Well I never thought I’d see the day. But this is the seventh article to the Cosmos series with two more articles being planned. I am choosing to write three more pieces because I realised I had left out a few key topics Watts talked excessively about. The Cosmos series is a tribute and an overview of the body of work of the philosopher Alan W. Watts(see the P.S. section of article Reality is Bliss for more information).
The text book definition for time is usually: Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future.
But what I want to bring up now concerns the concept of time as a system of entrapment, of keeping one’s self in a perpetual confinement. This is one interpretation of the Buddhist and Hindu concept of Samsara or the cycle of existence. First a paraphrased excerpt from Watts:
“There is no such thing as a progression in time. The spring does not become the summer. First there is spring, and then there is summer. Each season in its place without a moment leading to another. So the you that walked in through the door is not the same you that got up from bed this morning. Whatever you think persists in time is an illusion. Everything is in a constant state of flux.”
And so, by projecting continuation on one’s actions, we keep ourselves in this cycle. And one gets out of that cycle by being completely in the present moment. Because that really is the only time there is. All thoughts about the past and future happens in the present. And one starts being in the present when they stop to listen and simply watch what happens. This is called meditation.
Time can release as well as imprison means that we take time in order to break down eternity into parts which we can use in different ways. And it can release you in the sense of deselection. That is to say, we deselect the parts of it and see it back as eternity. It can imprison us in the sense that we become slaves to the hairline of the pointer in clocks. And we think that the present moment is something that immediately slips us by, when in fact everything we sense and experience flows from it. Just as your field of vision lets in a little space before anything is visible, which is the oval of your eye, so it is with time. We can sense a certain amount of “things and events” within a frame of mind. And that is the present moment, more or less, when perceived in the ordinary way.
“You see, there are basically three classes of people in the Western world. The aristocrats, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The aristocrats always live on the past, because they come from noble families who achieved everything. The proletariat live in the present moment, because they know they have nothing else. But the unfortunate bourgeoisie. They always set themselves up for a hoax. You can always be sure they are being bamboozled by the system into thinking that the great thing, whatever it turns out to be, comes later, not now. For example retiring. And then when they grow up into it, they are more or less impotent, with teeth fallen off, and rotting in a senior citizens centre.”
There is no continuity in the past, present and future. It is conceptual. True time is timeless. One can of course perceive them as continuous and make them so for themselves. But once the belief is formulated that it is so, one is deceived. There is neither past, or the future. And to think that reality is something you make according to your usage for it is delusional. If you break down the continuity of eternity into this thing called past, present and future, it would be like taking a cup of water from the ocean and then thinking you have the whole ocean within the cup, which is true in a sense, up to a point.
And then you live in a state of constant expectation, of tomorrow. What will happen? And this is based on your idea of the past and the events within it. But realize at once that whether there is a past or not, the events that have already taken place do not immediately have a reality of their own within the frame of reference of the present moment. It is only the state of mind which projects those events into the present moment, thinking that they do have power over their actions. And once you set the past and the future with the present moment as something tangible and real, you are preventing reality to intervene between them, and thus setting yourself free from them.
Now don’t get me wrong, time has its uses. It is for example very useful for prediction. What will happen in the weather forecasts, what will happen at the next race, and so on. We use prediction to control our advantages for survival for the major part. And in fact, we can’t really help but to predict, even in our most simplest acts. Most of our predictions are subconscious. And the price for knowing the future is of course anxiety.
But when it is used as a method for security, it fails us on so many occasions. Don’t ever put your trust in time. Everything gets worse in time as the Hindus have taught us, comes Kali Yuga and Shiva at the end and poof. If people put their faith in time, they become suckers, always living for tomorrow, and so unable to enjoy themselves in the present moment. And if it seems things won’t work out in this life they project the problem to the ‘afterlife’ or their next life, always hoping that the great event will happen then. Simply because they couldn’t see that it was all here from the very beginning. There is no safety in time.
In fact, there is no such thing as time at all, in the world of nature, in the world of stars, of organisms and so on. There is however such a thing as rhythm. The rhythm of the waves on an ocean. But time itself is a social institution, along with language, numbers, and concepts, or of all measurements, inches, grams, curves, and so on. They are a way to agree about the processes of nature, so we can control them, and use them. And because we reduce the moment into the hairline in clocks, we think that we can’t ever simply be in the present moment, because it’s already gone. But this is the point which is always with you, in fact you can’t get out of it. You are in fact always within the present moment. And this is also the point of all the myriads of spiritual exercises, where the objective is to concentrate what one is doing here and now.
