The ill-fated protagonist of Balzac’s Lost Illusions writes to his sister telling her that he has had no time to write, because time moves in Paris with uncanny, terrifying speed. Some Japanese express the same feeling about Tokyo, a city of constant movement, where time never weighs on one’s hands, but quickly evaporates like a spume of champagne. The philosophical literary critic, Georges Poulet, showed in his series of Studies in Human Time (Études sur le temps humain) that the human experience of time varies from epoch to epoch and even from individual to individual. He could have applied his skills to studying the Japanese experience of time or even the peculiar temporality of contemporary Tokyo.
If one word is emblematic of that temporality it is the word isogashii, ‘I’m busy!’ Being busy is the Tokyo disease. All we Tokyoites are so addicted to being busy and find it so pleasurable, as a rule, that we cannot consider seriously that this eternal bustle is unwholesome. It militates against depth and creativity. The workplace becomes a treadmill of addictive routine, at the expense of creative initiative. University life becomes a constant flurry of lectures, meetings, club activities, and no longer provides the time and space for deep thought and patient scholarship.
Tokyo is the capital of ukiyo, the floating world, a kaleidoscope of shimmering surfaces, and its temporality is one of quick switches. Each moment must have the sensation that fills it, and there is little concern with the continuity between these moments. They do not accumulate in a treasure of memory, for they offer nothing to ruminate over, and even if they did, who would have time for such rumination when the next moment already beckons? Tokyo temporality gives a new, piquant sense to T. S. Eliot’s line, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. Can solid relationships take root in such a milieu? Or a life of prayer?
In other cultures people complain about not being able to live in the present: ‘We look before and after, And pine for what is not.’ My own native city of Cork revels all the year round in trips down memory lane; the pages of the Evening Echo regularly feature images of Cork as it was in the 1920's or 30's, while the Christmas Hollybough, posted to exiles the world over, is an annual swooning plunge into Cork past. But in Tokyo people do live in the present, and only in the present, in youthful abandon, without reflection. Past and future weigh less than they do elsewhere. The urban landscape favors this ‘nowy’ quality (to adopt a word coined in Japan), for it has no brooding ancient monuments to trouble the stream of contemporary existence as reminders of a heavy past. To live and breathe, it seems, a city must destroy its past. Without the cruel gash of the great Boulevards, Paris would have become as stifling as Venice, with its myriad palazzos forever tottering into decay. Without earthquake, fire-bombing, and the over-active construction industry, Tokyo would be a warren of decrepit lanes, savoring its past in the manner of Nagai Kafu and Edward Seidensticker.
But the option for the now is also an option for ugliness and soullessness, for the dominance of the convenience store, the chain store and the fast-food joint, of McDonalds, Mr Donut, KFC, Doutor, Starbucks. The city is no longer a habitation, but a locale. One does not dwell in it, but only perches. If there is no accumulation of a past, there is no thought of a future either. All locations are temporary, and may disappear on the morrow. All energy goes into sustaining the rhythm of perpetual change. Japan remains a land of sedate and regular schedules, but less so than before. And the purpose of the schedules, like the list of dances at a ball, is merely to keep up the giddy whirl of the present.
The incursion of computers and the internet into the fabric of Tokyo life increases this sense of lightness and momentariness. To write and post a letter has become a much more difficult exercise than in the past, for it means an investment in an older, slower temporality, in resistance to the prevailing rhythm. The buzz of Akihabara, where an extortionate technocracy whips its unhappy clients through the hoops of planned obsolescence, brings this culture of the instant to a nightmare paroxysm. Who has not felt gripped by a Luddite rage when the computer ceases to flatter one's addiction to immediate communication, and exposes one instead to nasty upsets, and to cynical reminders that nothing lasts?
Much of this has to do with the Americanization of contemporary culture. The cult of the immediate overrules any concerns that bring no quick profit. Political discourse is reduced to soundbites, the world of publishing to a stream of publicity stunts, and fast food becomes the normative cuisine.
