Experiential Time, Part 4

Experiential Time, Part 4

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” Hermann Hesse[1]

The paradoxical way in which we view eternal life is of some future state where time, as we perceive it, stops – and yet continues forever in something like time. We imagine the often-unpleasant experiences of aging, illness, addiction, death, etc., to be left behind while we continue to exist in some recognizable state, but with only good experiences and qualities, like our childish curiosity, our youthful fitness, and our hard-earned wisdom. It sounds attractive, but it makes no logical sense (not that eternity is logical) and is inconsistent with everything else we know of and experience in life.

It is nearly impossible to conceive of the totality of our life experience. We divide our lives into different parts, like childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and so on. We look at each part as its own reality, even though the dividing lines between phases are imaginary. Variations in the ways life expresses move in the same way our days flow in unbroken sequences we name as morning, afternoon, evening, and night. Our 3-dimensional, time-and-space perceptual limitations convince us that the inherent motion of and variation in how a single reality expresses is a separate reality.

In order to glimpse eternity and eternal life it is necessary to picture our lives as an unbroken whole, from birth to death, as an energy that manifests not as a disparate collection of the days it “lived,” but as a single, unified experience in a moment of eternity. One commonly reported occurrence of people who have near-death experiences is that of seeing their entire life flash before them in an instant, not as a sequence of individual snapshots but as an all-inclusive, living image that includes every detail. It is a vision of one’s entire life-experience outside of chronological time.

German author, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), brilliantly illustrates seeing the whole outside of time with his description of the river in today’s epigraph. He writes that there is no such thing as time for the river because it is “everywhere at the same time.” The river only exists in the present. Everything that makes up the river is always present, always has been, always will be. We understand the river’s essential nature as the water cycle, where rainwater fills tributaries which flow into rivers which carry it to the ocean. Evaporation, which is invisible to us, carries it back to the clouds where it falls to earth again as rain. The river is eternal in that every part of it exists simultaneously and forever, even though it expresses itself in many diverse ways in the totality of its being. Although we, as 3-dimensional observers, are only able to perceive one part of the river at a one time and in one location, the entire life of water always exists in all locations and at all times. That is eternal life.

What we call the past and the future, Hesse describes as “shadows.” They have no tangible reality outside of the present moment. For example, if I crossed a river last week, the image of that part of the river is a memory. If I am taking a trip next week where I will cross another part of the river, a projection of that part of the river may exist in my imagination. If I am standing on a bridge attending to the river now, the river exists in my present. Only in the present moment can I engage with the river. Even the shadow images, however, exist simultaneously in the eternal life of the river. The river is one eternal entity and all of my engagements with it, past and future, are embedded within it, here and now.

The eternal life of the soul that animates the being we call us is the same. We have memories of our life-experience from 10 years ago and imaginary projections of what it may be like 10 years hence. Those memories and ideas, however, are imaginary projections that direct our attention away from what is real and eternal, right here and right now. If we picture our days as if they were water particles in the water cycle of the eternal river, we might gain perspective about the many ways our earthly experiences express as the eternally present life of our soul, as well as how all of creation expresses in the eternally present life of God.

This is the 5th in a series of Life Notes on time and eternity. The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of others. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.

[1] Herman Hesse, from Siddhartha, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/748734-have-you-also-heard-that-secret-from-the-river-that/, accessed May 6, 2023.  

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