Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Our Relationship With Time

Time: the open field for evolution and hope, but the constraint of the daily grind. Have you ever noticed that when you anxiously await a letter (or phone call or email) it tends not to arrive? Then you give up hope and voilà - it appears. Have you ever noticed that hurrying frustrates you, leads to mistakes, and even slows you down compared to simply moving quickly and with focus? Have you ever noticed that worrying about what might happen (instead of simply taking appropriate preventive measures) only serves to waste your energy? These few examples typify our difficult relationship with time.

Time is both our limitation and our opportunity. Time, with space, serves as the hidden but all powerful gate that limits our reality to actualizing only one event at a given time and place. We cannot do two different things at the same time; we must choose. This simple fact both defines and impoverishes existence. Time also serves as part of the field in which we may create and fulfill our destiny. The other part lies beyond time.

Some say that time does not exist, calling it a malleable psychological construction, a social convention. This contains a kernel of truth that we may recognize as we live more wholly in the present and thereby taste dimension of being, no longer entirely trapped in time. As we enter into consciousness and thus into the timelessness of the present, our perception of time seems to disappear, psychological time vanishes altogether. In our ordinary, less conscious state, however, time assuredly does have a psychological reality: we certainly believe in it unquestioningly. But the more awake we are the more strongly we experience and the more fully we live, with the result that we have more time, more life. Days on which we are relatively more awake, more present, are full and even seem to last longer than our typical days.

Time has a physical reality, not simply in the movements of clocks and planets, but also in limiting experience to only one event at time. The aging of our bodies reminds us that entropy and decay define time as the condition of impermanence. So while time does not comprise the whole of reality, it forms a major ingredient.

Time’s three great domains of past, present, and future, each serve up their own set of obstacles and opportunities. We can profitably examine our relationship with them in terms of whether we are active, passive, or open.

Passive toward time, we succumb, enslaved by it. Passivity toward time means lying there, pinned to the mat by the weight of the past and future.

Passivity to the past means living full of regret about opportunities missed, dwelling on prior wounds and stressful situations, ruminating over and over about what he said, what she did to me, or “I’ll never love again.” Passivity to the past means living on past glories: “when I was young I could …” or “I remember the time when I ...” Passivity to the past means being condemned to act only out of our conditioning, with no possibility of loosening the fetters of old traumas, habits, and attitudes. We passively accept our belief systems, our character, our personality, our entire identity based on our personal history. All this combines to create the persona that we think we are. We cobble together all the pieces of our history, forge them into a pseudo-self, and then utterly identify with the result as “Me,” defending this would-be self against all comers.

Passivity toward the future means worrying about what’s going to happen in some situation, even a totally imaginary situation, imagining all the things that could go wrong and recoiling from them. Passivity toward the future means hurrying to get someplace, hurrying to complete some task, impatience with waiting in line, inaction toward our true goals, not even formulating goals, lack of determination to create a better future. Passivity toward the future means living in expectation, waiting or hoping for that event when our ship will finally come in. This attitude toward time shields us from the fact that each day brings us closer to end of our life, lulling us into a spiritual lethargy.

Passivity toward the present means sleepwalking through life, only dimly aware and only intermittently and briefly awake to our inner and outer surroundings. Passivity toward the present means fear of what’s in front of us, rejecting what’s happening, or on the contrary, insatiably grasping for more money, objects, and experiences. Passivity toward the present means letting whatever emotions are uppermost highjack the whole of us, ruling the moment. Passivity toward the present means being identified, inwardly collapsing into whatever prevails in or colors our awareness, allowing ourselves to be carried along rootless in the stream of thoughts and experiences.

Rather than living as a slave to time, we can seek freedom by two approaches: the active path and the open path.

Activity toward the past means consciously mining our storehouse of experience to discover the wisdom there. When we confront difficulties, activity toward the past means remembering what we have faced before to see how prior experiences might inform our current dilemmas and choices, and coupling that with our intuition. We have habits of body, mind, and heart ingrained through past repetition. Some habits are wasteful or even destructive. Activity toward the past means working against the wasteful habits, one a time. Activity toward the past also involves our collective, cultural past, understanding what people have done before us in history, science, literature, art, business, and spirituality. When we mine the past for wisdom, we can look at our personal history as well the past of our culture, civilization, and the whole human race.

Activity toward the future means working in the present to create a better future, placing a positive influence into the future by what we do now, creating the conditions so that future events in our personal and collective lives will flow in the direction we wish them to flow. As a minor example, if we want good health in the future, we stop smoking now. If we wish for a better job in the future, we might pursue further education now. If we wish to grow closer to the Divine, we practice diligently in the present. If we want our children to grow up to be happy adults, we treat them with great kindness in the present. Activity toward the future does not wait, hesitantly hoping for a miracle, but rather works actively now toward a better future, but without living in expectation of results.

Activity toward the present means practice, not being identified, not being lost or asleep, awakening to the now, doing what’s possible now to repair our past by overcoming wasteful habits and harmful conditioning, and creating a better future by working along intentionally chosen lines. Activity toward the present means living in presence, working to strengthen and deepen presence in ourselves, an inner willingness to face all aspects of the present, inner and outer, with eyes and heart wide open. The spiritual path is not in time, but rather outside of time, in the depth. However, it unfolds in time as our changing states fluctuate and our being waxes and wanes.

The open path toward the future means being agile, listening to intuitions about our potentialities for the future and then acting accordingly, listening to how those intuitions might change. Openness toward the future means choosing the highest among our many possible futures, noticing and taking the appropriate windows of opportunity. Openness toward the future means opening to a vision of the evolutionary possibilities for ourselves, for humanity, for all life on the Earth, and working in our own small way toward the realization of that vision.

Openness toward the past means a willingness to allow the past to inform our intuition, letting the wisdom of the past enliven our hearts, accepting and learning not to repeat past failures. Openness toward the past means providing an accepting and loving space in which past psychological traumas may be recalled and may heal. This is best approached in collaboration with a professional psychotherapist. Openness toward the past means forgiving those who have wronged us, healing that rift in ourselves.

Openness toward the present means listening to the people around us, to the situation we find ourselves in, and responding appropriately. Openness toward the present means living in awareness of that overarching, timeless stillness underlying everything, that eternal realm opened to us through conscious presence.

Our path through life wends its way through space and time. We move from moment to moment, event to event, each defined by its time and place. But we do not typically recognize that, in a profound way, the quality of our presence also defines each moment. So our life path lies not only in spacetime, but simultaneously in another dimension. Our location in that dimension depends on our presence, higher or lower. Our experience of time itself changes with our height in this other dimension, the dimension of presence. The more present we are, the stronger our experience will be. The more present we are, the stronger our experience will be. A day full of presence is so much richer and seemingly, satisfyingly longer than a day of wistful thoughts and dreams. We call this the dimension of being.


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