Mckhrtmn1987 • • 5 min read
The Surprising Way Language Imprisons Us in Time
“The ‘here’ is everywhere, and the now always. Go beyond the ‘I-am-the-body’ idea and you will find that space and time are in you and not you in space and time. Once you have understood this, the main obstacle to realization is removed.”
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Anyone who writes or reads will, sooner or later, contemplate the nature of language. It is the ‘stuff’ our minds, and thus what our communication is made of.
The surgeon needs to know, and understand, the anatomy, physiology and genealogy of the human body, in order to heal his patient. But talking, whether in or between heads, is, for most of us, an even more intimate matter than literally being cut open. The incessant story-telling, the live commentary, the seemingly involuntary ‘navigating through’ the world with words, is what holds our reality and ourselves together, by continuously repeating and revising itself. Both psychedelics and self-inquiry can interrupt this obsessive-compulsive process. The former by releasing our attention into the infinity of the moment, and the awe-inspiring abyss of pure perception. The latter by internally asking: ‘’Who is talking?’’, ‘’Who am I talking to?’’ Or ‘’Who is listening to this?’’
Language Creates Time
Language, as it is based on past experience, and projects into the future by dissecting the present, actually creates time, or at least the directionality (time relentlessly falling or slipping away) and linearity (time is passing, homogenously, independent of consciousness)of it. It creates the belief and subjective sense of being in time, as a body, as a person. Once you are in, there is the threat, by implication, of running out too. As long as you are within time, you can at least claim a part of it: ‘This is my time’, or ‘I (still) have time’, yet there is always the latent anxiety of not having, and of ‘spending’ it, because in the narrative ‘’and then…-modus’’, what is dreaded above all is THE END.
Furthermore, it’s structure- the way language generates meaning, is through different categories of words, such as the all-important (pro)nouns and adjectives. For example: by tirelessly pointing at stuff or rather at recurring sensory impressions, while uttering certain sounds, parents teach their babies ‘what is what.’ Mommy loves you. That is blue. And so on.
By naming (semi)persistent patterns appearing in our field of vision, these are reified into objects, and simultanously inaugurate the opposing ‘I’ or ‘me’ that does the seeing, or rather sees it. Suddenly, what was previously perceived as one indivisible whole, splits up not just in a thousand pieces, but in an even more fundamental, and frigthening rift between ‘out there’ and ‘in here.’
In our direct, immediate and unmediated experience it is impossible to confirm such a divide, because it is, literally, ‘just’ a way of speaking, of memorizing, or translating it, so that what just happened can be stored for later, when it is necessary to recall the alphabetically locked-in-formation.
But when you and the world, you and life, you and time are different(iated), you can be prone to a parasitic host of paradigm-a-tic feelings: lostness, listless, loneliness, lack, alienation, and what more?!
The Paradox of Time
When anything, or rather no thing, or not-yet-a-thing, is fixated into an object, it’s being is separated from it’s time. As a result, it is both ‘inside’(or ‘of’) and ‘outside’(i.e. different from) time, because by now time is understood, by definition, as necessarily outlasting any possible object, and thus transcending the particular altogether.
Time becomes absolute.
Within this paradigm, one can make mysterious metaphysical claims such as the following, while remaining perfectly coherent: The only thing that is timeless, is time, because it’s not a thing, or nothing!
Ha! Here the ridiculous and the profound hold hands in self-conscious absurdity!
In his book Lack and Transcendence, philosopher David Loy implodes the inherently irreconcilable paradox by employing a metaphor:
We normally understand objects such as cups to be “in” space, which […] implies that in themselves they must have a self-existence distinct from space. However, not much reflection is [required] to realize that the cup itself is irremediably spatial. All its parts must have a certain thickness, and without the various spatial relations among the bottom, sides, and handle, the cup could not be a cup. Perhaps one way to express this is to say that the cup is not “in” space but itself is space: the cup is “what space is doing in that place,” so to speak.
The same is true for the temporality of the cup. The cup is not an atemporal, self-existing object that just happens to be “in” time, for its being is irremediably temporal.
To clarify this, he quotes and comments on Zen master Dogen’s mind-bending and heart-opening way of expressing the non-duality of things and time:
The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers. The flowers, in turn, express the time called spring. This is not existence within time; existence itself is time.’’ This is the meaning of his “being-time“
Wow. If I am neither going through nor leaving time, because I am time, I am beyond the gut-wrenching, soul-squeezing duality of impermanence versus permanence, because both are predicates of time in relationship to an object.
And if I am time, remembering the claim made before, I am also timeless, or ‘’free from time. Because ‘’to say that there is only time, turns out to be equivalent to saying that there is no time.” That’s the inescapable interdependence of pairs of opposites; by denying one pole, one denies the other. They come and go together.
Wittgenstein, a great philosopher of language from Austria, asserted that many maddeningly unsolvable and riddling (metaphysical) questions arise because people do not understand how language works. Instead of stubbornly and endlessly attempting to answer them, one needs to discover and reveal the underlying assumptions, which caused the question to entangle and confuse the mind in the first place. Thus, they are not answered, but ended, thereby returning to the silent wisdom of our immediate experience, instead of mere speculation and mental rumination.
It is not easy for the (ego-)mind to truly accept and fully realize that I am neither mortal nor immortal, neither in time, nor outside of it. That I will neither live forever, nor are ever going to die. When I do not have an existence apart from time, the concepts of birth and death lose their function and common sense appeal.
How does your watch know the time? How will that clock know the time after it stopped ticking?
As Einstein proved that time and space are relative, and as all things are both spatial and temporal by their very nature, there is not ‘another’ place or ‘other’ time to go to (dying) or come from (being born). Again, the mind cannot genuinely grasp this. But you can somehow feel, taste, glimpse it – the depth and truth of it. As if everything is inexorably sucked back into original oneness.
Seamlessly at home.
Recommended Reading List:
Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism
Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
Art by Carlos.