Anxiety about Time
The human experience of time varies greatly from person to person and from culture to culture. For some individuals and cultures, the passing of time is not a subject of acute anxiety. Not everyone worries about the human condition in the same way. Some who are obsessed with time have little serious concern with death, and vice versa. Yeats raged against old age, even when he was young, but did not worry much about either time or death. Such anxieties are part of the human condition no doubt, and dawn on everyone in adolescence. But they are accentuated by scratching them, as so many poets, philosophers and preachers have encouraged us to do.
In our world, it is popular commercial culture that foments anxiety about time and aging, while usually whisking death out of sight. Our sensitivity to the passing of time is reinforced by an obsessive focus on our age, an item of information that we are obliged to set down in black and white every time we sign a form, as in the past we were obliged to confess our sins. More than ever in history, people keep track of their birthdays. They spend their lives fretting about the passing of time -- until it has all passed. Their eyes fixed on the hourglass, they count and recount the years or months of their lives, appalled to find themselves already 30, 40, 50 or 60 years old. The numbers have a chilling objectivity. The discomforting calculations they inspire leave no room for doubt. There is always less time remaining than one had imagined.
But what are these numbers, really? Why do we allow them to have a grip on the concrete flow of our lives, as it richly arises at every moment? Popular wisdom tries rather ineffectually to break the grip of these abstract numbers, assuring us that “you’re as old as you feel”. But the time-sickness infiltrates our minds too deeply to be shaken off by such blithe declarations. The suffering caused by the rapid passing of time is very largely due to our servitude to abstract conceptions of time and its measurement. We ‘keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife’ (Shelley). Time is our enemy, an invisible, metaphysical, ungraspable, implacable opponent. Fight it on one front, it steals up on you on another; you must fight on the micro-level of ‘the unforgiving minute’ and the macro-level of the ghostly flight of years; against an enemy so elusive and versatile you cannot win. ‘O lamentable shadows, Obscurity of strife!’ (Yeats).
Those who are most haunted by the passing time are people who lead “empty” lives - the unmarried, the childless, or those whose ambitions remain unrealized, through distraction, weakness, procrastination, and the hundred guises of sloth. Modern literature contains many studies of such empty, lonely lives, eaten away by time, from Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet and Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education to James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” or Anita Brookner’s gallery of spinsters in dimly lit drawing rooms. Getting a handle on time is so difficult that these writers have usually preferred simply to chronicle how we are doomed to be completely defeated by our obscure antagonist, who holds in his hand the trump card of intransigent irreversibility. Tempus irreparabile fugit -- impervious to any argument, protest, or lament from its victims. ‘Time devours life, growing and thriving on the blood we lose’ (Baudelaire). But no, we cannot personify time. It is totally impersonal, oblivious of the havoc and panic it is creating. Without doubt it gets its final terror from the obscure terminus it brings daily nearer, so that worrying about time is way of worrying about death, by proxy, and of staving the troubling thought of death away from the forefront of awareness. About death we can do nothing, but time holds out the specious promise that it can be measured and mastered. For the philosophically minded, there is a further terror in time, when one contemplates its devastating work over generations and millennia, the rise and fall of empires, of millions upon millions of forgotten lives, not to mention the vast, eerie reaches of cosmic time, which sink a chill into our souls.
Surely we are not meant to live like this, a prey to incapacitating anxiety. Can religion help us to change time from an enemy into a friend? Is there a Christian or a Buddhist wisdom about time that the modern world can recover?
A Christian Attitude to Time
To the Christian all things are a gift from the Lord’s hands. Time itself is grace. In the regularity of time, the sequence of the years and seasons, we can celebrate the firm hand of Providence. In the uniqueness of each passing moment we can find a constantly new encounter with the divine Presence at the heart of everything. Giving thanks for the reality of time, we root ourselves in acceptance of the divine order of things. God is at work in each moment, controlling the entire structure and fabric of time, and there is nothing to worry about in this. Detachment, that leaves things in God’s hands, robs time of its sting. We are then free to rejoice in the dayspring of each moment. “He who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in Eternity’s sunrise” (Blake).
