Nearly all of us are lost in time most of our waking lives.
What does that mean? What, if anything, can we do about it?
Saint Augustine famously wrote in THE CONFESSIONS: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not” (Pusey translation).
I am undoubtedly even more ignorant than Augustine. Here I wish to set aside the ontological issue concerning the nature of time and just try to make one important point about being lost in time.
Being lost in time is being temporal. Being temporal is being aware of past, present, or future. Even if it were possible, being aware of ALL times would still involve being temporal.
The opposite of being temporal is being eternal. Being eternal is timelessness, being outside (all) time. Eternity is, as Augustine puts it, “ever-present.”
If everything were temporal, would it be possible to think about temporality?
Suppose, for example, that everything were blue (and always had been). Would it be possible to think about any colors other than blue? How could that be possible without contrast? Even a speck of something that wasn’t blue would be sufficient to give us the idea of blue, but, without at least a speck, how could the idea of something that wasn’t blue arise?
So, since we are able to think about temporality, we must be able to think of (at least a speck of) eternity. Actually, that’s rather easy. Conceptual truths, for example, are eternal, timeless. That red is a color and that 1 + 2 = 3 are timeless truths.
So we are not wholly temporal. If we were wholly temporal, the conception of being lost in time could not even have arisen.
How do we apprehend other times, namely, the past and the future? We use memory and imagination. We remember what happened or, at least, we seem to remember our interpretation of what happened. We imagine what will or might happen. So, now, at the present time, past and future times are thoughts.
We are lost in time to the degree that we are lost in thoughts.
If so, the cure is simple: stop being lost in thought, stop thinking, let go of all thoughts. All that is required to experience eternity, to stop being temporal, is to let go of thinking.
My guess is that this happens to you for brief moments more than you realize. For example, it can happen when you notice something beautiful, something that momentarily seems to suck the breath right out of you (for more on this, go to the spiritual well-being section of this blog and scroll down to the “Noticing Beauty” post or just go to http://dennis-bradford.com/1087/noticing-beauty/).
It can happen when you first wake up in the morning before you relocate yourself in conceptual space.
It can happen when you are exerting yourself with 100% of your physical force.
It can happen in the middle of a well-rehearsed practice of some kind when you master a musical instrument or a certain skill in a sport.
It can happen to a hunter or fisherman who is so intently focused on the quarry that internal time consciousness ceases.
It can happen during intense meditation such as serious zazen or aliveness awareness.
In other words, it can happen whenever we momentarily let go of our thoughts and directly experience the world, whenever we experience alert, waking consciousness that is devoid of thoughts.
To be less lost in time is to be less absorbed by thoughts.
Here’s an irony: you might expect this to result is worse thinking, but it’s quite the opposite! When we are temporal, as we usually are, about 80 to 90% of our thoughts are merely recycled and, so, useless.
When we are not temporal, when we are directly aware of eternity, any thoughts that are stimulated are fresh and insightful. If you want to be a more creative thinker, spend less time being lost in time!
This may be the most important key to creativity, the secret source of genius for the great philosophers, scientists, artists and others renowned for their thoughts and insights. It was their being less lost in time, less absorbed by thoughts, that stimulated their breakthroughs!
Incidentally, this is not a merely human phenomenon. Think of a motionless, alert polar bear gazing for hours at a breathing hole in the arctic ice or a cat wholly absorbed in watching for a mouse to emerge from its hole. They are not lost in time, lost in thoughts.
As always, please don’t just take it from me. Find out for yourself. Teach yourself to notice when you are not lost in time and nurture those moments.
Don’t be surprised if doing so permanently improves the quality of your life.