Welcome to the archived web site of
Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. Psychologist (1950-2013)
California License No. PSY 10092
Specializing in Presence-Centered Therapy
balancing mind and heart, body and spirit
Now in memoriam - This website is no longer being updated
Articles by Dr. Friedman (except where noted otherwise)
Elusive Time, Nonexistent Time, and Timelessness
© 2010 Will Joel
Friedman, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
is nature's way of not letting everything happen at once.
by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness,
Time may be humankind's greatest invention and it's most elusive, one that can a most practical structure as well as being stress-provoking, dysfunctional and ego-driven depending. The notion of time can be a most useful cognitive construct in the empirical world for aiding accurate description and relationships in the sciences, especially physics, in addition to making a positive difference through setting up appointments, generating plans, making goals with a date and time and follow through (commitments), the efficacy of getting things done, and the psychological benefit of orderliness, structure, predictability and security. At the same time the ego-mind's constant thinking or obsessing about time, whether it is worrying about being early, late, or punctually on time, is often experienced as an inner pressure and distress that gets in the way of effectiveness and productivity and is implicated in a bevy of resulting physical, psychological, and relational costs. What is experienced time and time itself?
Our modern sense of time originates with Isaac Newton's conceptualization of time as rigid, fixed, uniform, deterministic, linear, and absolute, all embraced by classic physics. In fact, Newton wrote that the universe was clockwork. The quintessential American Benjamin Franklin defined time as money within a certain rigidity of mechanical thinking. The "time is money" was taken as an anthem of the capitalistic business titans of industry since Franklin's time and is now heralded in the twenty-first century by proponents of the consumption twenty-four hour society and workaholics everywhere.
French philosopher Henri Bergson argued for a decidedly qualitative or subjective sense of time, specifically an inseparable, indivisible flow of experience. At the turn of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein recognized that time was not only relative and nonlinear, but further was unified with space and dependent upon the observer. Of course, there are actually many different ways to speak of and experience the concept of time. A broad range of understandings of time in the West and indigenous societies has been documented and provides a wondrous kaleidoscope of insight and awareness, appreciation and understanding, for the diverse forms of how time is perceived and lived. 1
Shamans, tricksters, storytellers, creative artists, poets, and healers throughout all ages and societies invoke a timeless and paradoxical mythic time. Folktales, fairy tales and children's stories often are structured around mythic time by starting with "once upon a time" and finishing with "lived happily ever after." Science fiction catapults the reader into an unknown and unknowable future which can use imagination in the service of challenging widely held unquestioned assumptions, beliefs and ways of being to safely comment under the radar of the individual ego-mind and collective ego (i.e., wego) on our modern world with all its challenges, stupidities and brilliances. Communication devises and strategies are honed to confuse past, present and future, all of which dissolve clock-time and evoke a non-linear, non-logical, creative sense of being out-of-time. We get to experience being beyond time, and wonders, epiphanies and healings are felt as possible, even inevitable.
Modern therapists regularly employ mindbody desensitization techniques of a wide variety to open up new possibilities in transforming yesterday's unworkable patterns into today's functional ones. Approaches range from behavioral modeling and rehearsal, systematic desensitization, in vivo desensitization, classic and Ericksonian hypnotherapy, Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), ego-state therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR) among others. Each one evokes an alternative state of consciousness and aids desensitization in the therapeutic healing process.
Eckhart Tolle observes how past time and future time each exist in psychological time, which refers to some time other than chronological time. Both are concepts and therefore illusory. Psychological time is the ego projecting its identification upon the present, while chronological time is only this fleeting moment. 2 Subjective psychological time experienced through the filter of the ego-mind with all its conditioning, fears and survival decisions is not the same as historical, chronological clock-time. While the former often can be stressful, burdensome and pernicious, the later simply is.
Social psychologist Robert Levine looks at the perception of time around the world in a series of research studies that point to five principle factors that determine the tempo of cultures worldwide. These five principle factors are: 1) The healthier a place's economy, the faster its tempo (economic well-being); 2) The more developed the country, the less free time per day (the degree of industrialization); 3) Bigger cities have faster tempos (population size); 4) Hotter places are slower (Climate); and 5) Individualistic cultures move faster than those that emphasize collectivism (Cultural values).