But how can we celebrate time, when it hastens us toward the grave? Christ himself was subject to time, going early to death. The things we fear most, such as pain and death, become blessings when we find Christ there before us, inviting us to go all the way with him. Our desperate denials of time, of aging, of vulnerability, and of death stave off Christ crucified as well. Christian piety deals with death by dying proleptically every day. The Christian has lived “the hour of our death” thousands of times before it finally descends. Better, we have already died and our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3.3).
The ideal, no doubt, is to find life and death in each moment. Our past selves die and our life is renewed at each moment. Clinging to the past, or to control of time, we miss the grace of rebirth that each new moment signifies. “He who loses his life, will save it” (Lk. 17.33). People who “cannot call their time their own”, harried parents, overworked employees, may come closer, in the midst of stress, to this dynamic of death and resurrection. Those who have “all the time in the world” find it harder to live time in this way. Their existence is unmarked by any kairos of decisive engagement or self-sacrifice, and becomes a level, monotonous chronos, albeit filled with pleasant distractions. To cultivate the kairos element of temporal existence, we need to “take up our cross daily”, that is, to live each day as a time of testing, not filling it with pleasures but stretching it out in service. That stretched, sacrificial time is well attuned to the temporality of prayer. The levelled, empty chronos existence, on the other hand, does not welcome the insertion of prayer, which is as alien to it as oil to water.
Some see the proleptic embrace of death in Christian piety as a coy strategy for eluding the reality of death, by “playing dead” in advance. Such constant anticipation of death is seen as an impediment to living life to the full. Gregory of Nyssa, in “On the Soul and Resurrection”, voices the human protest against death in tones that we should have heard more often in the Christian world:
“There is such an instinctive and deep-seated abhorrence of death in all! Those who look on a death-bed can hardly bear the sight; and those whom death approaches recoil from him all they can. Why, even the law that controls us puts death highest on the list of crimes, and highest on the list of punishments. By what device, then, can we bring ourselves to regard as nothing a departure from life even in the case of a stranger, not to mention that of relations, when so be they cease to live? We see before us the whole course of human life aiming at this one thing, viz. how we may continue in this life; indeed it is for this that houses have been invented by us to live in; in order that our bodies may not be prostrated in their environment by cold or heat. Agriculture, again, what is it but the providing of our sustenance? In fact all thought about how we are to go on living is occasioned by the fear of dying. Why is medicine so honored amongst men? Because it is thought to carry on the combat with death to a certain extent by its methods. Why do we have corslets, and long shields, and greaves, and helmets, and all the defensive armor, and inclosures of fortifications, and iron-barred gates, except that we fear to die? Death then being naturally so terrible to us, how can it be easy for a survivor to obey this command to remain unmoved over friends departed?”
Augustine's Confessions voice a different anxiety, for he worries less about death than about time. He does not "play dead" and pretend that the speedy passage of years holds no terrors for him. To the contrary, the reader is made to feel how the years hurtle forward while the narrator procrastinates about conversion, until in the end he welcomes the Eternal into his life and thenceforth is able to live time in a new, spiritually liberated way. His personal time becomes part of the time of the Church, of the communion of saints. On the basis of this he built the first great vision of history as governed by Providence, oriented to eternity, and moving forward in hope even amid the collapse of an Empire. But we mediocre Christians are not Augustine, and we find ourselves unprovided for, disoriented, as time has its way with us.
