An ongoing lesson from my recent 10-day Vipassana retreat has to do with the nature and experience of time. Time of course is a subjective concept, a human construct that allows us to understand the order of things in a linear way. By linear I also include the cyclical nature of time, again as perceived by humans on a planet in circular motion. The linear mode still applies as we follow the path of the circle; and the circlular motion itself comes not around to the same point in time but to one further along: the spiral.
Regardless of these concepts, we experience time as an ongoing rush of events and thoughts, not unlike a locomotive bound for some uncertain destination. In the training of mindfulness, thoughts continue, but events are reduced and restricted to a predictable round of basic activities: sitting, standing, walking, eating, breathing. Eventually with the slowing down of daily events, thoughts too diminish and lose their dominance, giving way to breath alone, and to calm, watchful awareness.
The experience of time under such conditions of life is that it slows down, expands, becomes empty. Ten days begins to feel, in the moment-to-moment awareness of it, like ten years. If we count the moments when we are mindful and truly present, there are far more such moments in a meditation retreat than in ten days of ordinary busy living. Thus the “present time,” the time of our presence there, can truly be said to be longer or larger in amount than the accumulated moments of presence in normal conditions of distraction, busyness, preoccupation.
This comparison is relative, a matter of degree. Certainly in normal life we do have moments of awareness, reflection, stillness. And much of the time at a meditation retreat is spent reviewing the past, imagining the future, riding away on waves of thought. As the habit of mind can be trained to slow during the space of a retreat, that habit can carry over into normal life, especially if reinforced by regular meditation practice.
Still, the tendency is clear: more mindful awareness leads to an experience of the slowing of time; more distraction and busy activity leads to an experience of a rapid passage of time. “Time flies when you’re having fun” -- and also when you’re working, shopping, planning, conversing, watching TV ...
The question then becomes, how do we want to live our lives? Certainly most of us wish to spend more time having fun, and so we work as much as we can to earn money that we hope to cash in or convert somehow, someday, to fun-time, because “time is money,” and conversely, money is time. The Buddhist approach to living instead starts with the end of the locomotive, the inevitability of death, and then comes back to ask again, how do we want to live our lives?
But it’s a little more subtle than that, because the answer might still be a simplistic “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall be gone.” Instead the question at the train terminus is instructive, slightly altered: how do we want to have lived our lives? In such a question we have advance notice of judgment day, and the judgment is in our hands: we get to be the judge and jury. Better still, we get to come back to replay the life events we have just reviewed/previewed, until we are satisfied with the verdict.
Ironically in this process of self-awareness we lose our “innocence” -- but likewise we are equipped to let go of past guilt and go forward with clear intention. The law of karma (cause and effect) that governs our actions is too objective for such concepts as innocence and guilt, and simply metes out consequences as appropriate.
Beyond the questions of regret or satisfaction at the retrospective end of a life, we come back to the present experience of time in the living. Do we prefer for time to pass quickly, fully, packed as it tends to become with everything we desire and allow to fill it? Or do we prefer for time to slow down, to open up to our reflection and awareness, and even, for long, long moments from time to time, to essentially stop altogether?
Normally on a graph there is a horizontal x-axis and a vertical y-axis, with the x-axis signifying the linear passage of time, and the y-axis measuring the rising and falling of quantities of other things over time: money, population, transactions. Time is presumed to have a constant, predictable motion. As we have just demonstrated, however, subjective experience of time is more variable -- to the point that we can even consider the stopping of time altogether. It’s almost a matter of simple definition: if time is subjective, depending on thought, then if thought stops, time stops with it. Or instead of thought, awareness can be the function by which time is measured. In this case, as awareness, or mindful presence, increases, time slows. This change can be visualized on the graph somewhat like the infamous human population curve, which over the course of our history has changed from a slightly inclined horizontal line to a skyrocketing vertical takeoff. When the measure on the y-axis (population, or awareness) becomes infinite, further progress along the x-axis (time) virtually ends. Time has become vertical, which is to say non-existent, meaningless.
As humans with definite linear life-spans, such a conceptual state might be interesting to contemplate, but more relavant is the tendency toward that state. We cannot literally become immortal, causing our life-time to stop for good while we still live. And yet, as we refine and deepen our practice of mindfulness, we can quite literally cause, in our experience, the passage of time to slow to a stop, if only momentarily. The extension of such moments means for us in practical terms the cumulative experience of more life-time, in essence a longer life. And at each such point of stop-time along the way, we can truly enjoy a taste of that age-old desire, immortality.