The past is the wake of the present
This essay has earlier been published as episode #18 on Mind the Shift podcast.
In a way, time is what it is all about. If there is a global shift happening, which I believe there is, it implies that the world and humankind is going from one state to another, and in our way of seeing things there is a before and an after, which we call a past and a future. And the shift is happening in the present.
This is how we normally perceive this world. It is strange to imagine that there is a different way of looking at it, for instance fully grasping the notion that there is only the present moment, and that the past and the future don’t really exist. In essence: that time doesn’t really exist as anything other than a practical construct.
Many of you have probably heard philosophical discussions to that effect. I have too, many times (no pun intended), but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I truly made the effort to understand what timelessness truly entails, and it has boggled my mind and given me more than one wow moment. To think about this thoroughly can be a cool experience for anyone, but if you contemplate it a layer or two more profoundly, it doesn’t end with being a cool experience, because looking at time as merely a construct can actually be a framework to a completely new and more harmonious way of experiencing life.
We all know that time can be perceived subjectively.
When we’re bored, time goes slowly.
When we’re having fun, time goes fast.
It is as if certain phases in the three-dimensional reality are packed with energy and change, while others are thinner and sort of stretched.
When meditating it is often astonishing how detached from clock time you get. But you don’t need to meditate to have this kind of experience. Everybody dreams, and most have had these morning dreams between one wake-up moment and the next, which are so incredibly full of dramatic events that you have a hard time wrapping your head around the fact that on your clock only ten minutes have passed.
More subtle is the way time seems to either cooperate or work against you depending on how much you trust yourself and the unfolding of events. A trivial example: You need to catch a bus to be in time for a train. But first you have to get something in your apartment and then shop a couple of items in a store. In my experience, if I feel strongly that there is a significant chance I will miss my train because there is so much to do and I nervously check the time every other minute, I run into little obstacles all the time (drop things, long line in the store, bus delayed) and it seems to me that time ticks away at a faster pace than it does if I choose the opposite approach: I just let go of all the worry and fully accept that whatever has to be has to be. If I miss the train, there is probably some meaning to that. I just do the things I need to do and let the universe work out all the things I can’t control anyway. If I don’t worry it seems to me that things almost always work out more smoothly, and I don’t miss any trains. So time appears to go ”slower”. But, again, this experience is less straight forward than the boring vs fun experience.
So, does the past and the future exist? Well, either they don’t or they both exist simultaneously. Eckhart Tolle has popularized the importance of being present in the now moment. The bizarrely trivial thing about it is that there is only the now moment, and that there cannot be any other moments. Because when what we call a future moment arrives, it is just another now moment. If we didn’t sleep, it would be even more obvious that it is all a continuous now.
When you think about it, this earthly existence is really very dreamlike, as Eckhart says. How many times haven’t you looked forward to some happy or fun or interesting event you have been planning for, so much so that you forget to be present during the days up to the event, and then the day arrives, the event happens, and sooner than you know, the event is in the past. If you live your life in the mental construct of past and future, every moment evaporates very quickly. This fascinates me every time I put events behind me that have meant a lot to me. There might be some material evidence that there was, say, a big gathering of people the day before, like bottles and glasses, but you can’t really be sure it really happened.
It is probably true that a large part of human suffering can be derived from our propensity to not live where we are but either focus on some future moment that isn’t real or linger on some past moment that is just as imaginary (because nothing is real when it isn’t happening).
To live like that is to live in psychological time. It is like a dream.
(It’ s kind of weird that it wasn’t long ago I realized that everybody on earth is continuously at exactly the same now position: me, the president of the United States, a poor farmer in Malawi, a terrorist planning an attack. Nobody has a clue what is going to happen in two minutes. It may seem obvious, but the fact of the matter is that we are so conditioned to thinking past-future that we sometimes, strangely enough, think that some people or some countries or some conflicts are a bit ”further ahead” or ”further behind”. Realizing that we’re all stuck in the same now moment feels somehow comforting.)
But what about clocks? They measure time, don’t they?
Well, they measure clock time, and that’s a practical tool, which helps us for instance meet other people at certain points in spacetime, since we are bounded by the inert physical world.
One way of looking at time that makes good sense is to see it as the constant change of the state of things. Nothing is static, everything changes all the time — some large visible things seemingly so slow that we perceive them as non-changing (but even planets, stars and galaxies change), and some elementary teeny entities change so fast that we can’t even measure their position.
But is this what clocks are measuring, is this clock time? No. Clocks measure some of the rhythms and pulses that constitute the choreography of the universe. They measure the rhythm of the earth revolving around its own axis and orbiting the sun, or they measure a certain number of waves in the wave spectrum of some element.
With the perspective of the universe, everything that was ever created exists now. Day and night exist simultaneously on Earth, and the light from distant galaxies that we see on the night sky was sent out millions of years ago, so we see their distant past. In the same way, conscious beings in distant galaxies, to the extent they contemplate us in this dimension, see our distant past.
