In Heraclitus’ River: The Mystery of Time

1. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.

Jorge Luis Borges, A New Refutation of Time

2. In Heraclitus’ river
a fish fishes for a fish,
a fish quarters a fish with a sharp fish,
a fish builds a fish, a fish lives in a fish,
a fish escapes from a besieged fish.

In Heraclitus’ river
a fish loves a fish,
your eyes – says she – glitter like fishes in the sky,
I want to swim together with you to the common sea,
oh, most beautiful of the school of fish.

In Heraclitus’ river
a fish invented a fish beyond fish,
a fish kneels before a fish, a fish sings to a fish,
asks a fish for an easier swim.

In Heraclitus’ river
I, the sole fish, I, a fish apart
(say, from the fish tree and the fish stone)
at certain moments tend to write small fish
in silver scales so briefly,
that could it be the darkness is winking in embarrassment?

Wislawa Szymborska

3. Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.

Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

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I. Swiss watch-ing: the precision of time

I love calendars, clocks, sundials, hourglasses, and I am really passionate about astronomical clocks. I compulsively need to know which phase the Moon is in. I am quite fond of train timetables, especially here in Switzerland, where everything runs invariably on time. The universe may be heading towards greater and greater chaos and entropy but here patterns of self-organization can only be compared to those observed in ant colonies.  The iconic design of the clock of Swiss Federal Railways was even copied without permission by Apple, who had to pay millions of dollars to Switzerland for this infringement. Just taking a walk through the centre of Zurich is like walking through a timepiece museum: you pass countless clocks, numerous watch retailers and last but not least, St Peter’s Church with the largest clock face in Europe. All of that is very much in sync with the Virgo archetype, which relates to precision, meticulousness and painstaking attention to detail.

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The iconic Swiss clock

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Chronometrie Beyer AG, the oldest watchmaking store in Switzerland

II. Waiting for Godot: phenomenological time

In my home country, Poland, which was quite short handed when the divine mind was distributing the Virgo archetype among nations, waiting for the rain often reminded me of the Yacek Yerka painting featured below. The painting is also a nice illustration of the concept of phenomenological or psychological time, which can be subjectively perceived as running fast or slow according to what we are doing. It is a very Taoist work, I believe, carrying a message that it is necessary to make yourself comfortable and nested in this moment of waiting instead of strutting and fretting in anticipation of the future. Eternal waiting seems to be one of the most important characteristics of human condition, which brings to mind Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where living equals waiting for the absolute to reveal itself. “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful,” despairs one of the characters. Instead of just living, we humans tend live in eternal expectation.

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Yacek Yerka, Waiting for the Train (via Wiki paintings)

III. Quantum physics, mysticism and Heraclitus on time

I find comfort in the knowledge that there is now temporal order and structure around me although I am aware that according to mystics and quantum physicists time as we know it is an illusion. The distinction between past, present and future is the most persistent illusion of all, according to Einstein. The past, present and future exist simultaneously in time-space. Also Carl Jung often repeated that the unconscious part of our psyche is not in time or space, which are both an illusion, since the unconscious has no time. Nevertheless, I obstinately feel I need to cling to my lifeboat of time, perhaps because I look too much in the eye of endlessness and eternity, meditating on symbols and archetypes on a daily basis.  I find matter and gravity comforting and I do not wish to escape the world of form. I have always been quite attached to Heraclitus’ metaphor of time as the ever-flowing, always changing river. I cherished an existential view of time as composed of unique moments, bites of here and now, whose tastes are unrepeatable. There was a hit song on a Polish radio, the lyrics of which were Szymborska’s poem:

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.

I think time is both a flowing river and a frozen river and I have no difficulty withstanding that paradox. Once you start thinking in symbolic terms, you see that there is no longer either/or but it is always both. Like in the philosophy of the Tao, the words of Truth are always paradoxical. From a galactic, universal perspective, there is no time but from our earthly perspective time is very real and cannot be refuted. I saw a documentary last night entitled The Illusion of Time dedicated to time and quantum physics. At one point the presenter tried to demonstrate that according to the laws of physics time can be reversible and can even run backwards. A broken wine glass was shown to magically become whole again. This is all very well, I thought, a neat theory perhaps, but it has little to do with living here and now on the material plane, where we do not get to mend the past and by turning back the river of time.

