From Time to EternityA speech by Alan Watts
Oct. 16, 2006
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When St. Augustin of Hipo was asked "What is time?" he replied, "I know what it is, but when you ask me I don't." And funnily enough, he is the man most responsible for the average commonsensical idea of time that prevails in the West. The Greeks and the East Indians thought of time as a circular process. And anyone looking at his watch will obviously see that time goes around. But the HebrewsęTt∆ the Christians think of time as something that goes in a straight line. And that is a very powerful idea which influences everybody living in the West today. We all have our various mythologies. And I don't mean when I say the word "mythology," or "myth," something that is false in the popular sense. By myth I mean an idea or an image in terms of which people make sense of the world. And the Western myth under which our common sense has been nurtured over many centuries, is that the world began, if you look at the marginal notes in your copy of the King James Bible, which of course descended from heaven with an angel in the year 1611, you will see that the world was created in the year 4000 B.C., before which, and naturally the Lord God existed forever and ever and ever through endless time backwards. And then the world was created and of course the world fell apart, and so in the middle of time, the second person of the Trinity incarnated himself in Jesus Christ to save mankind, and established the Church. And when this institution has not altogether successfully done its work, there is expected the end of time. There will be a day which is called "The Last Day" in which God, the Son, will again appear in glory with his legions of angels. And the Last Judgment will be held. And those who are saved will live forever and ever contemplating the vision of the Blessed Trinity and those who did not behave themselves will squirm forever and ever, that is to say, through everlasting time in hell. And this, you see, is a one directional process. It happened once - it will never be repeated because St. Augustin fixed on the idea that when God the Son came into this world and sacrificed himself for the remission of all sins, this was an event that happened once and once only. I don't know why he thought that, but he sure did think it. And so we have got the idea that the universe of time is a unique story which had a beginning and it is going to have an end, and which will never never never happen again. And so although most Westerners do not believe in this story anymore, although a great many of them think they ought to believe in it, but they in fact do not. They still retain from this way of thinking a linear view of time, that we are going in a single direction. We will never again go back over the course which we have followed. And we hope that as we go on in time, things will get better and better. And this version of time lies in very strange and fascinating contrast to the view of time held by most other people in the world. And as a special example I will take the view of time of the Hindus. The Hindus had no such small-minded provincial idea as that the world was created in a mere 4000 B.C. They reckoned the ages of the universe in units of four million, three hundred and twenty thousand years. That is your basic counting unit, and it is called a kalpa. And their understanding of the world is of course quite different from ours. We in the West think of the world as an artifact, something made by a grand technician, the Creator. But the Hindus do not think that the world is created at all. They look upon the world as a drama, not as created, but as acted. And they see God as the supreme actor, or what is called the cosmic self, playing all the parts. In other words, you and the birds and bees and the flowers, the rocks and the stars are all a big act being put on by God, who is pretending in order to amuse himself, through the many eternities, who is pretending that he is all of you. And this is not, after all, an unreasonable idea because if I were to ask you very seriously to consider what you would do if you were God, you might find, I think, that being omniscient for always and always and always, and being in control of everything would be extremely boring. You would want a surprise. After all, what are we trying to do with our technology - we are trying to control the world. And if you will imagine the ultimate fulfillment of technology, when we really are in control of everything, and we have great panels of push buttons whereon the slightest touch will fulfill every wish, you will eventually arrange to have a special red button on it marked "surprise." And you would touch that button and you will suddenly disappear from your normal consciousness, and find your self in a situation very much like the one you are now in, where you feel a little bit out of control of things, subject to surprises, and subject to the whims of a not altogether predictable universe. And so the Hindus figure that that is what God does every so often. That is to say, God, for a period of four million, three hundred and twenty thousand years, knows who he is. And then he gets bored with it and forgets who he is for an equal period of four million, three hundred and twenty thousand years. As it were, he goes to sleep and has a dream. And this dream is called the manvandara , but the period in which he wakes up and doesn't have the dream is called the pralaya., and that is a state of total bliss. But when he has a dream, he manifests the world. And the manifestation of the world is divided into four ages, and these ages are named after the four throws in the Indian game of dice. The first throw is called krita,, which is the throw of four, the perfect throw. And that lasts for a very long time. And in this period of manifestation, the world is absolutely delightful. It would be the same, for example, if you had the privilege of dreaming any dream you wanted to dream when you went to sleep at night. For at least a month you would dream out all your wishes. You would have banquets and music and dancing girls and everything that you ever thought you wanted, you would have. But then after a few weeks of this you would say "well, this is getting a little dull, and let's have an adventure and let's get into trouble.' It is all right because we know we are going to wake up at the end of it. So you would engage dragons and rescue princesses from them and all that sort of thing. And then you would, after awhile you would get more and more far out. You would arrange to forget that you were dreaming, and think you were really involved in danger, and what a surprise that would be when you woke up. And one of those nights when you were dreaming any dream you wanted to dream, you would find your self right now sitting in this auditorium listening to me, with all your special problems and hang-ups and involvement. How do you know that that is not what is happening?
