Who among us has not, at least on occasion, looked at a clock and felt a sense of dread? Heard the approaching footsteps of the inevitable? The clock in those moments feels cruel, uncaring – tick-tocking away merrily – with complete disregard to our terror of the impending end… of a life, a career, a love… or just the end of a work deadline! We quake in our proverbial boots, as we watch those moving hands of doom, or choose to look away and pretend it is not happening…
It may be safe to say that we live under the tyranny of Time.
More precisely, though, what we live under the tyranny of is what we perceive as the inevitability of the linear progression of time - from birth to death, from beginning to end, without us having much input into how, and how fast, it progresses.
We live under the tyranny of the clock and the calendar.
But, it was not always so. And it is still not so in many indigenous cultures today.
Time was circular before it became linear
To our ancestors, before the advent of modern technology and lifestyle, time likely felt quite different from how it feels to us today. Time, back then, was less linear. The sun came up, only to go down, and come up again the next day. The tides rose and fell. The seasons came, and went, only to come again. Animals had babies, the adults grew older, the adults died, the babies grew into adults, had babies, and the cycle continued. Same with people. We humans, before becoming “civilized,” lived in the “round” with other beings. We experienced time as circular rather than linear.
This deep intuition, about time being circular, was most likely present in our far ancestors, as evidenced by megalithic stone circles all over Northern Europe and Great Britain, some of which date back to the Neolithic times. Many of these, such as the famous Stonehenge, were laid out precisely such that specific stones and structures would be illuminated at sunrise or sunset at the solstices and the equinoxes. Such precision is very unlikely to be purely coincidental.
Both Gnostic and Hermetic alchemical traditions speak of the ouroboros (or uroboros) as a symbol of eternity. The symbol represents a serpent (or a dragon) eating its own tail, and refers to a circular notion of time and existence. It illustrates poignantly the worldview: "what was at the beginning is also at the end."
This reverence for circular time is still seen in almost every indigenous culture. Most Native American tribes utilize some variation of the Medicine Wheel as a central symbol and tool for spiritual practice. We are all familiar with the circular Navajo sand paintings. Mandalas – again circular paintings – whether temporary or more permanent, constitute a central device (a yantra) in the spiritual practice of many Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. In fact, a very important teaching in the Tibetan tantric path is called Kalachakra, meaning the “Wheel of Time.” The Kalachakra is the basis of an entire tradition, the so-called Kalachakra tantra.
A brief history of time in the West
Plato (427 – 347 BCE) understood time as divinely meaningful – a result of mathematical harmonies derived from the movement of the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. Interestingly, it is this movement of the celestial bodies that lie at the root of music theory – as musica universalis (universal music), also known as the “song of the spheres.” Plato also understood this dance of the seven heavenly bodies as happening in relation to an eighth supraplanetary sphere – the Aion (or Aeon; in American English, eon) – who can be understood as the God of Eternity.
Thus, for the ancients, time was divine, and it was meaningful.
This understanding continued in the writings of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), who differed from Plato in many respects, but still believed time to have a telos, i.e., a purpose. Thus for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground not because it was divinely ordained (thus disagreeing with Plato), but still, for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground because it was the apple’s purpose to fall to the ground. The apple, in Aristotle’s scheme, had an intimate relationship with the earth, which made it fall to the earth, instead of, say, rising up to the sky.
This sense of time as circular, and purposive, lasted many centuries. It was not until the time of Galileo (1564 – 1642), and later Newton (1643 – 1727), that our conception of time changed drastically. Now, we were taught that time was in fact linear, and followed unalterable mechanical laws. From then on, the apple did not fall to the ground because the earth was its natural home, nor because it was ordained to do so by a divinity; it fell thus because of the purely secular laws of gravity.
With these mechanical laws, we moved firmly into the domain of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker.
From Plato and Aristotle to Galileo and Newton, Time (or more correctly, our conception thereof) moved from the realm of Aion (eternal time) to the realm of Chronos (linear clock time).
The Gods of Time in Greek Mythology
In Greek mythology, one encounters Time in three different forms. Or, if we want to use mythopoetic language, we can say that different types of time were under the dominion of different Gods.
