Sleep of Separateness
Alchemy - When Turmoil and Trauma...
Spirituality - Beyond the Pre/Trans Fallacy
From Sleep - Natural Spirituality
The Merging of Male and
The Speed of Life
Before the Fall
Crossing the River
D.H. Lawrence & the Fall
& the Ego Explosion
Unreal to the Real
Lawrence the Mystic
Elan Vital & Self-Evolution
Energy & Spiritual Experience
Where Is Happiness?
- Spiritual Presence
The Origins of
The Plateau of Time
Power of Silence
The Riddle of Time
of Higher States of Consciousness
THE RIDDLE OF TIME...
As he often does, in New Pathways in Psychology Colin Wilson deals with
- and actually solves - one of the riddles of human life in such a casual way if you weren't concentrating properly while reading you probably missed it. The riddle in question isn't one of life's biggest, but it's one which affects all of us and which contributes heavily to the sense of absurdity and dissatisfaction which plagues many of our lives: the question of why time speeds up so much as we get older.
Unfortunately I lent out my copy of New Pathways to somebody years ago and never got it back, and I've never been able to replace it. (Appalling standards of scholarship I know, but Abraxas readers don't care about these kinds of things.) However, the short passage in which Wilson addresses this question has always stuck in my mind. It's all to do with the
'Robot', of course. Time passes so slowly to children because their perceptions are completely
'non-robotic'. They see the world with the 'real you', with completely non-automatic, conscious vision, and as a result they absorb a massive amount of information from the world. And this large amount of information stretches time. But slowly, as we turn into adults, the Robot begins to take over. He stops us paying conscious attention to our surroundings and experiences, and as a result the amount of information we absorb is drastically reduced, which means that time seems to pass more quickly. And the longer we're alive, the more familiar the world becomes and the more powerful the Robot becomes. The amount of information we absorb decreases every year, so that time seems to pass faster every year.
The Laws of Psychological Time
I used this theory as the basis of my own 'Theory of Time', which I've been working on for the past year or so, and have turned into a book. Of course, time behaves in other strange ways in our lives, and I've tried to deal with these too.
I've organised them into 'Five Laws of Psychological Time', the first of which is that
'Time speeds up as you get older'. The others are as follows:
2. Time passes slowly when you're exposed to new environments and new experiences.
The most obvious example of this is a holiday. When you come back home it always seems as if more time has elapsed than actually has. You might only have been away for a week, but time is stretched so much that you somehow expect to have received massive numbers of answering machine messages and letters. You phone friends and ask
'So what's been happening while I've been away?' and expect them to give you a long list of news items.
Or it could even just be a day. Instead of going through your normal routine at work, you might go on a training course with people you've never met before or take the day off and go for a day out in the country, and when you get home that evening you feel that there's somehow been more time in the day than if you'd been at work.
3. Time passes quickly in states of absorption.
Anybody who's ever played computer games will testify to the amazing time-consuming power they have. 12 hours can pass by when you think that only three or four hours have gone. Absorbing books and TV programmes have this effect too, as does the more
'active' kind of absorption we experience when we apply ourselves to stimulating tasks or creative activities. The American psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has made a study of states of absorption
- which he calls
'Flow' - and one of his findings is that with them 'Often hours seem to pass by in minutes; in general, most people report that time seems to pass much faster.'
In fact we all use this 'law' to our advantage, when there are long periods of time in front of us which we don't know what to do with, or situations which we think we're going to find painfully boring. We purposely find distractions
- television, magazines, crosswords puzzles etc. - to put ourselves into states of absorption in order to make the time pass faster. This is what we mean by
'killing time'. This 'law' is probably the origin of the idea that 'time flies when you're having fun' as well, since what we experience as enjoyment or happiness often is the state of being absorbed in something.
4. Time passes slowly in states of non-absorption or boredom.
Why does a watched kettle never seem to boil? Why does a day in a dreary office or factory job seem to drag on forever? Why does a flight last longer to a nervous flyer who can't concentrate on the in-flight entertainment than it does to another person who does crosswords and watches films throughout the journey?
This doesn't require much explanation, since it's really just the opposite of the previous law. Whenever we're in situations where there's nothing to occupy our attention, time seems to drag.