So then, after the first round in which everything is perfect, the krita yuga it is called, that epoch of time, there comes a somewhat shorter epoch called the ______ yuga , that is the throw of three, and you know in the same way that a three-legged table isn't quite as stable as a four legged table. In ______ yuga, the light goes on but there is something a little bit off. It is a little bit insecure, though as it were the fly in the ointment. And then when that comes to an end there is next a still shorter period called the davapala yuga , which is named after dava, the throw of two, in which period the forces of good and evil are equally balanced. And when that comes to an end, there follows a still shorter period called the kali yuga . Yuga means epoch. And the kali means the throw of one, or the worst throw. And in this period the forces of negation and destruction are finally triumphant. And this is supposed to have begun shortly before 3000 B.C., and we have got another 5000 years of it to run. In this period everything falls apart, and gets worse and worse and worse until finally at the end the Lord himself appears in the disguise of Shiva, the destroyer, blue-bodied, ten arms with a necklace of skulls, each hand holding clubs and knives, but one hand in this (visual) gesture, which means don't be afraid, it is a big act. And there upon the entire cosmos is destroyed in fire, and in every soul the Lord wakes up again and discovers who he is, and abides for a pralaya of four million, three hundred and twenty thousand in a state of total bliss. And this process goes on and on and on forever and ever and ever. For these kalpas, these periods of four million, three hundred and twenty thousand years are the days and nights, the in breathing and the out breathing of Brahma, the supreme self. And they ad up into years of Brahma, each one of three hundred and sixty kalpas. And these add up again into centuries and it goes on and on and on. But it never gets boring because every time the new monvontara, the new play starts, the Lord God forgets what happened before, and becomes completely absorbed in the act, just as you did when you were born and you opened your eyes on the world for what you thought was the first time. And all the world was strange and wonderful. You saw it with the clean eyes of a child. And of course as you get older you get more used to things. You have seen the sun again and again, and you think it is just the same old sun. You have seen the trees until you regard them as the same old trees. And finally when you pass about 55 years old or so, you begin to get bored and you start to fall apart and disintegrate, and finally you die because really and truly you have had enough of it. But then after you die, another baby is born who is of course you, because every baby calls itself "I", and sees the whole thing from a new point of view again, and is perfectly thrilled. You see. And so in this wonderfully arranged way, so that there is never absolutely intolerable boredom, the thing goes on and on and on and round and round and round. These are two, I would say, of the great myths of time in the world. And we really, in our day and age now, need to consider this very seriously. Because we, as a highly technological civilization, with enormous power over nature, really need to consider time. Let me ask the question that was asked St. Augustin "What is time?" I am not going to give you the same answer. I know what it is, and when you ask me I will tell you. Time is a measure of energy, a measure of motion. And we have agreed internationally on the speed of the clock. And I want you to think about clocks and watches for a moment. We are of course slaves to them. And you will notice that your watch is a circle, and that it is calibrated, and that each minute, or second, is marked by a hairline which is made as narrow as possible, as yet to be consistent with being visible. And when we think of a moment of time when we think what we mean by the word "now," we think of the shortest possible instant that is here and gone, because that corresponds with the hairline on the watch. And as a result of this fabulous idea, we are a people who feel that we don't have any present, because the present is instantly vanishing - it goes so quickly. As this is the problem of Faust of Goethe's version of the story, where he attains his great moment and says to it "Oh still delay thou art so fair" that the moment never stays. It is always becoming past. And we have the sensation, therefore, of our lives as something that is constantly flowing away from us. We are constantly losing time. And so we have a sense of urgency. Time is not to wasted. Time is money. And so because of the tyranny of this thing, we feel that we have a past, and we know who we are in terms of our past. Nobody can ever tell you who they are, they can only tell you who they were. And we think we also have a future. And that is terribly important, because we have a naive hope that the future is somehow going to supply what we are looking for. You see, if you live in a present that is so short that it is not really here at all, you will always feel vaguely frustrated. And also, when you ask a person "What did you do yesterday?" they will give you a historical account of the sequence of events. They will say "Well, I woke up at about seven o'clock in the