Time as Change

We have been programmed since childhood to use the same methods psychologically as we do in the physical world; that is a causative subject-object approach of “I will do this to get that” as if we were changing a wheel on a car. The complication is our thoughts are both cause and effect tangled up together. The very attempt to change thought – effect – is a thought itself – cause – like a dog chasing its tail.

Externally and objectively time obviously exists and is needed to act and plan but internally and psychologically time is one of the actors itself. To think of time needed to change psychologically is to have one set of thoughts chase another set to no net effect. The very heart of the subjective self is time – or the entity that travels through time, that continues through past and future – and we strengthen it with the habitual metaphor of time as change.

We can consider the brain to be the primal theater, a device made of chemicals and electron flows that nevertheless gives the semblance of psychological continuity. It may be the greatest illusion ever devised.

It’s still possible to be a sink of personal memory, to live and act from the impersonal; what we think of as being the essential us is in any case a chimera, a constantly roiling mix of memories, habits and reflexes.

A thought experiment that can make this clearer is to imagine oneself temporarily at the controls of an advanced humanoid robot provided with all the senses of the human body so that “our” actions and feelings while resembling our own body’s  are absent the idea of past and future that might inhibit us. Because we’re not protecting a future self or identifying with a past one the experience may be both liberating at the time and sobering afterward when we reflect on the constraints that normally bind us.

A measure of the effective neutralization of personal memory is the strangeness of the here and now. There’s an exhilaration to pure perception as it loses the comfort of familiarity; to recognize is in a sense to be asleep. The mind continually seeks complacency in a past unchanging by its nature; comfortable complacency is indeed its ideal state. Certainly to carry the past is to burden the here and now with a heaviness not its own. How often even the words we use arise from a self-bubble, a provinciality of a single person.

Each moment free of time has its own intelligence. The mindful present is electric, attention a gently tingling live wire that lights up the here and now. Responding to a concrete present is the death of reaction from an imagined past that in any case may never have even existed.

The sense of self is static while to be here and now is to surrender delightfully to change. Observe the present moment as it moves – unless awareness moves with it it vanishes into memory and imagination.

Living is both more effective and enjoyable when it is seen and acted upon objectively, as at a distance. Just sit back and watch the human show as it plays out in your mind and others.

Insight as art and science