5. Time often passes slowly - or stops altogether - in moments of crisis or emergency (or in other situations where the
'conscious mind' or ego seems to be in abeyance).
Many people have experienced an extreme slowing down of time in car accidents. A friend of mine was knocked off his motorbike by a car. The impact catapulted him into the air and as soon as he hit the ground he lost consciousness. However, those two or three seconds became massively extended; he felt like he was gliding through the air, almost floating above the scene, and remembers how beautiful the windscreen glass of the car looked spraying out into the sunlight.
In The Dance of Life, Edward T. Hall tells the story of a Navy test pilot who took off from an aircraft carrier only to find that his plane wasn't developing power. It started rolling immediately, and then
'everything went into slow motion.' What he did over the next eight seconds was so complicated that it took him 45 minutes to explain it to Hall.
These kind of stories are often told by sportspeople too. This might seem a little anomalous at first, but sport is a kind of artificial re-creation of emergency situations. Whether a goal keeper makes a save in the dying minutes of a
'crucial' football match doesn't really matter at all, of course, but all the players and the crowd treat it as a matter of life and death. The new age writer and speaker David Icke was once a professional goalkeeper, and recalls how once, when playing in an
'important' FA cup match, somebody fired a shot from close range which seemed unstoppable.
Everything went into slow motion for me. I moved across, watching the ball drifting slowly to m left and then I dived, lifting my right hand to turn it over the bar. All was like a slow-mo replay and everything was quiet, like some mystical dream, until my right hand made contact with the ball. Then everything zipped back into conscious time.
Explaining the Laws
The first four laws are closely related and can be explained in terms of the same basic factors. The important point is that, as Wilson's theory suggests, the speed at which time seems to pass is linked to the amount of information which our consciousness absorbs
- in particular, the amount of perceptual information we absorb.
This isn't just idle speculation; it was established by the psychologist Robert Ornstein in a series of experiments in the 1960s. Ornstein played tapes to volunteers with various kinds of sound information on them
- such as simple clicking sounds and household noises - lasting several minutes. At the end he asked them to estimate how long they had listened to the tape for, and found that when there was more information on the tape (e.g. when there were double the number of clicking noises), the volunteers estimated the time period to be longer. He found that this applies to the complexity of the information too. When volunteers were asked to examine different drawings and paintings, those with the most complex images estimated the time period to be longest.
Interestingly, Ornstein also found that time seems to contract as we habituated to stimuli. In one experiment, for example, he found that when volunteers were shown a series of images in an
'orderly' sequence they estimated the time to be shorter than others who were shown the same images in a random sequence. He suggests this is partly because the students who were shown the
'easily-coded' images stopped responding to them after a short while, because they quickly became familiar, while the others couldn't
'switch off' because they didn't get used to the images.
This clearly gives support to Wilson's theory. As we get older, the world becomes more and more familiar to us; we become more and more habituated to it, respond to our experience less and less, and as result the amount of information we absorb decreases.
This also makes it clear why time goes slowly when we're exposed to new environments and experiences. When you're in a foreign country the
'real you' takes over from the Robot. You're surrounded by stimuli which you're not habituated to at all, and as a result your consciousness absorbs much more information than when you're in your home environment. Even when you go on a training course for a day, you're meeting people who are unfamiliar to you and taking in unfamiliar information (perhaps you're in unfamiliar surroundings too), and this makes you process much more information than normal.
The important thing about the third law of psychological time in these terms is that when you're intensely absorbed in something you don't take in any
- or at least very little - perceptual information. You forget your surroundings, perhaps even become absorbed to the extent that you don't even hear or see what's happening around you. It's true that you may be processing information from the source of your absorption
- e.g. from the television programmed your watching, your book or the computer game
- but this is still at a much lower level than in a normal state of mind, in which you're perceiving and responding to your environment. And as a result, with less information entering your consciousness, time seems to contract.
