Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Time, Change and Memory

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Time? What is it? It is only a concept used by the mind (along with space and causality) to try to make sense of the world of forms, when perceived as separate from the Self. Here are Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon’s thoughts on the subject:

718. THE FALLACY OF ‘TIME’ (414)

1. Time is believed to be composed of the past, present and future. Of these three, the past is past only in reference to the present and the present is present only in relation to the past, future is future only in reference to the present. So all three being interdependent, even for their very existence, it has to be admitted by sheer force of logic that none of them is real. Therefore, time is not.

2. Experience is the only criterion by which the reality of anything can be decided. Of the three categories of time, past and future are not experienced by any, except when they appear in the present. Then it can be considered only as present. Even this present – when minutely examined – reduces itself into a moment which slips into the past before you begin to perceive it, just like a geometrical point. It is nobody’s experience. It is only a compromise between past and future as a meeting point. Thus present itself being only imaginary, past and future are equally so. Therefore, time is not.

In reality there is only the Self, God, Consciousness, whatever you want to call ‘it’ and ‘that is it’. It is complete and perfect. How could there be change? If there were, and ‘it’ ended up as complete and perfect, then it must have been incomplete and imperfect to begin with. Change implies time so if there is not the latter, there cannot be the former either. As T. S. Eliot says:

"Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now."

Of course, at the relative level, it appears that there is change and (perhaps consequently) we conceive that there must be time to account for this. And this brings in the train of other misconceptions such as causality and free will. We do like to complicate things, don’t we?!

There is an absolutely brilliant note from Atmananda on this (apologies for keep quoting from this but he is so good):


Change and changelessness both pertain to objects, and are perceived by me from beyond both. The one can never be perceived from the position of the other. The most common mistake committed by an ordinary man is that, on the disappearance of something, he immediately substitutes an imaginary appearance of something else called its opposite or its absence.Now let us examine what we mean by ‘change’. An object is a mixture of the background and some qualities. The qualities come and go. When some qualities disappear, others appear, the background remaining the same. Then we say the object changes, and on the surface the statement appears to be true.Let us look deeper. The qualities merely change their place and are not destroyed. Because some passengers have alighted from and some others have boarded a train at a particular station, can you say the train has changed? No. And because some passengers have alighted from the train and boarded a ship, can you say that they have changed? No. Neither the train nor the passenger has changed.

Similarly, in the object composed of the background and the qualities, the qualities change their place. That is the only activity that takes place. Neither the background nor the qualities undergo any change. Therefore, in fact, nothing changes.

In the moment – of seeing, hearing, thinking or whatever – there is no time. (There is only seeing, hearing, thinking etc.) The illusion of time only arises when the ego latches on to the thought called memory, which purports to relate to the ‘earlier’ event of seeing, hearing, thinking etc.). In fact, the memory is itself only a thought, in the present, too. I.e. there is again thinking in the moment and still no time. ‘All is always now’.

The usual Advaita manner of explaining the paradox is to talk about absolute and relative (or noumenal and phenomenal; or paramArtha and vyavahAra; or reality and illusory world). Time goes along with the (false) notion of creation. If you believe in a creation, a world of me and you and objects, then space, time and causality are necessary to maintain this illusion and explain what seems to happen. Once you know that all this is false and that there are ‘not two’, then the concepts are no longer necessary. What is the meaning of space when the Self is everywhere? What is the meaning of time for eternal Consciousness? What is the meaning of causality when ‘nothing ever happens’?

Clearly, sages (along with everyone else) continue to appear to act as if there is time. If they say that they will ‘be in X in two months time’, then their words reflect a tacit assumption that there is a future. It depends upon the perspective. From the point of view of a body-mind functioning in the world, what is said is meaningful to the other person’s mind. But all of these – bodies, minds and world – are only names and forms superimposed upon the non-dual reality. In truth, there is only Consciousness now (and there is only now)!

The illusion of time is the effective obstacle to our ‘enlightenment’ and memory is perhaps the principal reason for this. In the moment, there is identity with whatever ‘we’ are seeing, feeling etc. In the moment, this is the reality. ‘Enlightenment’ is knowing this in ‘every’ moment. Thus it is effectively true to say that we are already enlightened because, in the moment, this is our own experience. But when we think that a memory refers to some past event and become involved with this illusion, we lose the connection with the moment. Paradoxically, of course, the memory itself is a present thought and, provided it is know as such in the moment, there is no problem. But we insist that this present thought somehow refers to something that is now in a ‘past’.

Just to end with another quote from Krishna Menon:

"Memory is the one thing that creates the whole world, and memory is the last link that connects one with the phenomenal world. If memory is understood to be nothing but a thought, which in turn is nothing but pure Consciousness – the Self – then memory, and the world with it, is merged into the Self."

Quotations are from the 'Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda' and from 'Four Quartets' by T. S. Eliot

Other Discourses in this Section:
The Unreal Spiritual Path The Real
The Unreal The Spiritual Path The Real
We are not the Body A Brief View of Advaita Adhyaasa - the Nature of Error
Control of the Ego How to Act - Karma Yoga There is Only the Self
States of Consciousness The Process of Enlightenement Fate and Free Will
Meaning and Purpose   We cannot think or talk about Reality
Pleasure and Happiness   Time, Change and Memory
Desire for Objects    


Page last updated: 08-Jul-2012