Apr 13, 2012
Stepping into timelessness
Sometimes in my meditation practice, time and space vanish.
There are passages in the early Buddhist tradition that encourage us to let go of past and future, and to remain in the moment. For example, the following verse is found in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta:
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see [vipassatī] right there, right there.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.
In another verse, in the Attadanda Sutta in the very ancient Sutta Nipata, not clinging to past, present, or future is linked to letting go of our sense of selfhood.
What went before — let go of that!
All that’s to come — have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.
For whom there is no “I-making”
All throughout the body and mind,
And who grieves not for what is not,
Is undefeated in the world.
For whom there is no “this is mine”
Nor anything like “that is theirs”
Not even finding “self-ness,” he
Does not grieve at “I have nothing.”
This implies that changing our perception of time (or our attitude to time) can help us to reduce our clinging to self. This makes experiences of timelessness very significant.
These experiences of timelessness in meditation are very hard to describe! It’s not the same as the phenomenon where “time flies when you’re enjoying yourself,” although it’s of course a good sign when this happens in our meditation practice.
In experiences of timelessness the entire concept of time seems to dissolve, and we find ourselves in an eternal present moment. The notion of the past and future is let go of, and we recognize that the present moment is all there is.
I’ve noticed in my own practice that a sense of timelessness is related to a changed perception of space. Here are some findings from science that help to explain the connection:
- Researcher Andrew Newberg has found that in meditators who achieve a state of timelessness, there are two changes. There is, on the one hand, increased blood flow to the frontal lobes. These are associated with attention, and so this change corresponds to heightened mindfulness and focus. On the other hand, there is decreased blood flow to the left parietal lobe. This part of the brain is involved in visual-spatial orientation, which includes maintaining our orientation in physical space, judging distances, and keeping track of time. The decreased parietal activity suggests that these activities are winding down. This can result in the loss of a sense of distinction between inside and outside, bringing about an experience of non-duality, and also the experience of timelessness.
- Related to this is a finding from neuroscience that involves the brain’s “default network” and “external network.” The default network is the anatomical system that the brain defaults to when it’s not engaged in external activity. It’s involved in self-monitoring, daydreaming, and reflecting. The external network comprises those parts of the brain that are active when we’re caught up in external activity, such as watching a movie. Normally these two systems are opposed to each other. If you’re thinking, you disengage from paying attention to external activity (e.g. you’re daydreaming in meditation and you don’t even notice where you are), and when you’re caught up in external activity you don’t particularly notice what’s going on internally (e.g. You’re typing on a computer and you don’t notice your neck’s getting stiff). In experienced meditators who do non-dual meditation, however, both networks are active at the same time. Both the inner and outer worlds are being monitored simultaneously.
In my practice, I’ve noticed that sustaining this dual awareness (inner and outer) leads to non-dual perception, and to an experience of timelessness.
Dialing down activity in the parietal lobes seems to come about via a non-discriminating awareness of both “external” and “internal” sensations. (The quotes are because in a sense all sensation is internal, which is why we need the parietal lobes to tell us which are inside and which are outside.) So we’re activating both the default and the external networks of the brain, and it’s this that seems to shut down the parietal lobes and allow a sense of timelessness to come about.
Timeless experiences are connected with what are often called the “formless jhanas,” which are four meditative states that in the Pali scriptures are called the “formless spheres.” (Only in the commentaries are they called jhanas.) These are states of meditation that are entered from a state of equanimity. They can be entered from fourth jhana, but also directly, without going through jhana. They are non-dual states of experience, where our sense of inner and outer, self and other, begin to fall away. And it’s in those states where a sense of timelessness can become particularly prominent.
In my own experience, the step from being in time to experiencing timelessness is connected with a change in my spatial relationship to time — not surprising if the parietal lobes, which are responsible for our sense of space and time, are going off-line.
Change our perception of space, and we change our perception of time. We tend to use spatial metaphors to express our relationship to time. So we have “time lines” on which the future is “forward in time” and the past is “back in time.” This is a metaphor we take very seriously. In fact studies have shown that if you ask someone to think about the future, they physically lean forward, while if you ask them to think about the past, they lean backward! And because we think about the past being like a place we have left and the future as being like a place we are about to visit, we think of the past and future as being like physically existent places. The concept of time travel seems natural to us (if not actually possible, for technical reasons) because we think of the past and future as being places we can actually visit.
I don’t know if the physicists agree with this, but the Buddha reminds us (and I concur), that only the present moment exists. Thus, time isn’t really a “line,” with the past behind us and the future in front. There is only this moment. But this moment is continually changing. In the phrase from the Bhaddekaratta Sutta that’s translated “Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there,” the repetition of “right there” (tattha tattha) suggests to me this recognition that the present moment is here, but changing. It’s as if these words are saying, “look now” and “look now” and “look now” in response to the change. But the change is “right there”. We’re not looking anywhere but the present moment. Nothing in our experience is going anywhere
In my own experiences of timelessness time is no longer experienced linearly, as a journey from past to future. Instead, it’s experienced as an unfolding. The present moment is “right there, right there.” It’s not going anywhere. But it’s changing.
Rather than seeing things (an object, experiences, myself) as moving along a line from past to future, changing as they do so, I’ve seen things as remaining “on the spot” (right there!) with change unfolding from within. If you were to think of this in terms of the experience of, say, a rose blooming, in the linear way of seeing things we’d think of the blooming rose like this:
Rose bud > half-open bud > rose > withering rose > dead rose
Another way to see the rose changing is almost as if you were simply watching the rose from above. The rose isn’t going anywhere. It’s simply unfolding, from within. We simply have:
with the parentheses representing the unfolding-from-within.
Intellectually, this may not sound like much. It may sound just like an idea — perhaps not even a very interesting one. But when applied to our experience, the results can be a profound shift — at least for a while — in how we experience ourselves and our world.
- We let go of the past.
- We let go of the future.
- We simply be in the present moment, fully. It’s kind of like surfing the wave of the present moment…
- We observe what’s in the present moment as it unfolds, according to its own nature, from within.
- There is simply this eternally unfolding present moment.
- There is just a timeless present.
- There is nothing to grasp.
- There is nothing to resist.
- There is a profound sense of perfection, and of peace. The present moment cannot be anything other than it is, and so it’s accepted totally, without reservation or resistance. Everything is experienced as being perfect.
Every aspect of our experience — each sound, sight, smell, physical sensation from the body, feeling, thought, emotion — is seen as unfolding in this eternally unfolding present moment.
When memories arise, they are not seen as a window into the past, but simply phenomena emerging in the present (which is what they really are). And when we imagine things that may happen, this is not seen as a preview of the future, but again simply as thoughts arising right now.
There’s nowhere to be. Nothing to do. No one to be.
And everything is perfect.
Here’s a guided meditation that can help you move in the direction of experiencing timelessness (the quality isn’t great, since it’s from one of my Skype classes and not professionally recorded). Timelessness isn’t an experience that’s going to come about through one meditation. It takes repeated practice, and probably some time on retreat doing more intensive meditation. So try integrating some of the following pointers into your daily practice. In a few months, or years, you may find that you start to experience time in a very different way:
[wpaudio url="http://www.wildmind.org/audio/timelessness.mp3" text="Bodhipaksa - Meditation on Timelessness"]