Time is a way to measure by comparing something in motion, to something relatively still. And we use these measuring devices to agree to certain conditions which would otherwise not be met. And so their usage is highly convenient to our every day life. And as long as we require them, we can for example, meet in a particular street corner at a given time. So they are extremely necessary to our functioning as a society.
The point then becomes, how seriously do we want to take time? If we don’t see that time is a convention, we tend to take it very seriously. So seriously in fact, that we become slaves to the hairline. We say “time is money”, “I don’t have enough time”, or “You better be there on time!” And psychologists refer to instincts as “drives”. Because there’s something there, that you got to get to. Have to make that deadline.
And the continuum, in which everything is happening, in which we measure motion and constants, is what you basically are. But because we get so absorbed into the details of life, and keeping our gaze in the next moment, we tend to ignore and forget all about that. And the oscillation, between consciousness and unconsciousness, of us being here, then not being here, and so on, is the rhythm of this whatever it is that we call existence.
But the division we make to this continuum, with our consciousness, is extremely destructive to us, in particularly viewed from the historical point of view. Because we get so hypnotised by mere symbols, of what they are representing, as opposed to their physical counterparts, such as the concept of money. And so people who can be considered being as ‘successful’ haven’t got the faintest clue as to why their lives feel so empty. Because they lack presence, or they don’t relate to the present moment all that well. As I once said: “time is the absence of presence.”
And because they don’t relate well to their present, they think that by getting more power, more success, more money, or more status, that it will by itself cure this sense of misery. Because they have never really seriously confronted the question of what they want. Because their wants have grown to levels in which it is incomprehensible.
Now we must get on to the art of not being in a hurry. There are certain schools of thought and cultures, where it is practically common sense to not to be in a hurry. Zen is a supreme example of this. Where they have the notion that, whatever it is you are doing as of this moment, just do that. Don’t be somewhere else, with your thoughts. But be completely engaged in the activity you’re partaking in. Whereas we might look at a “slow” culture and say, well, these people aren’t going anywhere. Oh? Well why should they? They’re doing what they’ve always done. And yet from their stance, they see us with our noses in the air, like the donkey being led by a carrot. Always in a state of being driven to something, we’re never really here.
And they regard every phase of doing something, as much worthwhile as the next, but they are not goal-oriented, in the sense of having to get to that next phase in the fastest possible time span. They regard it more like playing music. When you play music, the point of it is not the end note, or even the sequence of notes at the end of the composition. The point of the composition is the entire arrangement. Executing the pattern of it. When the end comes, that just simply happens to be the end. Because you’re telling essentially a story with the music. And every story has to have an ending. And so it is with life too.
But by keeping our eye on this ending when it comes to our lives, in thinking life as analogous with a journey, is the great snare. It’s like the educational system. Where we put the kid in the corridor of this system and say “when you get through this, the great thing will happen.” A paraphrased excerpt:
“So you go into first grade, and that’s great because after that comes second grade and then third and so on. Then comes middle school and high school. And all this time this thing is revving up, the great event is coming, you get into college and then grad school and finally you go out and join the world… Then you get into some shenanigan where you’re selling insurance, and have to make that quota. And finally you’re 40 years old and feel cheated. It’s like the whole thing was one big hoax. And it was a terrible hoax, they made you miss everything. The point was to sing along or to dance, while the music was being played.”
I know I’m giving all these illustrations to make the point that it’s absolutely useless to rely on history or time to solve problems. But so what would be the solution here? To this frantic compulsory chase of the next moment? Well, in order to escape history, one has to create a diversion from it. That is the only way. That is to say, one has to live in such a way as to use one’s available energy to something other than this thing called time. And most people never do. They never really get access to that enormous reservoir of psychic energy, which comes about through not protecting one’s self anymore from the next moment. When you drop out of time completely.
Now, a “sensible” or “practical” person might say, that that is a very unpractical thing to do. Well of course. What do you mean by practical? Well it obviously means it has some purpose, which starts sounding again, like this thing called the next moment. But true practicality is not what one does tomorrow, but what they do now. And since it’s the only true time there is, it’s highly practical to live in that state.
What I’m trying to say, at the end of the day, is that the only possible chance of not destroying ourselves completely in the process of getting into the future, is by stopping the future altogether.
P.S. As is courtesy of Watts, I tend to exaggerate in my writings, which is the main reason why I keep telling people “don’t take this thing too seriously”. Yes, the goal is to make a point, and get people out of their normal ruts and into thinking. But if it comes with the price of anxiety, then I have failed in certain aspects. Always, always, always, keep the game aspect of the universe in mind. It is a play. So don’t take your role in dead earnest. After all, it is only a temporary role anyway.
Credits and sincerest thank you to https://alanwatts.org.