Let’s talk about time. There’s a few fairly fundamental assumptions we all hold about time. First, that it’s real. Second, that it’s immutable. Third, that it flows from the past to the future. Clearly, it’s one of those asymmetries, though a familiar one: it’s never thought to flow from the future to the past.
We also assume that the past is real, solid, unchangeable – again, that it’s immutable. This is especially so if the past is regarded as a ‘public’ past, something that a whole culture experienced — a history.
The whole discipline called ‘History’ is, however, founded on revisiting and re-interpreting the public past as seen from the present. The ‘past’ is thus continually changing. I trust this is not seen as controversial: history is not my field, but here is just one reference concerning this point.
Some (most?) governments have dedicated vast efforts to changing the public past. Orwell’s “1984” may be extrapolated from the actual circumstances of 1948 with the continuous ‘correction’ of Soviet history in mind.
Passing the past
So what about the ‘personal’ past? ‘Personal history’? How solid is that?
To access the ‘personal’ past our memory is required. We all trust our memory; don’t we? But — should we?
Here’s just a few ‘scientific’ facts about memory:1
All the indications are that there is no such thing as ‘memory’ in the way we believe it to work. It would be better called ‘rememory’.
Every time a ‘memory’ is ‘accessed’, recalled — it is reconstructed. Re-member-ed. Remade anew. And remade anew slightly differently every time.
That’s not, of course, what it feels like; it feels like it’s the same old memory every time. That’s the memory feeling.
Elizabeth Loftus has made a career out of studying what memory really does, and is perhaps best known for her demonstration of false memory in testimony about sexual abuse by parents. She showed that false memories could be constructed by adjusting the language of the query regarding an event, that entirely false memories could be implanted by questioning.2 Many people did not like that. Here’s a fairly long presentation by Dr. Loftus. Many other people have also studied this field,3 see the references for more.
Of course to remember something, you have to notice it in the first place: that’s not always as straight-forward as one might expect. It may well be that even accurate memories we cling to are very incomplete representations of the whole of what happened; they may well be extremely selective.
Our intrinsic beliefs about memory are unsustainable. What we remember is in an important way an illusion, an illusory reality –as far as being a record of a once-existing reality is concerned. It’s not completely wrong, but it’s rarely completely right. It is always an abstraction from the whole.
This should not be a great surprise; this just all goes together with many other illusions. For example, with the sense of sight, colour distance and shapes are very much less solid than we think, and with the sense of sound, our system is very easily misled as are also our perceptions of heat and cold…
All of our sensory perceptions are only conditionally, apparently, reliable, in fact.
We’ll come back to these later, perhaps.
If you are disturbed by the idea of losing your faith in your memory, of it being an unreliable source for the minutiae of your life, then perhaps you’d find it relaxing to consider your existence as a new-born child. You had no memory to fall back on. You lay there gurgling happily.
Did you need a memory to gurgle happily, to be content? No. Do you need a memory to be present now? No. All you need is to be present in your body. It’ll all be fine:
…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be wellvia Julian of Norwich ca. 1380
All of what appears above is addressing the past and its insubstantiality, its dubious realness. And what we see is that the past is only relatively, conditionally, variably and apparently real; it’s only real in a very limited and ephemeral sense. You’d better not bet on it.
Clearly this all applies very much to the future as well. In fact, all of what has been said of the ephemerality of the past applies even more to the future, the major difference being that really, we already know that.
We already know that what we plan for the future is just a plan. There’s only one certainty in our future, and that’s the one we don’t like to look at.
What do we actually have to hold?
The strange thing is that the past and the future have nothing at all to do with what we experience as being ‘real’ time. They are both the same, in that they are not ever actually ‘present’ now.
There’s only one place we live. And that is in that slippery place, the ‘present’.
If we recall the sad past, or plan the happy future, it is always in the present that we are doing so.
None of us ever has experienced any other moment than the present.
There is no other moment than the present.
In the present there is perhaps the feeling of something having just passed away from now, and the feeling that the next moment is going to arrive now, but these are just feelings in the present. The past never comes back. The next moment never arrives, for it is always and only ever the present.
The false self and its times
The false self is very pseudo-time-oriented. Our ‘personal self’ is indeed defined by memory. Our false self is always digging into what we believe to be our past, our memories. And in the past lies much emotion — pain, loss, suffering — there’s usually a lot more of that than there is memory of happy times, which merge into one another with few sticking out in the general mass of good.
But which ever sort of times are remembered, there’s emotion attached; be it positive or negative, it’s emotion.
In contrast, the true self does not use or need memory to define itself. For the true self the memory is a store of possibly useful facts, or information. And this information is simple, without emotional correlates. For example:
‘There is an appointment to see the dentist tomorrow at 10:00. Remember to leave at 09:00 to get there on time.’
This is nothing to do with the memory of what your mother or father or uncle or aunt or other relative did to you when you were seven, or your husband or wife or partner did to you last year, or your boss did to you last week.
That sort of memory is emotional, and it is in the past, except when it’s remembered now, when it is partly — emotionally — in the present. In this way much of ‘the past’ is emotional time.
And then there are the hopes for the future. These may contain a sort of emotion, but the main thing they contain is expectation, the expectation of being there in the imagined future to achieve those future hopes. In other words,‘the future’ is psychological time, it is the false self projected now into an imagined future in which you did not die before you got there.
There’s another sort of time. This is successional time; the practical time in which you plan what you must do next week; your holiday; your flat or house move; when you need to pay bills. This is used to get work done. This sort of time causes in itself no issues or problems, there’s no emotion in it, nor hope, just planning the succession of what must be attempted.
It can be attempted but it can’t necessarily be achieved; anything can happen, circumstances may change, you might die. But usually when we plan for the succession of events it’s pretty straightforward to do.
Presence of the present
So, what’s the time?
First, there’s the problem times.
There’s the psychological present, or ‘the future’.
There’s the emotional present, or ‘the past’.
And then there’s the present present, or NOW.
Test it and see.
Read this word. It is now.
Now try this next little bit. It is now.
And now, it is now.
See? It’s still now.
It’s never NOT now.
Now is, for us, eternity.
It is the eternal moment where we actually live.
To the clue
Now is the clue. The unending now. It’s too simple — isn’t it?
It never ends. It never leaves you.
Now is utterly reliable as the moment of your life. There is nothing else.
And presence right now present, is where you live, when the false self dies.