Ideas of Time


If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow, and which will not...

Macbeth (Act I, Sc. iii)

The Theosophical Movement for the 19th-20th century was launched with the three objects set for forth by H.P.B. This magazine, too, has the same objects. The third of these objects is the investigation of the unexplained laws of Nature and the psychical powers latent in man. While such investigations are the constant and continual endeavour of students of Theosophy, scientists inquiring into the mysteries of Nature and its forces often stumble unconsciously upon one or another of these unexplained laws and provide the basis for further research and discovery.

Of late there is a distinct and noticeable trend among scientists to delve into the psychology of the human being by studying his subjective states. One sphere of investigation is how circumstances influence our sense of the passage of time. Like similar inquiries of science, this investigation of modern psychology is based mainly upon man's sensory-motor activity. Ancient psychology, the Science of the Soul, on the other hand, itself served as the basis for physical functionings. It is, therefore, proposed to examine the subject from a philosophical and universal point of view, by the application of the fundamental tenets of Theosophy, so that students might benefit by examining the ever-changing propositions of science in the light of the unvarying fundamentals of the Eternal Verities.

Psychological time is defined by psychologists as "subjective time that for each person is more or less independent of objective time." To the timepiece of the mind, an hour sometimes seems like a minute, or a minute like an hour. Philosophically, "our ideas on duration and time are all derived from our sensations according to the laws of Association" (The Secret Doctrine, I, 43-44). The sense of time arises from the unregulated activity of memory, imagination and thought—the attention of Self, the Perceiver, diffused over the three planes of action. The Secret Doctrine (I, 37) further states that "time is only an illusion produced by the succession of our states of consciousness as we travel through eternal duration, and it does not exist where no consciousness exists in which the illusion can be produced." According to Dr. Ivor B. Hart, "In the language of Western mathematics, time is a function of consciousness."

Psychological time has many aspects, and one is the historical attitude toward time. Men's ideas of time and what it represents have changed through the ages. In antiquity, men regarded as expressing power, opportunity and plenitude; but later it came to be looked upon as the bearer of misfortune, decay and decrepitude. What is of interest is the philosophical and metaphysical basis for this change of attitude.

To gain the understanding needed, the traditions of ancient Greece and India may be looked into, for the chronology of the ancient Greeks was borrowed from India. Kronos symbolizes "Infinite Time" or endless duration in Greek thought. Indian tradition speaks of infinite time or eternity as Kala. According to the Esoteric Philosophy, nothing has true existence save in duration (S.D., I, 36). Here we have the clue to the concept of plenitude, which also implies opportunity and power.

The mutilation of Uranus by his son Kronos is an allegorical representation of Absolute Time or Duration becoming the finite and the conditioned. Kronos cuts down with his scythe even the longest and (to us) seemingly endless cycles, which, commencing with a moment, go to make up the vast astronomical periods, called by the ancient Indians yugas, kalpas, manvantaras and brahmandas. These cycles, which are related to the motion of the orbs in the firmament, are influenced by the actions of humanity and result in various other major and minor cycles such as those of the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures. Kala is a cycle of time, as also a name given to Yama, the god of the dead and the king of the nether world; he is the embodiment of the race which was the first to be endowed with consciousness (Manas), without which there is neither the nether world nor the heavenly world. All this refers not only to the "decay-death" impression regarding time, but also to the concept of time as a function of consciousness, and to the eternal duality of manifestation.

Biological clocks, or living beings' innate sense of time, are being studied by scientists today. The ability to wake up "at a preappointed time, often just a few moments before the alarm clock goes off," is given as a familiar human illustration of such a mechanism; and an example in animals is the ability to time entry into and emergence from hibernation.

These phenomena are caused by the associative power of memory, and memory is one of the results of time. H. P. Blavatsky states in The Key to Theosophy (p. 122) that memory is "simply an innate power in thinking beings, and even in animals, of reproducing past impressions by an association of ideas principally suggested by objective things or by some action on our external sensory organs."

In another place H.P.B. wrote (Lucifer, October 1891):

No manifestation...can ever be lost from the Skandhaic record of a man's life. Not the smallest sensation, the most trifling action, impulse, thought, impression, or deed, can fade or go out from, or in the Universe. We may think it unregistered by our memory, unperceived by our consciousness, yet it will still be recorded on the tablets of the astral light....There are cells in our brain that receive and convey sensations and impressions, but this once done, their mssion is accomplished. These cells of the supposed "organ of memory" are the receivers and conveyers of all the pictures and impressions of the past, not their retainers. Under various conditions and stimuli, they can receive instantaneously the reflection of these astral images back again and this is called memory, recollection, remembrance: but they do not preserve them.

