Not Quite What They Seem

New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti

Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view, how does it feel for you.
Einstein said he could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face.
Welcome to the human race.
Some kind of lovely ride. Sliding down, gliding down.
Try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride.
— James Taylor, Secret of Life

I might, with a little effort, get you to accept that there is no stopping the accelerating collapse of our civilization. I might, with some greater effort, convince you that there is no such thing as free will. It’s even possible that I might persuade you that no one is to blame for anything, that we’re all just acting out our conditioning.

But I doubt that I could ever convince you that there is no such thing as time. To believe that is just beyond the pale, unreasonable, a sacrilege, absurd. Look — see that car, there? And now it’s there, right? Don’t tell me it isn’t moving ‘through time’, continuously. Don’t tell me the driver’s stepping on the gas pedal at a point in time didn’t cause the car immediately thereafter in time to move forward. Don’t tell me that didn’t really happen. Don’t tell me that I didn’t get up this morning and do x and y and don’t tell me that now at this later time I am not doing z. In real time. See me doing it? To say there is no time is just ridiculous. You’re just saying that to be contrary, provocative, no?

Time underpins everything we believe to be true, and everything we conceive of as real. Without it, there can be nothing happening, nothing separate, no continuity, no consequence, no causality — and no one.

I look out the window at that car, forty stories below, apparently moving in time. And yet, somehow, I know it is not. Somehow, I know that there is no car, not really, and nothing really happening, just the appearance of things, of happenings.

Those blessed/accursed seeming-someones with no self who assert that time isn’t real, tell us that “everything is new”. Not always new, or suddenly new, or new now, or simultaneously or eternally new. That would require the existence of time as other than a mental construct, other than a fiction. Everything is simply as it appears. Every apparent thing is nothing appearing as seemingly separate things and seemingly discrete happenings in time, but obviously not real, and obviously not really. That was evident, even obvious, when there was a ‘glimpse’, when ‘I’ momentarily disappeared. But it makes no sense, not in my real world.

What is one to do with that?

The absence of time seems a strangely scientific axiom for someone to take on, on what would appear to be nothing more than faith — by which I mean a belief without evidence. Radical non-duality suggests that there is a resonance that makes this seeming absurdity seem strangely plausible, even probable — even obvious. That there is something, perhaps in the brain’s chemistry or intuitive circuits, that somehow ‘knows’ that time, separation, the self, and all the other conceptions and inventions of the brain are not real, that they are made up, and that the truth about reality lies elsewhere. That in this concocted, complicated ‘life’ that we imagine our selves to be living and moving through, something is not quite as it seems. Something that once was obvious has seemingly been forgotten, lost.

That’s the limbo ‘I’ am caught in now — ‘believing’ something that contradicts everything I’ve been taught, everything I’ve learned, everything I thought I knew, and everything that I’ve observed. Everything that seems to be real. Or seemed. Somehow it’s as if all the threads of how I made sense of the world are slowly unravelling, as if everything about ‘reality’ that used to be certain and unquestioned, is now unclear, ambiguous, and even doubtful.

We base our beliefs on the best possible explanation (subjectively) for what we want to understand. So, ‘I’ want to understand the nature of reality, and the non-existence of time, intuitively and to some extent intellectually, seems to offer (for now), bizarrely, the best possible explanation for how things and happenings seem to be. Quantum scientists and astrophysicists are increasingly asserting that there is no real time, and that the concept of time is unnecessary to explain what we perceive to be real. That what we think of as the ‘real’ universe unfolding in space and time is in fact just an infinite field of possibilities ‘expressed’ as things and happenings that we perceive of, and interpret, as being ‘real’. Without purpose or meaning or causality or continuity, since all those things require that time be real.

It seems a kind of madness for me to be looking out this window at all of these things, and all of these happenings, all precisely defined with nouns and verbs and subjects and objects and other essential elements of our human languages, along with explanations as to how and why they are all so, and to sense, somehow, despite all that, that none of it is real. Perhaps I am going mad. Perhaps, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, I’m just grasping for something to believe in that will make all the terrible things ‘I’ see in this world a little less terrible. After all, humans are capable of believing just about anything if they really want to.

But the thing is, I don’t particularly want to believe that there is no time. The cognitive dissonance is quite uncomfortable. It’s essentially impossible to try to explain this belief to others without provoking incredulity or irritation. And it’s a really useless thing to believe, one that provides neither solace nor respite. It is at once hopeless and unactionable.

