of worked out’, we ‘did well’ and ‘things are good’. Even our language clearly exposes our ignorant fumbling around and reveals to us the fundamental ignorance of it all. It’s sad, but also highly entertaining in the same way it is sad and entertaining to watch Charlie Chaplin’s slip and fall on a banana peel.
This pervasive tendency to attempt to rigidly define and control a future and then to create pictures of the future that closely match those expectations, is so deeply rooted among some of us, that we will actually ‘change’ the representation of the future to make it seem like it fit our expectations and then talk about it endlessly until we’ve brainwashed ourselves into believing that what we think happened actually happened. We give them names and make them normal, like ‘re-touching a photo’, ‘improving a resume’, ‘putting a positive spin’. And when even that is not enough, we start looking for approval from others to make sure no one saw through the nonsense. Even we know very well how stupid our minds are and how easily they can be fooled so we do it with glee. It’s really quite hilarious.
It doesn’t take much to understand that the future is, in fact, unpredictable and uncontrollable. We can do everything within our power to control it, but even if we did stop trying to control it, it would go the way it’s supposed to. That’s the challenge for most people – to accept that their role in what happens is not just insignificant, it’s nil.
This line of thinking leads some people to say, ‘So why shouldn’t I kill myself?’ Well, you can by all means and people do. But are you sure it will solve your problem? That potential, that brought you here, do you think it will simply disappear? Even basic physics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed. So can you guarantee that the potential energy that brought you into existence, which has something to accomplish through you will not simply bring you right back? No. In fact, there’s every certainty that you will come right back and go through what you have to. Only, next time you may have no choice whatsoever (say if you are born as a chicken, a plant, a rock or a gas molecule). At least now you are aware of being conscious, so why not use this opportunity?
It takes just a little bit of quiet contemplation to realize that the past does not exist and the future is completely unpredictable. Surrendering to that leads to freedom from anxiety. Not surrendering leads to fear.
Desire is of the past, fear is of the future. The memory of past suffering and the fear of its
recurrence make one anxious about the future.
– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj