Here we are on the eve of the year 2012, and we come up against all our concepts around time. Some years we may get ourselves a little more fraught. Remember the year 2000 and the Y2K phenomenon where some people believed the whole world would electronically shut down at the stroke of midnight due to some early programmers lack of foresight? And now here we are again on the eve of another year that at least in some circles has a hint of ‘The End’ about it. 2012 marks ‘the end’ on the Mayan calendar. Modern day Mayans say it means the end of an era not the end of the world. Of course, we just went through a year when at least one much publicized soothsayer said the end would happen in 2011, and the predicted date passed by unnoticed, not once but twice!
I looked up how many end of the world predictions there have been, and came up with over 150, a third of them in my life time. So end time predictions are as old as time itself.
But when you think about it, time isn’t all that old. Calendars indicate no more than 6000 years of marking a linear passage of days, months and years. Before that there were undoubtedly periods in civilizations where time was kept, but it was all relative to their particular culture. It’s human nature to track sunrises and moon transitions. A person alone in a cell will mark each morning on the wall. It’s a way of orienting ourselves in the world, a particular pattern we humans are prone to. But time — the idea that it is now 11:00 AM, Thursday December 29, 2011, is not, and never has been a real thing. It is a concept that was not discovered, but invented!
Our linear clock time, where we account for hours, minutes and seconds is a much more recent invention. The minute hand was reportedly invented less than 500 years ago. Pause for a moment and imagine a world without minutes in it. Can you notice any change in the body? A release of tension? A sense of spaciousness? I do.
We need no better example of time being pure invention than the fact that Samoa is eliminating a whole day on their calendar. They are skipping Friday, December 30, 2011 all together in order to put themselves into the same time zone as Australia, their main business partner. What better proof that time is an agreement for convenience. It just wasn’t convenient to always be on a different day. It probably caused incredible confusion.
It was another business decision to avoid confusion that formalized our agreement of time’s measure. When trains came into common use, traveling from town to town, the railroad company managers recognized that it wasn’t working with each town having their own idea of what time it was. Whose time would be used to determine arrivals and departures? All those missed trains, frustrated passengers and ticket sellers made them decide to come to an agreement about time. So time is a made up agreement between people for the convenience of being able to meet, travel and conduct our business together in a workable fashion. It’s a wonderful invention! It’s made so much of what we do possible. But it’s important to remember that it truly is just an invention.
There are plenty of places even today where clock time does not dictate behavior. In small communities, especially where life is lived primarily out of doors, people don’t need a clock. They can see when everyone is congregating around the campfire. They use the sun or moon’s positions, and their own internal body clocks to decide what’s next. There’s a communal synchronicity that arises akin to how a whole flock of geese know to take off from a pond at the same moment.
For the rest of us living in urban settings, connected by technology, we may be more attuned to the universal atomic clock where the pulsating atoms held at a stable temperature keep a regular measurable beat, and visible on our cell phones. Our current technology is so precise in its ability to measure that we begin to believe this form of measuring is more than just an invented convenience for meeting, a handy tool for scientific exploration and documentation, a useful mental construct upon which to place our collective and individual memories and plans. We believe it to be real.
Time & Identity
When we get entangled in time as if it were real, it becomes very embedded in our sense of self, individually and collectively. At some point in our early childhood we become attached to the idea of being a certain age. My little granddaughter doesn’t know she is almost 22 months old. That is not a part of who she knows herself to be…yet. She takes the little clock I keep by my chair and uses it as a cell phone to chat with imaginary friends. The clock has no meaning yet.
But soon the clock will start having significance to her. The year she was born, 2010, will have meaning to her. In some as yet undetermined way it will be a part of how she perceives herself, how she defines who she is. This is one of the ways we develop a sense of identity.
Take the baby boom for example — those born between 1946 and 1964. What is really just a statistic, the marked post WWII increase in births, early on became an identity. Generations are identified not just within the family unit — great grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, etc — but whole same-age groupings are lumped together in schools and develop a unique cultural signature and identity that is sometimes stronger than their familial identity. Does being born into a generation lock us in to certain traits?
In the Chinese calendar, everyone born in the same year is said to have the same characteristics. And of course western astrology divides people into groups based on what time of year they were born. It is challenging to escape certain identity associations rooted in when we were born, if only because others react to us based upon it.
All this formalizing of time’s measure, as well as the identifying with specific dates such as the celebration of our birthdays, makes time seem very real indeed, as if it were a law of physics. But it’s still just a convenient convention created by humans, and it behooves us to remind ourselves of that. The best way to remind ourselves is to go out in nature.
In nature our linear measure of time disappears. Instead we experience a tuning in to cycles and seasons. But what about the tree that grows from a sapling, then lives hundreds maybe thousands of years? That is the passage of time, is it not? But is it on a timeline? Or is it still in the rhythm of cycles and seasons — the birth, growth, death, decay, birth cycle of regeneration, just a bigger cycle on a grander scale? The earth itself is in a constant state of rotation around the sun. There is no straight line! Only circles, cycles.
Among other species there is a season for every activity, and a role to play in relation to the season. For humans, the female menses is one aspect of our being tuned to cycles and seasons, but now even that can be engineered, if inconvenient. But if we stay present with our own bodies and our own experience, we can begin to notice the cyclical nature of our being, how we cycle between active and passive, outgoing and inward turning, working and playing, intake and output. We can attune ourselves to our own natural rhythms, if we are present to pay attention. If we are asked, “Are you hungry?” do we consult our stomachs or the clock?
