Eternal Echoes: Reflections on Time & Stillness

Old Father Time is seen against stormy skies. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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“Time present and time past 
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past. 
If all time is eternally present 
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction 
Remaining a perpetual possibility 
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been 
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory 
Down the passage which we did not take 
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo 
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose 
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves 
I do not know.
Other echoes 
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?”

T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, 1. Burnt Norton
A set of four poems, The Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot

So, that friends, is the beginning of the poem, The Four Quartets by the great Anglo English or English American poet, T.S. Eliot. That was from the first of the four of the quartets, Burnt Norton. And it introduces, I think, quite well, the theme that I wanted to explore with you in this month’s blog, which perhaps ranks as just about the biggest theme one could possibly attempt to engage and consider, that being, time – time itself, time, eternity, movement, stillness, the flow of time.

In the English language, of course, we have an enormous volume of idioms – I’m sure this is true in many other languages as well – idioms that relate to time. So we have, for example, the following concepts like “Doing time,” “No time like the present,” “Wasting time,” “All in good time,” ”Lost time,” ”Time stands still for no one,” “I’ve lost track of time,” “I’m killing time,”  “I’m behind the times,” “time is money,” “I’m just buying me some time,” “I’m in a race against time,” “It’s time consuming,”  “Let’s take a time out,”  “That was before my time,” “This was just in the nick of time,” and we could go on but I’ll spare us that. I think the point is made. The language is absolutely replete with references to time and of course, language itself is time bound.

In English, we have simple tenses Past, Present, Future. In other languages, there are many compound tenses. And in some, I would argue, incredibly sophisticated languages, just the one tense, the present tense, where everything relates to now, and cannot be expressed as being somehow passed, or somehow yet unhappened. So straightaway, as we consider time, we encounter the impossibility of standing outside it in order to say anything about it, and also the central significance that it has to just about everything else that we think we know or experience or feel. And that’s why I wanted to spend some time with you this month considering just some of the strands and implications of time for us creatively, in terms of our society, in how we organise ourselves and things, in terms of creativity, and also in terms of the healing possibility. And indeed, the spiritual possibilities that we find ourselves in relationship to. 

The context of time and stillness

So to begin at the beginning, which is a very time sensitive thing to do, let’s think about the word itself. So the English word “time”, which basically comes from an old English, tima, and from various Germanic and proto-Germanic and Old Norse, and Scandinavian roots, that basically boil down towards roots such as timi, timme and di-mon, which are basically words that are suggestive of division, of dividing something up, or establishing it in pieces, you might say. The abstract sense of the word time as we have it, meaning time as an indefinite continuous duration, was first entered into the language in the 14th century. Again, a date, another location in time.

Father Time

And time has been, of course, personified in much of our cultural history, often as an aged cynic figure – an aged figure, a bald man, perhaps carrying a scythe, perhaps carrying an hourglass representing the passing of time, the shortness of time. But we also have all the words that begin with tem- or temp-. So, temporal, temporary, things like this, which come from a French and Latin understanding of time, temporalis, tempus, tempo, and these have about them the sense of the movement of seasons, the movement of a time season. 

And they also have in their Proto-Indo-European origin, this sense of something being stretched, so tempos, “to be stretched, to stretch, the stretch of time”, which our language remembers. We sometimes, I’m thinking particularly of people in situations of being imprisoned, will often talk about the stretch, that they’re doing the term of the sentence, that they’re serving as a stretch. 

So we could imagine ancestral human beings, perhaps in a hunt type of situation, somewhere on a plane, or a Tundra, or a Savanna, or some other landscape, having to organise themselves into the sequence of a hunt, in order to be successful, and to have something to eat. And having done so, having succeeded in their hunt for their prey, then having to divide up the spoil, divide up the legs, the skin, the various other parts of the creature, whatever it might have been – antelope, bison, moose, mammoth, who knows – and indeed, then stretching the skin, stretching it out, cleaning it. So, yeah, a little time based fantasy there as to how certain situations give rise to the roots of language.

Other words that might be important to note from the very beginning here, “stillness”, which is an old English word, Stille, meaning “motionless, stationary”. Again, having an older root stel-, which basically has about it, this implication of standing in order or putting in order, a sort of gentleness of order. And the other word I wanted to include at the beginning in our weave would be “eternity”. So it’s an old French word entering into English, from éternité, meaning “perpetual, perpetuity”, or in Latin aeternus; “enduring, permanent,” aeviternus; “of great age”. So again, this notion in its root of life force, long life, long vitality, lasting vitality. 

