Time is a cruel bitch goddess. We measure our lives in coffee spoons and wonder why we feel so crushed by the tick-tock of minutes piling down on us through the burying years. We chop existence into nanoseconds and struggle to fill up every one, fearful of wasting a moment to leisure, hoarding time as if it really were money. Rushing through the measured world, we forget that ours is the first civilization to be so obsessed and bedeviled by time. The unhelpful image of God as a celestial clock keeper, stop watching our every move from above, has shown no sign whatsoever of blinking.
In a charming book called "Travels with Epicurus," the author, Daniel Klein, spends time on the Greek island of Hydra, contemplating the question of time, and how to live a meaningful, pleasurable life in older age. Klein, a New York writer, is fascinated by how the Greeks enjoy their days, especially a group of older men who meet daily in the local taverns to gossip, play cards, and drink retsina for hours on end, delighted in each other's company, and oblivious of time passing on their tiny island it seems to Klein. One day, he notices the 90-year-old father of one of these men fingering his komboloi, a string of what we call worry beads. "Is your father a worrier?" he asks the son. Or a religious man who uses the beads as a rosary? The Greek tells him that in his country, komboloi are not used to ward off anxiety. Instead, they're used as a tool for "spacing out time," making every minute last, and savoring the slowness of being.
How different this is from our clock-watching, paranoid culture where time is always running out, fleeting, and treated as an endangered commodity (just like money). In the West, we view time as the enemy because it's always threatening to kill us. It is lethal, unstoppable, out of control, a scarcity on which our existence depends, a gift that's never quite enough. By making time the enemy, we turn our existence into a battle, a brutal foot race that we're bound to lose; the antithesis of the aged Greek savoring time with his komboloi. Klein compares this relaxed approach to time to its antitheses, the Forever Youngsters, American friends striving to beat back time by running harder, working more feverishly, getting more face lifts, hair plugs, and ulcers, chasing their shadow and living in fear.
This traumatizing approach to time is a relatively new invention, a product of the Industrial Revolution made infinitely worse by technology. For most of our history, humans have lived in far greater harmony with time's slow passage; indeed, there are indigenous cultures -- the Indonesian Moken people, for example -- that have no word for time. Visiting a Moken village after a twenty-year absence, you'll be greeted as if you'd been there yesterday. With our emphasis on material life and gain, we've de-spiritualized time almost entirely.
As the philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote half a century ago, "The modern West is the first culture that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world." That's surely an exaggeration but Eliade's point is well taken. We have misplaced the sacred dimension of time. That's why Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now caused such a sensation; it reminded us of nunc fluens, or eternal time, as opposed to nunc stans, or hourglass time. Nunc fluens never runs out. As the 7th century philosopher Boethius put it, "The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity."
This eternal is the antidote to time-as-the-enemy. You know those moments when time seems to stop -- in nature, making love, reading a good book, getting lost in the flow of writing or some other creative activity -- when you're completely present and time loses its grip? We touch the eternal now by slowing down, forgetting ourselves, paying attention, and opening our senses. Sitting with a person like Eckhart Tolle, I'm always reminded of this eternal simplicity. A short time after 9/11, I was sitting with Eckhart in his cabin at the Omega Institute, having tea and talking about the passing of time and how the mind creates our madness.
"The accumulation of time in the collective and individual mind also holds a vast amount of residual pain from the past," Eckhart said, looking dapper and elfin in a vest and Nehru-collar shirt. "When we are caught in the timekeeping mind, we think our lives rather than living them. We have relationships with our ideas of people rather than with the people themselves."
This reminded me of a passage from Eckhart's book, A New Earth: "Imagine the earth devoid of human life, inhabited only by plants and animals. Would it still have a past and a future? Could we still speak of time in any meaningful way? What time is it? The oak tree or the eagle would be bemused by such a question. "What time?" they would ask. "Well, of course it's now. The time is now. What else is there?"
The tree and the bird do not fear their death. It's death fear, of course, that makes us dread time's passage. The celestial watch keeper is nothing but fear writ large, tapping his clock face, reminding you that tempus fugit -- "time's a wastin'!" As if time could somehow run out. But that has never been the truth. It isn't time that's running at all. You are.