Time is a
central fact of life. It is a measurable, quantifiable
phenomenon. In its most basic manifestation -- as seconds,
minutes, hours, days, months and years -- time is a completely
impersonal and objective reality. But while we generally take
this obvious, mundane kind of time for granted, does this
encompass all that time really is?
While we usually think we know exactly what time is and
therefore take it for granted, time is really much more
mysterious and complicated than we generally assume. In a
sense it is like a many-layered onion and we seem to stay
focused on the surface layer only. However, nature guards her
deepest secrets and we ignore them at our peril.
Types of Time
On one level, we know time as the interval it takes to get
from point A to point B. It takes time to get from San
Francisco to New York. We can call this extrinsic time
or external time.
It also takes time to learn a skill, to build a skyscraper, to
invent a new technology and to accumulate knowledge. Learning,
planning and building all require a step-by-step process. A
tiny redwood seed weighing but several ounces contains the
genetic pattern of a full-grown 300-foot giant. However, it
takes the passage of time and the right conditions to realize
that miraculous potential.
In the first example, external time implies and even needs
space, for without the distance that separates two or more
points this type of time could not exist. So we see that
physical time and space are truly relative and inseparable.
This involves motion and distance, the space-time continuum of
four relative dimensions. In the second instance we see that
time is also something more than the simple interval it takes
to cover the distance between two points -- it is also
intrinsically necessary for any kind of process. We will refer
to this as intrinsic time.
On the macro level, external time, as we record and track it
according to the clock and calendar, is a system of
measurement that involves the interrelationship of the earth
and sun. It takes 24 hours or one day for the earth to rotate
on its axis and give us the diurnal cycle of day and night.
The earth revolves around the sun in 365 days or one year.
Distance, motion and interval are fundamental aspects of the
time kept by the watches on our wrists and calendars on our
walls. This kind of mechanical time gives us an external frame
of reference that allows us to collectively coordinate and
synchronize our plans, schedules, goals and activities.
This mechanical time is a very logical, precise scientific
system that is truly one of the cornerstones of modern-day
civilization. Try to imagine life in our advancing
technological society without clocks and calendars.
Impossible! However, mankind has lived far longer without the
benefit of precise clocks than he has with them.
As we have discussed above, time is a multi-dimensional
reality with many different qualities and components. It might
be better understood if we thought of it as a field with
different dimensions than simply as a clock ticking away
or the pages of a calendar being torn off. That view of time
is two-dimensional, superficial and somewhat misleading.
To finish the puzzle of time we need to add several more key
pieces. We experience time as the passage of days and months
through a succession of seasons. Each season has distinctive
characteristics and these seasonal changes require cyclical
time, which is very important to biological life and is
predictable within fairly tight parameters. The summer and
winter solstices and the spring and autumnal equinoxes
demarcate the seasons. This allows farmers to plow and prepare
their fields for planting in the spring and to harvest in the
fall. Many animals rely on the predictability of cyclical time
for their seasonal migrations. For example, the swallows
return to Capistrano on the same day every year, while geese
and ducks fly south in the fall and north in the spring.
This kind of time appears to be programmed into the physiology
of many mammal species at a genetic or cellular level. Clearly
these animals dont keep track of the changing seasons
externally like we humans do -- at a conscious level with
calendars -- but their bodies understand the seasonal cycles.
The circadian rhythm is similarly programmed into the
physiology of people.
In addition to the above outlined dimensions of time there is
also non-cyclical or linear time. Take a hypothetical
leaf floating from the source of a river high in the mountains
down to the sea. Our leaf would be taking a journey in linear
time from a spring in the mountains to the ocean. Once it
reaches the rivers destination it cannot return. Like the
floating leaf, human history exhibits a linear progression. We
have gone from the primitive conditions of the Stone Age to an
advanced technological civilization. Each new generation is a
movement forward and onward, a sequential progression.