How do we engage with time?

So these things come to pass in respect of our understanding of time as we tend to use it. And we’ll get into some of those details now, but just to say right at the beginning, of course, to speak about time at all, is also to speak about perception, and is to engage with several overlapping dimensions and domains. So in particular, the cultural level. So this is coming from a particular Western and European heritage of thinking about time, which is by no means universal.

It also engages in psychological realms to consider how time is experienced differently depending on our psychological state. If we’re frightened, if we’re depressed, if we’re anxious, if we’re excited, if we’re a child, if we’re very old, if we’re ill, if we’ve just retired, if we’ve got work in a minute, time is experienced differently. Yeah, so the psychological dimension of time and our perception of it is very important.

As is the physiological – everything from the brain function, the neurological processes, our sensitivity to the diurnal rhythms to light and dark, the circadian rhythms as they are often called. So in engaging with time where we’re coming into a cultural, psychological, physiological matrix of overlapping explorations, the concept of time itself being deeply ingrained in human consciousness plays a fundamental role in how we understand the universe, how we express ourselves, how we communicate, and it turns out to be immensely complex.

The dimension of time

So from another point of view, a scientific point of view, time is often described as being the fourth dimension, alongside the three familiar spatial dimensions of length, width, height, to give us this framework of four dimensional space time. And in this context, it’s often considered to be a coordinate, you might say, that measures a sequence of events, things that happen in time.

And ever since Einstein and the theory of relativity, our prior understanding of time has been weirded, we might say, has been demonstrated to not be a constant absolute, but rather to be a dynamic and relative concept which can be acted upon by other factors. So for Einstein, that would basically be gravity, velocity, acceleration, and so forth. And we get close then to all the theories around black holes and so forth, and how there are so called “event horizons” across which time is sort of annihilated or disappears or is subject to the gravitational pull of  such a phenomenon.

In philosophical terms, time also brings us into the deep waters of philosophy. So it’s a very existential thing to consider. And in very simple terms, we have concepts like time’s arrow – there’s a beginning, there’s the flight of the arrow, and there’s the arrow hitting its target moving in one direction – the underpinnings of so much of our the superstructure of our society for a long time now, the myth of progress, as it might be called. 

How do we perceive time?

There’s also philosophical renditions and renderings of things like the eternal present, the now, as it’s often referred to in shorthand. There’s a range of differing perspectives on the nature of our temporal reality.

So in really simple terms from a Western perspective, going back to the Greek understanding of time which we’ll say a little more about, you could say a history of time goes something like this: you have Parmenides, the Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher, and  Iatromantis, as he sometimes described as a sort of healing force, magic worker. He says about time, in a nutshell, that past and future are illusory, that the universe is timeless and unchanging, if only we could perceive it. 

Whereas Heraclitus, who’s a little later, he formulates time as an endless process of creation – destruction and change. There’s this dynamic, constant ongoing process. By the time we get to Plato, we have a description of time basically, would have it be a reflection of the Heavenly Spheres, so that the way we experience time on Earth in matter is a reflection of the rotation, the circular motion of the heavens. 

And then, following Plato, we have Aristotle, who argues that time is rooted in motion and it’s only meaningful with respect to events embedded in its flow, but he makes the distinction that although motion is essential to the experience of time, time is not identical with motion, because it is everywhere, as he says. And then you get the monotheistic, introjection of time, the Christian understanding of time and the previous Hebrew understanding of time, which develops a kind of linear model versus the kind of static eternity. 

What about eternity?

So, various people have observed through the Christian millenia. Time could be represented as an historical parenthesis within eternity. In other words, outside of those brackets, there’s eternity within them, we have the story, the narrative of human history, and at its centre, the arising of the Christ experience. And at the centre of that, the crucifixion, the Easter experience that stands on the cross of matter and time, and from this point of view, is redemptive of the time bound experience. It brings it back into the cosmic relationship with the Creator.

Kairos.

So eternity is endless, but time is measured by a beginning and an end. And we know this from the conditioning that we might have received from our own educations, from our own ordinary experience, the “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But at the end comes the second coming in the Day of Judgement”. That’s the Christian underpinnings of that view of time. And it’s not that different in other theistic religions. So we see the same formulation fundamentally in Islam. Time is the creation of Allah, but in no way encompasses Allah. In other words, very much like the parenthesis within which history happens. It’s a kind of bracketed experience. 

