Time is the destroyer of worlds; another time has for its nature to bring to pass. This latter, according as it is gross or minute, is called by two names — real and unreal. — Surya Siddhanta
Here at least we get one clue to the mystery — that the word "time" stands for a good many different things. If there is confusion in discussions, surely the fact that the same word is being used in two or more different senses, without the discussers suspecting it, is reason enough for the confusion. To begin with, we habitually speak of time (1) as an extended magnitude, a sort of line reaching forward and backward; (2) as a motion along this line, a velocity. So that we speak of traveling through time; but (as Mr. J. W. Dunne points out) it takes time to travel anywhere, even through time. It takes time to travel through time. So here are two sorts of time already. Mr. Dunne, having thus got two terms of a series, proceeds to make it an infinite series, so he gets an indefinite number of sorts of time. This is his "serial time'; and, not satisfied with that, he gives us a serial universe.
Philosophy has discussed whether time is subjective or objective — whether it is an element of consciousness, or whether it is something existing in the world outside of consciousness. When we see a divergence like that, it is a good indication that both views are wrong and both right. And we find in a quotation from James Ward, which is given in Webster's Dictionary, that time and space belong neither to the subject alone apart from the object, nor to the object alone apart from the subject, but to experience as the duality of both. They are neither subjective forms psychologically or logically prior to experience, nor are they objective realities independent of experience.
And in fact, subject and object are abstractions from reality; they constitute a distinction which we must make in order to define cognition. And that tyrant Time lies deeper in the mysteries of reality than such distinctions, so that neither a subjective nor an objective view can compass the whole of him.
The chief difficulty experienced in discussing the nature of time is that our very thought-processes are bound up in it. To view a thing properly it is necessary to stand outside of it. The essence of time (the kind of time now being spoken of) is succession; and when we think or reason, we are conscious of a succession of thoughts. Hence we cannot eliminate time so as to be able to take a detached view of it. To see time, we must stand outside time. That is, we must stop thinking. ("Mind is the slayer of the real: let the disciple slay the slayer.") And so we argue about the nature of time, using in our arguments such words as "now" and "then," which presuppose the very thing we are trying to deduce. It is clear that, to understand the time of our ordinary consciousness, we must step into another plane of consciousness; and if succession is an indispensable attribute of time, then we must get into a state of consciousness where there is no succession, no procession of things following one after another, but what has to be clumsily called "an eternal present" or an "eternal now."
The Secret Doctrine contrasts Time with Duration (a substitute word borrowed for want of a better), in the same way as phenomenon is contrasted with noumenon, or manifest with unmanifest, finite with infinite. There is an epoch (there again we have to use a question-begging word), "when" eternal Duration gives place to Time, which is no longer infinite but is measured and divided. The common conception of eternity as simply a very great deal of time is of course wrong. Eternity or Duration, is not Time at all, whether much or little. What it is I do not know, and if I knew I could not tell. But if we cannot know what a thing is, it may help somewhat to know what it is not.
The present, as pointed out in The Secret Doctrine, if it is to be defined as the boundary between past and future, becomes thereby reduced to a mathematical point, and therefore has no dimension, and is in fact reduced to nothing at all. But what we call the present is a blurred impression of a number of such atomic present moments, bound together by memory and anticipation, much as the successive images in a motion picture, each of which is too brief to make an impression on the eye, are blurred into a visible image.
As just stated, the present, when analysed, becomes reduced to a dimensionless point, and therefore no object or event can be said to have any existence at all in the present; it has no duration, The Secret Doctrine says. Hence we realize the necessity of regarding time (that is, lapse of time or duration in time) as a necessary component in the specification of an object or an event. And thus we arrive at the four-dimensional space-time continuum, so dear to fourth dimensionalists and relativists. Our existence in any moment is only a cross-section of our total existence; and to represent our totality we must take in every moment from the beginning to the end of our existence. And the analogy of a solid figure passing through a plane is adduced. But having passed from three dimensions to four, is there a reason for stopping there, or may we go further? This method of reasoning is probably one way of referring to the various "time-series" of Dunne, the various "planes" of consciousness or of matter, the various "principles" in man and the kosmos, etc.
In thinking of infinity and eternity, we are apt to imagine them as very large; which is a good deal like imagining God to be simply a very large man. But the characteristic of infinitude is that it is not bounded. We have instances familiar to experience. A circle is an infinite line, without boundaries or parts (if we place a point in it, we divide it into one part; before that, it had no parts). The surface of a sphere is a boundless plane, and it is an interesting effort of imagination to try to imagine oneself placed on the surface of a perfectly smooth and uniform sphere. One might wander indefinitely in any direction without ever coming anywhere and without being in the least aware that one was perhaps traversing the same ground over and over again. Yet this surface, though infinite in one sense, is not so in another; for it has a definite size as compared with other objects. Mathematicians would say that it is "doubly infinite," and the circle "singly infinite." And so, applying this to time, we get the idea of various orders of infinitude; time may be singly infinite, doubly infinite, etc. This is quite an advance over the crude notion of jumping at once from finity to absolute infinity. Time, then, seems to have become a medley of relative velocities, and any difficulty we may have in defining it is due merely to impatience and the desire to arrive at consummate knowledge without passing through the requisite grades.
As our conceptions of time enlarge, as a result of study and contemplation, we may escape some of the horrors and lamentations which ordinarily attend the subject. We may banish the Nevermore and the Irrevocable and that time which, "like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away." For, as has been shown, all things have an eternal existence independently of their brief flitting across the focus of what we call the present; so that the past may be said to live in more than a mere figurative sense. Again, we view time as cyclic, so that the ever-rolling stream will some day bear all its sons back again. The able novelist, after portraying the events of a life and the evolution of a character, is perforce obliged to ring down the curtain, as the hand of death renders everything abortive and turns the whole drama into a useless farce. How different is the Theosophical view of a life and a character!
In this impatient age we are too apt to forget how mighty an agent, how useful a tool, is mere time. We want something that will clean in five minutes or five seconds; when pure water will do a better job if only given time. And if I can move one end of a piano one inch, I can move the whole piano any required distance: it is only a question of time. Get time on your side!