On a recent trail run, I approached from behind a mother walking hand-in-hand with her little girl.
It was a lovely sight — this young woman walking patiently at the child’s slow but determined pace — and as I moved past them the little girl beamed up at me, her big blue eyes bright with the wondrous world.
I smiled back at her with the crinkly brown eyes of the little girl I was a half-century ago. For a moment, the years collapsed and time revealed itself as nothing more than an idea. We were playmates.
To be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time: the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation . … Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now. – Eckhart Tolle
I am a veteran insomniac, and sleepless nights are prime time for contemplating The Problem. You know: that one big thing that — if only it were different — would permit happiness: the lost weight, the fulfilling job, the loving partner, improved health, better finances.
The Problem originates in the past and can be resolved only in the future, and therein lies the difficulty: Both our misery and our happiness depend on what Tolle calls “the mental disease” of psychological time. All forms of fear — worry, anxiety, tension — are associated with the future; all forms of nonforgiveness — regret, anger, bitterness — with the past.
It’s easy to concede the notion that suffering springs from the deadening abstraction of a time-bound mind: our thoughts prove it, minute by minute. It’s much harder to consider that time itself is a human construct, because it seems so objectively real: As this thing called “time” passes, we lose what we love, and observe our own bodies aging. Matter is continually changing form, and we humans strongly prefer certain forms to others.
Yet, we also experience the elasticity of time, how sometimes it appears to drag and other times fly. We know it is fluid. And we can intuit, however dimly, that happiness lies not at the end of some long, leaden volksmarch, but a slim half-step to the side, streaming alongside us all our lives in the perpetual present.
Still we insist on a certain grim linearity, especially when it comes to The Problem. We need time to grow, time to heal, time to change this or that. Time to work on things, to make progress, enough time — sometimes a lifetime — to fix the current iteration of The Problem and thus be happy.
And — as is true in all matters of the spirit — we get what we insist on.
In the beautifully imagined Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman presents a series of vignettes that probe the nature of time, shattering our conventional notions:
Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometime the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are entwined …
I want to invite the end of time, and with it, the end of The Problem. I want to quit marching forward and step lightly sideways, into happiness. I want it all to be possible, flowing in all directions: one endlessly unfolding, grace-filled moment.
I awaken one morning. I am still 60, but my 10-year-old cat is again a kitten, plush fur and wild eyes, a pendulum swinging from antic energy to deep and dreamless sleep. The 4-year-old hens who were pecking and scratching in the yard the day before are again baby chicks, racing around the brooder, then dozing beneath the heat lamp.
The next day, while making coffee, I notice that my cat is 16 and tired, somnolent in the sunlight, rising stiffly for a dollop of canned food. The chickens are dead. I do not know how old I am.
The day after that, I see I have a 10 -year-old cat and 4-year-old chickens. I am running in the mountain trails.
I see a little girl. I am a little girl.
An earlier version of this post appeared in May 2016.