Raised in western culture, I think of time as an arrow. That is, I feel I’m constantly moving forward to the future leaving the past behind. Implicit within this is the notion that I’m progressing. While this has many benefits, it has many shortcomings too. A fundamental one is that I’m never happy where I am. But there are there other ways to think about time, which can make life more fulfilling:
- Time becomes events. It’s hard to think what the next ten or twenty years means – it’s so far in the future that it seems like forever. But if convert this to events, it suddenly becomes more real.
Think about the age of your parents – say they are seventy years old. The average life expectancy of an adult is eighty years old, so on a morbid note your parents have the ten years to live. Then think about how often you meet your parents each year. Let’s say it’s twice a year. That means that you will meet your parents twenty more times before they pass away.
Suddenly, ten years becomes more real. It will make you appreciate every interaction you have with your parents. You can apply this way of thinking to all aspects of your life from sports days with your children to activities you can do with a healthy body.
- Expanded presence. We tend to think about the impact we have on the world in terms of our time on the planet. So if we live for 80 years, then that’s the timespan over which we impact the world. However, the reality is that our presence actually touches 240 years rather than 80 years.
Think about the oldest person that held you as a baby and then the baby you will hold when you at your oldest, then suddenly you have touched 80 years before you were born and 80 years after you die. In total, that expands your presence to 240 years . So if you’re 40, your expanded presence goes all the way back to 1900 and will go forward to 2140. That’s a lot of time, you touch more lives than you think.
- Cyclical time. Many cultures prefer to see time as a cycle rather than as an arrow. So rather than seeing the future as unknown, it is seen as a repeat of the past. Think about how night follows day and day follows night or the four seasons repeat each year.
This also means we can see life as a cycle too. Humans are born, grow up and die, then the cycle repeats. It also means governments rise and fall. This way of thinking makes one less fearful of the future and less fearful of dark times – it’s a cycle after all.
- No past or future. One of favourite sayings from cartoon is Master Oogway’s words from Kung Fu Panda: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift… that’s why they call it present” . The truth in this is that both the past and the future are ideas in our head and all we have is the present moment. So what are we doing in this moment?