Time -- what is it? Changeless yet ever changing, always with us, yet ever elusive, it is one of life's great mysteries. Philosophers through the ages have pondered it and sought to explain it, but in its wholeness it is too complex and enigmatic ever to be reduced to a simple definition. How can it be otherwise? We can only approximate an understanding of it, for we see but a shadow of reality, a small segment of a vast arc.
A few verses from Stanza I of an ancient source of wisdom, the Book of Dzyan, capture the magic of life before the beginning of creation:
The eternal parent wrapped in her ever invisible robes had slumbered once again for seven eternities.
Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of duration.
Universal Mind was not, . . .
Darkness alone filled the boundless all. . . .
The causes of existence had been done away with; the visible thatwas, and the invisible that is, rested in eternal non-being -- the one being.
Alone the one form of existence stretched boundless, infinite, causeless, in dreamless sleep; and life pulsated unconscious in universal space, throughout that all-presence which is sensed by the opened eye of the Dangma. -- H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine I:27
One feels a profound stillness in these lines, and an affirmation of the all-presence of divinity, the cause and oneness of being. In their ultimate, Space, Cosmic Mind, and Duration are one, and time and space together form the matrix of existence. "Everything lies within space, and everything happens within time." (W. Macneile Dixon, The Human Situation, p. 328)
There are two aspects of time to be considered: inner time or eternal duration and outer or finite time, a reflection of duration, or, as Plato expressed it, the moving image of eternity. Nature's cycles, the pulse beat of all beings activated by divine consciousness, are the inherent rhythms of life. Evolution unfolds through the operation of cycles within cycles, from the rapid whirlings of atomic lives to the majestic rhythms of stellar hosts, and beyond. Were there no orderly divisions of day and night, changing seasons, birth and death -- contrasting elements of darkness and light all around and within us by which to compare and learn -- there would be no growth.
These measured cycles began to register in the human consciousness and became a part of our heritage millions of years ago, in the period of the mind's awakening. This meant a step forward in our evolution from the Eden of our unconscious state, where all was timelessness, to a new world as seen through the self-conscious mind. It is this awareness of ourselves, of all living things, and of the passage of time, that distinguishes us from the kingdoms below. At that stage, we started out on the long journey toward full self-consciousness and spiritual awakenment, continuing each day to make choices on the path of life, while seeking to find our true self. The idea that time exists in the consciousness that perceives it accounts for at least some of its puzzling contradictions. In H. P. Blavatsky's words:
Time is an illusion produced by the succession of our states of consciousness as we travel through eternal duration, and it does not exist where no consciousness exists in which the illusion can be produced; but "lies asleep." The present is only a mathematical line which divides that part of eternal duration which we call the future, from that part which we call the past. -- SD I:37
Countless are the ways we psychologically manipulate time. We kill and save time; lose and find time; make, spend, and waste time. The truth is we cannot live without it nor have we learned to work with it, and our chronic complaint is that we have no time at all! We do indeed gamble with it and try to outwit it.
Plotinus referred to time as a "certain dance of intellect," which could apply particularly to mental caprices affecting our sense of time. When happy or thoroughly absorbed in what we are doing, hours pass like minutes. When we are in great pain, anxious, bored, going through a frightening or difficult experience, minutes seem like hours. In thinking very concentratedly and deeply it is easy to lose track of time altogether, until we happen to look at the clock!
There is a vast difference between our concept of time in the sleeping and waking states. In sleep -- a necessary respite from the day's activities -- our ordinary self has no awareness of time nor of what the soul is experiencing, yet there is a closeness to the higher self, and equilibrium is restored to our whole being. Wonder and mystery surround this miniature cycle of what happens on a grander scale after death.
The eternal self is ever with us, overshadowing us with its sustaining presence. Often, if we are receptive, we respond to its influence, and a glimmer of insight transports us into a deeper dimension of time and thought -- this is especially true when absorbed in nature's beauty and tranquillity. A quiet mind more clearly reflects reality, just as a still pool faithfully mirrors the landscape. The kingdoms below us are closer to the inmost center of life, unhampered by the range of mental, emotional, psychological, and other conflicts that our self-reflective mind places on our shoulders. Therefore when we immerse ourselves in nature's rhythms our soul responds and we are inwardly refreshed.
