Imagine the earth before human beings came to be or after are gone. Does time still exist?
Time is a creation of the human brain. This is what Buddhists mean when they say it is an illusion. Like all creations, time experienced in (at least) three dimensions.
1. Calendar Time
This is the most common way of thinking about time and we forget how new it is us. For millions of years, humans existed without the clocks and diaries that now run most of our lives.
The harnessing of calendar time is the engine that drives our society, from the moment of our hospital birth through our school timetables and work schedules and social meetings and events — and the transport systems that carry us from one to the other.
GOOD USE OF CALENDAR TIME: Recognise that the most important dimension of calendar time — as of all three types of time — is the present. You may be looking back at the past in order to extract a lesson but you are doing that now. You may be setting out plans or goals but you are doing so now.
To use calendar time well, remain rooted in the present, and be brisk. Make your arrangements, sort your plans, learn your lessons — then return to now.
And if you observe your mind projecting into the future (watch for anxiety or over-excitement), or dwelling on the past (watch for self-criticism or blame), understand that you’re moving out of calendar time into cognitive time.
2. Cognitive Time
Cognitive time sees human existence as a forward march from birth through age towards death. The underlying, often unacknowledged fear engendered by that interpretation of time, creates a great deal of thought. Most of it negative.
This time-based thought is the root of most human anguish, not just in individuals and in society. Ideologies like communism fascism and fundamentalist religion all put faith in a mind-projected future, when something better (equality or conservative values or salvation) will be ours — once we get past the enslavement, war, torture and genocide we have to implement first, in order to get there.
You’re probably not a murderous fascist (or you wouldn’t be reading this blog) but are you trying to get somewhere other than where you are? Are you turning now-time, calendar time into:
- a means to an end
- a yearning for the fulfillment that’s up ahead
- a wait, for the relationship, or job, or holiday that’s going to give your life meaning
- a chase — of sex, food, drink, work, money
- a rumination — about your childhood, your relationship with the parent who never loved you, your misfortunes
The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates said, and self-examination is a valid activity, leading to growth and awareness. But you can have too much of a good thing.
GOOD USE OF COGNITIVE TIME: Keep self-examination clear of fear. See how adding too much future brings on anxiety, stress and unease. See how adding too much past brings on guilt, regret or grievance.
Remain rooted in now and aim to drop thought as much, and as often, as possible. That will move you into creative time.
3. Creative Time
Creative time requires us to move more deeply into now.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, began researching flow after he became fascinated by how artists can “get lost” in their work, losing all sense of clock time — often to the extent of disregarding their need for food, water and even sleep.
But what Csikszentmihalyi and his team observed and concluded over three decades of research is that when humans get lost in time, there is no loss. On the contrary, we find parts of ourselves that are missing in cognitive and clock time. Our experience of time becomes more expansive.
The experience of creative time is more evident in the lives of artists, because artists have to access it to work well, but it is available to us all. At its core is the act of creative surrender, something we can all enjoy.
This removes the moment we are in from the forward march of clock/cognitive time and opens it to timelessness.
GOOD USE OF COGNITIVE TIME: More on this next Monday.