Evolution progressed linearly as well. The age of the
dinosaurs and mega-flora gave way to smaller mammals and
smaller flowering plants tens of millions of years ago because
they were more suited to the changing conditions on planet
We return to the question: What is time? It is a
complex field made up of many dimensions. One cant help but
wonder why we try to cram all of this into one concept, one
single word, much less a simple, concise paragraph. So far we
have only touched the hem of objectively measurable physical
What is perhaps even more complicated is the whole sphere of
internal or psychological time. We all experience this
subjective sense of time almost every moment of every
day that seems to have no relationship to the clock. A minute
is a minute is a minute since it is always 60 seconds, yet
that same minute can seem like an hour or it can seem like a
fraction of a second. It all depends on the quality of our
experience, our perception of a given experience being
pleasurable or painful, desirable or repugnant. Another common
experience involves the feeling that time accelerates as we
age. When we are very young we have a poorly developed sense
of objective time. Every adult seems to recall that bygone era
when the days, months and years felt like they were moving at
a snails pace.
This presents us with a paradox in relation to the way we
think about, experience and perceive time. Is time one of the
basic objective realities of the physical universe we believe
it is or is it a plastic, subjective state of mind? The answer
is ambiguous: It is both.
Time is measurable and quantifiable. Our very lives are
predicated on time. We are born; we grow, mature, age, decay
and die. All of these processes involve continuity, interval,
sequence and the present moving into the future at the same
time it becomes the past. These facts are undeniable.
Time is so central to our lives, perceptions, emotions and
patterns of thought that we seem to have made a critical error
when it comes to thinking logically about eternity or
timelessness. Many people believe that eternity begins after
death. But how can that be? If life is eternal then it has no
beginning and no end. Eternity existed prior to my birth, it
exists at this moment of my life, and it will be what it is
after my death.
Another conventional mistake is to look at eternity as endless
time. This paradigm takes the usual divisions of time and
extends them indefinitely believing that countless minutes,
hours, days and years add up to eternity. But do they? No,
because an x-zillion years is still within the fields of time.
Any extension of time or any thought projection of eternity is
still within the field of time.
Eternity is entirely different; it is outside of times
limited boundaries. Time has continuity. Eternity is
discontinuity -- it is time-less. Time is inside the
box. The eternal moment is outside the box, measureless. Does
this present us with a profound paradox? Yes. One seems to
negate the other. How can we have time and mortality and still
have eternity? But think about it: We live in time and we live
in eternity simultaneously. This is not a semantics problem or
an intellectual shell game. It goes right to the heart of
understanding the truth of human life and spirituality.
If we only think about and experience our lives from inside
the box we are bound by the demands of time and the
limitations that perspective imposes: the clock is ticking,
time is running out. Anxiety and impatience seem to go hand in
hand with this view, as does a short-term orientation. Our
individual human lives are very, very brief even by the
standard of a redwood tree, let alone geological or
What is 80 years compared to the billions of years that have
elapsed since the earth was born? How vast are the time scales
of the galaxies beyond? Does our earthly system of measurement
even apply? If we were in a spaceship outside the galaxy,
would minutes, hours and days have any practical meaning or
reality? Apparently not, since our system is based on the
earths movements around the sun. What bearing would that have
in the empty space outside our solar system? As complex as our
time-box is, it is still very small and confining, as it has
nothing to do with the rest of the material universe, let
Our experience of external time and sense of internal time are
inextricably linked to our perceptions, thought patterns and
emotions. These physical sensations, processes and reactions
have evolved over millions of years and time is programmed
into our bodies. Everything in the material world changes; in
time all plants and animals die. That is our basic experience
of time and it is continually reinforced. It may seem mundane
and obvious and yet if we try to grab a hold it and really
break it down to its essence, it becomes like water to a
goldfish in a bowl.
Part of the mystery stems from the fact that our problem is
conceptual and semantic. There is no single, quantifiable
phenomenon or medium we can represent with one concept so it
is a mistake to refer to all these complex processes with one
word: time. The Eskimos have three-dozen words for
different kinds of snow. I submit that we should be as precise
by acknowledging and signifying the different kinds of time.
WILL HART is a freelance writer, outdoor photographer
and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Nature Photographer,
Wild West, Adventure West and Sierra Heritage. He writes a
weekly column titled Tahoe Natural and has made films about
wolves and wild horses.
2002 Will Hart. All rights reserved.