This could be linked with what science has discovered about internal biological clocks, which work independently of external factors.

Several investigators have tried to explain the discrepancies between psychological time and clock time by relating inner clocks to the temperature and diseased condition of the body. It is only natural that during illness there should be a departure from the normal reactions of the consciousness, giving rise to discrepancies between clock time and the private computation of time. Opium, hashish and drugs such as LSD and mescaline produce similar results.

Another aspect of psychological time is the estimation of time intervals by people. On the basis of the work of some scientists, three properties of man's inner clocks have been examined: (1) the length of the brief interval of time that can be judged most accurately; (2) the interval of time during which a series of stimuli may extend and yet be experienced as "unitary"; and (3) the minimum perceptible duration between two excitations.

In regard to the first of these factors, experiments reveal that the apparent duration of a brief interval is influenced by the intensity of the stimuli that delimit it. The more intense the stimuli, such as sounds, the shorter the interval seems to be. When there is a break in the "stream of consciousness," as when one dozes off while travelling, judgment of the time interval becomes very erratic. This is almost the repetition of an occult axiom, for, as stated earlier, time "does not exist where no consciousness exists."

Experiments involving the second property of inner clocks provide the basis for a definition of the "psychological present" and point to the relativity of human sensory powers with respect to any discriminatory experience. On the question of what may be regarded as the "present," The Secret Doctrine states:

...the sensation we have of the actuality of the division of "time" known as the present, comes from the blurring of that momentary glimpse, or succession of glimpses, of things that our senses give us, as those things pass from the region of ideals which we call the future, to the region of memories that we name the past. (I, 37)

No less pertinent and provocative are the words of a Sage quoted in the second volume:

O present moment! Knowest thou not that thou hast no parent, nor canst thou have a child; that thou art ever begetting but thyself?...Thus, are the Past, the Present, and the Future, the ever-living trinity in one—the Mahamaya of the Absolute IS. (II, 446)

In regard to the brief interval of time that can be judged accurately, the commentary of Vyasa and the notes of W. Q. Judge on the 53rd verse of the third book of Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms are most illuminating. The verse reads:

A great and most subtile knowledge springs from the discrimination that follows upon concentration of the mind performed with regard to the relation between moments and their order.

The relevant portions of Vyasa's commentary state:

The time taken by an atom in motion in order to leave one point and reach the next point is a moment...the continuous flow of these is a sequence...days, hours, minutes are combinations of these by a mental process giving a structure which follows as a result of perceptions or of words....The sequence has its essence in the uninterrupted succession of moments. This is called time by experts in time.

W. Q. Judge writes:

Patanjali speaks of ultimate divisions of time which cannot be further divided, and of the order in which they precede and succeed each other. It is asserted that a perception of these minute periods can be acquired, and the result will be that he who discriminates thus goes on to greater and wider perception of principles in nature which are so recondite that modern philosophy does not even know of their existence.

The faculty of knowing the ultimate divisions of time has been acquired by the Elder Brothers of Humanity, who are endowed with power over space, time, mind and matter. Their work is to preserve the true philosophy, and they need the help of companions to rediscover and promulgate it.

Intimately connected with the concept of time is the concept of the future. The entire psychic life of human beings is permeated with the thoughts of things to come, with premonitions, anticipations and hopes for the future. There is a sense in which one's psychological future mirrors one's subjective past; in this sense, "the further ahead one looks, the more the vision of a millennium resembles the golden age of the mythical past."

The waggish words of Shakespeare's Rosalind (As you like it, Act III, Scene 2) are full of import.

Time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I will tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.

She goes on to say that time "trots hard with a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemnized." Time ambles with a priest "lacking the burden of lean and wasteful learning" and also with a rich man "knowing no burden of heavy tedious penury." Time gallops "with a thief to the gallows," and it stays still "with lawyers in a vacation; for they sleep between term and term, and then they perceive not how time moves." All this pertains to the memory aspect of the function of time.

The perusal of the eternal ideas herein set forth might induce a reader to ask: "What does it matter if Kronos mutilates Uranus, or if Kala leads to Yama; if knowledge and memory and the loss of both come from Krishna; if moments and their sequence produce the illusions of past, present and future? Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Such are really and truly caught in the webs of delusion!

To these we say: "Beware! You are under the great illusion that you are as an individual distinct from others. This attitude of separateness will make of you 'the playground of Samvritti, origin of all the world's delusions.' "

Is there no hope? Yes, there is. And that is the overcoming of the illusions of life, including that of time, by concentrating attention on the "beginningless and endless WHOLE, or that which ever was, is, and will be."





to return to the table of contents