morning. I got up and made myself some coffee, and then I brushed my teeth and took a shower, got dressed, had some breakfast and went down to the office and did this and that," and so on. And they give you a historical outline of a course of events. And people really think that is what they did. But actually that is only the very skeleton account of what you did. You lived a much richer life than that, except you did not notice it. You only paid attention to a very small part of the information received through your five senses. You forgot to say that when you got up first thing in the morning and made some coffee, that your eyes slid across the birds outside your window. And the light on the leaves of the tree. And that your nose played games with the scent of the boiling coffee. You didn't even mention it because you were not aware of it. Because you were not aware of it you were in a hurry. You were engaged on getting rid of that coffee as fast as possible so that you could get to your office to do something that you thought was terribly important. And maybe it was in a certain way - it made you some money. But you, because you were so absorbed with the future, had no use for the money that you made. You did not know how to enjoy it. Maybe you invested it so that you would be sure that you would have a future in which something finally might happen to you, that you were looking for all along. But of course it never will because tomorrow never comes. The truth of the matter being that there is no such thing as time. Time is a hallucination. There is only today. There never will be anything except today. And if you do not know how to live today, you are demented. And this is the great problem of Western civilization, not only of Western civilization, but really all civilization, because what civilization is, is a very complex arrangement in which we have used symbols - that is to say words, numbers, figures, concepts to represent the real world of nature, like we use money to represent wealth, and like we measure energy with the clock. Or like we measure with yards or with inches. These are very useful measures. But you can always have too much of a good thing, and can so easily confuse the measure with what you are measuring; the money with the wealth; or even the menu with the dinner. And at a certain point, you can become so enchanted with the symbols that you entirely confuse them with the reality. And this is the disease from which almost all civilized people are suffering. We are therefore in the position of eating the menu instead of the dinner. Of living in a world of words, symbols and are therefore very badly related to our material surroundings. The United States of America as the most progressive country of the West is of course is the great example of this. We are a people who are believed by our selves, although we are slightly ashamed of it, and by the rest of the world to be the great materialists. And this is an absolutely undeserved reputation. A materialist would, in my way of thinking of it, be a person who loves material, and therefore reverences it, respects it, and enjoys it. We don't. We are a people who hate material, and are devoting ourselves to the abolition of its limitation. We want to abolish the limits of time and space. Therefore we want to get rid of space. We call it the conquest of space. We want to be able to get from San Francisco to New York in nothing flat. And we are arranging to do just that. We do not realize that what the result of doing this will be - that San Francisco and New York will become the same place. And therefore it will not be worth going from one to the other. When you go to another place you say you think you would like a vacation and so let's go to Hawaii where we think we will find girls in grass skirts dancing the hula on sandy beaches under the sun and the lovely blue ocean and coral reefs and all that sort of jazz. But tourists increasingly ask if such a place, "has it been spoiled yet," by which they mean "Is it exactly like Dallas?" And the answer is "yes." The faster you can get from Dallas to Honolulu, Honolulu is the same place as Dallas, so it wasn't worth taking the trip. Tokyo has become the same place as Los Angeles and increasingly, as you can go faster and faster from place to place, that they as I say, they are all the same place. So that was the result of abolishing the limitations of time and space. Also, we are in a hurry about many things. Going back to this account of one's day - you got up in the morning and you made yourself some coffee. I suppose you made instant coffee because you were in too much of a hurry to be concerned with the preparation of a beautiful coffee mixture. And so your instant coffee was a punishment for a person in too much hurry. This is true of everything instant. There is something about it that is phony and fake. Where were you going? What do you think the future is going to bring you? Actually you don't know. I've always thought it an excellent idea to assign to freshmen in college, the task of writing an essay on what you would like heaven to be. In other words, what do you really want. And be specific because be careful of what you desire - you may get it. You see, the truth of the matter is, as I have already intimated, there is no such thing as time. Time is an abstraction. So is money. As so are inches.