The fourth law might seem a little difficult to explain in these terms, since when we're in states of boredom or non-absorption we aren't particularly responsive to our experience (in fact if we were we wouldn't be bored). But the important thing here is that when our minds aren't occupied they process a massive amount of information from another source. When our minds aren't occupied they chatter away to themselves; a chaotic stream of images, ideas, memories and other kinds of
'thought material' flows through them at a lightning speed. We don't experience this when we're expose to new surroundings and experiences
- we're so attentive to the newness around us that our thinking minds largely shut down. We don't experience it when we're absorbed in TV programmes or books or tasks either, because we give all our attention to them. But in states of non-absorption we process a massive amount of
'thought information' - as we could call it - and this stretches time.
Drugs and Schizophrenia
All this helps to explain why time can pass so slowly in drug experiences too. Psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms can, in Aldous Huxley's phrase,
'telescope aeons of blissful experience into one hour.'
Or in Ouspensky's memorable description of his experiments with drugs (he doesn't say which ones, but it was probably ether):
My companion was saying something. Between each sound of his voice, between each movement of his lips, long periods of time passed. When he had finished a short sentence, the meaning of which did not reach me at all, I felt I had lived through so much during that time that we should never be able to understand each other again.
This is exactly what we'd expect, since we know that these drugs 'open the doors of perception.' They completely disable the Robot, and as a result a massive amount of perceptual information floods into our consciousness.
This isn't true for all drugs though. Another 60s psychologist, Stephens Newell made a systematic study of the effects of different drugs on time perception, and also found that
'the stronger psychedelics (LSD and others) have the effect of “slowing” or “stopping” time.' However, he also found that alcohol and heroin make time pass faster. And this is also what we'd expect, since these drugs are depressants, and make us more
'numb' to our experience, so that we take in even less perceptual information than normal.
Some forms of schizophrenia involve a similar heightening of perception to psychedelics. As Julian Jaynes describes it,
'Schizophrenics are almost drowning in sensory data…They seem to have a more immediate and absolute involvement with their physical environment, a greater in-the-world-ness.' And consequently one of the typical effects of the disorder is an extreme slowing-down of time. As Jaynes writes,
'Patients may complain that “time has stopped”, or that everything seems to be “slowed down or suspended.”'
Time and the Ego
There is another important factor here though, especially in the case of schizophrenia. The second factor
- after perception - which affects our sense of time passing in our lives is our sense of ego, the self-conscious
'I' inside our heads.
According to the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, during their first two years of life children have no sense of time at all. We only begin to develop a sense of time passing as our sense of being a separate self (or ego) develops. As we become aware of ourselves as separate from the world, we become aware of the separation between different objects, and also the separation between different events. We develop a sense of sequence, a sense of the past, present and future, which is encouraged by the development of language, with its different tenses. Children's sense of time is still very shaky
- we only become able to accurately guess how long events last at the age of 6 or 7
- but as the ego becomes more developed, our sense of time becomes more acute too, until they both
'peak' at the age of 18 or so.
This connection between time and the ego is the key to the fifth law of psychological time. Since we only develop our sense of time as a collary of our sense of ego, it follows that in moments when our sense of ego is in abeyance we would lose our sense of time, or at least that if our sense of ego was weaker, our sense of time passing would also be less acute. And this is exactly what happens in accidents and emergency situations. Our sense of ego is
'immobilised' by the sudden shock, we lose our sense of being an 'I' trapped inside our heads, and as a result time slows down dramatically.
It's significant that sportspeople's 'timeless' experiences usually occur after long periods of exertion and concentration. One of the purposes of meditation is to transcend our sense of being a separate ego, and meditators fix their attention to a mantra in order to try to slow their thoughts down and eventually completely empty their minds. As a result, if they're successful (although unfortunately this process is much more difficult than it sounds and it can take years to attain a state of complete mental quiescence) they experience a state of egolessness, which also results in a slowing down or even a stopping of time. And the exertion and concentration which sports involve can serve the same purpose as a mantra. A goalkeeper or a golf player concentrates hard for a long period of time and eventually, at a certain high pitch of concentration, it's possible for him to switch into the same egoless state which meditators sometimes experience.
Psychedelics can subdue or even completely dissolve our sense of self. In fact this is one of the main dangers with taking them - that they might cause permanent damage to the
'self-system' and leave us unable to function properly in the world. This is one of the main characteristics of schizophrenia too: the lack of a stable, integrated sense of self. It's clear, therefore, that the slowing down of time which psychedelic drugs and schizophrenia cause are the result of both perceptual
'wakefulness' and the lack of (or weakened sense of) ego.
