As someone who spent pretty much his whole life in the academic world, September has always seemed to me to mark the “new year.” As we move from a sort of summer holiday mentality to an autumnal “back to work” mindset, it is good to take the opportunity to make some “New Year’s resolutions” about our spiritual lives.
Take a few minutes in the next week or two to reflect a bit about how your life is going and what kind of changes you could make to improve it. Time flies by so fast! Don’t let it all just slip away; try to maintain consciousness about the flow of your life and do (now!) the things you know to be most important.
Time is one of those things the emptiness of which is relatively easy to perceive. I think we all know, or at least have a strong suspicion, that time is not going on “out there” somewhere, but is rather something that we experience (differently at different times) “inside,” in our minds. When we are bored, time seems to go by very, very slowly. When we are interested and engaged in what we’re doing, time whisks by quickly. When we are eagerly anticipating something coming up in our lives, it often seems like it’s taking forever for that special moment to arrive. But looking back at the past, time often seems to have gone by very fast indeed!
If time weren’t “empty” of existing independently, on its own, or objectively, it would be experienced at the same pace for everyone. . . every time.
Time does exist. . . but only dependently. One implication of this is that there is no time apart from someone or something going through time. Time does not exist absolutely, objectively, or independently. Time exists only dependently on beings or objects that are going through it or experiencing it. Time does not happen by itself.
Time also exists dependently in another sense: it exists dependently on its parts. On the basis of the minutes and hours that have occurred since I woke up, I impute or project “this morning.” “This morning” does not exist all by itself, but is rather the whole I imagine and impute onto the parts of “this morning.” “Today,” “this year,” “last month,” etc. etc. – they all exist only nominally, as mere names or labels we impose on the parts that comprise them.
And the three main parts of what we call “time” – past, present, and future – also exist only dependently on each other. There is no “present” in and of itself, but only in relation to a “past” and a “future.”
As a practice, it is extremely important to try to remain “in the present.” As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in his great classic, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, “One’s whole practice should be based on the relationship between you and nowness.” We are constantly spacing out and living in times that are either gone and no longer exist (the past) or in times that have not yet come and therefore do not yet exist (the future). “Be here, now,” as Ram Das so famously said. Much of Buddhist practice, especially meditation, is designed to try to bring us into and keep us focused on the present.
However, as Stephen Batchelor writes in the introduction to his translation of Arya Nagarjuna’s great treatise on emptiness, the Mulamadhamakakarika, there actually is no findable, self-existent “present” that exists in any other way than in relation to or dependent upon the (equally dependently existing) conceptualizations of a “past” and “future”:
To cultivate awareness, one is encouraged to live fully in the present moment, as though the present were somehow more “real” than the past or the future. But the idea of the present is unintelligible without a notion of past and future. In reality, there is no such thing as the “present moment.” However valuable it may be to try to remain totally in the here and now, one should not mistake a strategy for reducing distraction with a metaphysical statement about the nature of time.”
Or as Arya Nagarjuna himself says in that same text, “Past, present, and future are like bottom, middle, top and one, two, three.” (Mulamadhyamakakarika 19.4, translated by Stephen Batchelor in his Verses from the Center).
A very interesting ramification of this is that by changing any one part of the three main parts of time, one affects the other two. If, for example, one thinks differently about one’s past, one will necessarily experience one’s present differently. And if one thinks differently about one’s present, one’s expectations of the future will also change.