The Dissolution of Time

This truth is unmeasurable one instant is ten thousand years. . .

Words fail to describe it for it is neither of the past, present, nor future.

Master Seng-ts'an, Affirming Faith in Mind

Nothing hinders the soul's knowledge of God as much as time and space, for time and space are fragments, whereas God is one. Therefore, if the soul were to know God, it must know him above time and outside space.

Meister Eckhart (12607-1327?)1

Time seemed to disappear, in different ways, in kensho and absorption. In each case we want to know: where did time go? For its disappearance is more than a singular absence. It is the kind of silent clue that helps solve a very large problem. As did that clue of the dog who didn't bark in the Sherlock Holmes tale.

Part of one's clinical training in medical school is to learn to evaluate our patient's mental status. The critical criterion is: Is this patient oriented to time, place, person, and situation? If not, then something is very abnormal about the state of the brain.

Yet we have just observed how our internal clock runs on flextime. We bend time, in keeping with changes in our internal and external circumstances. For example, as William James had noted, we have "no sense for empty time." This means we cannot tell how long an interval is if it lacks all sensible content. And depressed patients feel that time stands still, arrested in its passage. Time moves again when their depression lifts. Can these phenomena be measured? Tests on humans do show that segments of time that last one or two seconds seem shorter when they are vacant, but seem longer once they are filled with clicks of sound.2

And rats, too, can add to our understanding. Researchers can train rats to "learn" certain longer intervals of time. The technique is to withhold food until the end of each such interval. It can then be shown that cholinergic mechanisms influence the way the animals estimate these time intervals. Indeed, higher effective levels of acetylcholine appear to help the rats retain useful memory traces both in their long-term reference memory and in their ongoing working memory functions.3 But the experiments also suggest something else: when rats are rushed into storing memories faster, they don't remember well the particular time interval involved. And other drugs that enhance the synaptic functions of dopamine cause the rats' internal clock to speed up.

During such experiments, the animal's brain seems to draw inferences about how much time has elapsed. The experimenter reinforces these inferences by using the stimulus of food. Food then satisfies an appetitive function, hunger. In the process, the animal's brain becomes conditioned. This means that it will link its visceral functions into some "semi-higher-level" notions about time (see chapter 74). As children, we too learned, from hunger pangs and gut rumbles, that an uncomfortably long interval had passed since we ate last. So one begins to wonder: suppose a person's brain were to be cut off briefly from the cues linked to these appetitive drives; assume also that it had been cut off from its other references to the personal self at multiple other levels. What would happen to its constructs of time? Rephrasing the question: when you lose both your physical and psychic self, wouldn't that dissolve personal time sequences? Wouldn't it interrupt cause-and-effect relationships?


Each person's internal time clock is a very private matter. The "time" of the historian is time in the abstract. Suppose we of the Atlantic community are given three dates: 1776, 1066, and 1492. We are then asked simply to sequence these three years in the order in which they occurred. Our brains reshuffle these numbers, manipulating them in "time," in this abstract historical sense. We wind up with 1066, 1492, 1776. Important years, to be sure, but they remain musty, detached, impersonal. We weren't there. But let some memorable event happen to us directly, not to Jefferson, or the Normans, or Columbus. Say it was the close call from that car when we were walking across the street at the age of ten. This moment went into our own time frame. It was stamped with our own monogram. It became an event in our time.

But "our time" has a vast infrastructure of which full consciousness remains largely ignorant. Why so ignorant? Because, into many levels of unconscious behavior, we also wove countless other forgettable things which happened to us. And no matter how forgettably incidental each of these events was, our private time clock still took note of it. In the process, it developed an implicit operational definition: this is what one second means in motoric terms. Let us sum up this operation with the phrase doing-time.

"Doing-time" keeps track of how much you can actually do in a given interval of time. Preconsciously it factors in more than how fast you can run. It also judges how wide are those next streets to be crossed, and how fast the cars are coming. So the results are twofold. Now the person's estimates of the duration of time become a useful basis for subsequent go/no go decisions. Moreover, these same estimates of doing-time also enlarge our silent notions of self. No longer is it a static physical self. It becomes a dynamic self-in-motion, running at a requisite speed. This self knows how fast it must run that unforgiving distance between two curbstones on either side of the street.

Time is embedded in our memory traces. And some of these traces are almost like tree rings laid down in the trunk of an old bristlecone pine. Earlier memories of grade school seem to cluster into the inner layers. And following after such older associations, we sense that more recent events have arrived, say during the ages from fourteen to seventeen. In any tree, the annual rings run thick and thin. Years of austerity and struggle form the toughest part of the grain. You can't erase these dark, dense traces no matter how you cut the log or sand the board. The human constructs of time, likewise, are very difficult to erase. With each passing year, we incorporate new layers of associations into our grain. A succession of memories reinforces our own physical and psychic image. The result is a very firmly layered construction: ourselves in our time. Now suppose some very dramatic event happens, such as kensho. A state which planes off every last ridgeline of the grain of time! Could anyone be more astonished than a neurologist, someone who relies on the criteria of time to assess his patient's mentation?

