Looking back, looking forward, we see the world around us not only as it is now but as it was before and as it will be in the future. We live not just in space but in a space-time and that time component affects our lives probably more than anything else.
Buddhists would discuss the differences between past, present, and future and conclude that nothing really exists and if we could only catch the present we would achieve enlightenment.
I can’t speak for them but my understanding is that past does not exists because it’s, well, past. Even if existed at some point it doesn’t exist now. Future also doesn’t exist because it’s always in the “not yet” territory, and present is impossible to catch because as soon as you start contemplating it you start dealing with snapshots of the moments that just entered into the past.
So people are caught between reminiscing about something that doesn’t exist anymore and fantasizing about something that has not yet happened, and that causes stress and eventually makes them unhappy. Once you detach yourself from these illusions and “live in the moment” you become free and peaceful.
Can it work? I’m not sure. Generally, we can’t free our minds from the influence of time, if we could we would probably achieve the stage of liberation but it requires an enormous amount of work and sliding back into “reality” can happen at any moment. Bhutanese monks apparently have enough discipline but I’m not sure how successful they really are in their endeavors.
Apart from that, people’s ordinary orientation in space-time can vary greatly, too. There are tribes all over the world that see time differently from us. There’s a tribe in Papua New Guinea that sees past downhill and future uphill, at the source of their river. When making references to past they would gesture towards the river’s mouth regardless of the way they are facing themselves, and when talking about future they would gesture towards the mountains where their river starts. The river isn’t straight, too, so past is not directly opposite the future. This quirk is believed to be related to how they view their tribe’s history – as gradual ascend from the seashore up into the mountains.
Interestingly, when inside the house, their past is towards the door and their future is away from it.
There’s a tribe in Australia that sees time as traveling east to west, I don’t know why. There are tribes that see time flowing left to right, too, and one South American tribe, Aymara, that see past as being in front of them and future behind – directly opposite to our common perception. This is what interests me most here.
Scientists are fascinated by geographical orientation of time more than by relation to one’s own body but I think that we should pay attention to ego-related issues because it’s not the geography that is holding us here, it’s our attachment to our bodies, to our false ego, to our past, present, and future as embodied beings. If we can beat that then we can look at the time “objectively”, whichever way it really flows.
For Aymara people, past is in front of them because they have seen it. It’s where it appeared before their eyes. If they didn’t see something but only heard of it they do not place it in front of them, or so I gather. I don’t like this explanation very much. I’d much prefer to consider past in front of me because it is known, it is something already experienced, something I can study and dissect and explain away.
Future, OTOH, is unknown, so it shouldn’t be where I can see it, it shouldn’t be in my field of vision and activities, and so behind me is a better place. Not that it is how I actually relate to past and present personally but I think there’s some merit in this angle of vision, too.
In English there are time related quirks, too, but nothing as radical as Aymara’s. If one says that Wednesday meeting was moved forward two days half the people would think new meeting is on Monday and half would think it’s on Friday. Some see “forward” as relative to Wednesday and some see “forward” as and extension of their view, which is from present to past, and so extended by two days it moves from Wednesday to Monday. Personally, I would think new meeting is on Friday but science says there are folks who think it’s Monday and who am I to argue against science.
Anyway, the Aymara vision is truly radical – they would simply refuse to talk about future because of all the uncertainty about it. It hasn’t happened yet, it’s not in front of our eyes, it can turn this way or that, it’s a waste of time guessing it.
When Spanish conquistadors first came across this tribe they couldn’t explain to them the concept of “moving forward” and “thinking ahead”, Aymara people would not engage themselves in such speculations, not to mention it was impossible to translate. They just did not have the concept of progress which is essential to western attitude towards the world and our lives.
Driven by the mode of passion, we must move forward all the time, we must make progress, we must think about the future and all the wonderful things it should bring us. We all live for tomorrow or next year, things are always better in the future and we should always have hope.
Aymara people were probably more under the spell of ignorance and goodness and so they couldn’t understand what was all the fuss about.
We are not Aymara and we are supposed to be slightly more advanced than them but falling into passion driven attitude towards our lives is not much of a progress either. It would serve us well not to speculate about the future and not anticipate marvelous sense gratification that awaits us there. It leads only to further bondage.
How can we think about it in any other way? Every time we contemplate our future our mind reacts to our fantasies with either like or dislike, we can’t stop it from doing that. Every time our mind likes or dislikes something it sends us a signal and depending on the mind’s intensity it could be impossible to ignore.
This mind’s perception will naturally affect our every move towards that imaginary future. We will be either drawn to it or repelled, and then we’d have to exert a lot of energy to either stop us or force us. If it’s a sexual attraction we would have to try and stop ourselves, if it’s a cold shower at 3 in the morning we’d have to force ourselves out of warm beds.
The more we think about the future the more problems we create for ourselves, the more attached we become. Who needs that?
Dealing with our past and learning from it sounds so much better. Sure, we can develop attachments to past sense gratification.too, but memories do not last forever, the further away they are from the present the less powerful they are.
Maybe it’s just me but my memories do not move me anymore. I can’t feel them like I used to, I need a conscious effort and even then it doesn’t always work. That’s why I think it’s easier to be dispassionate about our past than about our future. We also have the benefit of hindsight and so our judgment is a lot better. What’s not to like about it?
I would recommend it to everyone else, too.