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Sometimes, I find myself rushing through parts of my day. I rush to get ready. I rush to finish an email. I rush to get to an appointment. The reason is simple, I look at my watch and I realise I am short of time. I feel pressured to rush. My hurry is instigated by the simple act of looking at my watch. This predicament was perhaps best described by Jane Austen, ‘Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.’ Yet modern society is so structured around clock time that trying to exist without it would be highly problematic.
The anthropologist Edward T. Hall discovered that indigenous North American nations like the Hopi had a very different relationship with time. Hall observed that they existed in a perpetual present moment. He called this polychromic time. It involved consciously living at an unhurried pace. It allowed them to feel an organic unity with their environment, to stop and smell the flowers as it were. This is very different from modern Western culture that frequently finds itself in thrall to the ticking clock.
The philosopher Colin Wilson wrote that clocks and watches are simply an attempt to impose order on a world that is essentially chaotic. The Spanish-American poet Mercedes de Acosta took a similar view. She felt that the notion of time as a definitive concept was a fallacy. To de Acosta, everyone had a different relationship with time. In her memoirs she recalls how her friend, the Indian dancer Ram Gopal, defined the word ‘recent’ as meaning ‘around a thousand years ago’. This begs the question of what do we actually mean when we talk about ‘time’? Is time in fact an unfathomable, untameable beast?
The poet Richard Church saw time and space as deceivers who openly contradict one another. He describes standing at his window watching a woodman chopping wood in the distance. Church noticed that the sound of the blow happened moments after the ax struck its target. This made him question whether it were possible to hold sway over time and space by sheer force of will. From then on, Church began to develop the ability to project his body astrally. During his astral travels he was able to exist outside of time. In the nineteen sixties the psychologist Abraham Maslow studied peak experiences in adults. Peak experiences are moments of rapture when an individual feels at one with the cosmos. Maslow’s test subjects reported how during peak experiences time seemed to contract or expand. In effect they crossed an existential boundary into a non-physical world that was essentially atemporal.
It is not only metaphysics that is concerned with humanity’s relationship with time. Science has also explored questions around time’s elasticity. In the nineteen seventies scientists proved that motion affects time. They flew an atomic clock around the world while another one remained at a fixed point on the ground. When they compared the two clocks at the end of the experiment, the clocks did not match. Motion had changed the very nature of time. A similar effect was also observed during space travel. After six months on the International Space Station, astronauts had aged a fraction less than their counterparts on earth. These discoveries have led scientists to conclude that travelling at the speed of light would have a profound effect on the ageing process. All this supports Einstein’s theory that space and time are not separate. They are part of a unified whole which Einstein called spacetime. In spacetime the past, present and future are no longer separate but concurrent.
Our understanding of time is still in its infancy. We look at a watch or a clock to find out what we like to think of as ‘the exact time’. In many ways this is an act of delusion. When someone next asks you what the time is, how sure can you really be of the answer?
Toward A Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow (Van Nostrand, 1968)
Superconsciousness by Colin Wilson (Watkins, 2009)
Beyond The Robot by Gary Lachman (Tarcher Perigee, 2016)
Here Lies The Heart by Mercedes de Acosta (Reynal Press, 1960)
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