As far back as we can trace, ways of marking the flow of time have always existed, from sundials to the most sophisticated instruments of today. Our various types of standardized time are a means by which we gauge the length of cycles. For instance, a second of our time is like an eternity to an electron, and one year for the planet Jupiter is nearly twelve of our years. Our physical sense of time as well as our biological and other rhythms are indissolubly connected with the planet and its movements in relation to the sun. All these cycles add stability to our lives, including the constancy of the sun which is the heart of our solar system, our source of light and life.
Perspectives on the human time frame vary according to our philosophy of life. This involves our understanding of past, present, and future in relation to who we are and what our destiny. For instance, if we are governed by the thought that there is only one life, or that there is nothing at all but extinction after death, or an eternal hereafter with no further chance of unfolding our humanness, what then is the meaning of all the suffering and struggle, the joys and invaluable learning experiences? Is it all worthless? When our philosophy includes many incarnations prior to and following this present one in which our karmic destiny has been and is being woven, everything that happens, even the worst tragedy, can be borne with more equilibrium and understanding. The idea that we are here to gain wisdom, whatever this might involve, brings courage, strength, and reassurance that all is well.
The operations of karma are better understood when we relate them to past, present, and future -- three paths of destiny, yet one. These were personified by the Three Fates in various cultures, called by the Greeks Moirai, and by the Scandinavians Norns. Let us consider the Moirai: Atropos -- the future, is pictured as a maiden pointing to a sundial, "signifying what is waiting in the womb of time as the flowing hours bring it closer to us"; Klotho -- the present, is represented as a maiden holding a spindle, "spinning the thread of present destiny to become the future"; and Lachesis -- the past, is described as a "maiden holding a staff pointing to a horoscope," suggesting the destiny that has already been created through past actions. (Cf. G. de Purucker, Wind of the Spirit, pp. 254-5.)
From far in the past we have made ourselves to be what we are now, every thought, feeling, and action having been impressed on the screen of time, the astral light. What is taking place with each succeeding moment is also being recorded. Actually past, present, and future are a continuum of the one reality which is the Eternal Now. The potential of what we will be is already within, as the future tree is contained in the seed. If it were not so, how could anything be born? In this respect the future is an illusion, because it is latent within us, as is the past, which continually becomes the present.
Mental devices causing distraction or escape from the present are common pitfalls. When we separate past or future from the present we suffer countless delusions: we may succumb to the "if only" habit, daydreaming instead of facing what is before us, regretting past actions, and falling into the "I remember" groove; or we worry over an unpredictable future, or use it as a crutch for procrastination. With regard to acts that we would like to have done differently, it is comforting to know that there will be other lives, other chances, though the more one can do in this life, the better. Regrets do not help in any way except to alert us to similar problems in the future. Each moment provides an opportunity that will never repeat itself in quite the same way, for as the wheel of life rolls on we are in a different place inwardly when a similar cycle returns. One of life's marvels is that no two moments are the same; every moment is a new beginning until the last second of our days.
There are positive gains in studying our own past in relation to the present and the future. The type of difficulties that recur tell us something about ourselves, our weaknesses, and where our character needs strengthening. In the larger dimension a study of history indicates patterns of human behavior: aggressive, hedonistic, and selfish practices that lead to the downfall of a civilization, and the noble qualities that make a spiritually thriving one.
Cycles come and go, and many cycles are converging in this age, making it one of singular opportunity. Today we are also more than ever aware of the irreversibility of time, and the urgency to direct our energy and attention toward the good of all.
In thinking about our options we find ourselves asking: "What am I doing with my life? How far do my concerns extend beyond personal interests and desires?" We have free will to make our own choices in what we think and feel, and how we meet responsibilities. When the inner approach to life is broad and unselfish, then the outer life will assume a quiet, steady tempo. We will be in command of ourselves, in the service of our higher self which dwells in the realm of divine timelessness and moves us always toward ways of compassion, justice, and harmony.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1988; copyright © 1988 Theosophical University Press)