What is time? Is it a separate, dominant entity, truly absolute, universal, or does it exist only within the realm of human perception? Does it actually flow from the future, through the present and into the past, or is its passing merely a product of human consciousness? Furthermore, what is the nature of the relationship between time and reality?
To the esotericist these questions hold a special interest since, as the Tibetan master teaches, "an understanding of the relation of the past to the future and their united effect in the present will create one of the levers which will open the Door of Initiation."
One of the earliest known attempts to address the mystery of time was made by Aristotle, two thousand years or so ago. In his attempt to answer the question "what is time?" Aristotle came to the deceivingly simple conclusion that it is the measurement of change, i.e. given that things change continually, time is the measurement, the 'counting' of this change. He went as far as to posit that time exists in this manner even if the event being observed is non-physical, such as, for example, the manifestation of a thought. Given absolutely no change, no movement, Aristotle argued, time ceases to exist. The definition of time as a series of events is also present in the teachings of the Tibetan, who urges the student to "forget not the occult truth that time and events are one basic phenomenal happening."
This definition is, for most, fairly easy to accept because it coincides with the common notion of time as defined by the motion of celestial bodies, specifically from the earth's rotation around the sun, as well as its own axis: The rising of the sun from the east on the horizon, its path across the sky and its subsequent disappearance in the west at dusk constitute events which result in day and night, the phenomena perceived as the presence of time. The distance between these events is then divided and subdivided into those segments we know as years, hours, minutes and seconds. Out of the innumerable events that occur, external and internal, physical, emotional and mental, the revolution of the earth around the sun and the alternation of day and night are the most powerful, regular and globally acknowledged, and as such they are perceived to mark the passing of time.
The esotericist however is also taught that the world of form, the world of appearances is but a manifestation, an imprint of a much more profound reality on the senses as interpreted by the brain , and therefore a function of consciousness. By consequence, the perception of time as the distance between events occurring in the phenomenal world must be a symbolic, exoteric manifestation of an inner, hidden process which first undergoes the transformations inherent in the descent into matter, the experience of which is then further distorted and interpreted by the state of consciousness of the perceiving entity. The mundane reality of time common to all men is but a shadow cast by time's true nature on the walls of Plato's cave , further adulterated by the individual perception of each prisoner of the planet.
Any attempt to delve into the essence of time must therefore begin with the process of dispelling those distortions specific to one's own mechanism and by achieving a certain degree of right mental perception and freedom from illusion and glamour. Unless this relative state of clarity has been achieved, the path through which is well defined for the aspirant and the disciple consciously treading the path of return, any effort to hold time in true contemplation is hindered. Only as the disciple progresses along the path and the intuition is increasingly awakened do the true nature and meaning of time become increasingly accessible. With persistent effort that state of consciousness is reached which marks the third initiation and the disciple, now a spiritual man in the true sense and unaware of divisions in time and space, comes to know existence in the Eternal Now. Before this point is reached, the aspirant struggling to delve into the essence of time must draw from those sources of knowledge and wisdom available to him, harvesting with discrimination those hints which will evoke the intuition.
One such hint anent time, which appears to be especially potent, is the repeated association in esoteric texts of time with space. The importance of this association is further emphasised by the fact that the relation between time and space is of paramount importance in the most advanced scientific theories of our time, more specifically in the science of physics . While physics and occultism are, arguably, two completely different forms of science, some of the latest, most significant discoveries in the realm of the former appear to converge with the teachings of the latter. This points to the suggestion that, in considering the hints anent time found in the ancient wisdom teachings in superimposition with their counterparts in the realm of physics, lies the potential for shedding additional light on the subject. It is with such potent parallelisms between occult wisdom and scientific knowledge that the approach towards furthering our understanding of time will be made.
The scientific discovery that first signalled a most fundamental re-examination of the established perceptions about time was made by Albert Einstein at the turn of the 20th century. Einstein initially posited that time is relative, i.e. it varies according to the speed of the point of reference from which it is being measured. He then proceeded to complement his theory, ten years or so later, by suggesting that objects with a large enough mass "modify" time and space around them, resulting in the slowing down of time . In effect this means that, at least as far as the science of physics is concerned, there is no such thing as a "true", absolute time existing as a separate entity, but countless localised "proper" times. Any allusion to the present moment, ("now") is only relevant to the point in space from which it is made and the speed at which it is moving . Time is not independent of the substance that the rest of the universe is made of, but unfolds as a web of innumerable localised times, jostling each other and bending under the influence of matter. The 'present', and by consequence time, is not absolute, it does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us .
