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Years ago, I learned that time did not really exist; it was simply an illusion. This insight did not come directly from dharma study or meditation but from a soccer game between two closely matched teams. My daughter was playing in a youth league, and no one could score as we approached the end of the first half. With only minutes left, there was a sudden frenzy of give-and-take on the field, one team advancing, the other countering. After what seemed like an eternity, another parent asked how much time was left before halftime. Looking at my phone, I was astonished to see that only a few minutes had passed. “Time has stopped,” I said, only half-joking. But how, I wondered, could so much have happened in only a few minutes?
We often accept time as something outside of us, a container in which our lives play out. Time feels stable, something that ticks steadily, inexorably, along. But our perception of time can be much more fluid. Many factors—the sensations we receive, our emotions, thoughts, environment, etc.—influence how we experience time. And as a neuroscientist, I can see how all of these factors ultimately influence our experience of time through their effects on activity in the brain.
The sense that time is flowing fast or slow, or even to locate ourselves in time, depends on a variety of brain structures, ranging widely from the frontal and parietal lobes along the surface of the brain, to the cerebellum at the back of our heads, and down deeper to the insula, basal ganglia, and hippocampi. Each area plays a somewhat different part, but damage in any of these areas can impact our experience of time, causing us to over- or underestimate how much time has passed (relative to time we measure with a clock). And our perception of time can change through experience as well. For example, meditators report that time seems to pass more slowly compared to people who do not meditate, and this lengthening of time may be related to attending more often to the present moment. Extensive meditation experience is related to alterations in several brain areas, including the insula and hippocampus, which may help explain changes in time perception.
Recognizing that time depends on the brain has also shaped how I understand the possibility of moments where time seems to disappear. In Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama advises us to transcend time during intensive sesshin retreats. “If we don’t forget this thing called time,” he wrote, “it will be impossible for us to continue through the rest of the hours of the sesshin.” As someone who often struggled during more extended meditation, I had doubts that it was possible to let go of time in this way. So, during retreats, I have been surprised by moments where time seemed to evaporate. These could be occasions where time has become extremely lengthened through a change in the activity of the brain, perhaps a quieting of systems that mark the progression of time itself. Either way, I can understand these experiences as a kind of altered state, made possible by the safe and supportive container of an intensive retreat.
Because science is an important part of how I understand and make sense of the world, it helps my practice to see how Zen teachings on time translate into the language of the brain. As our knowledge of the brain continues to grow, we will have a more and more precise understanding of these states, which can inform my understanding of the teachings. But as a Zen practitioner, it’s important to recognize the limits of neuroscience.
Neuroscience would approach the experience of timelessness as something happening inside the brain. We see a brain experiencing an altered state in a world where time—the time measured by the clock—keeps moving. This scientific view makes sense, but for our practice this is the error, to believe that clock time is the real time, and to transcend time is a kind of hallucination. When we approach timelessness this way, we separate ourselves from our direct experience.
My practice has helped me to appreciate this point by sitting with teachings that challenge our usual understanding of time. For example, when puzzling over a line from Dogen’s Uji: “As the time right now is all there ever is, each being-time is without exception entire time.” Like many of Dogen’s teachings, this point about time is subtle (to me, at least!), and I struggled with the concept that all of time exists in the present moment. I could recognize that time is fluid, such as how time seems to slow down during the final moments of an important game or speed up when returning to work after the holidays. But agreeing that our experience of time is fluid seems to be a minor shift compared to what Dogen argues. What does it mean to say that all of time is right now? After all, the feeling that I exist in time, that we pass through time, seems so obvious as to need no demonstration. And yet Dogen pulls this foundation out from under us.
To better understand Dogen’s argument, I turned to Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on this part of Uji:
“The only times that exist are past and future; the present doesn’t really exist; it’s only the border between past and future. But this is strange because the present is also the only reality; the past is already gone and the future is not yet come. This present moment is really nothing. But this nothing is the only reality and includes all time!” (Shohaku Okumura, The Mountains and Waters Sutra)
This view of time appeals to me as a scientist—our experience in each moment depends on the brain’s activity at that instant. This activity is influenced by the activity in an earlier moment and leads to the activity of a moment to come. But the activity of the present moment exists only as itself: the past is gone, and the future has not arrived. And yet, we experience time. The neuropsychologist Paul Broks captured a similar sentiment in his memoir, The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars: “The subjective ‘now’ is, paradoxically, extended in time; it is ‘temporally thick.’ We experience it not as an infinitely thin sliver of time but as a moment in which times present, past, and future overlap.”
The present moment is only a border, but it can have the “thickness” of time because the activity in the brain at each moment includes representations of the past and predictions of the future. Okumura pointed out in his commentary that our experience is not the present moment in isolation but a moment that feels as if it includes the past and future. And because our feeling of time has been added to the present moment, because it must be actively created, we are not surprised to find that our experience of time is fluid or could drop away.
Our brain, the world around us, time held firm by the clock—these concepts help us make sense of the world. But those concepts are just tools to help us predict and explain experience. The only time that exists is the time we experience directly. That other time—the time that exists outside of us—is the real illusion. To truly transcend time, we should let go of clock time and even the brain itself once those tools have served their purpose.
To say that time is a concept that we can drop is not the same thing as saying that there is nothing there, and that the concept of time is not pointing to something in our experience. It is not the same as saying that our ordinary experience of time is a hallucination. Our direct experience is one of constant and ceaseless change, but this change is not random—it has structure. The time we experience and measure by the clock are tools to help us make sense of and act effectively within that experience. If we transcend time, if we let go of time, that direct experience remains.
And if we do, then we might find a vast spaciousness beyond time. Time is useful, essential, and we need it to function in our daily lives. But time can also be a trap, and so much suffering is bound up in time. Time is a crucial ingredient for craving and aversion as we orient ourselves toward futures we desire and recoil from experiences we reject. Becoming more acquainted with time through Zen teachings, neuroscience, and my own experience has been a wonderful gift. I have felt more moments of authentic patience, where I have appreciated my moments rather than simply waiting out the clock. I have experienced less boredom, as I do not feel stuck in moments I have judged to be uninteresting. I’ve also spent less time daydreaming, lost in both possible and fantastical futures. It has been easier for me to sit with a loved one through their suffering. To be present in those moments, even when there is nothing I can do to save them.
With some experience of timelessness, I have found that it is easier to settle into my self in the present moment. And for that, I will always be grateful.