I look again, out the window, at things apparently happening in time to real people and things, subjects and objects. I watch the cars, the bicycles, the scooters, the pedestrians with their carts and carriages and dogs in tow, the delivery trucks arriving and the garbage trucks taking things away, the birds, the spiders clinging perilously to the outside of the window, the trees and the mountains beyond. Except for humans, none of these things, it seems, needs the existence of time, needs time to be real and measured, to be what they are and do what their conditioning apparently impels them to do, or not do. So why do we?

Even these human bodies, I suspect, do what they do without the need for time. They have their seeming systolic and diastolic and circadian and entrained and monthly and seasonal routines, but that is our measurement and patterning and sense-making, not theirs. What they do doesn’t have to make sense, doesn’t need a cause, or a reason. Not even the ‘reason’ of evolutionary survival, because, absent the concept of time, there is no evolution, no trajectory. Nothing. Just what appears. Without purpose or meaning. Just an amazing show, a trick, without anything real in it, and without a beginning or end. Just this.

And, worse still, nothing matters. Without the invention of the self and separation, without free will and ‘real’ agency and purpose and reason and meaning, nothing can possibly matter. If there is no one, who would anything matter to?

So: No one and nothing really exists, nothing is really happening, nothing is or can be known, nothing is under control, there is no meaning, purpose, reason or causality for anything that appears to be happening, and nothing matters. Once you start down the rabbit hole of ‘there is no such thing as time’, there is no way back.

from the Peanuts comic by Charles M Schulz

But strangely, for me, the possibility that these things might all be true does not elicit feelings of existential dread or nihilism, but rather a strange combination of elation, liberation, compassion and a feeling of ‘lightness’. This unravelling, while somewhat unnerving, is not, so far at least, unpleasant. It’s actually kinda fun. A mystery with endless twists and turns and clues and false leads. “Some kind of lovely ride.” I am told that the ‘end’ of the illusion of self is instantaneous, and not even recognized, since there is no self left to recognize it. There is no ‘getting closer’ to it, and no path towards it. But I am also told that for a while ‘before’ that ‘end’, this unravelling can be, for the ‘dying’ self, pretty awful.

My sense is that this ‘me’ will not see that end before this body dies. But no one knows anything, including that.

In the meantime, this message, and this unravelling, if that’s what it is, seem to be very slowly changing ‘me’. Or perhaps it’s just conditioning from the people and ideas and occurrences and possibilities I have exposed myself to since first hearing this message, that has wrought that apparent change.

I’m fortunate to have a blog that lets me track, sometimes to my astonishment, how my character, my beliefs and worldview, my feelings and ideas and ways of being and doing things in the world, have gradually but over ‘time’ profoundly shifted, especially since I retired. I think I am less reactive (and quicker to recover), more equanimous, less ambitious, more hedonistic, more joyful, and less judgemental than I was seven years ago when I first heard this message. (But no more patient, empathetic, or attentive; those qualities don’t seem to be in my biological conditioning.) I’m laughing more, and crying more, and doing both things less intensely and more spontaneously than I used to.

It’s possible those changes are mostly a ‘letting go’ of things that I once fiercely believed in and cared about. That intense caring often manifested itself in anguish, anxiety, distress, anger, paralysis, and other (over-)reactions that never served ‘me’ or the objects of my affection well anyway. Perhaps ‘I’ am just making space for this body to exercise its own preferences, and, to some extent, getting out of its way. It’s pretty clear it would do just fine without ‘me’.

But what do ‘I’ know. ‘I’ am just here for the ride, and starting, finally, to enjoy it, for all its mystery, its paradoxes, its impossibility, and its wonder.

Soon to be nothing, one way or another. ‘We’ have never known anything, and, since there is no time, we never will.

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1 Response to Not Quite What They Seem

  1. Ray says:

    Agree, we “know” nothing and that nothing includes “time” (who invented that concept?)
    We will continue to concoct theories, play the scientific game and do other silly or not so silly things. Why? We are condemned to “structure” our “time” somehow . What else is there to do? We can write poems, design atom bombs, meditate, fuck up the biosphere or do just about anything that our evolution has enabled us to do.
    During our “time” here we even invent concepts like the “block universe” to do away with “time”. Nice try.
    And we go even further. To sweep under the carpet all the difficulties and inconsistencies in our best scientific theories, in desperation, we even invoke superdeterminism. Nice try again.
    What next? No idea.
    I suggest to shut up about “time” and just patiently wait until our “time” is up. Problem solved.

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