The theory of relativity raises further questions as to the directionality of time: If there are indeed multiple variations of time, do they all flow in the same direction? Are the past and the future common to all "proper" times, or are they also also variable, subject to the point from which they are each being measured and/or perceived?
In fact, the temporal structure of the world as revealed by Einstein indicates that the order of events of the universe is partial, not complete, i.e. any given event is only related to those events preceding and succeeding it, not to all other existing events. This concept can be elucidated through the use of schemas commonly known as "light cones," used to represent events, or points in spacetime . The oblique lines delimiting each such cone represent the path along which light travels, with the bottom cone containing the events preceding the present moment and the top (inverted) one containing the events succeeding it, constituting a localised partial order of events (figure 1). The angle, or tilt of each light cone reflects any distortion in spacetime present at that specific point.
Though it is possible for past and future events between two or more partial orders to overlap (suggesting possible common sets of past and/or future events), such overlaps do not necessarily occur, a fact that is most obvious when observing the relation (or lack thereof) between proper "presents", which are represented by the point of intersection of the lines forming each cone.
Though a gross simplification, this apt schematic abstraction provides tangible insight into temporal structure as it is understood at this time by science and points to the fact that the trajectory towards the future is most certainly not quite the continuous, straight line we may believe it to be. Actually, under certain extreme conditions it is theoretically possible, based on the theory of relativity, to revisit a point in spacetime, i.e. for an event's future to meet with that future's past (figure 2).
As counter-intuitive as this may appear at first, it is arguably further reinforced by that fact that none of the basic laws of physics explicitly distinguishes the past from the future. Not Newton's laws, not Maxwell's equations for electricity and magnetism, not Einstein's laws on relativistic gravity or those of quantum mechanics devised by Heisenberg, Schrodinger or Dirac, nor any of the laws for elementary particles formulated by twentieth-century physicists. If a sequence of events is allowed by these equations, so is the same sequence backwards in time . The Tibetan touches upon this symmetry when he refers to "the inevitable swing of the pendulum between past and future as they both affect the present." So the question persists: Where does the common human perception, and experience, of the direction, of the "arrow" of time stem from?
Contemporary physics offers only a handful of possible explanations the most plausible of which is considered to be found in Rudolf Clausius's famous formula for the second principle of thermodynamics :
ΔS ≥ 0
The symbol 'S' stands for what Clausius named as entropy, from the ancient Greek τροπή, which means transformation . The equation states that entropy, a measurable and calculable quantity (the major component of which is heat), can only increase - it never decreases. At the molecular level, an increase in entropy translates to a transition from a state of a certain order to a stage of higher disorder. In practical terms it means that heat can only pass from hot bodies to cold, never the other way around. Astonishingly, the above equation is the only one in the realm of fundamental physics that "knows" the difference between the past and the future.
Clausius's formulation opened up a whole universe of exploration for Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 - 1906). With his profound understanding of the behaviour of atoms and molecules in gases, Boltzmann knew all too well that what we as humans, given our limited sensual perception view as a single, unchanged form, e.g. a chair, is in reality a collection of such particles in a process of constant transformation, or re-configuration from one microscopic state to another .
Boltzman's ingenious insight was that the definition of entropy stems from our inability to perceive the true state of the entire system, i.e. the universe. Unable to conceive the nature and full extent of the underlying perpetual (and stupendous) transformation, restricted by our limited, "blurred" vision of the true and total state of the world, we view the macroscopic state of the isolated body as being stable, and then proceed to measure the total effect of all that which we cannot possibly fathom in terms of entropy, or disorder, as it translates into heat generation and dissipation. In this light, entropy can be seen as a tangible expression of that which we do not know, expressed in terms that we can understand. It is a result of, and in a sense a substitute for, our ignorance of the true nature of the world and consequently, being a measure between its different states, so is time.
If we could escape the human time bubble bound by all those parameters specific to the human condition, rid ourselves of the "prejudices" dictated by the human mechanism and its natural environment and perceive the true nature of the totality of the universe at the microscopic level, any notion of order as we understand it would disappear, and with it the irreversible flow of entropy. Our current concept of time, in essence a product of our 'blurred' vision, would collapse and the true nature of time would reveal itself.
The esotericist cannot help but think that Boltzmann's recurrent references to "blurriness", our inability to perceive the true state of matter on a universal scale, are a physicist's way of restating a fact that to the occultist is a given, namely that the human state of consciousness is limited. If so, the physicist, albeit unknowingly, agrees with the occultist: Time only exists in as far as we are unable to perceive that which is hidden from our current state of consciousness, it is the "sequence of the states of consciousness, as registered by the human brain." The absence of "blurriness" is, correspondingly, absolute consciousness, "that consciousness in which everything is, the possible as well as the actual."