Our relationship with food is a good example of how so many of us lost our sense of natural cycles and seasons. Our ancestors relied on the natural world completely, and by necessity had to be in tune with the rhythms of the wild. The advent of agriculture, and the shift to being attuned to planting and harvesting seasons made a major change in what we ate and when we ate it. For those of us who grow our own food or purchase the bulk of our foods from farmers’ markets, this is still true to varying degrees. But for most of the modern day population, especially those living in densely populated areas, eating is not a seasonal activity. Whatever is not in season here is still available at the supermarket, shipped from somewhere else in the world. And those who rely primarily on processed, frozen or factory-canned foods may feel no connection at all between food and seasons.This creates a certain sense of sameness that is out of sync with the rest of nature. It dulls our senses and makes us more reliant on the clock and the linear idea of time ‘passing.’
So we mark this passage of time with celebrations of specific dates in history when certain things occurred — the birthday of a historic or religious figure, the winning of a battle, the start of a revolution, etc. And for many people the passage into a calendar new year is high on the list of celebrations. Any excuse for a party, I say! And by the way, how cool was that on New Year’s Eve 2000 tuning in every hour on the hour to watch each time zone aglow with celebration as the new year rolled towards us here on the west coast of North America? Very cool indeed! Our little blue marble of a planet at its communal celebratory pinnacle of interactive rejoicing that the world did not shut down even though a new millennium had begun.
But aside from surviving, what are we really celebrating on New Year’s Eve? It is the penultimate moment of being perched on the edge of the ‘future’ in this strangely linear construct of time we collectively use as the primary organizing principle of our lives.
For many of us this marking of the passage of one year into the next is very powerful. We package up the year that’s passed, judge it as good or bad, and the worse it is the more ready we are to get past it. So we are often celebrating in a sense of good riddance, and a hopefulness that somehow this coming year will be different, better. We make resolutions to be different, to change a habit, and feel that we have been given a clean slate. I know this can be very powerful because I quit smoking almost 40 years ago at the stroke of midnight at the beginning of a new year, and have never smoked again.
The only problem with this is that if we falter in our resolution, and so often we do, we may feel like we have to wait for a whole year to try again! Wouldn’t it be more powerful to be attuned to our own inner rhythms and to sense when we have the strength of intention to make a change, rather than letting some collaborative concept such as New Year’s be the determinant? When I quit smoking I did it with a friend. After a few days she gave up and is smoking still. What was the difference? I had a stronger motivation because I had decided I wanted to get pregnant, and while it was very difficult for me to quit for myself, it was quite easy to give it up for my future baby. So it didn’t have all that much to do with it being New Year’s after all, and that’s something that’s important to remember.
As meditators, our practice is to stay in the moment. This moment has an eternal quality, the eternal now. We are ever and always right here right now, where everything is alive, activated by our senses, vibrant and potent. When our awareness wanders into the past or the future, we know that those are just mental constructs that do not exist. The past is a complex web of memories that is subject to interpretation, and the future is a complex web of hopes and fears that try to define as yet unlived experience. None of the senses exist in either the past or the future. And when we try to live our lives in the past or the future we are dis-empowered, for only in this moment do we have the power to co-create the world into being. As we live more fully in the moment, we recognize the value of being able to learn from the past and to plan for the future, but we also know how seductive and sometimes destructive it can be to attempt to dwell in either place that exists only in our minds.
Clock time is useful, there’s no doubt about it! But we want to see it clearly, as the convenient conceptual construct that it is, and not succumb to the belief that it is real. When we believe our lives to be on a time-line, rather than a part of the ongoing cycles of nature, we are always entering ‘the future,’ a blank slate filled with predictions, hopes and fears, and never is the future more intimidating or promising than when we are perched on the edge of a coming year.
Most of us see 2012 as an entity unto itself. It already has quite a personality, what with the diire predictions based on some ancient Mayan calendar maker’s mathematics. In the US, it’s a presidential election year, with all that that entails in the way of news, ads, mailers, speeches, conventions, discussions, volunteering, voting, celebrating or commiserating. But the year also has a personality for each of us in our own lives. Perhaps we have planned trips or are expecting babies in the family. This gives the year a certain anticipated shape.
But it is all just plans and anticipations at this point, isn’t it? There’s no point in living it in our minds. That only leaves us with a comparing mind when the actuality occurs. We are stuck measuring the difference between what we had expected and the moment lived. And living in anticipation has a quality of using up the year before it’s even begun, especially if we have made a number of trips around the sun. The coming year can feel already spent, with little promise of spontaneity or surprises, except for feared mishaps, health challenges and deaths. How dreary! How much sweeter and richer it is to give ourselves a chance to discover each moment of our lives anew, by resting our awareness fully in the here and now, relaxing and releasing the tension that is the way our body holds the past and the future.
We can redefine our relationship with the concept of time, by recognizing it for the convenient concept it is, and not defining ourselves by it.
Putting time in proper perspective, we can live deeply, richly, fully in this moment — aware of the pivotal personal power of every moment to determine the direction we take, the decisions we make — and let the future, that pretense of linear timeline, rest lightly in our awareness.
So I wish you a Happy New Year, but even more so, I wish you ‘Happy ever-new moment!’