The concept of present moment consciousness plays a central role in a myriad of spiritual practices. In order to fully appreciate the meaning of the timeless present moment, it is helpful to examine what we know about time and timelessness from science. In this dharma talk, I will first touch upon the importance of present moment awareness as described by different world religions and wisdom traditions. Turning to a ‘left-brain’ perspective, I will then summarize our current knowledge about the relative nature of time and its inextricable connection to space. In the last part of the presentation, I will bring together the merging paths and emerging truths of science and spirituality by connecting the dots between scientific thought and our human experience of time.
The Present Moment in Spiritual Practices
“Life can be found only in the present moment” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The present moment is life-centered awareness. The past and future do not have a reality of their own since they are mere mental concepts. Only in the present moment can we act to live our lives. The present moment is also our only entry point into spiritual awakening. Focused on the present, the energy of our being and true nature shines through. The present moment is where there is no time … it is timeless.
Most of the world’s major religions recommend living in the moment with full awareness. Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other teachers urge us to make the most of every day as an opportunity that will not come to us again. This means recognizing that God is here and now, as we move through our everyday activities, no matter how trivial they might seem. For Christians, the teachings of Jesus emphasize that the present moment is where Spirit is to be found and where “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist traditions emphatically espouse that through meditation we can merge our personal consciousness with the Infinite Consciousness. This experience of union is only attained in the present moment.
Time: A Perspective from Science
“The days of thinking of time as a river-evenly flowing, always advancing, are over. Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally. “ -David M. Eagleman
The classical definition of time is that it is “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole” (Oxford dictionaries). Modern physics, however, tells us that time is relative. There is no fixed frame of reference in the universe, as everything is moving relative to everything else, including time. Furthermore, time and space are interconnected as spacetime and spacetime represents the 4th dimension of our universe.
According to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, the passage of time is directly affected by the: 1.) speed of movement, and 2.) proximity to very massive objects, such as planets. According to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, a moving watch runs more slowly than a stationary watch and similarly, a fast-moving person measures time passing more slowly than a relatively stationary person. This implies that astronauts travelling at vast speeds in space will age more slowly, compared to someone on Earth. Taking this concept to an extreme example, if an astronaut travels 650 light years, at the speed of light, when he returns to Earth, he will be 10 years older than when he left. However, for people on Earth, 1000 years will have passed.
If this is not mind-boggling enough for us to comprehend, another of Einstein’s theories, the General Theory of Relativity, predicts that clocks closer to objects of massive gravity are measured to be running more slowly. Therefore, someone on Jupiter would age more slowly than someone on Earth. This effect, called time dilation, occurs because massive objects curve the fabric of spacetime. Although Einstein’s theories, published more than 100 years ago, were solely based on his calculations and thought experiments, today our modern technology has experimentally confirmed most of his amazing predictions.
The Intersection of Scientific Thought and Human Experience
“The separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”
Science indicates that the passage of time is relative to the frame of reference of the observer. In our human experience, the passage of time is also relative; it depends on the state of mind, or emotional state, of the perceiver. From science, we know that the speed of movement affects the passage of time. Mindfulness meditation practices also alter our perception of time by changing the “speed” (i.e. the frequency) of our brain waves. In a 2013 scientific study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, Kramer et al. showed that mindfulness meditation increased the perceived duration of time when compared to a matched control task. For the meditators in this study, time slowed down, thus giving them enhanced attentional resources. Away from an artificial laboratory setting, most of us at some point in our lives experience the relative nature of time while being engaged in an activity that takes us into a state that we describe as “being in the zone”. Therefore, our perception of time slows down as our consciousness and brain waves shift while in an expansive meditative state.
Just as scientific theories show us that space and time are unified as spacetime, so our human lives are a unified experience in the three dimensions of space (length, width and height) and across the chronological progression of time (the 4th dimension). We live our lives in this mysterious matrix of spacetime where although our bodies made of matter only ever exist in any given present moment, the thought energies of our minds can be scattered across the past, the present or the future. The aim of Vipassana meditation is to bring body and mind into the focused unity of the present moment. The words of the Buddha illuminate our path by teaching that, “the secret of health for mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
According to science, in the proximity of expansive mass, such as a giant planet, time slows down proportionally as mass increases. At the most extreme circumstance of infinitely dense mass, such as a black hole, time infinitely slows down to the point where it no longer exists. Here, near a black hole, spacetime collapses into a singularity of timelessness. Such a singularity of timelessness is believed to have existed at the beginning of the universe before the Big Bang birthed time into our universe. As a parallel, in our human experience, the expansive conscious state of present moment awareness enables us to step outside the boundaries of our every-day minds into a boundless experience of oneness that is beyond the constraint of time. Enlightenment in Buddhism is when the truth about life becomes known and the cycles of re-birth cease. The perception of the past, present and future then become unified in the enlightened consciousness. In our own individual paths of spiritual growth, present moment focus is the most effective practice to take us closer to experiencing the timeless freedom of our true selves.
Too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice,
But for those who love,
Time is not. – Henry Van Dyke