[#23]  Time and Reality

By Piet Hut

Last week I wrote about language weaving a virtual reality for us, through the use of concepts that tend to dress up all that  we experience.  Naked reality remains largely hidden from us, except perhaps for a split second after waking up, while we are putting on our conceptual clothes, or in moments of great surprise.  Time is the greatest concept of all, hiding the dynamic open nature of experience under the garments of the concepts past, present and future.


Time is a funny thing.  Unlike animals, we spend by far most of our time dwelling on the past or future, and very little in the actual present.  We cherish memories or we may be excited about future events that we are looking forward to.  We may regret things we did in the past, or we worry about this, that, and the other thing to occur in the future.  And in addition, we get lost in fantasies and stories which have no clear temporal location.

This "dwelling" in moments located in past, future, or elsewhere allows us to be rational animals, exercising the enormous powers of imagination and analysis.  But at the same time it impoverishes the quality of our direct experience, in two quite different ways.

First, it directs our attention away from what is actually given, vividly and directly, in the here and now.  Lost in stories, we trade in our living reality for a world of shadows, fascinating and enticing, but without the crucial ingredient of lived presence.

Second, such habitual moves away from the present freeze time, squeezing out the inexorable dynamic nature of reality.  We can abide in a moment of the past for as long as we want, and similarly we can think endlessly about a particular event that we expect to happen in the future.  But we can never stay in the particular moment that is happening now.  The "now" is a moving target, presenting its essential nowness by moving on. making it impossible to dwell on any particular moment without losing the inherent dynamism of real presence.

Of course, me writing and you reading these words is another conceptual exercise, and it is not easy to convey the limits of concepts through the use of concepts, like fighting fire with fire.  That is why I used a particularly poetic quote by Shunryu Suzuki last week:

We don't know what will happen in any moment.  So, in each moment, if you fail to express yourself fully you will regret it later.  Because you expect some other time -- a future, a time in which you are more real -- you fail to express yourself fully right now.  And of course in this way you will be misunderstood by your friends, even by yourself.  So you should always express yourself fully.

Here Suzuki puts his finger on our habit to discount the present in return for a future that pulls us forward, and that seems somehow more real.  He is not saying that we should not plan for the future. Rather, he wants us to stay firmly rooted in the presence of the present while dealing with past and future.

past and future are extrapolations

When we really reflect on it, it is easy to see that all of our experience is contained in the present.  All we know about the past is given in our memory, but our memories are always present memories of past events.  Similarly, whatever we anticipate about the future are present anticipations. Strictly speaking, the past and future are conceptual constructs created by us in the present.  Past and future are extrapolations from what is empirically given in the present: we are born in the present, live in the present and we will die in the present.

What Suzuki advocates is to take ownership of the living present that has always been our true home.  And that true present is not a vanishingly small point hemmed in between a very long past and a very long future stretching billions of years into each direction.  Buying into that image would mean giving up what is truly here in return for a conceptual straightjacket


Shifting from Suzuki as a modern Japanese Zen Buddhist to an Indian Buddhist who lived a thousand years ago, Tilopa, we find a similar message in what has been handed down as Tilopa's six words of advice:

        Don't recall
        Don't imagine
        Don't think
        Don't examine
        Don't control

My understanding of these six utterances is that we are told not to dwell on past, future, or present (first three), let alone manipulate them (next three).  I would like to reflect a bit more on Tilopa's view next week.

Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.