There are different aspects of time that combine to create our experience.
These different aspects are:
- Only this moment
- A never ending story
- The entirety of everything that has happened and will happen
When these things combine, they create a sense that everything is unfolding by itself.
Through cultivating a direct experience of these different aspects of time, and not getting lost in projections of the past and future, we are able to be present with what is really happening in the the heart-mind-body-soul that is creating our experience.
In Buddhism there is a real obsession with the sense of non-self. It is the focus of a lot of practice and seen by a lot of people as the end goal.
When you understand the fundamentals of how time constructs our sense of reality, then this no longer makes sense. This is what I will describe in this blog post.
It is impossible to completely destroy a sense of any self.
We do literally have a body that we inhabit and this creates an experience that is literally separate to the rest of the Universe.
Firstly, this is just obviously true. You will spend your life existing in the body you are in with its natural preferences, genetics and physical traits. There is no way to escape this.
But also, more theoretically, if we weren’t somehow separate from the rest of the Universe there would be no experience. You have to have an experiencer for there to be experience. If the Universe was just one thing it wouldn’t be able to experience itself. Non-duality is pointing to the ‘not twoness’ rather than a ‘oneness’.
The boundary that brings about the separation between experiencer and experience is created by our physical bodies. Matter obeys laws (like physical boundaries) that other aspects of the Universe (like awareness) don’t.
It is true that a large part of what we experience as ‘self’ is constructed by our minds, for example the idea that we have a fixed self who we can imagine being in the past and the future.
But the way to deconstruct this is through relating to time differently, rather than trying to get rid of the self. Getting rid of the self is just an endless web of confusion and is ultimately putting the cart before the horse.
The body is not separate from the mind so what counts as ‘self’ and what is the sense of self that is just the body that you inhabit in this moment creating an immediate personal experience is an endless interconnected web.
There’s no sensible place to draw the line and say that one type of experience is self and another type of experience is non-self.
Really, properly adopting the idea of non-self requires you to fully embrace solipsism. And to be in cessation. Everything else is using the word ‘self’ in a very vague and metaphorical way.
Some people use it to mean non-duality, some use it to point to a lack of free-will, some use it to point to the transient nature of everything, some use it to point towards the centrelessness of experience. A rare few people seem to have grasped that there is something fundamental to do with the interconnectedness and synchronicity in how the entirety of the Universe and reality is emerging in each moment.
All of these are valid and useful things to talk about but people should just say what they mean instead of shoe-horning it into the vague concept of non-self.
In reality all of these interesting ways of experiencing the world are actually manifestations of experiencing time in a different way. Or more accurately of time presenting reality to us in different ways:
- When we are fully present in this moment we don’t feel like a person with a past or future.
- When we are fully absorbed in the flow of time we don’t feel separate to the rest of the Universe. I believe that experiencing some aspect of this is what most people call stream entry.
- When we are aware of the vast expanse of time we aren’t caught up in our own stuff.
- When we are in a state of timelessness we don’t create a sense of an experience in the same way.
- When we are some combination of all these things, we are aware that everything is unfolding by itself in each moment and we feel connected to what is unfolding without much of a sense of identification.
In all these cases it is time that is constructing our experience. The sense of a self (or lack thereof) that arises in this experience is a symptom of the way time is presenting reality to us.
Rather than having a fixed perception of what time is and how things unfold, we are open to time presenting these different ways of experiencing reality and our beings to ourselves.
Using the word non-self encourages power imbalance. The lack of clarity around what it means makes it easy for the most powerful person to claim that they know what no-self or awakening really means, and that other people haven’t experienced it.
The reality is that everyone’s experience is different and it is much better to empower people to be able to connect with their own experience through clear language than enforce a pyramid scheme that supports certain people having authority on these topics.
We can all take a second to laugh at the absurdity that some Buddhist communities are essentially a game of: which self can claim to have a no-self with the most authority.
The Benefits of Relating to Time Differently in Practice
All of these aspects of time require us to let go of causes and conditions – we can no longer hold on to a scientific materialist viewpoint of the timeline of our lives while we are in these states.
This can open up a deep sense of acceptance in this moment and a forgiveness towards ourselves, others and the world.
This is where the magic happens and we start to wake up to what is really here. Our beings are allowed to be what they are in this moment – experience is allowed to fully express itself without it being held back by judgements or resistance.
It becomes a process of being with what is here, going with the flow, opening to every aspect of what is being show to us, not caring what it says about us, not believing that we can understand the series of events that led to this moment nor believing that we can understand how what is happening will impact our future.
We are open and present to being with experience, just as it is right now.
We move through the different aspects of time and ways of being with experience at different times. There is no fixed place or part of experience that we can land.
Time is always moving and it’s always shifting between the different types in our experience.
Resistance and Presence
Resistance to how things are is what stops us being able to be present with the different aspects of time; we want to be able to give ourselves freely to what is in our experience.
When presence arises, things stop pulling us away from how things are in this moment and we start to see and experience things as they really are.
We might start to get a sense of interconnection or non-duality, for example.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that being present in this moment will remove suffering or reveal some perfect way of being or experiencing. Claims to this end are totally absurd and I am in fact saying the opposite.
A lot of what is present in this moment is very painful to be with, otherwise we wouldn’t resist being in it.
If it was somehow perfect and easy being present we would already be in it. In order to be able to be present, it takes healing the trauma that we carry that creates resistance in the first place and creating the conditions that make it possible for us to be present.
This also isn’t about an intellectual understanding of time or the way that we perceive it.
It’s different to the perception that everything is impermanent, it’s more like the door that gets opened when you embrace how things are in this moment and step into your life because you realise that this is the only chance you’re going to get.
We aren’t using a conceptual understanding of impermanence, no-self or suffering to bypass being present with experience. We are slowly integrating the different parts of us and bringing them into this moment.
Going through this process is like carefully picking up each projection and resistance that we hold, dusting it off, taking time to care and understand for it and looking underneath it to understand what is the real emotion or intention that is present in this moment.
Once we hit on the real intention, it’s like that part of us comes home and is reintegrated into our being. Ready to connect with what is present in this moment, or the next one. Whatever that is.
This process plays out slightly differently, depending which aspect of time we are connecting with.
This is a very succinct version of the different aspects:
- When developing the ability to be present with only this moment, we want to be in the body. We are finding resistance and being with the physical process that transforms this, for example crying or being with energy body transformations.
- To embrace life as a never ending story, we can make use of the imaginal and our intuitive senses. We are embracing how we feel in this moment, even if that feels dark or difficult in some way, rather than looking back and using judgement or justification. This frees up time to flow in one direction and us to be able to go with what is happening.
- To connect with a sense that all time is ever-present, we can show up to receive what is being shown to us. We don’t need to judge or define it, we can be with things as they are, and embrace them whole-heartedly as we know we have no control in the situation anyway.
- To get a sense of timelessness, we are developing a deep understanding into the nature of ourselves and reality. This creates a spaciousness in experience where we feel things are allowed to be as they are without needing them to change – we aren’t looking towards the past or the future for a sense of comfort.
I have written more about the practices that help with this in my guides for practitioners.