The Liturgical Year is supposed to help us by sanctifying time, as we live together the drama of Advent and Christmas, Lent, Passiontide and Eastertide. Many things impede us from finding our moorings in this great rhythm, which the Church creates for us, freeing us from the care of constructing the meaning of our temporality. We have lost the eschatological consciousness that was so vibrant at the time of Vatican II, when we used to talk of "God's people on their way," "God, the future of man," and "the Kingdom" and when theologians clarified so well the meaning of biblical eschatology in its existential dimensions (Bultmann and others), in its social and ecclesial dimensions (political theology and liberation theology), and even in its cosmic dimensions (Teilhard de Chardin). The hype about the arrival of the Third Millennium was a regressive substitute for a true sense of the Church's eschatological role. Celebration of the past, preservation of the same, has outweighed any hope-filled vision of the future. The Church has thus failed to engage creatively with the riddle of living in time. The individual believer is left to pursue his or her struggle with time unaided.
The figure in Scripture who best represents the modern unease about time is the paralytic in John 5 who waits for thirty-eight years at the pool, hoping for the kairos when the healing waters are stirred, and missing that moment of grace every time it comes. Just as our own lives are empty chronos without kairos, so we view history as an empty stretch of time, failing to recognize the kairos of the Incarnation, that orients history to the goal of the Kingdom. This Christian vision of history, orchestrated by Oscar Cullmann in Christ and Time, and by many other theological writers, now rather old-fashioned, has been in recess of late. Our spiritual leaders are bogged down in managing the ecclesiastical routine, in a time of crumbling confidence, and have little energy left for pointing the way forward to humanity at large. The Christian vision of history has not much value if it becomes a convenient conventional framework. It only comes alive in engagement that aims at changing the world. Spiritual leaders who have disconnected themselves from such engagement, or discouraged others from it, have no solid basis for using the language of the Kingdom or finding dynamic equivalents of that language. Time weighs heavily on a disconnected Church, locked in contemplation of its own decline, year by year. Can the Church again seize the reins of history, in a prophetic style?
Buddhist Attitudes to Time
Much more could be said about Christian approaches to time. But it may be Buddhism that addresses most accessibly and appropriately our present temporal malaise. Buddhism takes temporal phenomena as they present themselves, and brings to bear on them the gaze of mindful attention. The anxiety about time is treated and cured by the medicine of mindfulness. This attention turns time into a gracious reality, for time reveals the empty, impermanent fabric of things, releases us from clinging to delusive substances and fixed identities, and sets us on the path of a more creative and responsive living, in the freedom of emptiness. The Ch’an master Wumen said: “Most people are used twenty-four hours a day; the meditator uses twenty-four hours a day.” Zen meditation promises a life of freedom, where we are no longer hustled about helplessly by time, but can use all temporal data as spiritual nourishment, as topics for mindful attending. The servility of our common worries about time is shown up by those whose lives have transcended them, those who have found real spiritual freedom.
Buddhist meditation deepens the awareness of impermanence (anityatâ) by attending to each moment as it arises and passes away. Where other religions and philosophies anchor themselves in some stable transcendent being, Buddhism seeks only a lucid grasp of our existence here and now in its painful instability. The meditative analysis of impermanence leads to a liberating encounter with emptiness. Impermanence and emptiness are associated in early Buddhist texts: "All conditioned entities are impermanent and everything impermanent ends in pain (duhkha). Every duhkha is without self and what is without self is empty (sûnyam)" (Udâna Vagga XI 5.8). What is, is impermanent, non-self, empty, and we create false problems when we project onto it duration, self-identity, substance.
It might seem obvious that things are impermanent, yet in reality impermanence is a counter-intuitive truth, constantly forgotten, not something one simply registers once and for all. Even more counter-intuitive, and more controversial, is the radical thesis of momentariness (ksanikatva) developed over the centuries in Buddhist scholasticism. Ksana-thinking seeks to grasp with final clarity the ontological law that all conditioned things must perish, and indeed perish as soon as they come to be, so that everything is changing all the time, and nothing abides even for an instant. But I suspect that the ksana-theorists clarify things too much, and become attached to the theory of the micro-moment, which is a simplification of the actual experience of living in time.