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Yacek Yerka, The Time Has Asked

IV. Macbeth and the irreversibility of time

This irreversibility of time is for me the major theme of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the play, it is evident that there is no going back once certain tragic choices have been made, the merciless clock is ticking. The whole atmosphere of the play is very oppressive and very heavy, which is reflected in the famous monologue “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” I had to memorize this monologue because it shook me to the core when I first encountered it. The incredible three witches that tell Macbeth about his destiny to rise as king and then to fall down represent the agents of the higher self, who stand outside the temporal frame of now and who see the whole picture. Their famous line “fair is foul, foul is fair” has been interpreted as leading Macbeth to temptation, but in my humble opinion they are just an expression of the higher archetypal reality, where darkness and light coexist and form a union of opposites. The three witches represent the law of karma. They are like the Norns of Norse mythology, who rule the destiny of people. We cannot apply our earthly logic to these divine messengers.

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V. Time and memory

Memory haunts Macbeth throughout the whole play and is one of the reasons of his demise. Time and memory are closely intertwined and interdependent. There is a magnificent novel dealing with memory and time, called A Sense of an Ending and written by Julian Barnes, who won Man Booker Prize for it in 2011. I cannot recommend it enough. I read it once with bated breath because the ultimate mystery is revealed only at the very end. After I finished I immediately started reading it again, but now with this unique ‘godly’ perspective, knowing how the fate of the characters had unfolded. In the book, I found an amazing quote on memory:

…there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time is measured in your relationship to memory.

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VI. In Search of the Lost Time

Certain details and images that appear persistently in the memory of the main character gain a totally new illumination through the novel’s ending. I encourage you to read this novel, and it is very short, unlike Proust’s In Search of the Lost Time, which I also love although I managed to read just four out of the total of seven hefty volumes. If you want an abridged version, you might want to read Alain de Botton’s delightful book How Proust Can Change Your Life. Did you know that the longest sentence in Proust’s novel presented in a standard-sized text measures about four meters? At the beginning the book was rejected by a number of publishers, one of whom remarked: “I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” Proust’s brother remarked caustically: “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” I still live in hope I will be able to finish it one day. The text of the novel is a stream of vivid, rich, intimate and very sensual memories. It is a lesson in observing, looking and taking in, being watchfully aware of the present. It is another paradox that by taking us on the journey to the past, Proust teaches us how to live fully in the present, savouring every moment, how to be sensitive and sensual. Proust teaches us also that remembering is not an intellectual process but an emotional and subconscious one. We might think we have forgotten someone but when we find an object that we associate with that person or when we smell something that we associate with a certain moment in the past, we are immediately caught in the web of memories, the heart pounding, tears in our eyes. In astrology memory is ruled by the Moon and the sign Cancer. Marcel Proust had four planets in this sign (including the Sun conjunct his Mercury) and they resided in the fourth house, which is archetypally connected with Cancer. This shows that he was the most fitting person to teach us about memory.

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Marcel Proust

VII. Astrology and time in the Age of Aquarius

This post is getting too Proustian in length, and I would still like to add a few brief remarks about astrology and time. Astrology deals with the eternal, symbolic time of greater and smaller cycles. Time may be an arrow if we think conventionally but symbolically time is always a circle. The principle of eternal return symbolically governs all personal and global events. Celestial bodies do not cause anything to happen, they are present out there as symbols to be interpreted and which are linked to us on the earth by a golden thread of meaning. Astrology does only this: it shows the quality of the time when you were born and relates it to the quality of the time you currently live in. We are entering the age of Aquarius and Aquarius has a special connection with astrology, being its ruler. Its greatest gift is the ability to look at your life from a celestial perspective and see a unique significance of every single moment of your existence on this earth in this time.  I was particularly amazed when I heard in The Illusion of Time documentary I have already mentioned that at the time of the Big Bang the universe was highly ordered and as it progressed through time, entropy, chaos and disorder ensued. To my mind, astrology and symbolism are like a doorway to the original wholeness and meaning. By showing what was at the beginning, the source of all manifestation, they offer a glimpse of the order behind the seemingly chaotic and unbalanced energies governing our lives.

