First up is to say that this blog post is completely inspired by Rob Burbea’s chapter on walking in ‘Seeing that Frees’, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
It doesn’t take much reflecting to realise that time is something very personal, subjective, almost something we are ‘doing’. We tend to think of it as some objective container, these minutes, hours and days that our experience somehow exists in.
I just had a week’s holiday in Crete. It was spacious and slow, beaches, siestas and tavernas. All phones switched off. Halfway through the 7 days it was as if we’d been there weeks, we’d try to cast our minds back to arriving, to our first dinner. But, as usual, once past the halfway mark time started speeding up until by the last day it was as if we’d only just arrived.
Maybe the whole of life is like this 7 days? Except we don’t know when we’ve reached the halfway point!
Then think about how time feels when you are dreading something, it’s literally like you can feel the minutes turning over, as if they had a sort of gravity. Or another time, longing for something, unable to wait, it’s as if the hours are dragging their heavy feet.
Wanting and not wanting seems to perceptibly give ‘weight’ to time, to make it exist ‘more’.
But what about when you are just relaxing in the sun, absorbed in a good book. There’s no sense of time there. It is like you have stepped out of the flow of time.
Recently I’ve been pondering on the notion of time as one of three realms of existence -
Time, Space and Energy
In Buddhism there is a teaching called the three laksanas and the three vimoksa mukhas. The laksanas are the ‘marks’ of conditioned existence, or what it is like not to be enlightened, not to be ‘awake’. The three vimoksas mukhas are doorways, or openings, to freedom that can open when we really look into the laksanas.
You could say that each laksana relates to a different realm of experience, time, space and energy.
Time – can you find permanence?
When we explore permanence or impermanence, we are exploring the realm of time. Both these concepts imply time. The ideas of permanence or impermanence are dependent on the idea of time, they make no sense without it.
Is time anything more than an idea, a mental construct?
Like all dharma truths the answer is not to be found in yet more ideas, but in our direct experience. And ‘answer’ isn’t the right word either! I like Rob Burbea’s ‘seeing’ better. What do we see when we look for time?
Let’s look at walking –
Just walk, at a regular pace, preferably somewhere quiet and with some degree of being able to be present. As you walk, open up the following questions –
Walking in the past isn’t happening now. Walking in the future isn’t happening now. Can the present moment be found?
Walking isn’t happening now on the part of the path that has already been walked. It also isn’t happening on the part of the path that has not yet been walked. Where is walking happening?
Both imply some kind of ‘third place’, but when we look is there anything there, between past and future?
When we think of things as existing in in time they have to have a beginning and an end. But again, can these be found?
When does standing become walking?
When does walking become running?
We know what we mean when we say ‘walking’ or ‘running’ but when we look closer, they can’t be found.
Space – can we find anything substantial?
Could you find a beginning or an end to walking? If there is no beginning or ending then can that thing really be said to exist?
Whenever we go deeply into this realm of time we come to insubstantiality, another of the laksanas. Things in space don’t exist in the way we think they do.
Because we can’t find the beginnings and endings, then the very existence of the thing is brought into question. Is there any such thing as ‘walking’.
Where is walking happening?
Can we find the walking separate from the body?
Separate from the earth?
Who is walking?
Is the whole universe walking?
What if you discover that walking doesn’t exist? Well that would be to fall into a nihilistic view, taking away too much. How would you get to the shops if walking didn’t exist?!
But the view that, 'yes, of course walking exists', is the another extreme view, this time an eternalistic view.
The Buddha’s teaching is called the Dharma, but it has another name, it’s known as The Middle Way, because it is a middle way between extreme views.
Both existence and non-existence would be extreme views, but what can a middle way between them mean? It can’t mean half existing, half not! Maybe all we can say for now is that things don’t exist in the way we think they do. Beyond that it comes down to looking and seeing for ourselves how things are.
Energy – can we find anything that can completely, and lastingly, satisfy?
Seeing the ‘unreality’ of time led us to see the ‘unreality’ of things, so where is this inquiry headed next?
Most of our energy is tied up in ‘wanting’ and ‘not wanting’, and life can feel like a never-ending search for satisfaction. A search for ‘something’ that completely satisfies. Sometimes everything is just perfect, but, because of the truth of impermanence, it doesn’t last.
What’s to be done? All that we can do in the face of these truths is to ‘let go’. To let things be. Does that sound a bit passive? Try it and see how hard it is!
But sometimes that letting go can come about naturally as a result of the looking described above. When that happens, it can feel like putting down a burden, as if we have been carrying something heavy and we finally get to put it down.
Even something as simple as walking, for those of us that can walk, can feel like a burden. We think there really is something called walking and that this walking really has to be done by someone, we have to make it happen.