Monday, December 13, 2010

Time, circular and unredeemable: A little meditation on the nature of time

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

Lately, I have been meditating quite a bit on this idea that time is circular. I will come right out and admit that I have never been sympathetic to this idea. I have heard this idea repeated to me many times by many people, but until recently, I have never really bought this idea. I mean, today is December 13th 2010, and yesterday was December 12th 2010. If time is circular, does that mean that one day, December 12th 2010 will roll around again? And no, don't tell me that December 12th 2010 will round again in some alternate universe. That doesn't count (in my opinion, that's a cop-out); in order for time to be circular, it must be that December 12th 2010 will roll around again in this universe. If one cannot show that this is going to happen, then the idea that time is circular is simply bunk. It's probably some piece of new-age bulls*@# invented by somebody who simply doesn't want to accept that time has passed. At least that was what I thought. 

Recently, however, a couple of things have happened that have caused me to see this idea in a new light. First, in a recent post, Claudia wrote, "Time is circular, all things go in cycles." It is the phrase "all things go in cycles" that caught my attention. Lately, I have been seeing more cycles in my life and in things around me. Not that they weren't there before; it just didn't occur to me to see them in this light. We see cycles in the natural world. The passing of the seasons follow a cycle; farmers follow this cycle, and plant and harvest at specific times during this cycle, year in and year out. The migratory patterns of birds also follow a cycle; they fly south and return north during specific times of the year, year in and year out.

Yesterday, while doing my morning Buddhist chanting, I had another realization: Human endeavors also follow cycles, even if we are not always aware of them. For instance, I recently noticed that, in my academic work, I keep returning periodically to working on the same topics at more or less regular intervals. Each time I return to working on a topic, I bring with me new insights that were not present before, insights that have had the time to germinate and form while my mind was away working on other topics. For instance, I had been reading and thinking on and off about the issue of weakness of will for a few years now. But recently, my mind came back to this issue again, and discovered insights and correlations that weren't present to it before. Every cycle of going away from and returning to the topic presents the mind with an invaluable opportunity to germinate and form new ideas, just as every cycle of planting and sowing allows the farmer to harvest a fresh crop in the fall.

Asana practice follows cycles too. Every daily practice is a cycle, one in which we reap the benefits of the practice and at the same time put forth fresh efforts that will blossom in their own time. There are times when we may seem to be hitting plateaus, in which no visible progress seems forthcoming despite our best efforts at mastering, say, dropbacks or some other posture (name your "favorite" posture). But these are precisely the times when one needs to be patient and not lose heart; these are the times when one is sowing the seeds for the posture to blossom in its own time.

If we think about it, human relationships follow cycles too. Perhaps we have been trying very hard to reach out to somebody whom we have been having a hard time relating to. But our efforts are important acts of sowing, even if the fruit does not seem to be forthcoming. Again, the best thing to do (indeed, the only thing we can do) is to be patient and keep trying in a way that is true to ourselves.

Why is it so difficult for us to see that life and the universe moves in cycles? I think that a big part of it has to do with the way in which contemporary society is organized. Contemporary society is organized along more or less linear lines. If you want to get such-and-such result, you need to do A,B, and C by a certain deadline (Implication: If you don't meet the deadline, something terrible will happen to you, and then you're screwed, and then the world as you know it will end for you...). This linear structure can easily lead one to think that all that matters are one-time efforts at getting short-term results: If the result I want doesn't materialize, I'll just "move on", and try something else. Hopefully this something else will lead me to the thing I want. If not, I'll try something else again. And so and so forth. And many people (including I) find this exhausting, because then life seems to be merely an endless series of trying different "something elses" that may or may not get you what you want. And even if you do get what you want (a new job, a new car, a new partner, you name it), something else that is even more desirable will present itself on the horizon again, and before you have had time to fully enjoy the thing that you just acquired, you are off chasing another "something else".

Where does this lead us? For one, we are better off seeing the world and the universe in a cyclical rather than a linear fashion. If everything is part of some cycle or other, then nothing is useless and no effort that we make is ever wasted. Everything that we do, however small, contributes to some cycle or other, even if we cannot see how. Every single little thing, every ounce of effort is the seed of some unforeseeable future; every single moment is thus unredeemable, in Eliot's words, because every effort made in every moment has its irreplaceable place in the cycle to which it belongs.


  1. I definitely expect progress to be linear and get disappointed if my next practice isn't as good as (or better than) my previous one. Same goes for a lot of other things in life too.. what this creates is a lot of frustration. Your post reminds me to not get frustrated so easily and give in to the nature of this universe. If it's a bad day today, a better day will arise later. If today is great, be thankful, but don't expect every day to be like this.

  2. That sounds like a good way to view life, Yyogini. I think I wrote the post mainly to remind myself to try to adopt this outlook.