The folded hands of Time
Reversing the flow and influencing the past
Time is a disconcerting invention, often pushing at us in ways we are unaware.
Without warning the past can emerge, interrupting our solitude without permission, bringing with it an alarming and unapologetic intensity. It can be hard to ignore its force and power, and we can find ourselves asking, “From whence has all this forgotten clarity actually emerged?”
From whence has all this forgotten clarity actually emerged?
Memories of events and people from decades earlier come rushing in, sometimes so strongly that they can feel fresh and vivid. It’s the freshness which can be disturbing.
We can rationally understand that our memories may span 50 years or more. But when the unexpected memories emerge, it feels inconsequential in a sense, as though a part of our memory has done nothing more than pop into consciousness with a bit of unexpected clarity. We rarely question how or why it emerged.
At times, I find these things to be difficult to navigate. In part because I think there are things going on with memory that we don’t understand. Including our concept of time.
Consequently, I start having questions:
Am I actually remembering?
Or am I perhaps experiencing in the ‘now’ something that seemed to occur in the ‘then’?
Is my mind literally, not metaphorically, time traveling?
Time: objectivity and subjectivity
I love that some of our readers have well-developed scientific backgrounds. I embrace the scientific method even though I am a layman. The only times I’ve ever railed against an objective approach has been to scold a form of objectivity that has been horse-whipped into a purity so pure as to rule out the value of subjective experiences.
That being said, it is from the perspective of evaluating the subjective experience objectively that we present monastic essays which include various cases for deeper conscious awareness and experiences, including ideas and insights regarding the nature of consciousness itself.
What if we were to reverse our expectation of time’s forward momentum?
One of our writers, Gerben T., wrestles with the notion of time, along with how expectation and momentum gives us a sense of forward motion. But what if we reversed that sense of expectation or momentum? Reversed it in a manner that corresponded with a reversal in the flow of motion?
Consider an asteroid. It is always moving forward. Were we to ask an asteroid if it could conceive of moving backwards, it might be able to conceptualize the notion but it would never consider the idea on its own. Because it’s too committed to the idea of forward motion.
On the other hand, while a river tends to always flow in an expected direction, it is possible for its flow to be reversed.
The Chicago River — In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago, then headed by William Boldenweck, completely reversed the flow of the Main Stem and South Branch of the river using a series of canal locks, increasing the river’s flow from Lake Michigan and causing it to empty into the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
This concept of reverse flow is what’s at the root of what startles me most severely, particularly when old — yet intensely vivid — memories emerge. It’s as though the river has fundamentally reversed its current. Or perhaps time itself has presented a consciousness gap in which to temporarily observe and experience its reverse flow, something we don’t normally notice.
In the case of the Chicago River, the desire to reverse its flow towards the Mississippi and away from the adjoining Lake Michigan had to do with an accumulation of sludge and sewage occurring at the mouth of the river’s exit into the lake. Once reversed, the sludge began to clear up. If we put this into the terms of reversing the flow of time, we might find a number of things clearing up, as well.
Is time physical?
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: To appreciate time is to feel the fabric of reality. I interview physicists and philosophers on my public television series, “Closer to Truth,” and many assert that time is an illusion. What do they mean that time is “not real?”
Huw Price, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, claims that the three basic properties of time come not from the physical world but from our mental states: A present moment that is special; some kind of flow or passage; and an absolute direction.
“What physics gives us,” Price said, “is the so-called ‘block universe,’ where time is just part of a four-dimensional space-time … and space-time itself is not fundamental but emerges out of some deeper structure.”
We sense an “arrow” or direction of time, and even of causation, he said, because our minds add a “subjective ingredient” to reality, “so that we are projecting onto the world the temporal perspective that we have as agents [in this environment].” — Source
Time: the ebb and flow
I dare tread into the more fundamental aspects of science, untrained as I am, because I strongly assert the value of the subjective experience.
The subjective experience is the yin to the yang of the objective. If we ignore the objective we become ungrounded. If we ignore the subjective, we become robots.