Do you remember the Great Depression? One day everything was going on all right. Everybody was pretty wealthy and had plenty to eat. The next day everybody was in poverty. What had happened? Had the fields disappeared, had the dairy vanished into thin air, had the fish of the sea ceased to exist, had human beings lost their energy, their skills and their brains? No. But on the morning after the Depression a man came to work building a house, and the foreman said to him "Sorry chum you can't work today,. there ain't no inches." He said "What do you mean there ain't no inches?" "Yeah" he said, "Yeah, we got lumber, we got metal, we even got tape measures." The foreman said "The trouble with you is you don't understand business. There are no inches. We have been using too many of them and not enough to go around." Because what happened in the Great Depression was that money, there was a slump in money. And human beings are so unbelievably stupid, that they confused money with wealth. And they don't realize that money is a measure of wealth, in exactly the same way that meters are a measure of length. They think it is something that is valuable in and of itself. And as a result of that get into unbelievable trouble, in exactly the same way time is nothing but an abstract measure of motion. And we keep counting time. We have the sensation time is running out, and we bug ourselves with this. And as we sit and watch the clock, supposing you are working, are you watching the clock? If you are, what are you waiting for. Time off. Five o'clock. We can go home and have fun. Yeah, fun. What are you going to do when you get home? Have fun? Or are you going to watch tv, which is an electronic reproduction of life which doesn't even smell of anything. And eat a tv dinner which is a kind of a warmed over airline nastiness until you just get tired and have to go to sleep. You know, the great society. This is our problem, you see. We are not alive, we are not awake. We are not living in the present. Let's take education. What a hoax. ®Qŗ¨get a little child, you see, and you suck it into a trap and you send it to nursery school. And in nursery school you tell the child "You are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then wow-wee, first grade is coming up, and second grade, and third grade." You are gradually climbing the ladder towards, towards, going on towards progress. And then when it gets to end of grade school, you say "high school, now you're really getting going." Wrong. But otherwise business, you are going out into the world and you get your _________ on and your diploma.
And then you go to your first sales meeting, and they say "Now get out there and sell this stuff," because then you are going on up the ladder in business, and maybe you will get to a good position. And you sell it and then they up your quota. And then finally about the year 45 you wake up one morning as Vice President of the firm, and you say to yourself looking in the mirror "I've arrived. But I feel slightly cheated because I feel just the same as I always felt. Something is missing. I have no longer a future." "Uh uh" says the insurance salesman, "I have a future for you. This policy will enable you to retire in comfort at sixty five, and you will be able to look forward to that." And you are delighted. And you buy the policy and at sixty five you retire thinking that this is the attainment of the goal of life, except that you have prostate trouble, false teeth and wrinkle skin. And you are a materialist. You are a phantom, you are an abstractionist, you are just nowhere, because you never were told, and never realized that eternity is now. There is no time. What will you do? Can you discover for me the pop of a champagne cork that popped last night? Can you hand me a copy of tomorrow's Dallas Morning Herald, whatever it is? It just isn't here. There is no time. This is a fantasy. It is a useful fantasy, like lines of latitude and longitude. But you are not going to ever tie up a package with the equator. It is the same as time, it is an abstraction. It is a convenience so that I can arrange to meet you at the corner of Main and lst, or whatever it is, at 4 o'clock. Great. But let us not be fooled by it. It is not real. So people who do not live in the present, have absolutely no use for making plans. Because you see ordinary people who believe in time, and who believe that they are living for their future, they make plenty of plans. Yeah. But when the plans mature, and they come off, the people are not there to enjoy them. They are planning something else. And they are like donkeys running after carrots perpetually that is attached to their own collars. And so they are never here, they never get there, they are never alive, they are perpetually frustrated, and therefore they are always thinking. The future is the thing with ______. Someday it is going to happen. And because it never does, they are frantic to survive. They want more time, more time please, more time. They are terrified of death because death stops the future. And so you never got there. You never have it. There is always, somewhere around the corner. Now please, wake up. I am not saying, you see, that you should be improvident, that you shouldn't have an insurance policy, that you shouldn't be concerned about how you are going to send your children to college or whatever other thing may be useful for them. The point