Let us now briefly meet these Gods.
1. Chronos: From the Greek word Chronos comes our word “chronic.” Chronos is “Father Time,” seen astrologically as the planet Saturn with all those rings (limitations, rules) around it. Mythology of Chronos is complex and many-layered. Chronos is often conflated (and with good reason) with the Titan Chronus, who was Zeus’s father. Chronus's claim to fame is that he ate up all his children as soon as they were born – in order to hold back (in Time) a prophecy that he would die by the hands of one of his offsprings! Chronos represents linear time – with a past, present and future – a time officiated by the clock and the calendar. It is our “consensus time,” which provides us social cues. Interestingly, though, our concept of second and minute, of months and years, quickly falls apart as soon as we leave planet Earth!
2. Kairos: Kairos, for the Greeks, represented another divinity who also has to do with time, but this is a very different kind of time. Kairos represents the "right, critical or opportune time." It is the time when something can be done, or done well. For example, in archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos is the moment when the shuttle can be passed through threads on the loom. Kairos is also an alternate spelling of the Greek deity Caerus, the God of luck and opportunity. Thus, whereas Chronos time is linear and quantitative, Kairos is qualitative, and may be understood as “time out of time.” Here is a beautiful obeisance to the God Kairos by the poet, William Blake:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
3. Aion: Aion is yet another Greek deity associated with time, but this time representing the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the entire zodiac. Aionic time is unbounded, and may be best understood as eternity. To my knowledge, the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, gave one of the best definitions of eternity (although he did not use the name Aion when he talked about this idea of time):
“Eternity isn't some later time. Eternity isn't even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off.... the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life.”
Synchronicity: an effort to understand the experience of nonlinear time in lived life
In recent times, Carl Jung was instrumental in reimagining time in a manner much more akin to the ancient Greeks. Granted, we live in Chronos time. But every once in a while, as if by magic, another type of time seems to fall into our experience of time. Jung was specifically interested in what he called synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidences." Synchronicity occurs when events occur with no causal relationship (you can't demonstrate a linear cause, leading to an effect), yet seem to be meaningfully related. An example would be dreaming about an event that later comes to pass, but the dreamer could not have predicted the event from the information available to them at the time of the dream.
Jung was brought to an intimation of the presence of such mixing of times by his own dreams, as well as those of his patients. Here is an excerpt from Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, that describes a series of dreams he had that presaged World War I, without him having any way of knowing that a world catastrophe of such magnitude was just about to unfold:
"In October (1913), while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.
Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. "Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it." That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood.
I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.
Soon afterward, in the spring and early summer of 1914, I had a thrice-repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. This dream came in April and May, and for the last time in June, 1914.
In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd...
On August 1 the world war (World War I) broke out."
Although almost everyone experiences such events (albeit most often on a smaller scale) at some point in their lives, synchronicity is a notoriously difficult concept to define using our common logical language (logos). Jung struggled for many decades to find an expression that would describe its essence, without him being dismissed as a romantic or a mystic by his scientific colleagues (he was deeply invested in his identity as a scientist and a doctor). The best he could come up with, as a definition of synchronicity, was an "acausal connecting principle," which of course does not make things any clearer! Many people have further elaborated and amplified on this idea, including the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, who has coined the term "kairomancy" to describe a practice of navigating life by being attentive to, and taking advantage of, synchronistic events.
Synchronicity (and kairomancy) is a vast subject area, and a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this post. I hope to speak more to this subject in a future post.
Time in other cultures
Most ancient cultures, when looked at mythologically, have ideas of time that differ significantly from our current linear, mechanical and chronic conception of time.
The Universe as Vishnu’s dream
In Hindu mythology, what we know as manifest Universe, is seen as the dream of Vishnu. Vishnu lies asleep on the serpent Adisesha Ananta (Timeless Time, without beginning or end). Adishesha floats for all eternity on the waters of the Ksheer Sagar (the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness). From the navel of the sleeping Vishnu grows out a lotus, on which sits a Brahma – the creator of the Universe! Brahma sits on the lotus of the world in meditation. Every time he opens his eyes, a world comes into being. When he closes his eyes, the world is annihilated. He opens his eyes, another Universe comes into being. This happens for many millennia. Then, the lotus retracts. A new lotus blooms, on which sits a new Brahma, opening and closing his eyes...