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Detail from an astronomical clock in Gdansk, Poland (I used to live five minutes away from this outstanding piece)

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35 Responses to In Heraclitus’ River: The Mystery of Time

  1. great post Monika, I love the polish clock, gorgeous and unique. My relationship with time is complex. As an astrologer there is a daily emphemeris commentary running all the time in my head and wherever I go, I look for a clock. I realize that most people aren’t thinking about when the moon is going void of course or if something is hitting your Chiron! I find comfort in some semblance of structure in an existence that is increasingly presenting itself to me in a loose, malleable fashion. I was so happy to be in Zurich airport with all the advertisements for watch manufacturers. I love timepieces and believe I would enjoy this city. My ruler and north node is in Virgo although I function much more in the polar opposite ( Pisces) direction. Yet we all know that it is an axis and therefore a blend of both energies.

    • I also check my transits daily and I agree with you that it may have something to do with looking for a semblance of structure. I love how harmonious astrology is and how much meaning it brings to my life.

  2. Wonderfully informative post Monika I happen to love Sundials … Amazing how Time evokes so many mysteries … And yet Time is an illusion… I often wondered how in the beginning of Time someone sat down and dissected time into minutes and hours 24/7….. …

    Wishing you a continued Wonderful Time upon your Earth journey! 😉

    • Thank you, Sue! I absolutely agree that time might be the most mysterious phenomenon that we know. I wrote such a long post and I still do not feel I have the most important answers.

  3. Great article! I often feel that memory is in a way a tool for time travel. Namaste!

  4. Monika, this is so rich and full. It needs chapters! All the literary sources and inspirations require their own sitting and re-visitation. Then the philosophical from Heraclitus through Jung to Proust, then the quantum, and onto the “chapter” on astrology and then one on your relation to time. Quite an article. Thank you for many inspirations!

    • I know, Donna, I really got carried away. I am blaming Proust but even he used chapters. I just love this subject, as you can probably see. I am happy you found it useful.

      • very much so. Our challenge is time – time to read all the good insights and contemplations that others are having. The internet is enriching the world in such a powerful (Aquarian) way.

  5. Wow it needs chapters for sure. The verse was timely for me. And the painting Waiting for the Train… so much imagery, and applicable in too many way for me to even see, this morning. Great post, again Monica.

  6. aaremo says:

    Excellent post, so much to consider and digest here — I recently wrote a post called Shattering the illusion of time, provocative title haha. I think about time a lot…it fascinates me, and the fact that time as I experience it is very different to time as my dog experiences it and I think that in large part, time is a mental and conceptual experience. It’s such a fascinating and subtle topic, and your post has so much food for thought 🙂

    • I could go on and on about time but I had to restrain myself. Funny I should have also thought about my cats today, and their zen-like attitude to time (apart from meal times, that is). Is the post of yours entitled Time? I am not sure this is the one you mention.

  7. thanks for adding the chapters, it makes your wonderful articles easier to navigate for those who are easily destractible ( moi!)

    in light, linda

  8. renatembell says:

    Eloquently stated, as usual. Such a pleasure to read and learn from your posts. Thank you for sharing your deeper insights and presenting them so beautifully. This one drew me in, like the grip of Time itself. With a prominent Saturn in my birth chart, Father Time and I are nicely acquainted. Your narrative, accompanied by these wonderful images, are nourishing food for my Soul. Thank you for that.

