Time and the Timeless
How do we find the timeless? Is it through activity or through understanding? The essence of that which is timeless can only be felt when time is understood. Are joy and true happiness the result of time or do they happen in moments when time – or, more specifically, psychological time – is no longer passing? In searching for the timeless what we really seek is freedom. A life that is free and able to enjoy beauty is no longer trapped in time. Rather, such a life is timeless, free from the trappings of the self and able to love. Love, like freedom and joy, is timeless. Our attempts to realise, reach and attain happiness are all caught in the trap of time. To understand time and the timeless we must step outside the process of time. What is time? How do we feel it passing? It is only in the understanding of time – and not in activity, which constitutes the passage of time – that we come upon that which is timeless.
We live in time, psychological and chronological. Obviously there is chronological time, the seasons, the cycles, the time of that business meeting, time to catch the bus and so on. There is also psychological time; the time of yesterday which is our memory and the time of the present which is our passage to the future using the past – also the product of our memory. It is all thought. Without thought there is no psychological time. All ideas, all our thoughts and desires, arise from memory, from what is known – which is past. Even the future is determined by the past, by what we know; it is a self-fulfilling process. In order to reach the future we desire, we overcome the challenges of today, which we solve through the experiences and lessons of the past. On our path to the future, we meet the present with what is past.
Look at your life – you have always moved forward this way. You seek happiness in the future by meeting the present moment with thoughts, ideas, desires – all of which are essentially from the past. Now, are you living in a timeless state or are you living in a process of time? Notice that moments of true joy are moments where there is no psychological time. There you are in that moment, breathless, stopped dead in your tracks admiring something that is breathtaking. An extraordinary sense of joy and freedom descends upon you. Are you thinking in that moment or is it just happening without the functioning of thought? Once this moment of joy, of timelessness, has passed, you naturally enough want it to happen again, you want more of it. Your mind jumps into operation wishing to reproduce the pleasure that went before. You remember how lovely it was and you want more of it. As you want more of it, you are remembering, you are trying to re-create and so the process of psychological time restarts. Think about the efficacy of trying to reproduce a moment of timelessness and joy through the effort and activity of the mind, which is caught in psychological time. Can you reproduce a moment of such freedom through activity and discipline, which are never free, or has the moment been lost? The effort, the desire to reproduce a moment of freedom is without freedom for it is an effort of control. So the framework of psychological time cannot bring about that which is timeless, or that which is free.
We tend to approach any attempt at freedom with effort and disciplined practice to in some way ‘improve’ ourselves. This is the way, we believe or we are told, to break free from the old and come upon that which is timeless. Our whole idea of progress is caught up in our sense of linear time. We use time, in a belief that time is necessary to bring about radical change and revolution in ourselves. You think, ‘I am this but I should become that’ because in your mind, this ‘should’ will bring you to freedom. In this light, time is required so that you can evolve into something better, grander, nobler or more enlightened. We apply this principle to every aspect of our lives, and time is the instrument.
Let us look at an example of this way in which we use time. Let us say that I am angry, this anger is upsetting me and I want to get over it. Firstly, why is it upsetting me and why do I want to get over it? The anger is disturbing me and others around me, so I want to get over it. Also, social norms dictate that I should get over it. The anger is upsetting because within anger there is this feeling of deep, internal disturbance. I feel tense, awkward, antagonistic, rotten, insufficient. There is pain and discomfort, caused by the internal conflict of my anger, and I wish to rid myself of these disturbances. There is this conflict and I wish to be free of it because conflict equals pain. When we are unhappy, we seek a route out of that unhappiness. The ideal is to no longer feel pain, to end this internal conflict and so I set about, through a process of time, overcoming my anger. I challenge myself to deal with it over time and try to put it aside by adhering to a set of rules that I have written for myself. Maybe there’s a breathing practise I can do to stay calm, or maybe I sit quietly for ten minutes. Whatever the rules, my idea of virtue is to uphold myself according to these rules; to be peaceful, calm, to not let my temper get out of control. My solution to the problem is to make the effort to become virtuous. We are solving the problem via a transformation of the self through time. Time is the means used to become virtuous, to bring about a new quality of being. Now, is this virtue? Is virtue something that comes into being when we conform to our own ideals of what we believe to be noble, or is it something that exists when we have a deep and thorough understanding of our own existence, of ‘what is’? This is to be what we actually are, as opposed to what we would like to be.
Being virtuous and becoming virtuous are not the same, not at all. Virtue comes into being when there is the understanding of ‘what is’, whereas the process of becoming virtuous is a process of effort; our attempt to be virtuous. This idea of becoming virtuous takes the shape of conforming to certain ideals – whether your own, or those of your church, your teachers, the government or society at large. Being virtuous, however, stems from a clear understanding of what is true. Religious traditions insist that liberation – in whatever form – only comes into being through effort and discipline, through evolution, through the process of becoming – a process of time. Most of us are therefore striving to improve ourselves, to conform to these ideals of ‘what should be’ or ‘what we ought to be’. When we use time in this way – as a means of becoming virtuous – are we really seeing ‘what is’, are we gaining clear understanding of truth? Or are we instead merely avoiding the truth by trying to be ‘what should be’ and thus postponing our genuine understanding of ‘what is’? If we are ignoring or suppressing ‘what is’ in order to pursue our ideals of ‘what should be’, then we will become caught up in a cycle of constant suppression or avoidance. If something is suppressed it is a constant effort to keep it down, to keep it hidden. Similarly, when you overcome something through distraction or ignoring – as in the example of dealing with anger above – there is the constant effort, the constant upkeep to overcome it again and again.