As a general rule, Buddhism tarries with temporal concepts only so long as they have some efficacy for liberation. Curious speculation about the nature of time is discouraged. It is not conducive to calm and enlightenment. Rather than force clarity and system on the murky realities of temporality, Buddhism aims at pragmatic adjustment to the flimsy and incoherent nature of the suppositions and habits of mind whereby we deal with temporal experience. These constitute a species of delusive thinking that offers a target for demystifying and liberating analysis. To try to give them clarity or consistency plays false to the intrinsically unclear and troubled role they play in the texture of our experience. Rather than speculative insight into the nature of time, if such a thing even exists, what should be sought is control of the various kinds of sickness, the defenses and fixations, the clutchings and resentments, to which the incertitudes of temporality expose us.
If false conceptions of time cause us to suffer, then a sophisticated philosophical analysis can be a wholesome exercise if it relieves that suffering. But philosophical speculation on time is likely rather to compound the suffering. What is needed is a practically oriented dismantling of unwholesome temporal representations. Suffering is an erroneous way of living time, in that the three poisons (greed, aversion, delusion) cause us to cling to projections of past and future, counting up imaginary future gain or brooding on past injuries, in both cases imprisoned by what does not exist. The standard medicine for this condition is mindfulness, whereby one lives in the present, attending to one’s actions and putting forth energy here and now.
This stress on the present reflects a practical, constructive approach to time that is traditional in India. Time is not a pre-given framework, but something produced in dependence on the activities of life, which occur in a certain order, but not within the frame of some infallibly continuous temporal progression. In this way of thinking, there are no inert data, but a succession of acts. Duration is a result of these acts. Time has to be constructed and sustained by right action. Brahmanic rituals construct and sustain cosmic time, building up permanent duration, aiming at immortality. In contrast, Buddhism is skeptical toward constructed time, regards continuous duration as secondary and delusive, and calls us back to the living present, in all its fleeting discontinuity, as the site of truly wholesome activity. Our notions of the tread of time or the accumulation of memory are fictive continuities, as is the notion of any self or substance that has lasted across an extensive period of time. Here and now, in the very throes of the impermanent, we are in touch with the real, and there is no need to construct some massive bulwark of immortality over against time.
Against the Cult of the Moment
If Buddhism is a matter of living in the present, then has not Tokyo attained the pinnacle of Buddhist wisdom? "Work hard, play hard", filling every moment to the brim -- isn't this nirvana? Isn't the atomization of Tokyo time the quintessence of Buddhist radical realism? The "sensationalist" philosophers of the eighteenth century, who filled every moment with sensation, no longer worrying about stringing the moments together, would then be Buddhists without knowing it. Poulet describes thus Benjamin Constant's experience of time:
"If there is no past, there is no future either, at least no awareness of the future. A thought that cannot establish itself backward, cannot establish itself forward either. It can see nothing beyond what it feels; it cannot foresee. So that the future must appear to it less as the prolongation than as the termination of the present. There is that which is, which is only in the moment in which it is, and then there will be something else. From the present to the future it thus becomes impossible to establish any sort of continuity. The mind cannot surpass the most narrow horizon; thought cannot venture beyond sensation. There are but two certain things: one, that there is a present moment, the other, that this moment is going to end, and that the following moment will not be the same."
Poulet quotes Constant himself: "All I have left is the present and the present is so close to being nothing, it is so unstitched, so isolated, so ungraspable, that it is impossible to make anything of it for happiness." This is clearly not a salutary attitude to time, but a form of either hedonism or despair. While Buddhists recommend "living in the present" as a cure for fantasies that enslave us, a cult of the present moment can become a new fantasy and a new enslavement. To say “I live for the moment” could be a declaration of greedy attachment or of nihilistic resignation. The cult of the moment in ksana-thinking is at first a liberative dismantling of illusions of permanence, but then becomes an anxious scholasticism. “Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of what is between, pilgrim of becoming” (Dhammapada 348). The verse does not encourage deep analysis of “what is between” but rather tells us to let it go, too, if we would be free of clinging and aversion and the heresies they give rise to -- eternalism (sâsvatavâda) and annihilationism (ucchedavâda). As soon as we begin to reflect on the here and now as a concept, we fall into ideology. It may be a hedonist ideology of enjoying the present to the full, or a despairing stoicism that accepts the grim fate of living on a knife-edge between the abysses of nothingness on both sides.