What a different concept of time from one where we rush about to meet deadlines by the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month!
Kali (Kālī), Kaal or Kālá, and the tantric concept of SpaceTime
The name of the Hindu Goddess Kali has two meanings: one who is Dark (black), and one who is Time. She is not one or the other, she is both. She is the womb and the tomb. Both are places of undifferentiated SpaceTime. The darkness refers to a primordial condition – before space and time separate – before they separate for each of us at birth, and collapse again as we breathe out for the last time. Kali is thus the fullness of time and space – or Space pregnant with Time – or maybe Time pregnant with Space!
A name for the God of death, Yama, is also Kaal or Kālá. He is the keeper of time and timelessness. In this understanding, Kali, as the feminine manifestation, is understood as the changing aspect of time – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal concept of Time
Francis Gillen (1855- 1912), an Australian anthropologist and ethnologist, coined the term “Dreamtime” to understand the religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs. This idea of “dreamtime” or “dreaming” is a complex one, and is so different from the Western conception of time that it cannot be properly translated, and still maintain its original meaning. I have done some reading on the Dreaming, but certainly not enough to write anything comprehensive at this time. Thus, rather than give incorrect information brimming with cultural colonial bias, I offer you another word, also coined by Gillen, to try and capture this conception of time that cannot be neatly divided into past, present and future. That word is “Everywhen.”
Here is an excerpt from an article in the journal, Australian Psychiatry, written in 2003 by Aleksandar Janca, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia:
“The Aboriginal view of time differs from the JudeoChristian linear approach in a number of ways. For Aboriginal people, time is multidimensional and can be described: ‘as a pond you can swim through – up, down, around’. The same notion can also be illustrated as follows: ‘Time is around you at every moment. You can’t pull time apart or separate it – in the abstract or when talking about it – from living, nor can it be viewed as purely functional groups of seconds, minutes and hours’."
Time contains no innate or inherent importance as such to an Aboriginal person; it is not adhered to and rarely directs an Aboriginal person but rather works for the person, family or community. In general, the units of time are not part of discrete or absolute systems, but are specific, concrete and contextual to what is being measured. The extraction of time from the environmental system as a whole is a foreign notion to most Aboriginal people, even to those who work and live within mainstream Australian society.”
Rather than trying to understand what an Australian aborigine might mean by the equivalent of the word "Everywhen" in their language and through their worldview, for our purposes here, it may be more useful for us to meditate on that word might mean for ourselves – in our daily lived lives. What if we, living our lives in “Chronic time,” can take a break – every once in a while – to sample the experience of being in the EveryWhen? How might our lives, and the experience of living, change as a consequence?
The Sacred Pause: an access ramp to Kairos (and/or the Everywhen)?
Contemporary Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach, offers us a tool that may help us change our experience of time, and especially, the tyranny of time. She calls it the “Sacred Pause.” Here is the Sacred Pause described in her own words:
“In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.
The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.
What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?
Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.
Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.”
Using the language of the Greeks, we can say that the practice of Sacred Pause can create a pathway for Kairos to enter into our unmitigated experience of Chronos. Or, we can say that the Sacred Pause may offer us an experience of being in the Everywhen. This may be experienced as an easing of "time pressure," and/or a renewed sense of freedom and joy!
Just as a last teaser... look closely at the image of Chronos above (in the section about the Greek deities of Time). Do you notice what the old patriarch is up to? He is chopping off the wings of Cupid, the God of desire and newborn lust for life! This indeed is our fate if we let our lives be ruled by Chronos and Chronos alone. To live a meaningful life, we need to drink deeply from the well of Kairos, at least from time to time. And as we deepen our spiritual lives, if we are lucky, we learn to trust that we are indeed held within the overarching circle of Aion!