Now, in this book, we're approaching Zen not to bring us more puzzles and riddles. We're pointing toward Zen because it can also help clarify where time is coming from, and perhaps why time dissolves. Let us now dig further into what happens to time, first while sitting quietly, next during meditation, then during absorption and kensho.

Ordinary, quiet sitting shrinks the estimate of time. Thirty seconds of real time contract so that they seem to last only twenty-six seconds. During zazen, meditators tend to expand their estimates of time. Thirty seconds of real time now seem to last thirty-seven seconds. A meditator's slow respirations could contribute cues which might help stretch time. For instance, when subjects breathe rapidly, they estimate twenty-second-long intervals as having increased to twenty-three seconds. In contrast, breathing slowly further increases the estimate to thirty-five seconds.4

Daily life practice hones the meditator's attention. It keeps bringing its focus back—time after time—on the sharp tip of this present moment. Later, when a major absorption finally occurs, attention also shifts into an ultraclear, one-pointed mode which encompasses the absolute NOW. Where is the past? Where is the future? They have simply fallen off the knife edge to either side. In a subject whose attention has been held transfixed for seconds in this manner, the data become deeply imprinted. A similar phenomenon occurs during other momentous occasions. Generations of people remember vividly where they were when they first heard of the unexpected death of a president. And the death of a close family member brings home something else. Let's refer to it as the sands of time. For the human sense of time remains privately aware that it has finite limitations. It understands, deeply, that life is transient; this is not a rehearsal. Hakanai jinsei implies that our sands of time will run out, sooner or later.

Streams of these thoughts and countless other undercurrents swirl through our brain. So much so that, under most ordinary circumstances, we accept (as being reasonably accurate) Descarte's statement: "I think, therefore I am." Absorption is different. All thoughts stopped when the writer's brain entered into a long moment of absorption: time seemed mostly suspended (see chapter 121). Anyone can experience a somewhat similar time lapse, briefly. Suppose some word or concept on a page totally absorbs your attention. At this moment, the notion drops out that there had been previous pages, or that there will be pages yet to come. So let us begin here (in order to sharpen a later contrast), by representing this absence of time during absorption as

NOW is!

Kensho goes much further. Inside it, there was no sense of my being outside time or beyond time. For such phrases might suggest to the reader that time might still have been lurking around back there somewhere else, serving as a basis for comparison. Instead the impression afterward was that timelessness had permeated a nonentity. Can this be possible? Not unless simultaneously, all personal time traces had dropped out. Indeed, kensho seemed to have cut off, from the field of conscious awareness, each of time's previous affiliations with the self. When all the old emotional polarities in this circuitry drop out of the picture, they leave a Grand Canyon-sized experiential gap. No word levels in descriptive psychology convey how deep is this chasm.

Just as we have shackled guilt to events in our past, so do we project fears which mortgage the future. Yet suppose this imaginary future time drops out. What happens? All such fearsome event sequences vanish. Moreover, during no-I, no basis remains for estimating how much I can do, should do, or must do in a given period. No meddling impulses arise which would need to invoke these covert functions of doing-time. The timeless moment stands as it is, already perfect.

Each human lifetime, like an airplane flight, takes off on a baby's birth date, soars for a while, then comes in on a final approach for the inevitable landing of some kind. Birth and death. One more pair of opposites. They occupy either end of an autobiographical yardstick. No need for either concept in kensho. It lacks this yardstick, carries no implication of birth or death. Therefore, in a manner of speaking, it does remain "unborn," just as Bankei said, and its timelessness recedes at both ends into the open-endedness of infinity. As a result, the field of consciousness, in kensho, shorn of / and all of its time cues, has the sense that


What is this eternity? No conventional yardsticks of time do it justice. True, every commonsense line of reasoning leads us to believe that the present universe did have a beginning. And the astrophysical data could be interpreted as consistent with at least some kind of creative force, or deity principle if you prefer. On the other hand, alternative views began to be held even at the dawn of Western traditions. Some Greeks believed in a different kind of universe. It was one that had no beginning, end, or creator. Parmenides, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, concluded that being is; that it has no past or future. He would phrase it: "Nor was it, nor will it be, since it is now altogether one, cohesive."5 Another pre-Socratic Greek, Heraclitus, stated: "No God or man made the present scheme of things, the same for all—instead, it always was and is and will be an always-living fire, being kindled in measures, and being quenched in measures."6 However thoughtful and imaginative were these pioneer philosophers, one may doubt that intellect alone could have led them to draw such startling conclusions unless deep insights had first paved the way.

A few mystics, having once experienced this timeless state, then become carried away. Convinced that birth and death are forever erased, they hold that there is, in fact, no passage of time at all, that all time is an illusion. One doesn't have to be an archeologist who relies on the decay of carbon 14 or some other element to know this is not true. Such false notions are also alien to the visitor at the natural history museum who sees, preserved, the casts of footprints made at Laetoli by our first erect ancestors, 3J/2 million years ago. Nor can these delusions arise in the vacationer at the Grand Canyon, awed by seeing exposed those layers of geological time reckoned in hundreds of millions of years.