And in connection with meditation and spirituality, it's significant that 'timelessness' is usually a feature of spiritual experiences. Mystics throughout history have told us that time is really just an illusion, and that in the words of Meister
Eckhart, 'there is only a present now; the happenings of a thousand years ago, a thousand years to come, are there in the present and the antipodes the same as here.' Meditation opens the
'doors of perception' too, of course - studies have shown that all long term meditators experience heightened responses to beauty and a greater appreciation of nature. But the ego factor is just as important too, if not more so. Almost every spiritual teacher has declared that the major enemy to spiritual development is the ego, and that spiritual development consists of subduing the ego and transcending our normal sense of separation. At the highest level of spiritual development
- enlightenment, samadhi or deification - the sense of separation fades away be completely and we fuse into oneness with the whole world and everything in it. And with no sense of being a separate self, we have no sense of sequential time either.
The Point of it All
The point of all this is that if we know why time behaves in these strange ways then we can learn to control its passing. One of the paradoxes which this interpretation of time gives rise to is that it's possible for two people who live for exactly the same life span in terms of years to experience vastly different amounts of time in their lives.
A person who lives a dull, routine-filled life and rarely exposes herself to new environments and experiences, will live through much less time in her life than another person who, for example, has done lots of different jobs, lived in different countries, tried dozens of different hobbies etc. In the same a way a person who lives in a
'spiritual' state of being - perhaps a Buddhist monk or someone who's meditated twice a day for twenty years
- and has managed to transcend his sense of being a separate ego to some extent, will live through more time in his life than most other people.
And these two examples illustrate the two different approaches we can take to stop time flying by so fast and increasing the amount of time we live through. One the one hand you can try the
'Rimbaud method' of trying to maximise the amount of unfamiliarity you're exposed to. Like the crazy French poet himself, you could try to avoid settling down, keep moving on from place to place, from life-situation to life-situation, to try to make sure that your perceptions of your surroundings never become robotic. There'll always be a massive amount of perceptual information coming at you and you'll live through a massive amount of time.
This way of life isn't really feasible for most of us, of course - even if we might have had a couple of wanderjahre when we were younger, the urge to wander soon gives way to a need to put down some roots, buckle down to some sort of work (creative or otherwise) endeavour and perhaps even start a family. But we can still try to expose ourselves to as much unfamiliarity as possible while we're fairly settled: make sure you don't do the same job for too long, for example, keep exposing yourself to new ideas, new hobbies and new cultural interests, and use your free time to expose yourself to unfamiliar environments (e.g. holidays to strange places).
What this really means is trying to 'get around' the Robot, by feeding ourselves with an endless diet of newness which it hasn't yet had the opportunity to turn to familiarity. But it's probably more satisfactory to confront the problem head on and deal with the Robot itself rather than just its effects. In other words, rather than changing our lives, we should try to change our selves. We could try the
'Wilson method' of making a conscious effort to take over the reins of perception from the Robot and to perceive the world with our
'Real I'. What this means is simply putting effort into the act of perception; instead of just glossing over the phenomenal world around us we should make a real concerted effort to look at it. This may be something of a struggle to begin with, but, as Wilson says, after a while the
'muscle' of mental concentration will begin to develop, and non-automatic perception will become natural to us. We could also follow more conventional spiritual paths, like Buddhism or Tantra Yoga. In fact these are ideal, because (unlike both the Rimbaud method and Wilson method) they deal with both of the factors which affect our sense of time, with our sense of ego as well as the Robot. At the same as teaching us how to
'de-automatise' our awareness, they help us to transcend our sense of being a separate ego.
One way of looking at this is as an alternative to going to the gym every day and eating organic fat free foods. What's the point in trying to stay healthy to make our lives last longer when time is speeding by at a million miles an hour, and even if you do manage to live for a few extra years those are only going to be the equivalent of a few weeks of time to a 16 year old? Surely you'd be better advised to extend time from the inside, by slowing down its passing. Or best of all, do both, so that you can live for 100 years and experience countless aeons of blissful experience within them.