To the ancient Greeks, again, there are different words that pertain to time that might be useful for us to kind of bring in here. So, we have Chronos, which basically relates to our concept of clock time – time perception. We also have Kairos, and Kairos basically emerges as a sort of right or opportune moment in time, a sort of ripeness in time, a time in between in which something of significance can happen.

There is also Aion, which basically relates in particular to the kind of eternity of time, and the deity, which is imagined and conceived of as being to the Greek imagination. And Eniautós, which is the kind of circularity of time, so as with Greek words for love, there are more of them than the English language, in its slightly impoverished state can manage. So, to the Greek imagination time depends on which time we’re speaking about.

Jung’s perspective on time

Children’s Dreams by Jung

And indeed, we find this reflected in a more modern sense in people like Jung. So Jung writing about childhood and dreams, notes very much in the aristotelian way that we conceive of time only on the basis of movement. And he quotes Proclus saying that, “Wherever there is creation, there is also time.” So making that point once again. But he notes Chronos, he notes Kairos and he makes a very interesting observation. He speaks about what he calls “threeness”, which is a way of describing flow, movement, spin or vortex, you might say, and he comes to say that time is identical with the course things take. 

So time is identical with the course things take. This underpins the notion of synchronicity that we find in Jung, that corresponding things happen at the same moment or a rise in the same Kairos, the same meaningful or right moment. And the threeness relates to, you could say at a simple level, past, present and future. That would represent a good, simple three familiar to us all. But Jung expands on it, of course, talks about the Three Fates, we could say the Three Furies. And he goes on, indeed, to talk about the Three Root Sufferings, which is the centre of the Buddhist idea and the Mandala,the Wheel of Time that is often depicted in Buddhism. The cause of dependent origination, as it’s sometimes called, at the centre of which there’s usually a depiction of three creatures, often a rooster, a pig, and a snake – lust, greed, envy or greed, hatred, and ignorance. 

And Jung is sort of suggesting that these are the prime movers of our experience of time. They set the thing in motion, they set the wheel turning, but he also makes the distinction that there is no time from the perspective of the unconscious; the unconscious doesn’t experience time in the way that our conscious self, and its parts often do, or always do, you could say. And this might be why you can have a dream that recurs throughout your life that perhaps you first had as a child, and then you have the dream in your adolescence, you have it again in your 20s, maybe it returns to you in middle life, or in later life. But the dream is identical, nothing happens to the dream. The dreamer is very different from being a six year old child to being a 70 year old. But the dream itself might reappear exactly as is with no change, not being acted upon by time, because it’s a phenomenon arising outside of time, or from beyond time. 

We might at this point also remind ourselves of entirely other conceptions of time. So for example, to use Aboriginal Australian time concepts for a moment differs entirely from the sort of Judeo Christian or Euro centric perception of time. So Aboriginal people are under no obligation to perceive time as an exclusively linear event moving from past to present to future. And indeed, often speak of time as having patterns, circular patterns, and indeed, according importance to the sort of time circles based on the relative importance of the event. So to put it that way, really important events are closer to the individual in time. So you know, if one was talking about one’s personal history, your marriage or the birth of your children might be very present and close in time, rather than located in some kind of past.

Time pathologies in medicine and psychology

And, indeed, from the perspective of creation stories, these of course, are very close in time, even though they might also be regarded as everlasting or deeply ancient. Because creation is a kind of restorative, ongoing, renewing event. So, to the frankly, quite arrogant western mind, as it often shows up particularly in its medical, psychological guise, these would immediately put someone with that Aboriginal concept of time into a category of aberration, an abnormal rendering of time, and quite possibly have them labelled in pathological terms. Somebody having time pathologies. And indeed, to expand on that, there are many time pathologies known to medicine and psychology, dyschronometria as they’re often called.

So today, we’re all familiar with the effects of the various dementias that can happen to people increasingly at earlier points in life, not exclusively during older age. Often associated, at least in the popular imagination, with the loss of memory, but indeed, with all kinds of time bound effects.