So let us conclude that the mental construct we call "time" does exist, and that its sequences are backed up by rock-solid layers. Then what happens, inside kensho, to create so different an impression? As noted in the previous chapter, Piaget's studies showed that children develop several concepts—all together—during their first year. These include their initial concepts of time and their personal affiliations with other things inside "their" space. One may hypothesize, then, that when three such integral functions have developed together during the same dynamic period they might be more likely to shatter simultaneously during the impact of insight-wisdom.

Can any other simple analogies help us understand how time dissolves? In Japan, a Zen monk's working clothes include a light cotton garment called a sa-mugi. The upper half is basically a loose-fitting blouse. It has a flap that wraps around to close the front, and two square-cut arms sewn onto either side. Soshin-san, a kindly Rinzai nun, once assured me that she could easily sew the pieces together, and to do so would be "no trouble at all." (She had seen that I lacked appropriate garb, then insisted that I purchase some yard cloth, so that she could make me a samugi of my own to use for zazen and work!)

Envision our concept of personal time as also cut out of whole cloth. Its fabric is composed of interwoven association networks. Out of the open body of the present moment, one sleeve reaches back into the distance of the past. The opposite arm gropes out into the matrix of future space. In such a garment of "time," the pieces are loosely joined, for only looping circuitries approximate their edges at various levels throughout the brain. And if you were to cut the stitches which hold this fabric together, the semblance of time might drop out of ongoing experience.

Time-Related Circuits

How do we weave the fabric of time? And where could a few scissor cuts cause a whole garment to come apart? Patients develop major defects in estimating time after lesions that damage their mediodorsal thalamus on both sides. They become confused about the hour and date, don't know what season it is, or how old they are.7 The fornix and its closely related limbic regions also enter into our initial "time-tagging" operations, and they play an important role in our working memory for time. A patient who suffers damage to the fornix can lose memory specifically for recent events.8 (In the rat, lesions which interrupt the fornix can reduce the rat's memory for certain time-related events, yet they spare the workings of that larger "internal clock" which goes on to measure all such events.9)

A normal person remains well oriented to time, place, and person, keenly appreciating that edges exist along these planes of experience that help define different situations. Things become blurred along these three interfaces in patients who are recovering from surgical operations on their cingulate gyrus. They cannot distinguish between their own internal mental events on the one hand, and real happenings in the outside world. Time turns into a jumble of incorrect temporal sequences: they can't recall recent events, and they contaminate the present mental field with memories displaced out of the remote past. In addition, their thoughts and dreams become more vivid.10

The clinical deficits cited above occur secondary to acute structural lesions in the thalamus or limbic system. Many of these same deficits stand in contrast to the mental status of a normal person after he or she emerges from internal absorption or kensho. After either state, the subject may then recall not only the details, patterns, and sequences of most events which had just occurred but finds them especially memorable. So most time-tagging operations seem to have been preserved in the medial temporal and fornix regions, at least for the facts of that particular impressive ongoing experience.

Given that most details of the immediate kensho experience itself do remain in memory, then how are we to account for the temporary dropping out of the rest of the vast bulk of time? One possibility is that its brief absence reflects a selective lack of inclusion of certain prefrontal systems, at least in the way their usual orderly functions had been organizing experience. In the preceding chapter, the case could be made that our frontal lobe functions usually help us restructure sequences of events into different working strategies. Indeed, patients who have large lesions in the prefrontal lobes often lose those cognitive and behavioral functions which project time constructs usefully into the future. Moreover, other patients whose lesions damage the undersurface of their forebrain regions tend to lose their memory for time over a broad front. They drop out short-term, long-term, and remote memories.8 And after frontal and basal forebrain lesions, rats can't divide their attention if they are presented with tasks which require that they keep track of the arrival time of more than one stimulus."

In assessing the experiments cited above, one must be careful not to assume that "time" and "memory" mean the same thing in different animals. And it is more difficult still to draw valid analogies between what animals experience and what we humans experience. For yes, patients can't place words or pictures into their proper sequence after damage to various prefrontal regions. Yet, when trained monkeys develop similar sequencing impairments, it will be after lesions of their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Whereas, when rats show similar time-sequencing defects, it will be after lesions of their medial prefrontal cortex.12 One might interpret such differences as follows. Perhaps when rats normally perform their sequencing tasks, they are relying more on the older, lower, "smell-brain" variety of /zmfefc-frontal circuitries. Whereas higher mammals (including humans) normally may be engaging more of their higher-level parietofrontal functions.

So it is useful to envision the loose garment we call time as drawing on at least these two major components—limbic and parietal—as well as on several others to be sure. For this sense of time is not an abstraction. It is a working garment. Woven out of a variety of sensorimotor networks, it includes a dynamic doing-time which operates within our larger matrix of personal space. And therefore, normally, as part of the stitching which holds all this together at the seams, our sense of time would seem to extend through much of the whole brain, involving regions on both sides that function in an integrated manner.

Timelessness is letting go of all this. Through a process of transient disconnections, jammings, or bypassings.

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