Recently, I heard the past two-year period referred to as ‘The Blur’. That sounds about right to describe the woozy waves of hope and despair we’ve experienced dealing with COVID. Two years! Had we known it would be that long back in March 2020, how would we have coped? Yet, here we are, and one way or another, the majority of us managed to muddle through, and some even thrived.
It reminds me of how many people react when they consider the possibility of meditating. They think there is no way they could sit still in silence for, say, half an hour. It sounds like a long time, yet it all depends on how you experience it. Our perception of time is malleable. Let’s look more closely.
According to physics, time is a construct of human perception, and a relatively recent one at that. Our not-so-distant ancestors weren’t addicted to clock time. We didn’t synchronize our watches, so to speak, until the invention of trains that needed to have agreed upon time in all towns in order to run smoothly.
So time isn’t like food or water or air that we need to survive. In the metaphor of veils woven of thoughts on various subjects, the time veil can be worn lightly, for purposes of convenience, not taken as a solid, substantial, or absolute truth. And it doesn’t have to be worn all the time.
Our experience of time passing doesn’t adhere to the clock’s regulated ticking but expands and contracts depending on what we’re doing and where our attention goes.
The act of waiting makes time stretch unbearably. (An easy fix is to stop thinking of it as waiting and simply be present for whatever the experience is, whether it’s what you wanted or not.) Being fully engaged makes time fly. If we are immersed in a creative activity or enjoying ourselves, we may lose all sense of time. Under full anesthesia, the mind has no experience of time passing. And in dreams, well, I’ve never been aware of time passing in dreams, have you? Like Salvador Dali’s droopy clock, time melts away.
So time is a construct, useful for scheduling getting together and taking public transport but not much else. Our experience of time is stretchy and sketchy. Yet we may cling to it like it’s solid and substantial. For many people, the question “Are you hungry?” makes them check their clock instead of their stomach. “Are you tired?” might elicit the same reaction. Our distant ancestors responded to the rhythms of the earth, sun, and moon. Many of us have lost touch, yet our bodies may try to remind us in subtle and not so subtle ways that the clock doesn’t always know best.
Aging and Time Lines
The perception of a tImeline can throw us off as well, disconnecting us from the simple vibrant aliveness of being. “Act your age!” people might say. But what does that mean? That we should conform to their ideas of what ten, twenty, or eighty looks like? Does taking on greater responsibilities in life preclude savoring the experience of living?
Seeing ourselves on a timeline from birth to death turns childhood into a waiting and longing for adulthood and adulthood into nostalgia for youth and dread of old age and death. The more attached we are to the numbers, the less content we are likely to be.
Because of cultural prejudices, our age may determine how much respect we will receive from others. Young children and old people may be discounted altogether. It’s frustrating to be a child with eyes and ears and ideas that older people don’t want to hear. And it’s odd to be an elder and become invisible to some younger people who are looking through veils of cultural attitudes that blind them to see the individual.
The tangled veil of time blinds us and disconnects us from each other, from the rest of the natural world. Relying on the clock and the calendar, we forget how to simply live the rhythms and seasons of life. We lose touch with the unending cycles of growth, death, decay, and birth. These circular patterns don’t start at point A and stop at point Z. There’s no straight timeline!!
Einstein said, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” All reality is subjective, and the world as we perceive it is, per Lily Tomlin, a collective hunch.
This collective hunch, this persistent illusion, must be taught to children. I remember teaching words to my granddaughter when she was an infant. As I said the word for table, I knew I was providing her a way to navigate and communicate in this world. But she was, more often than not, also teaching me, sharing with me her fresh perception, her uncontained, unprogrammed, boundless sense of oneness and awe. I wasn’t sure this was a fair trade for her. Of course, we must learn to navigate the world. But can we remind ourselves that what we are learning does not replace what we know to be true? In that way, we might be able to hold it all more lightly and lovingly.
In meditation, we have the opportunity to let go of any sense of our consensus reality of time, space, and labeling. After I ring the ending bell to our class meditation, I offer guidance to open our eyes and rest in the gift of sight: to simply notice the light and dark, patterns, textures, shapes, and colors, and to rest in that state of noticing before jumping back into the need to name and claim objects, or to impose judgments on our surroundings.
When we maintain awareness of the senses, unencumbered by preferences, expectations, comparisons, and judgments, then we are free to engage in life more lightly. We can move through the world with ease and grace. We can dance with the veil of time, making time for each other. Getting together! In-person! Now there’s a delightful concept!