is, there is no point in sending your children to college and providing for their future if you don't know how to live in the present because all you will do is to teach your children how not to live in the present, and to keep dragging on for the alleged benefit of their own children who will drag on in a boring way for the alleged benefit of their children. Everybody is so beautifully looking after everybody else, that nobody has any fun at all. See we say of a person who is insane, he is not all here. Or he is not all there. And that is our collective disease. In the beginning of the regime of communism in Russia, when they had five year plans, and everything was going Á7xe great at the end of the five year plan, and you got through that and they had another one. As some philosopher said, "You are making all human beings into ________. Now you know what a ______ is, it is a pillar in the form of a being holding up the next floor. You are making everybody into _______ for a floor upon which posterity shall dance. But of course they never get around to it. Posterity also is the _______ holding up another floor. And they hold up another floor. And they hold up another floor, forever and ever and nobody ever dances. But you see our philosophy and the philosophy of the communists is exactly the same. In fact we, our system is their system. And increasingly we become more alike because of this lack of perception of reality. We are obsessed with time. And so it is always coming. So Mao Tse Tung can say to all the Chinese, "Let's live a great boring life and everybody wear the same clothes and work and carry around a little red book so that one day, some day perhaps it will be great." But we are in exactly the same situation. We are the richest people in the world, and most of our males go around looking like undertakers. We eat Wonder Bread which is styrofoam injected with some chemicals that are supposed to be nutritive. We do not even know how to drink. In other words, living, we live in the abstract, not in the concrete. We work for money, not for wealth. We look forward to the future, and do not know how to enjoy today. So as a result of this, we are destroying our environment, we are Los Angelizing the world instead of civilizing it. And we are turning the air into gas, the water into poison, and tearing the vegetation off the face of the hills, for what? To print newspapers. In our colleges, we value the record of what goes on more than what happens. The records in the Registrar's office are kept in safes under lock and key, but not the books in the Library. The record of what you do is of course much more important than what you did. We go out to a party and have a picnic and somebody says "Oh we are having a lovely time, what a pity somebody didn't bring a camera, so we could record it." People go on tours and they've got these wretched little boxes and instead of being with the scene, whatever it is, they go click, click, click, click, click_______a little box so they can get home and show it to their friends and say "See what happened." Of course I wasn't there, I was just photographing it.
So when the record becomes more important than the event, we are really up the creek with no paddle. So the most serious need of civilization is to come to now. Think of all the trouble we would save. Think of how peaceful things would become, we would not be interfering with everybody. We would not be dedicated to doing everybody else good, like the General who the other day destroyed a village in Vietnam for its own safety. That is what he said. "Kindly let me help you or you will drown" said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree. Now you see is the meaning of eternal life. When Jesus said "Before Abraham was," he didn't say "I was," he said "I am." And to come to this, to know that you are and there is no time except the present. And then suddenly you see you attain a sense of reality. And you want always to be looking ahead for the things that you wanted to happen. You have to find it now. And so really, the aim of education is to teach people to live in the present, to be all here. As it is, our educational system is pretty abstract. It neglects the absolutely fundamentals of life, teaching us all to the bureaucrats, bankers clerks, accountants and insurance salesmen; all cerebral. It entirely neglects our relationships to the material world. There are five fundamental relationships to the material world: farming, cooking, clothing, housing and lovemaking. And these are grossly overlooked. And so it was like a little while ago, the Congress of the United States passed a law making it a grave penalty for anyone to burn the flag. And they did it with great flourishes of patriotic speeches. Yet those same Congressmen, by acts of commission or omission, are responsible for burning up what the flag stands for - for the erosion of the natural resources of this land. Although they say they love their country, they don't. They love their flag. So I think it is a great time to get back to reality, that is to say, to get back from time to eternity, to the eternal now, which is what we have, always have had, and indeed always will have. So now I have monologued at you enough. There will be one minute intermission in case any of you have to leave. Thereafter I will be most happy to entertain questions from the audience and try to answer them as best I can.