Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Identity in Time By Laurence L. Murphy Dominick A. Iorio, Photographs By Jennifer R. McConnellGo Back to Table of Contents
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Do you know what time it is? The answer to that question is problematic.

In charting time, there are the Apocalyptic Christian Calendar, the Chinese Calendar of great cyclical successions, the meta-time of the Day of Brahman in which time is a god’s dream. There are ancient Mayan celestial calendars, star catalogues in a strange rendezvous with galactic suns, pendulums miming the earth’s spin, nuclear clocks syncopated within an atom to the speed of light, time stratified and buried in the layers of the earth. The elliptic revolution of the earth around the sun is one year; the sun’s revolution around the center of the galaxy, two hundred million years. The galaxies themselves appear to be moving away from each other--to what destination? In that case, not when, but where, is time?

Approaching the speed of light, time slows down; and to an observer moving in the geo-rhythyms of earth, time would appear to stand still. This is something science has only recently discovered, yet a phenomenon perhaps intimated by visual artists for centuries in the painting of “still life.” Visual art has always studied and portrayed the nature of light, and the dissemination and propagation of light is as well the dissemination and propagation of time.

Perhaps the idea of an absolute time is an illusion. Time may be only an existential continuum recorded, remembered, passed on through ritual and tradition, discovered again in artifacts and texts as an act of communion of one historical period with another, one civilization with another, one being with another, its truest form taking place in memory. Time is then, like the Australian Aboriginal “dream time,” something known only in the elusive “now,” a current moving through the moment as mind becomes the medium and measure of time. Consequently, without consciousness, there is no such thing as “time” at all.

Then there are places where time literally disappears. Black Holes are areas where a star has collapsed in on itself from forces of gravity so dense that not even light can escape. In that region, space is destroyed. In this context, time is merely the space that keeps events and objects from colliding into one another. There is an old joke that time is what keeps everything from happening at once, but in the singularity of a Black Hole, this jest becomes real.

When we look for evidence that demonstrates the continuum of our own existence in time, however, the search becomes that much more complicated. The discovery of ancient Chinese or Greek pottery, prehistoric artifacts, tools, arrowheads or cave illustrations differs from the discovery of a fossil from the Pre-Cambrian period, for example, or from other pre-human epochs in the history of the planet. The evidence of intelligent life leaves behind artifacts, and what separates artifacts from fossils is that they are crafted by some conscious agency. Yet the questions we ask in search of the origins of this agency in time are in some ways similar to the questions we ask of the phenomenal nature of all that surrounds us. The very atmosphere we study exists within our lungs; the DNA of all life forms resides in our own genetic structures. The tears in our eyes are the same as seawater; our physical bodies are composed of the same matter as the stars.

Still, when we try to truly locate ourselves in time, we run into a kind of psychological Black Hole. We know that at a certain historical point--very recently--agency in time began to produce artifacts. No one really understands why--just as no one truly understands how the universe began. But the appearance of artifacts suggests as well the rise of human consciousness. The entity that drew pictures of its animal prey on the sides of caves not only hunted to stay alive, but was aware that it hunted to stay alive. Thus to be an agency in time implies awareness of one’s own activities. And to be conscious of one’s own activities implies some element of freedom and some compulsion to express this consciousness as a declaration of our being in the world.

The search for our consciousness in time is very complicated and frustrating, however, because it is our own consciousness we are searching for. In the very act of conducting this search, we are exercising the very consciousness we seek. Thus the minute we may think we have arrived at a definition of ourselves, we have already altered our self consciousness by adding this definition to it (and thus altering our own identity in the process). And so the search needs to be resumed. The paradox of this dilemma was illustrated in an ancient sermon of Chan Buddhism (the original Zen). The Chan Master proclaimed, “From the very beginning of non-time...all is nothing but your own mind.” The Master goes on to explain that all that you see before you is mind. Begin to conceptualize this universal mind, and it immediately disappears beyond comprehension. Thus you cannot use your mind to seek your mind. Mind simply is, and encompasses all that was, and all that ever will be. There is only instant revelation of this--and that is all. Ecstatic awareness of this is instantaneous integration into the cosmos. The Zen Buddhists call this insight Satori, and within it, there is consciously a fundamental negation of time.

As if to verify the Chan Buddhist sermon, it seems that human inquiry at the end of the twentieth century ran into some incredible roadblocks in its inquiry into the nature of both self and time. If we ask questions of the phenomenal “external” world, for example, we arrive at certain dead ends, such as the disappearance of time in a Black Hole; and if we ask questions of ourselves concerning our own identity as conscious agents in time, we arrive at a similar paradox. We cannot totally understand ourselves without changing ourselves and so like the mythic Sphinx of ancient Egypt and Greece, we stand as both the question and the answer to our own riddle. And despite the potential raising of our consciousness, we seem powerless to truly grasp the irrational elements of our own behavior, which may seem, at times, not to be conscious at all. We may seek to understand ourselves in time, but faced with our own irrationality, the effort may appear to be futile.

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