Time, nowness and attention

Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity put an end to the notion of absolute time. His formulations and subsequent scientific experiments confirm the plasticity of time, and demonstrate that depending upon velocity, direction and position of the observer, time is not the same at every point in space.

In our ordinary everyday world, we all move in tandem and share an inertial frame of reference. This is to say that our clocks all run at the same speed and that a second in Paris is as long as a second in New York. Should one of us be able to escape this frame of reference and attain near light speed, that would change, but since we cannot seem to even get a fast bullet train to Los Angeles from San Francisco, it’s unlikely any of us face that prospect.

Our perception of time is that it has direction, moving from the past, through the present and forward, into the future. While we might like to run time in the opposite direction, particularly when it comes to today’s stock market, it’s not possible for us. We are irrevocably, it seems, carried along by the arrow of time, growing older each day and accumulating memories of the past.

An argument can be made that there actually is no such thing as the present. My friend Steve Bhaerman, aka Swami Beyondananda, opens his cosmic comedy act by asking, “How many people in the audience want to be more in the now?” When hands go up, he quickly yells, “Too late!” Everybody laughs, but it is laughter born of an uncomfortable paradox – that the present lasts only long enough for the future to become the past. The present, for all intents and purposes, is nothing but change, and its impermanent nature makes it impossible to pin down.

Spending time solely in past recollection or future fantasy eludes the art of appreciating the eternally changing moment in which we actually live. Here again, we encounter the paradox, that the present exists solely as a function of our attention. The desire and attempt to arrest time is akin to the act of grasping for smoke – we can envision the moment we want to hold only in our minds; a fading mirage, it no longer exists. Thus our fixations, mental and emotional habits distract our attention from the ever-changing moment of being.

It’s difficult to rest comfortably in a timeless space balancing on the edge of past and future. It feels groundless, confusingly ephemeral and even frightening – no wonder we like movies. Yet this momentary transitional point is precisely where and when we always are, and despite plans or regrets, it is all we have or have ever had to work with. In the infinitesimal moment of impermanent transition we have choices; about things to accept and to reject, to say and to withhold, to do and not to do. Our actions have definite consequences, and we cannot reverse time, after all. In attention to the moment, we can let go of hopes and fears and simply do what needs to be done. Each moment presents an opportunity to start afresh, should we so choose.

It is in this way that our world is created and the paradox of time dissolves.