So if I am determined to overcome my anger by making an effort to practice being calm and peaceful, I am using time as a means of solving my problem, as a means of escaping my internal conflict and pain. Is this really solving the problem, am I truly understanding my anger by practising being calm and non-violent? Or am I simply postponing my understanding of anger – or whatever the problem may be – by swapping one conflict, the anger, with another conflict – the tension of constant practising? Okay, you are suffering from internal conflict and, naturally enough, you wish to be free from that conflict. Your reasoning tells you that the original conflict can be overcome by the process of time, by the time spent becoming more virtuous, more godly, more noble, and that by being this shining example of godly virtue the original problem will cease. Now does conforming to one’s own rules to uphold one’s sense of virtue solve the original problem? If you succeed in conforming to your own rules, you will be faced with the new problems of pride, identification and self-deception. Illusions are sweet. We think we are successful, we think we have addressed our original problem, yet inside remains this original conflict and tension, only now it is suppressed. Where there are rules, there is always conflict. A man of understanding lives by no rules, he lives by his understanding. We think the practice of a more noble way of living will rid ourselves from our original conflict. Not only will my idea of what is noble differ from yours, and we therefore quarrel, but the very essence of what it means to practice is conflict. An alcoholic practicing being sober is still in conflict, is he not? This is not to say that there aren’t some short term benefits to such practices, but they are not a long term solution to inner conflict. One side of the mind is disciplining the other, keeping it in order, telling it what to do. This is a process of time, of practice, and it is another form of conflict.
The whole reason why you feel the need to practice, to conform to some ideals, is because you are not facing and accepting ‘what is’. You are still in conflict with yourself. You want to be better and you want to move away from your dissatisfaction. You think resisting is necessary to overcome your conflict and this resistance needs time. You fail to realise that resistance is conflict too; it is simply another form of conflict. You are wasting energy trying to overcome the original conflict with a further conflict. So is time the solution to your original conflict? Your problem – anger, violence, alcoholism or whatever – is fundamentally a problem of conflict, and thus of time. Your dependence on time to solve this problem is therefore a false process. What happens is that your energy is wasted, your attention is elsewhere and you are unable to see the truth of the matter, the truth that the essence of the problem is you. You are the psychological disturbance which manifests itself as anger, violence or alcoholism. You are this conflict and even your movement away from the original disturbance is simply the replacement of one conflict with another. To understand this truth the mind must be clear from conflict, and from the traps of time. Through understanding, you can be free of it.
To understand something it is important not to be distracted from its true nature. When we are trying to overcome, suppress or conquer a problem, we inevitably end up distracted by all the activity of overcoming, suppressing or conquering. This distracts us from the essence or true quality of the problem and prevents us from understanding it. (It may not be a problem at all, once we understand it.) To understand something you must give your complete attention to it. You must imbibe it, drink it, be it; you must come to it with all of your energy, with everything that you are, your very essence, and with the intention of going to the very end of it so that you can understand it. Otherwise you are bound to miss its fundamental essence, its quality, its true nature. What is vital, what is essential if we are to understand? To gain genuine understanding, the mind must be quiet and free, not searching for a result, not driven by ideals. If the mind is actively looking for a result, then we are laying the foundation for our own self-deception. We can only be deceived when we are looking to gain, when we wish to meet a pre-determined goal, such as curing your alcoholism or getting over your anger. It is when the mind is quiet and calm, no longer looking for a result or trying to proceed through time, that it has the clarity to see ‘what is’ clearly. Such a mind has already seen the falsity of solving problems through time and therefore has the energy to understand, unbound by any resistance to ‘what is’. When you look at ‘what is’ and there is the agenda to steer that investigation towards a result, of course there will be resistance; there is bound to be conflict between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. But when a mind is quiet, passive and therefore not bound by ‘what should be’, there is no judgement, condemnation, blaming or avoidance. There is no conflict. There is no resistance obscuring ‘what is.’ There is clarity, which is the foundation of what it means to be virtuous. This is something which simply happens, rather than something which we can strive for.
So a quiet mind is essential if we are to understand the essence of ‘what is’ because when the mind is quiet and attentive, not distracted, it is genuinely interested. You are only distracted when you are not really interested or when you are using time as a defence mechanism to avoid ‘what is’. Genuine understanding comes through a passive alertness, an attention and observation of the essence of a thing. This is the foundation of the inward revolution, the transformation of oneself not through effort but through genuine understanding. Can you see that radical and authentic revolution only happens now? Not tomorrow – that is time, that is simply the creation of further conflict and the postponement of a true understanding of ‘what is’. The idea of becoming virtuous through the cultivation of oneself according to an ideal is not virtuous at all, for it simply covers up and distracts us from understanding ‘what is’. In cultivating the self – through discipline and rules and activity – we avoid ‘what is’, we postpone our meeting with ‘what is’. It is our understanding of ‘what is’ rather than our efforts to be free from ‘what is’ that liberates. It is truth that liberates, not effort, unless that is the effortless effort to understand with every essence of your being, which is the door to love. This is what is meant by virtue, by freedom. Timelessness is reached only through understanding. This is what it means to live free of time.