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Recently TBCO featured Helen Lewis of Windhorse Publications interviewing Vajragupta about his new book, Free Time! From Clock-watching to Free-flowing – a Buddhist Guide. Here Vajragupta reveals more about the book… and about the mystery of time.
Your new book is now available from Windhorse Publications, and it is about Buddhism and time, and our relationship with time… can you say more?
As we know, the Buddha said that experience is shaped by mind; we become what we think. This is true of everything we experience, even the time that we seem to experience things ‘in’! So the book is exploring the ‘mind made’ nature of experience on a deep and fundamental level. If your time usually feels speedy, bitty, or frothy, then there will be something you are doing with your mind that is creating that sense of time. It will be profoundly effecting the quality of your whole life. So it is an important issue, especially these days. There are surveys showing just how many people feel they never have enough time, that they are always in a hurry. There is something badly awry with our culture’s attitude to time. I know this from my own personal experience. I have found exploring time, and unpacking how I ‘do time’ very revealing and freeing. So my hope is that the book can help people discover how to live more from a sense of time that is deep and flowing.
Can you give an example? How does what I do with my mind lead to a particular experience of time?
The book mainly explores how craving and aversion – pushing or pulling towards or away from our experience – condition our sense of time. The old proverbs ‘time flies when you are having fun’ and ‘a watched kettle never boils’ express what goes on. If we are craving something to last, then it seems to be over in a flash. If we are craving something to stop, then it seems to drag on for ages. Perversely our mind produces the opposite sensation of time to what we want! The book explores how that happens in much more detail. Perhaps the main point for now is that there is a mind-made, even ‘karmic’ or ethical, aspect to time. If you are in mind-states of craving and aversion, that will distort and tense-up your sense of time. If you do that habitually, the sense of time it creates is more constant and all-pervasive, and so seems more real… which leads you into fighting time even more… which re-creates that tensed experience of time… and so on. Seeing how it is mind-made can be liberating. You realise you have a choice about the time you live in.
OK, so our subjective experience of time varies. But surely time itself is real and objective? Things do take a certain time to complete and we only have so much time to do them in. So isn’t it an exaggeration to say that time is mind made?
It is true on one level that we only have so much time. There is a subjective feel to our time, but also an objective world we have to deal with. However, changing our attitude, and therefore transforming our subjective experience of time, can help us keep a clear head and deal with the world more skilfully and helpfully. Having said that, we can also deconstruct our idea of time more deeply and profoundly, and that is what the book goes into.
Well, the book explores the Buddhist teaching about the nature of the self. Part of how our mind works is by structuring experience around a sense of an observer, or perceiver – a ‘me’ that is having this experience, and also structuring experience in terms of past, present, and future. If you think carefully about it, there can be no ‘now’ without an observer, a ‘me’. ‘Now’ is where I am, it is the point from which I look. It is subject-dependent. That means past and future are also subject-dependent, because they only exist relative to now. So, whilst there may be an ever-changing flow of life that exists separate from me and others, there is no past, present, or future separate from the minds that perceive them. Time – at least time tensed into past, present, and future – is inherently mind-made. It is not that consciousness is in time. It is more true to say that time is in consciousness. Time is part of how our mind structures and makes experience.
We seem to have gone from something practical and everyday into something much more philosophical…
This is still very much about looking at our actual experience. There are a number of mediations and reflections in the book that help us to do this – to see what’s really there in our experience of time. Buddhism encourages us to examine and unpack our experience in this way, and to get beyond our assumptions. It says that in doing this there is a freedom to be found. We see that self and time aren’t so fixed and real as we maybe thought. They are something that we do, something that we create or fabricate, through our perceptions and volitions, our views and emotional reactions. So we have a choice – on a very profound level – about what kind of self we become, and what kind of time that it lives in!
What about science and time? Physics says very strange things about time; do you go into that in the book?
When I was researching the book I did read Carlo Rovelli’s ‘The Order of Time’ which was recently in the bestseller lists. He is an Italian physicist who has specialised in the science of time. He writes quite beautifully and opens up the sheer mystery of time from the point of view of modern physics. Einstein discovered that time varies according to our relative position and motion. This is not just a theoretical idea; it has been tested out and found to be true. One experiment used three of the most accurate clocks we have. Two were put in a couple of very fast planes and one left on the ground. The planes then travelled at top speed round the world in opposite directions. When they returned, all three clocks showed a different time had elapsed. The rate at which time occurred varied according to the speed and motion of the clock. So my book references these things, but I am not qualified to really go into them! I find them mind-boggling! The book is more focused on our mind-state and time – how certain attitudes and our quality of attention to life alter our experience of time. Having said that, one thing that is interesting about science and time is how our ‘common sense’ view is that time is a real, objective, external, regular, linear thing… ticking away like clockwork all over the universe. This is the Newtonian notion of time and it has been entirely superseded by a more Einsteinian view. But in the popular mind it is still that old idea of time that prevails, and that we tend to believe in.
Anything else you want to tell us about the book?
I really enjoyed writing it! Time is such a rich and fascinating topic. For example, I talk in the book about the whole culture of clock time and how we are socially and culturally conditioned into certain modes of time. The book also goes into our relationship with the past and future – how humans are storytelling creatures, and how past and future are actually just stories. Again, bringing awareness to how we are telling the story of our past and our future will change and transform them… it can change the past and future, it can change time!
One last question. Buddhism famously teaches that all things are impermanent; everything changes. Doesn’t that mean Buddhism is inherently about time? Yet you are suggesting it doesn’t exist!
I am suggesting that time is part of how the human mind works and structures experience. That is not the same as saying time doesn’t exist. Time is a real experience we humans have, but it is not a real thing that exists separate to us. So, yes, we experience things changing. We experience events moving past that supposedly fixed point of reference we call ‘me’. We experience the changing-ness of life and we call it ‘time’. We say that things change because time passes. But, actually, it is more like we experience time passing because things change. To say that things change because time passes suggests that there is a time separate from change. But how could that be? How could there be a time that does not pass?! Time is not why things change, or pass. Time is changing, passing. So you are right; part of exploring time from a Buddhist point of view is looking at change and impermanence. There is a chapter in the book with three ways of reflecting on impermanence – life-to-life, day-to-day, and moment-to-moment. We do need to be aware of time and transiency in order to make the most of our lives and not waste our opportunity. There is an aphorism I quote in the book: ‘live life as though today is your last day, but it will last for a thousand years’. This expresses one of the paradoxes of human life. We do need a sense of urgency, an awareness that time is finite – living from the mode of ‘one day’. But, if we are to touch into a deeper creativity, then we also need to have a sense of abundance, or even timelessness; we need to feel we have all the time in the world – living in the mode of ‘one thousand years’. Part of the art of a life well lived is doing both of these at once!