    • Thank you, beautiful comment. I wanted to squeeze Saturn and the poor castrated Uranus into all this but it went on and on and on and I gave up eventually. I am so happy you enjoyed it.

  9. In watching the PBS, Illusion of Time, I kept waiting for and wanting more. The experience of meditators, mystics, and contemplatives is more than the physics reported. Meditation trains us to elongate the space between thoughts. Patanjali explains this as adjusting the “modifications of the mind.” In do so, regardless of the meditative discipline or cultural source, meditators experience the stilling of time or timelessness. The longer one can sustain that state of non-modification of the mind the more refined the state will naturally become and the relation to timelesness more established. Curiously, and this might be your experience Monika, elongating space between thoughts also gives us more time with our daily tasks. It seems to expand time or make one’s relation to time more prioritized and productive with less activity.

    The show, because of its frame of reference and view, did not engage the real experiences of human beings who have adjusted time at least in some sense. More important and related to your excellent and inspiring post, the psychological and spiritual references that you gave hint at or equally long for this freedom within or with time. Patanjali and meditation as a system state clearly that that freedom is available to us all.

    • This is truly amazing and precisely the missing element in my article. I could not expand on that due to my regrettable lack of knowledge. I also sensed that the mystical experience might cross the time boundaries even more freely. Thank you very much for this valuable addition.

  10. MartsArts Poetrypictures says:

    Walking through this post I feel like Alice in Wonderland! Great collection on the theme.

    I like the comparison of the fluent and at the same time frozen river. Immediately I had to think of the canals with broken ice at the end of winter when I was a boy. We then jumped from the one floe to the other to reach the other shore (or not haha).
    I think this is indeed how I experience time: going from one moment to another on a partly visible and coherent stream, and mostly not having much time and attention to take a closer look of the sleets of ice I am on.

    But this afternoon I was in a shop and when reaching the cashdesk there was a problem with a client in front. It took quite long and row grew longer. You could feel the growing stress of waiting and the call for haste. People began to talk about it to eachother and grumbled more and more. I than became interested in this proces of grouppsychology and lost my sense of waiting completely.

    So you can have very different time-experiences on the same ‘moments’.
    This is also my idea what to do with the floes on the flowing river. Try to be consciuos of the momentary existence as most as you can and to enjoy the floating moments in it.
    But this does need the compentence of a fish in fish fishing for fish, or to wonder like Alice did.

    Thanks for the inspiring.

    • Glad you could relate to it, it is one of my pet subjects. My main preoccupation is observing and always trying to find the answers that would go deeper and deeper. I still feel I could write more about time and maybe I will.

  11. Great post. The true artist makes her art look easy. I could flow along fairly well until Mercury pushed me out of orbit. Again. I need to get a handle on that first rock… Namaste.

    • Thank you! Where did you stumble if I may ask?

      • I stumbled over my own ignorance! “Marcel Proust had four planets in this sign (including the Sun conjunct his Mercury).” The moon and the Sun do not bother me. And cancer is simply beyond me right now. But, Mercury bothers me as I already tackled its influence and importance in alchemy a long time ago. If I cannot tap into that knowledge right now, then I did not acquire it after all. I need to start over. Tehuti is calling for my attention. And that makes sense. Auset did consult with the other gods to overcome Set. So, as I thought NebtHet more important (because of the seven scorpions connecting to the seven chakras), I need to understand a bit more about the ‘communication’ between Mercury and Venus (Auset). Interesting. But also off topic.
        Then again the notion of different time fluxes, including no time, is already of my interest. Especially how it flows (or not flows) through different realms and dimensions. I believe that if we could look at a lower dimension we would also only be able to see a piece of that time structure. We need to create an according bubble to be able to see in. Or maybe for those in the ‘lower realms’ to call out to us for help. Like we have been taught about the gods. And, to think that our ‘time’ and the pursuit to control it, is worth the anxiety that comes with the pursuit, might be a bit off the mark. But then again: whose mark? What I can assess, is that the control of time or the fiction of it, can make life quite sterile. It is a false (sense of) beauty. Which is exactly what some people are after. Enough. I have a date with Tehuti. Namaste.

