The Mayan civilization, located in what is now Southern Mexico and Guatemala, flourished centuries before Hernán Cortés and other European powers stumbled into what they thought was India.
In this piece, I’m going to outline the Mayan concept of time, one of their greatest metaphysical achievements, and then explain how to make use of this notion to practice daily, or at least regular, joys.
Most of the greatest Mayan works, unfortunately, were destroyed in the Spaniard’s bonfires of the late 1500s and early 1600s. What we have are four primary works, including the books of the Chilam Balam and the Popul Vuh, and inscriptions carved into stone in classical Mayan.
Though a slender basis, it has proved enough for a small group of philosophers (of which I am a part) to take seriously the claim that the Maya were a philosophical culture and to develop their views.
In a line, Mayan time is the number of each day’s solar energy. Thinking about time in this way teaches us a pair of formulas for finding joy in our daily lives. Those formulas run: inattention plus time yields boredom and frustration, while attention plus time yields joy and significance.
To explain, let’s start with the basics.
How the Maya Thought About Time
What is different about the Mayan sense of time is that they approached it in a way that makes its existential meaning obvious.
By “existential meaning” I have in mind the difference between Christmas and December 25. The former is a celebration day that people find important for their own lives, the latter is just a date on a calendar.
Existential meaning is what makes something feel important and significant for you. It’s the difference between a house, which is just a building for sale, and a home, which is where you live your life.
To understand how the Mayan concept of time brought this existentially meaningful dimension forward, we need to situate it a little.
My own scholarly conclusion is that the Maya were just like the Aztecs and held that god was just nature — our entire universe. They called this god Hunab Ku, the “unified god.” According to the Motul dictionary of 1590, “he had no image because … being incorporeal, he could not be pictured.”
According to cosmic legend, Hunab Ku unfolded, or self-expressed, as the spatial coordinates of our universe: North, South, East, and West. And these coordinates were also related in time. That’s why “god” as they understood the idea just is our Spatio-temporal cosmos.
Each aspect of our existence, then, is given a temporal expression. And in Quiche’ Maya, the term for that temporal expression is k’ in. For the Maya, k’ in is almost immediately the sun and the sun’s energy as it rises and sets on each day.
While Aristotle thought of time as the number of motion, the Maya thought of time as the number of a force that is manifest each day through the sun’s rays.
Of course, you’ve experienced the different strength of the sun’s power. Sometimes it’s cloudy and other times it’s scorching hot. And the Maya noticed that too.
They wanted to live according to these different expressions because it matters if you’re going to enter fall or spring. Most basically, then, the Mayan calendar was made to keep track of these different manifestations of k’ in.
The society that emerged around this k’ in concept thus sought to appreciate and cultivate the force of time every day, and that is why they had daily rituals to help that process. They thought of these rituals as facilitating the basic cosmic powers, and they also made each day existentially meaningful.
Not every day was like Christmas, but they were all important in their own way. And on roughly a monthly basis the Maya had larger rituals that unified their communities and their way of life. They would gather, eat, dance, and appreciate the power of time passing — often through recalling stories.
How to Practice Mayan Timing
The rise of the scientific world view has made the existential meaning that the Maya found so obvious rather inaccessible. Most of us don’t wake up with a deep appreciation for nature and the specialness of our daily lives. An alarm clock goes off, and we get up grumbling about the need to go to school or work.
But could we wake up as they did? Is there a way to recover Mayan practices for modern people? I think so, and I’ll give you two practices to do it.
In the Popul Vuh, you can find an expression of the origin of our cosmos and human life. According to its legends, humans are made only after the god’s fourth attempt (the gods are personified in this work, but remember that each god is really just a different expression of natural forces).
After the gods' initial attempt at making humans, the Popul Vuh reads:
“We have already made a first attempt
at this framing and this shaping [of humans],
but no one named our names,
no one spoke our praise or kept our days.”
For our purposes, it is enough if you notice one point: the Mayan legends clearly support the view that you and I are to speak praises of the gods, of the various forces that nature is.
The natural world that supports our existence is a gift, in the Mayan view, and this means that you and I should practice gratitude for our daily existence.
While we don’t have Mayan rituals to help us, scientific research suggests some ways to renew our latent awe for nature.
To be clear, awe is a mixed feeling of nature’s vastness and accommodation for our place in it. The feeling is foundational to religion, politics, and art because it puts us in contact with a sense of something larger than ourselves.
Some people report experiencing awe with the birth of a child. Others report feeling it during a spectacular thunderstorm. I felt it when I travelled to the Grand Canyon and watched the expanse go as far as the eye could see.
Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker are three psychologists who have found that our experiences of awe change our perception of time. Specifically, it slows down. They write:
“Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying that it would otherwise.”