The objectivist’s hands sift through the silt in the riverbed to analyze its state and health. The subjectivist’s mind rides the current down the river, caught up in the beauty of the experience. It’s the merging of these two perspectives that causes an analytic dreamer to imagine reversing a river or building a dam, and to consider the potential possibilities of back-flow, diversion and stored energy.
Imagining something grander
We can portray our reality as either a three-dimensional place where stuff happens over time,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark, “or as a four-dimensional place where nothing happens [‘block universe’] — and if it really is the second picture, then change really is an illusion, because there’s nothing that’s changing; it’s all just there — past, present, future.
“So life is like a movie, and space-time is like the DVD,” he added; “there’s nothing about the DVD itself that is changing in any way, even though there’s all this drama unfolding in the movie. We have the illusion, at any given moment, that the past already happened and the future doesn’t yet exist, and that things are changing. But all I’m ever aware of is my brain state right now. The only reason I feel like I have a past is that my brain contains memories.”
“Time is out there,” said Andreas Albrecht, a theoretical cosmologist at the University of California, Davis. “It’s called an external parameter — the independent parameter in the [classic] equation of motion. So, time — the time we know since we learned to tell time on a clock — seems to disappear when you study physics, until you get to relativity.
“The essence of relativity is that there is no absolute time, no absolute space. Everything is relative. When you try to discuss time in the context of the universe, you need the simple idea that you isolate part of the universe and call it your clock, and time evolution is only about the relationship between some parts of the universe and that thing you called your clock.”
When I look back at certain events, relationships, or decisions in my life, I feel regret. Anxiety emerges, especially as I peer forward and see death approaching. I sadly realize that I am sometimes helplessly compelled by memory to carry those regrets and anxieties with me to my grave. I often feel I have no choice.
But then, within the context of such vivid experiences, including deeply subjective experiences that have suggested we can influence the past, I’m left wondering: is there truly no choice?
Or are we so immersed in the subjective nature of our interpretation of time that we can’t allow for the possibility of a dam? Something that’s stopping things up? Perhaps those strong memories emerge as a call to change, a call to literally time-machine back into the past and actually change it.
If we pay attention to the physicists and apply a simple bit of logic, then it makes just as much sense that we can influence the past from the present as that we can influence the future from the present. Because “it’s all just there — past, present, future.”
Time and free will
When we sense we have no choice, when we feel doomed to wear our burdens straight into the grave, then it’s reasonable for a man or a woman to assert that there’s no free will.
But rivers can reverse. Tides go in and out. And if time is indeed perception, and if past and future are truly ever present, then in theory past and future are equally accessible and influenced.
We’ve all observed that the present can influence the future. I’ve personally seen that the present can influence the past. Science needs to help break down the doors that keep us from realizing this.
Our current concept of time is like a dam. The dam is the present, the producer of energy. The water that flows downstream is the future (see Figure 1); the force of that flow is driving future change. The past is the reservoir built up behind the dam.
Humans focus on the present, on what we can produce right now. We also look downstream a ways, but usually no further than the first turn or two. When it comes to our relationship with the past, we perceive the reservoir as something that’s already happened. We forget we can sail and ski on it, have houseboat parties or camp on its shores. Consequently, our relationship with the past is unintentionally and habitually stunted.
We of the now can touch the us of the then.
In the real world, reservoirs become lakes surrounded by wealthy developments and resorts. In the world of time, the lake is seemingly devoid of presence, its shores empty and untapped. All that’s there are languishing memories. Yet, if we look closely, there are people there. Us. And the we of the now can touch the us of the then.
What’s conceptually harder? For the us of back then to reach forward to mystery of the now, or for the we of the now to reach back to the experience of the then? Either way, the responsibility and challenge is ours.
P.S. Are topics like this of interest to most people? No. And that’s totally ok, from my point of view. But for the small sliver of humanity that finds thing like this interesting… hats off to you.