We can also see things that cause time dilation and time contraction, prosopagnosia or face blindness. That’s also a neurological condition sometimes related to time and time perception; the inability to read a face and remember whose face it is in a timely manner. Time blindness, which pertains to not being able to accurately measure ourselves in time or to manage one’s time effectively. We find these a lot in attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders. There’s descriptions of hypertime and hypotempia, which are sort of persistent senses of time speeding up or slowing down even in the absence of neurological disorders. So very subjective experience; it can be very distressing, it can impact the functioning and the quality of life.

We perhaps have all experienced the disorders of time and time perception that can come, if for instance, we’re incredibly tired, we haven’t slept, or we have insomnia, we have a kind of out of phase sleep syndrome, meaning that we just can’t sleep. These are very, very painful of course. They’re often used in interrogation and even torture to deprive someone of sleep, precisely because it’s so conducive to suggestibility, and also so ruinous to someone’s sense of themselves as a way of breaking the psychology and the psyche of someone.

Certain disorders such as anxiety disorders, or even certain obsessive compulsive disorders, have time aspects or can do time aspects to them. So an over worry or excessive preoccupation with the past or with the future, chronic focus on a particular imagined future or regretted past, or OCDs that perhaps have a ritual that has to do with timekeeping, or an obsession that has to do with controlling or manipulating time. So huge swathes of impact from thinking about time in relation to our psychology, our well being, our pathologies, and our functioning in the world. The past is never dead, as William Faulkner says, “It’s not even passed”. Or as Einstein said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”. So these become little clues, you might say as to how and why considering time is an important thing to do.

A mindfulness practice on time

Just to bring this to a practical level for a moment, as well, and to include a little word on mindfulness and mindfulness practice. So, mindfulness as normally practised, has several, you could say, benefits in relation to time, one of which is the capacity to develop a sense of presence and aliveness that is, at best, able to transcend the past and the future. So it enables, almost in the cliched sense, us to inhabit the now, to be in the unfolding now, the moment itself. And in doing that, it also, perhaps, heightens our awareness of temporal flow. So we become attuned to the rhythms of fluctuations of time; we notice sensations arising and passing, thoughts coming and going, even the spaces in between thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations. And that allows us perhaps to gain insight into the fluidity, the ever changing flux of time as reality. 

Secondary benefits would include things like the ability of letting go of certain time-related stress. So we might foster a sense of acceptance and equanimity about time passing, rather than it being a cause of anxiety and worry to us. It might give rise to a sense of openness and curiosity in us, allowing us to embrace the moment with grace, you could say. It also perhaps  reattunes us or recalibrates us to the differences in time so we might be able to move beyond clock time – the hours, minutes, seconds and so forth – into an awareness of psychological time, subjectivity of our experience and perception, and even beyond that into wider or vaster experiences, non-conceptual experiences directly of time itself.

When time flies…

Tempus Fugit motto at the Church of St Swithin, Hempsted

We could probably hear or remember the famous phrase, “Tempus fugit”. This is the line that is taken from Virgil, from the Georgics. “Tempus fugit” in English literally meaning “time flies,” and a great sort of fun on the stately houses of Great Britain where you often find painted glass or stained glass windows. And some of them will have the insect, a fly, painted upon them, and around it, the words “tempus fugit”. Time flies, as in this is a fly, it’s the fly of time. Time flies.But in Virgil’s original fugit “irreparabile tempus,” it escapes, irretrievable, or unkeepable  time. This notion that time is always running away from us, flying from us.

Festina Lente motto on a token

And staying with the classical reference for a second, there’s also this phrase that’s been adapted or used as a motto in different contexts. So, originally used by the Emperor Augustus in Rome, and also by Titus, one of the other Roman emperors, and then later in the Renaissance by the Medici family, patrons of the Florentine Renaissance, and even in various coats of arms of different aristocrats in the British context. But the phrase “Festina Lente” –  “make haste slowly,” or in its slightly cannibalised later English phrase, “more haste, less speed”. So this, too, is playing with the idea of the motion and the flow of time, that we all experienced that level, and pointing beyond it in something approaching, a kind of Zen koan, kind of a way.

The mystical mystery of time

But I wanted to direct our attention to a more mystic experience of time, we might say, one that you begin to sense as well, if you ever care to look at the quantum end of physics, where you’d bump into it there in terms of things like a chronon, which is the proposed quantum of time. So this would be the smallest, discrete and non-decomposable unit of time that could be used in an equation or a time temporal data model, I think, would be the phrase. 