The rhythms and pulses of the universe are vibrations, which is energy, basically. Everything is energy.
The Earth’s rhythm – day-night, day-night and winter-summer, winter-summer – is one energy frequency among all the energy frequencies that dance in the big symphony that plays in this one and only moment that exists.
Our breathing and our heart beats are also energy frequencies, as are our very lives: We are born, we live and we die in cycles (if reincarnation doesn’t resonate well, you can see this rhythm in humanity as a whole). And the largest pulse of them all is the gigantic ”breath” of the physical universe as we know it since its birth in the Big Bang.
Okay, back to the future. And to the past. I just learned that physicists who ponder these things talk about three basic theories: presentism, eternalism and growing blockism.
Proponents of presentism have the view that only the present exists, while eternalists think past, present and future all exist, and the growing block theory falls somewhere in between: the past and the present exist but not the future. I find this kind of theories both somewhat ridiculous and very profound at the same time.
If I had to choose, I would adhere to eternalism.
If there is no future, how could we ever get there?
There are many metaphors about time. The one that has had the greatest impact on me is one I first heard from the fantastic British philosopher Alan Watts (start listening to his lectures on Youtube and you can get addicted). It completely rocks one’s view on life. It upends the whole collective way of treating the past, the present and the future. And it has the potential of liberating you from the enslaving chains of history. But it takes some resetting to get into this mindset.
It goes like this:
The present is a ship heading forward, and we’re all on board. The ship creates a wake, and we all know that a wake is the trace of a moving ship, and so, in this metaphor the wake is the past. This means that the present creates the past, not the other way around, which we have been conditioned to believe. The past is the wake of the now moment!
We often hear that our lives today are the result of decisions made in the past, which makes us ponder more what already has happened than all the myriad possible outcomes looking forward.
What this entails is mind blowing: We did what we did because we were supposed to end up where we are now!
If you think about it, we often don’t understand why something happened until after a long while, sometimes decades or centuries. Alan Watts said these things forty years ago because I and millions of others were going to hear this today, probably at a point in spacetime which is more ripe for people to incorporate such a radical shift in world view. With this way of looking at it, one fully understands the meaning of somebody being ”ahead of their time”.
Now, I took this ship metaphor a bit further.
A consequence of the past being the wake of the present must of course be that the present is the wake of the future. This means that what is to happen already exists (which is in line with the theories of the quantum soup everything floats around in). Thus: What we do now is the result of the so-called future that we already have.
I marvelled when I tried to grasp this.
The ship metaphor is helpful. It is fairly easy to visualize what it often looks like on a passenger ship, where some people prefer to stand in the stern and contemplate the wake, while others prefer to stand in the bow and try to discern what is slowly becoming visible far, far away on the horizon, perhaps the contours of other ships or of land.
It is obvious that both the wake and the slowly materializing objects on the horizon are something that you can be aware of when you’re on a ship, but it is just as obvious that you cannot go to any of those places now, you’re stuck on the ship. There is only the ”now”, as it were. It is as if the constant changes in the universe are constantly approaching us, rather than it is we who are moving anywhere.
Which leads us to another metaphor: We stand in a river.
Everything that happens in your life, everything you experience, is the water that flows around you. The water has been in the ”future” and flows towards the ”past”. Sometimes you may want to move a bit further towards the middle of the river, where the current is strong, and experience events faster, or more of them. Sometimes you may want to move a bit closer to the river bank and perhaps end up in a pool where the water hardly moves at all, or even reaches you from behind. Some people prefer the calm pool water, while some like the strong current. But for everyone it is true that the water from the ”future” sooner or later passes the point in the river where you are standing, that is, the point in spacetime where you are in your physical life on Earth. It just takes a little longer by the river bank.
Having reached this far into these mind-widening insights about the true nature of time you start to realize that it actually must be like this: What affects what we do now is what is going to happen rather than what has happened. Why? How would we otherwise be able to undergo any kind of evolution? How would we be able to develop at all?
If the past is what forms us, we would be stuck in the same spot. Think about it as far back as we possibly can: We would not have been able to leave the Big Bang, because that’s when spacetime was born. Before that nothing could have formed anything ahead of it.
This is why the following phrase is correct, and not the reverse phrase, which is the one we learn: ”We can’t understand our past if we don’t understand our present”.
I am writing these sentences now because I have an inkling that doing so will for some reason, somehow, be of importance to me or even to others sometime in the future. But that is precisely what it is, an inkling. Being stuck in the physical spacetime, we cannot as human beings fathom the vastness of every possibility that exists down the line.
We often have an urge to do something, without knowing exactly why. We just feel it’s the right thing to do. Many try to find explanations in upbringing, parents or whatever. I think it’s the future that is pulling us forward. Into what we are supposed to become.