‘Living in the moment’ can pass as a slogan of Zen or even of Buddhism in general. But push it too hard, make a thesis of it, and its flimsiness comes to light. It has value only as a situational pointer, not as an ultimate metaphysical statement. Taken literally, it runs up against the psychological impossibility of living entirely in the present. Past and future serve to cushion us against the exhausting monotony of the present. Were we confined to the present, we would be terribly rigid and narrow beings. Past and future are useful fantasies, a playful relaxation from the stress of the present. Buddhist mindfulness is not totally blind to past and future: it attends not only to the immediately present phenomena but also to the movement of time and the phenomena of memory and expectation.
Madhyamaka logic (Nagarjuna) encourages us to treat all temporal dimensions as mere conventions. Like past and future, the notion of the present is itself a useful fantasy, a skilful means (upâya). That allows us also to disengage from the tyranny of the present in order to embrace the freedom of emptiness. Impermanence, in Madhyamaka Buddhism, is not treated as a final dogma, which would enslave us, but as "the gateway to emptiness." To speak of the present as the sole, ultimate reality, is to miss the fact that this ‘present’ is never securely given. To say ‘now, at this moment’ is to make a rather nebulous, rather desperate, verbal gesture, and to discover that ‘now’ and ‘present’ are not securely given phenomena but only categories in terms of which we think, belonging to the register of vikalpa (conceptuality) or of prapañca (fabrication). Ultimate reality is found only when insight into the emptiness of every dependently arising entity leads to the quiescence of the fabrications of temporal thinking.
There is a practical upshot to this. My struggle with time becomes less hopeless when I reconceive it as a struggle with my deluded notions of time. I do not overcome time by establishing myself in some lordly position as pure freedom beyond time, but rather by a sober correction of various forms of temporal delusion including the delusion of timelessness. Dealing with the upsets of time, that is, with the ups and downs of our temporal imaginings, becomes a practical matter comparable to one’s accommodations to changes in the weather. Beyond that, we may use the riddles of temporality as enjoyable koans to wrestle with, as Eliot does in that great poem of middle age, Four Quartets.
Praying Against Time
Prayer is one of the best weapons we have against the corrosion of time, and the worse corrosion of our anxiety about time. Unfortunately, it is a weapon that we all too often have no time to use! The Morning Offering and the Suscipe of St. Ignatius place time back in God's hands, asking him to dispose of it. "All that I am, all that I have, Thou hast given me, and I give it back again to Thee, to be disposed of according to Thy good pleasure." The virtue of detachment is particularly valuable in dealing with time. It allows us to use the gift of time creatively, without clinging to it, and without frittering it away. Even if we feel our existence is sinking in a whirlpool, we can at least consign the day we are now living to the Lord. Even if with advancing years our sense of time acquires a tragic tinge, and remorse at time wasted becomes a heavy thought, this daily offering of our time is not spurned, but wins in exchange a graced freedom. To cast one's cares upon the Lord is to be rid of the slavery to time, because temporal living ceases to be a desperate struggle to shore up the self and its achievements, and becomes a pliant obedient cooperation with time and the Lord of time.
Thanatology and "death studies" are a huge industry at present. A similar wisdom about time, drawing from Buddhist and Christian sources, would do much to make the world a saner and happier place. Amid the whirl of the postmodern city we need to build up a communal wisdom about time and how to handle it. We need no further reminder that life is a spume, a mouthful of air. But in liturgy, prayer and silent recollection, we should be able to project a deeper, richer sense of time as God's time, mirroring the eternal.
From THE JAPAN MISSION JOURNAL, Autumn 2004, Vol. 58.3, pp. 147-56.