Levine further distinguishes clock time, event time and middle time. Clock time is the use of the hour for starting and ending activities, is dictated by the clock, and generally life tends to be faster. Event time is when activities are allowed to unfold on their own spontaneous schedule without the overlay of clock time and events begin and stop by mutual consent of participants, that is, when they feel the time is right. Levine considers the difference between clock and event time to be profound. He offers middle time as a balance between the two, between up and down time, fast and slow time. Moreover, he notes how the greatest pleasure comes from experiencing "an intermediate level of pressure" since this prevents the stress of too fast a tempo as well as the boredom of too slow a tempo. Also with productivity, Levine found the best work occurring at an intermediate amount of time pressure. Making an analogy to psychological androgyny, which describes individuals with a strong presence of both stereotypically male and female traits, Levine sees the honestly multitemporal person, the person who is able to shift and adapt their temporal perceptions, being no longer locked into the average range but has developed the ability to move more slowly or rapidly as is situationally needed. 3
More radically or going to the root, does time even exist, or is it just another conceptualization the mind made up to help explain and understand the human experience and universe? Since human beings are unable to separate physical reality itself from our perceptions of physical reality, that is, cleanly separate reality itself or "what is" from how this is colored, influenced and distorted by our perceptual lenses (along with the abilities and sensitivities of our senses), there is no way to determine the reality basis of any conceptualization in the material or physical world. Thus, our human sense of time specifically appears to be a function of the ego-mind, that is, the capacities of imagination, conceptualization and memory, without any independent existence in the empirical world.
Robert L. Vaessen forwards a "No Time Theory" that also includes the non-existence of motion, offering the following conclusion: "So; Once again time does not exist. It is simply our mind applying an understandable framework to the progression of our consciousness through a series of static, overlapping, and simultaneously coexisting, multidimensional universes. The progression of our consciousness occurs in a linear, contiguous, and continuous fashion. [Italics in original]." He describes the human experience without time as: "A series of experienced, but simultaneous nows." What is in apparent motion in the world is actually our consciousness in constant motion since "the human mind/consciousness is not capable of processing/experiencing all the nodes in any probability path simultaneously, so it orders them into a linear series." 4 A provocative view of time indeed!
Julian Barbour, a theoretical physicist in the field for over 35 years and author of several widely praised books on the subject, presents the foundational evidence for the nonexistence of time in his book The End of Time. Barbour makes the case that time is a byproduct of our human perception with time, motion, past and future all being illusions. Further, what is considered to be the experience of time is, in essence, living in one now after another now, and each instant being eternal or timeless. His work casts doubt on the space-time continuum, one of Albert Einstein's greatest contributions, in addition to arguing that the unification of Einstein's general relativity and quantum mechanics may spell the end of time having a role in the foundations of physics. Paradoxically, he writes what a timeless universe looks like and shows how the world will still be intensely experienced as palpably and passionately temporal. 5
This discussion does not imply or mean that the concept of time should be dropped and abandoned in physics. Simply because the mind seems to have a proclivity to put things in some chronological order, does not mean time exists although it can a useful concept at specific instances for descriptive understanding. Surely time as a concept has its place as a description of how physical reality functions, just like the concepts of motion, space, light, temperature, and thermodynamics are useful in accurately describing the physical empirical world, a prime directive of physics as a science.
Time perception or time orientation is how you hold and experience time. Inhabiting awareness of the present moment, akin to the timeless experience of enlightenment that Buddha pointed to, actually includes a natural flexibility and tolerance for all times past, present and future in this moment. Psychological researchers Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd call this form of time perception the "holistic present" given it contains both the past and future, is seen without being filtered by either, and everything is experienced as being one, interconnected and inseparable. Inhabiting the holistic present clearly implies access to the past (e.g., past lives/times) and the future (e.g., foreknowledge and premonitions) while grounded in the here-and-now.