While we can’t implement Mayan rituals into our lives exactly, this evidence suggests that we can recover a similar sense of awe before nature.
The most straightforward way to find awe is to go journey as a Mayans would. Seek out those places that provoke a sense of vastness and wonder.
It would be ideal if you could go to the Grand Canyon or some similarly spectacular place. But you only need to venture onto a hilltop with a view of the skyline or the night sky to appreciate our place in nature.
Attention thus matters more than a location for awe — even if travelling helps.
Recently, I took my wife on a Mayan “date” to our rooftop. We had some blankets and a warm drink since even in the summer upstate New York has cold nights. And then we didn’t talk but stared at the sky trying to find our place in it.
Remember the key points: you are searching for an interaction with nature where you can both feel the vastness of it and your place within it. You can’t force that experience, but you can come to it with an open mind.
If you feel time itself slow down, then you are doing it in a way that approximates the Mayan practice. It is a simple, but profoundly positive experience.
The Mayan practice of storytelling accomplished something beyond sustaining their communal memory: it helped to retain the value of the present moment for the future.
The Popul Vuh ends on just such a note since it ends before it was supposed to. It was supposed to recall the teachings of the “council book” (literally: popul vuh) that would explain how to direct your life according to time. It would also explain your human place in the cosmos from your original mother-fathers to the present. Instead, it ends as follows:
“This is enough about the being of Quiche’, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost, but even so, everything has been completed here concerning Quiche’, which is now named Santa Cruz.”
There is a poignancy to the closure of the work that sets it among the world’s great pieces of literature. The story and its unexpected ending also serve to make the present moment available to the future.
Do we also have a way of making our now available to us in the future?
You and I might try to follow on the work of five Harvard researchers who were interested in measuring whether people would appropriately predict their future interest in the present moment.
To set up the experiment, they had participants make time capsules, which included items such as three songs they had listened to recently, the last social event they had attended, an inside joke with friends, and a recent photo of some sort. They might also write about a recent conversation. Then, the researchers asked people to rate how curious they’d be about these documents several months later.
When the time came to open the capsules, people were far more curious than they had predicted they would be — and this finding held constant across multiple experiments. People appear to consistently undervalue the rediscovery of their present experiences in the future.
“By recording ordinary moments today, one can make present a ‘present’ for the future,” the team of researchers wrote.
So that’s a surprising way to recover the Mayan appreciation of the present: make a time capsule for yourself to rediscover your present moment in the future.
You could make the activity special for someone you love and give it to them on the appropriate day — on mother’s day or father’s day, for example. You could even do it among friends for a celebration or for Thanksgiving (one year to the next).
In this way, you’ll not only bring a little bit of joy into your own life, like the Mayan practices, but you’ll also be able to share it with other people.
How These Practices Will Shift Your Life
I have written on the hardest daily exercise that the Stoic philosophers of Greece thought you needed to live a happier life.
These Mayan practices may be less transformative, but you shouldn’t underestimate their impact.
When researchers on happiness tried to find a relationship between money and people’s reported levels of life satisfaction, they found that after about $105,000 a year (adjusted for your city’s cost of living index), more money won’t make you noticeably happier.
One reason is that people fail to recognize how time will affect what they think will make them happy.
To explain, suppose that you win a prize from the candy bar maker Mars, Inc. In this hypothetical world, your favorite candy bar is the Snickers bar (which my students assure me is clearly the best of the bars they offer). For your prize, you will receive one bar of your choice every two weeks for the next 10 years. You can choose:
- to have a Snickers bar, your favorite, delivered every two weeks, or
- to have an assortment of bars delivered, rotating out the Snickers bar with others.
Which would you select?
Most people tend to select the assortment. The problem with that choice, according to researchers, is that you are forgetting that you will only be eating a Snickers bar every two weeks … and that’s a lot of time in between. It’s not like eating the same thing every day.
Something similar happens when we get up with an alarm clock and grumble about the day. Modern life leads us to forget the value of the present and to overlook what should inspire joy.
These Mayan practices of time offer a solution.
If you’re not at that $105,000 mark, these practices offer regular joy at no cost but your attention. And if you’re over it, then these practices offer something that you cannot even buy.
That makes them literally priceless in value.
I’ll leave you with a final quotation from the Popul Vuh when the first humans were successfully created.
And they gave thanks
To the Framer and Shaper:
“Truly, we thank you,
Two times, three times …
[For] we know well what we
learned and saw, far and near,
great and the small:
All there is in the sky and earth.”
Thank you for reading and I hope you learned something.
Sebastian Purcell’s research specializes in world comparative philosophy, especially as these ancient traditions teach us how to lead happier, richer lives. He lives with his wife, a fellow philosopher, and their three cats in upstate New York.