So a chronon is a mysterious hypothetical idea that time is not continuous but dynamic and changeable. But if we commit it, rather than as physicists, as people with an openness to mystery, we can approach the same thing. So you could look, for example, at your body. You could look at your body and say, “Well, my body is definitely my body, but it would appear to have changed through time. It isn’t the body I had when I was a child, or when I was born, or when I was in my early going”. And that’s a very valid way of looking at time. Clearly, it’s an experience we all have all the time.

But it’s not the only way of viewing that; you could also consider your body, not as a continuum with all your previous experiences of your body, but as a body arising right now, in this instant. In other words, your body isn’t the body you had ten years ago, fifteen years ago, thirty years ago because how can something that doesn’t exist, i.e. your old body, produce something that exists here and now? So that’s a very logical beginning yet it feels very illogical to the habits of the mind. 

But we believe in time, and we believe in causality as a result of believing in time. So we believe that the body I have in this moment is the fruit, the result of the cause that existed in the past. And that cause was my younger body, my previous body. However, there is no previous body to be found. Doesn’t exist, isn’t here. There’s only this body right now. So if we follow the logic of that even further, we arrive at a point that says something like the ground of all there is, ground of being in this very moment is manifesting everything spontaneously, in every instant. That time is a concept that we develop to account for movement, process, change; we need it, to explain those things to ourselves. That there’s a phenomena and that the phenomena experiences change requires time to make sense of it. So we invent time, the dimension of time to account for changes in phenomena, processes in phenomena.

Being present in time

However, and I’m quoting A.H. Almaas here, from his book, The Inner Journey Home on page 375, where he makes the crucial point that real change, the actual change that is in accordance with reality, that’s what he’s speaking about, “real change is not from the past to the present, but rather from non manifestation to manifestation”.

Alchemical Sophia

So change is not from the past to the present, but from non manifestation to manifestation. And he goes on to explain that we need time, we feel the passage of time only when we are in the midst of the changing phenomena. But when we’re outside of all phenomena, and are experiencing ourselves from the vantage point of the logos, we directly perceive how all phenomena arise, and that nothing moves from the past to the future. It simply flows out always in a new condition. We recognise that no time ever passes on anything, for all forms and objects are eternally new.

So what’s the implication of that? What does that mean? 

Well, in terms of  presence, to go back to that point, so I was speaking about it before in terms of mindfulness, but we could also speak about it relationally, relational presence, therapeutic presence, healing presence. Presence, one might understand in this context, is a kind of compression of time or a compacting of time into one moment, a distillation you might say, the single malt essence of time in the moment. And the more we’re able to inhabit the moment in that way, withdrawing our awareness from the past and the future, concentrating it fully in the present, we can begin to experience ourself, all of ourself in a single moment. 

So again, to quote Almaas, he says, “to trust the now completely can lead to the experience of yourself as a self originating presence”. In other words, our existence itself is pure presence. It’s not dependent upon anything else. It is in the language of all the mystic traditions, self originating or unoriginated or unconditioned or self arising, self existing, pure existence or in the simplest way of saying it, ”I Am the I Amness,” the is-ness, you could say, of all things or the suchness of all things. Existence is pure presence. Existence is pure presence spontaneously fully itself, without reference to time. 

So from that perspective, a very human and achievable perspective, nothing is happening in time, much to the contrary of our regular self and its experience. The things of our past are decorations, narratives and petals on the flower of the self, you might say. They’re not the causal events that we mistake them to be in our regular movements and our regular way of proceeding through the course of our days.

My favourtie quotes on time

So I’d like to finish with two quotes, as time is up, so to say. The first is a quote from the great English poet, William Blake, favourite quote of mine. So here Blake says, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” A beautiful way of framing it and something well worth spending some time pondering and reflecting upon.

And, by way of bringing this to some kind of closure, I turned to the work of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, whose kind of magnum opus is itself called, ”Being and Time” (Sein und Zeit : Being and Time), and he, among many other things that he traces in his kind of work of ontology and phenomenology, he makes this again, sort of Zen like observation.

He says, “The human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being” with a capital B. So the human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being. And I think that’s as good a place as any to bring this extended meditation on time, to a close. I will also provide a meditation on time, an actual meditation. So do look out for that as a companion piece to this and I hope to see you all again soon in the fullness of time. And until then, be very well.

Enjoy this meditation on Time and Stillness

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