The distinction between past, present and future is the most persistent illusion of all, said Einstein. From the perspective of quantum physics, the past, present and future exist simultaneously in time-space. Time is static, it is us who are flowing through time. This revelation is well explained by James Gleick in his review of the movie Arrival:
“Even without help from mathematical models, we have all learned to visualize history as a timeline, with the past stretching to the left, say, and the future to the right (if we have been conditioned Sapir-Whorf-style by a left-to-right written language). Our own lifespans occupy a short space in the middle. Now—the infinitesimal present—is just the point where our puny consciousnesses happen to be.
But Einstein felt that this was fundamentally a psychological matter; that the question of now need not, or could not, be addressed within physics. The specialness of the present moment doesn’t show up in the equations; mathematically, all the moments look alike. Now seems to arise in our minds. It’s a product of consciousness, inextricably bound up with sensation and memory. And it’s fleeting, tumbling continually into the past.”
We may ponder the big question asked by Krishnamurti:
“Time is the past, time is now; and the now is controlled by the past, shaped by the past. And the future is a modification of the present. I’m putting it dreadfully simply. So the future is now. Therefore the question is: If all time is contained in the now, all time – past, present and future – then what do we mean by change?”
Zen Buddhism, as explained by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, compared time to a moving wave, which does not actually move water forward but creates the illusion that it does.
Yet, from an individual perspective, time is experienced viscerally and intimately. In Borges’s words, 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.” We are mentally conditioned to view time as sequential, progressing from the past into the present and towards the future. The human perception of time is rendered perfectly in Macbeth’s famous monologue, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, /Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time.” The word “syllable” is a remarkable choice here since our written communication also unfolds sequentially through time– from left to right or from the past into the present, at least for western speakers.
But not all languages are written in this way. In his “Temporary poem of my time” Yehuda Amichai wrote:
“Hebrew writing and Arabic writing go from east to west,
Latin writing, from west to east.
Languages are like cats:
You must not stroke their hair the wrong way.”
The idea that the language shapes our thinking is known as linguistic relativity. The creators of Arrival played with that idea remarkably well. Louise, a master translator played by Amy Adams, is drafted by the US army to establish communication with a race of aliens who have just landed on the earth. The mysterious visitors are seven-limbed creatures, dubbed heptapods. Seven being the number of spiritual perfection, as Gleick describes in his review of the movie, “They turn out to be virtuosos of calligraphy: their feet/hands are also nozzles that squirt inkblots, which swirl and spin and coalesce into mottled circles with intricate adornments. Louise says these are logograms.”
Each logogram is a miniature work of art, a rich symbol evocative of the Zen ensō.
Logograms house the meaning of entire sentences or passages. What is more, they seem to be produced instantaneously rather than sequentially, unlike our earthy writing. They emerge suddenly like wondrous emanations. This is because heptapods do not see time as sequential. Having a simultaneous overview of each individual moment on the time-space continuum, they see wholeness instead of events unfolding one after another. Their written script goes simultaneously from right to left and from left to write – to meet in the centre, pulsating with meaning. As Louise masters the heptapod language, she develops headaches which are a sign of a tremendous consciousness shift. It dawns on her that she can see the future, including a tragic twist in her own life. Her mind becomes able to move forwards and backwards; she gets glimpses of events which the viewer thinks are flashbacks, but turn out to be flash-forwards. Yet, in the holistic frame of temporal reference the direction of the time arrow does not seem to matter any more.
We do not feel ourselves as timeless in our day-to-day lives, quite the contrary. Nevertheless, almost all of us have moments when we experience a momentary rupture in the fabric of time. The poet Szymborska would call it the moments when we remember that we have a soul, which is timeless.
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