      • Ok, thanks, love your response! You seem to be so driven and thirsty for knowledge. I find this extraordinary and can relate to it. Say hi to Tehuti. 😉

  12. Gardengypsy says:

    Wow. The Szymborska poem was another knockout; I think that collected poems needs to move up next to Red Smith’s collected writings on baseball for my next raid on Amazon. My wish list is weird. 🙂

    I always saw the witches as trying to make Macbeth see beyond simple duality, as well. Anything he did, they always seemed to me to be saying, would be good or evil, fair or foul, and even both at once, depending on whose eyes it was seen through. He’d have been a different character by far if he’d managed to see through his own.

    • Collected writings on baseball?? You are a very unique shaman. I am glad you agree with me about the witches. They are similar to Mephisto in Faust in that respect.

      • Gardengypsy says:

        Strange how many figures in drama that are on their face “evil” are trying to make other characters take responsibility for their own choices and actions. It’s a very brave statement in plays written during a time when declaring personal spiritual responsibility, even fictionally, was very close to heresy.

        Baseball has always to me seemed an enormously Taoist game. So much of it is about rhythm, flow, timing, and cycles. There are at least two collections of baseball haiku out there. My favorite players have always been the ones who play hard because they love playing; you even get to see it on their faces because other than catchers, you get to see their faces (and even theirs, when they’re at bat). It’s a game that even at the professional level can take a moment to take joy in something like this:

        Yes, the players made it a sign and gave it a sunflower seed. 🙂

      • I love the mantis. Also, I remembered you are an Aries, there’s gotta be some sport involved. I think we know nothing about baseball in Europe.

  13. Gardengypsy says:

    If there’s one place I veer away from the “standard” Aries description, it’s in athletics. Baseball is my only sports interest, and it’s 100% in watching, not playing. I’m supposed to be athletic; I must have been out sick the day they handed that out, because if you give me a perfectly clear, flat, level, smooth floor, I’ll trip over air walking across it.

    But I do have baseball, which might be the ideal sport for my Sun/Moon mix. One one hand you have a nearly perfect balance of individual and team effort, and on the other, the most enormous and arcane set of rules imaginable. There’s a rule for *everything*. A few years ago, when the Twins were playing indoors, someone hit a huge pop-fly that struck the speakers attached to the top of the dome, then fell back onto the field. No one was sure if the ball was still playable or not. After conferring for a while, the officials stopped the game and went and looked it up. Sure enough, there was a rule waiting there for them.

    Makes my Virgo nature sigh in ecstasy.

    • You are nothing but standard! It’s really interesting what you are saying about baseball. “A rule for everything” sounds like you would enjoy living here, in super organized Switzerland. Or maybe not, on second thoughts.

      • Gardengypsy says:

        I love my games all neat and tidy like that — especially because baseball so often rises above that enormous rulebook and becomes something like art. A perfect curveball is beyond rules. I don’t think I’d function well in such a hidebound life, though. I love formal poetry, and even write some occasionally — but the majority of my work is free verse.

        Baseball and rules, perfectly encapsulated: A few seasons ago, a switch hitter (someone who can bat left or right-handed) came up against a switch pitcher (who can throw well with either hand). To my recollection this had never happened before; switch-hitters are quite common, switch-pitchers beyond rare. There were a lot of questions about what would happen: Could the pitcher switch sides in the middle of the at-bat? Could the hitter? Could they just keep switching back and forth as long as they wanted? Who had to choose first, or could they stand there all day waiting for each other to make a move?

        It turns out there was a rule for that; it had never happened before, but the rule was there, waiting. There’s something oddly beautiful about that to me, especially the fact that the rule still left room for planning and strategy and for the chaotic element of the hitter connecting perfectly with a nice, fat pitch.

        It’s a pretty great game. 🙂

  14. Pingback: The Winged Sandals of Higgs Boson | symbolreader

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