The Theosophical Forum – March 1939

TIME, DURATION, AND THE ETERNAL NOW (1) — G. de Purucker

The main thing to remember about Time is this: that it exists, but is not in the absolute sense. That which is in the absolute sense is Duration. What is the distinction between Time and Duration? Time like all things in manifestation is relative and is divisible. Time has past, has present, has future, and these three are distinct each from the other twain. Duration has no divisibility. It has no past, it has no future, and consequently there is no distinctive time present. But there is what we in our feeble language call an Eternal Now. Oh, how difficult it is to describe this, and yet it is so simple to catch the thought.

For instance, the Romans lived and suffered and joyed and died and strutted their little ways upon the stage of life in their time, as Shakespeare said. But they are now gone. That is ended. Yet in Duration those Romans are just as much alive now as they were then, for all exists in an Eternal Now. Similarly with us of the present; and we look to the future as something that is coming. Time in our consciousness has an effect of distance, which it has because our minds are relative. But in Duration that future is here now.

For instance, if my mind, if my thought, if my consciousness, were now at the present instant functioning in Duration, I would not see things, such as the Romans of the past, dead, gone forever — then ourselves here now, and something unknown to come in the future. But functioning in Duration all things would be present in my consciousness with me now: What we call Past, what we call the Future, what we call the Present, would be with me now, and not only those things, but all the Now of infinite Space, and endless, frontierless Duration.

Time exists most emphatically, it is an illusion, a maya, which merely means we find it very difficult to understand it and do not understand it exactly as it should be understood; but that is not time's fault, that is our fault. Our understanding is too weak to grasp it as it is, as it exists. Therefore, we call it a maya to us. In English we say an illusion. Yes, but illusion does not mean something that does not exist. If it did not exist, obviously it would not be an illusion. It means something which deludes our understanding, an illusion or a delusion to us.

Now you know Newton, as they now try to point out, had an idea that Time was an absolute entity, like Space, and Matter; and that Time as an absolute entity was in actual movement, flowing was the word, flowing out from the past into the present into the future. The scientific philosophers of today have rejected that idea. They say it is all very well to look upon past, present, and future, as easy, convenient ways of doing our daily tasks, of understanding the life around us; but it is an unreal thing. Time is not an absolute entity. You ask then, what is the absolute entity? They will say it is the space-time continuum — about which there is a lot of truth, for they have at last welded together in one thing, Space and what we call Time; and both of these are what we call Duration. For Duration is Space, and all its manifestations are Time, in Time, of Time.

Many illustrations have already been given this evening by the different speakers to show us how Time is illusory to our understanding. When you are happy, time passes quickly. When you are a child, time passes very quickly, or terribly slowly, depending upon the mood of the child. As you grow older, time just flows by, or drags, depending upon your mood. Therefore what is Time itself? It is the functioning of consciousness, in the present case our human consciousness, and our human consciousness is an attribute of what we call the space-time continuum of Cosmic Infinitude.

Now I wonder if you are much wiser after all this philosophical discussion! I can tell you this though. There is a way of becoming conscious of Duration per se — when the consciousness seems to be taken right out of Time. It is something you cannot describe. You have to be it for the time being to understand it. And yet I wonder how many of you have not had this experience, where at the instant between dreaming and waking, or just before falling asleep, or perhaps during a fainting-fit or just before or after it, when all the attributes of Time suddenly have vanished, and you are conscious only of utter immensity, utter reality, and timelessness, and everything has vanished that is comprehensible to the brain-mind; very understandable, however, by the intuition. And this raised to the nth degree, i. e., into the pure unadulterate consciousness of the spirit within, where all wisdom and knowledge and vision are, is what the Hindu yogins mean when they talk about sambuddhi-samadhi, or simply samadhi sometimes. And when the consciousness is fixed in this state that I have just touched, the Buddhists call it Nirvana. Do you want to know why? Nirvana means "blown out." Do you know why? Because of just what I have described. All the lower attributes of the personal ego have sunken into latency, have gone, or have been surmounted. Your consciousness is for the time co-extensive with the Universe. Therein there is no consciousness of the movements and changes of things combined with the psychological interplay of attributes, with these together producing division or sense of time; the procession of events has passed out of the picture, for the consciousness has risen above these events of manifestation, and you are now in timeless Duration.

As a mere illustration of how illusory time is — and please remember that such an illusion does not mean that it is nonexistent, for if it were non-existent there would be no argument about it — I would recall to those of you who have had dreams, vivid or vague, how curiously time and its phenomena seem to change in these dreams. It is a well-known fact of psychology that in dreams, or even under the influence of some drug, the events of a life-time seem to be condensed within a few moments; or contrariwise, what would in waking, feeling life take but a few moments, can in these sub- or super-normal states be so stretched out as to cover years. It is the same consciousness which experiences these extraordinary visionings, and thus "Time" in any of these states or in the normal Jagrata or waking-state seems to the experiencing consciousness just as "real" as any other of its experiences in and with Time.

These facts lead the reflective mind almost instantly to see that it is the experiencing consciousness which really is the time-maker, weaving this making out of the stuff of timeless Duration, which in a true sense is identical with the essence of Consciousness itself. Many a drowning but later resuscitated man has had all the events of his lifetime pass in a rapid panoramic vision before his consciousness; the whole procession of events which originally took years to experience now flash before the mind's eye in a few moments of clock-time, and yet the experiencing consciousness is cognisant of no incongruity or unconsciousness about all this.

Time, therefore, when compared with Duration, is something like extension when compared with Space. Time is a phenomenon of Duration, just as extension is a phenomenon of Space, and in both cases Duration and Space are realities or noumena, and Time and extensions are the phenomena or illusions, in other words, the maya, in each case.

Remember also that there are collective mayas, such as we human beings ordinarily experience as when all human beings on earth have the same time-consciousness of day or night, or a group of men and women will have the same consciousness of an hour passed in a theater, or on a picnic, or in a train, or a week at sea, etc., etc.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Extemporaneous remarks after a meeting of the Point Loma Lodge, Sunday evening, June 12, 1938. (return to text)


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