One last scientific field of physics remains to be addressed in the current examination of time, which is especially important as it is presents a number of insights regarding the quality of its relationship with reality: Quantum physics, also known as quantum mechanics, which describes nature at the smallest - atomic and subatomic - scales.
Though an adequate account of quantum physics would be far beyond the scope of the current discussion, suffice it to say that, whereas classical mechanics offers a clear and unambiguous relationship between what we see and what the theory describes, quantum reality suggests that what we see when we look at the world seems to be fundamentally different from what actually is - a concept that lies at the foundation of esoteric studies.
The most characteristic feature of quantum mechanics is granularity, namely the existence of a minimum scale for all phenomena. Such a minimum scale exists for time ('Planck time'), according to which the minimum possible value of time is determined to be 10-44 seconds , below which the notion of time is no longer valid. This suggests that the flow of time is not smooth and continuous like we sense it to be, but step-wise, jumping from one discrete value to another. At this point, the striking similarity between this scientific account of the discrete nature of time and the words of a Hindu commentary should come as no surprise: "A moment is a division of time in which minuteness reaches its limit."
Quantum mechanics departs from the classical, mechanistic scientific approach which views the scientist and that which is being studied as two separate, independent entities. Specifically, when attempting a measurement of the state (position and velocity) of a particle at the quantum level, one cannot predict which of a range of possible results will be produced but is instead restricted to knowing the probability that each "allowed" outcome will be observed. However, once the actual measurement is performed, the distribution of possible outcomes changes, it "collapses", becoming focused around the measured result - in other words, the likelihood of specific results is now different, it is strongly biased towards the result actually observed. Furthermore, all future measurements conform to this new, narrower breadth of possible outcomes. In effect, the scientist's interaction with his subject forms an irrevocable relationship which in a sense determines their common reality in a manner that is persistent. This phenomenon is known as "entanglement."
As revolutionary as this discovery may be in scientific terms, to the esotericist it is but a manifestation of the higher truth of the "unity of all beings", a dispelling of the "Great Illusion of separateness." Upon closer examination, it further elucidates the relationship between consciousness and the unravelling of events, and consequently of time, in the three worlds. Out of the state of absolute consciousness in which "everything is, the possible as well as the actual", which includes "everything that can be possibly conceived of as having occurred, or occurring, or going to occur," the individual human consciousness emerges as the instigator of a specific event, however minute in the grand scheme of things. By focusing thought energy in a chosen direction, the human consciousness polarises energy and consequently the formation of reality. The observer participates in the construction of a partial order, the creation of a "proper" time with a specific sequence of past, present and future. In other words, he becomes co-creator of reality in space and time or, arguably, of space and time.
The implications of entanglement are further broadened if one takes into consideration a formulation of quantum mechanics known as the Everettian formulation, or "many worlds" theory, which in a sense deals with the way in which a succession of quantum events is structured. The "many worlds" theory provides a possible explanation as to what happens between two successive steps of time at the quantum (Planck) scale, that point where time as we know it does not exist. Though the subject is quite abstruse and burdened with mathematical and statistical principles, the image it presents is one of a single, original state which branches out into innumerable possible outcomes, or possible 'worlds' (figure 3). At each iteration, the probability or "weight" that one branch will be followed over all the other possible ones, is related to its energy.
Although quantum physics concerns itself with phenomena at the atomic scale, to the occultist the emerging pattern is all too familiar: States of matter formed of energy, the quality of which determines the degree of certainty with which they will be transformed over time. The phenomenon of entanglement and the unfolding of the states of matter in the manner described above could as well be the scientific correspondences of the processes involved in occult meditation: The worker, through the act of meditation, directs the energy available to him onto an aspect of reality, for the purpose of achieving a specific effect, the effectiveness of his efforts and the nature of the results being contingent on the quality of the directed energy.
This last observation leads, in the context of this brief attempt to shed some light onto the nature of time, to one last thought, perhaps the most satisfying one of all: If time is a succession of events, given the hints found in esoteric texts and supplemented by the latest discoveries in physics we, as students, scientists, esotericists, are not passive subjects of its unravelling. In as far as we consciously choose to enter the events in every moment through our thoughts and our actions, we are its co-creators on all levels, from the subatomic to the infinite, from the mundane to the inconceivable. Though our destination may be predefined, the path that leads us there and the manner in which we shape time in our lives, are ours to claim.