Tellingly these writers give only a page and one-half out of an entire book to the holistic present, perhaps because the holistic present is central to Eastern, Buddhist and meditative experience and this being so different from our Western linear view of time. Commonly when anyone speaks of living in the present, they are referring to the "present-hedonistic", that is, actively seeking pleasure and avoiding pain through seeking sensations and novelty. It is widely touted that adolescents and thrill-seeking adults "live in the moment," yet do they? More likely, their behavior and attitude are a version of existing in a hedonistic present. A third time-orientation is "present-fatalistic" or believing your life is fated, controlled and beyond your control, a form of learned helplessness. Neither "present-hedonistic" nor "present-fatalistic" are being in the here-and-now. The holistic present stays clear of pleasure seeking in a hedonistic present and resigned cynicism of a fatalistic present. It is seen as a healthy perspective. 6
Thinking minds, when left to the default hardwired bias, often become addicted to thought, especially negative thoughts. Investing significant energy into thought propels us out of the present. The moment we think about something, the event has already passed. It is ironic that there simply isn't enough time to think and intimately inhabit the present moment. Will the life we are given as life's steward be spent thinking and fantasizing about life as a concept, or spent living life as the experience of every moment? Do you want ego-mind's version and simulation of your life, or do you want your life?
In this age of instantaneous data and information overload, life may seem like it is happening "to" us at the speed of light! The ego feeds distressing thoughts of worry and urgency by fear mongering over the lack of time. How could anyone caught up in emotions, such as anxiety and depression, be present? Both thinking and strong emotional states distort and contaminate being in presence, the only time that exists and all that is real. Given that the average American spends nine and one-half hours consuming media, people become socially oblivious, detached and disconnected driven by technology, called "absent presence" which is self-explanatory. 7
This present moment happens to be the only time that exists in reality. Now is the only apparent time when you are free to act and to influence your life and direction. What would it be that, if it were present, would point you to what wants to happen? Purely in the now do you have any input into your life! Does the universe and God work in any other time than in this moment? Will you allow thoughts, beliefs, delusions and false identities seemingly sweep you away from what is right here-and-now?
Here is an experiment: ask, "What would you like to be responsible for?" Then see a "deer in headlights" given how being a responsible adult is often avoided. How could you take self-responsibility unless you inhabit the present? Now is the only time when one is available to own, be responsible, and accountable for oneself, ones's words and actions. No now, no responsibility.
Time is certainly a concept. In this regard, time does not exist since no concept exists in the empirical world, including the concepts of space, motion, beliefs, roles, stories, comparisons, judgments, opinions, philosophies, and identities, with the sole exception of our true Self and identity in the Absolute realm. If there is no such thing as anything real or existent about any conceptualization, including time, then does the perceiver and conceptualizer, the I or me or you, the seeker or doer, the ego-mind, exist either? Or is all perception and experience only consciousness or awareness perceiving and experiencing itself, a human being in the dualistic empirical world of subjects and objects nested in a larger oneness or nonduality? Only in presence and witnessing can the ego-mind be seen from outside itself and have true perception arise. When there is no I, me or you, and only the True Self or witnessing consciousness is here-and-now, then and only then can reality, truth and who we truly are be revealed.
The present as a concept is constructed, manufactured, changeable and unreal, no different than the past and the future. Truth is changeless and timeless in the Absolute realm, and abides purely in the moment, as does all that goes beyond time. There is nothing apart or separate from Truth, Presence and Awareness, all being right now. As a felt, lived experience, the now transcends time itself. This direct experience of nowness is precisely what the great twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein means in the opening quote by eternitytimelessnesssince there is an absence of any sense of time in this instant. As French philosopher Henri Bergson put it, "Time has but one reality, that of the instant." Is there anywhere else to be in elusive, nonexistent, timeless time?
2. Eckhart Tolle, The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Novato, California: New World Library, 1999, pages 46-47.
3. Robert Levine, A geography of time. New York: Basic Books, 1997, pages 9-19, 81-86, 211-220 Robert Wolff, Original Wisdom: Stories of an ancient way of knowing. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 2001, page 79.
4. Robert L.
Vaessen, Time does not exist (and neither does motion). Available online:
5. Julian Barbour, The end of time: The next revolution in Physics. Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
6. Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd, The time paradox: The new psychology of time that will change your life. New York: Free Press, 2008, pages 106-111.
7. Dick Meyer, Why we hate us: American discontent in the new millennium. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pages 87, 227.
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