Contemplating the Nature of Time

Posted on 21 February 2010


A previous post explored the question of whether time has an objective existence. In this post, we continue this investigation in a more contemplative way. Consider, for example, the sound of a train passing by not far away. Our conventional and habitual way of interpreting such auditory phenomena is to imagine a thing called a “train” that exists “out there” in an objectively existing physical “space”. We also imagine that this “train” generates an objectively existing thing called “sound” that propagates through an objectively-existing substance called “air” to eventually arrive at our “ears” and so on. This is all quite useful, but is it true? What do we really experience or know directly and with certainty?

When the mind is quiet and clear, this imaginative overlay might be temporarily suspended. It is then possible to directly realize that there is fundamentally no train, no space, no time, and no sound “behind” the phenomenon. There is just the immediacy of “whooooo! whooooo!” that is in awareness and not separate from awareness. It’s not some unity that is the result of some complicated nonlocal quantum interconnection of all the various separate things, but an original direct simplicity prior to any mental fabrication.

Of course, we can’t always be in such a state of suspension of mental activity (nor would we want to be). But when these imagined constructs (such as time) do arise, we can still look at them and try to see their true nature. Alternatively, we can intentionally evoke these concepts in order to investigate and liberate them. Do space, time, trains, and sound objectively exist “out there”, or are they creative acts of imagination? This can be investigated by simply looking directly at the thoughts as phenomena and letting them self-liberate. If we’re not quite up for that yet, it can also be investigated by analyzing the concepts and the “things” they refer to, in order to see if there is anything objective about them. The intent of this analytical style of meditation is not to arrive as some conceptual conclusion but to see that there is no basis for considering them to be objectively real. It is a way to cultivate a non-conceptual insight into emptiness. This kind of analytical meditation is practiced in Buddhism where it is considered complementary to calm abiding meditation. The two can actually support each other. (In the original Greek, the word “analysis” actually means to “free up,” or liberate.)

Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, is famous for his dialectical deconstruction of time, space, causality, and other fundamental concepts that form the foundation of delusion. Nagarjuna provided a classic analysis of time in his Mulamadhyamikakarika. In these philosophical aphorisms, he examines time (among other things) and finds that it cannot be conceived of as an entity existing independently. He begins with the conventional division of time into past, present, and future. He then argues than not one of these can be said to inherently exist: The present and the future either depend on the past or they do not. If they do, then they must in some sense already be implicitly contained in the past, in which case their distinction with the past does not make sense. If they do not, then there can be no relation or connection to the past, and it makes no sense to talk of them as linked phases of time. Instead, time must itself be regarded as a set of imaginary relations, and nothing in itself. With repeated practice in this sort of analysis, there can be deeper non-conceptual insights into the emptiness of time, and our experience of time can become more “transparent” to the emptiness out of which it arises.