Time is an Illusion

Article from S.E.A. Backpacker Magazine, written by Nikki Scott

We pass it, we spend it, we manage it, we while it away, we kill it and sometimes, sadly, we waste it…Most of the time, we’re terrified of it slipping through our fingers like sand in the old-fashioned egg timer. Especially when we are doing something we love.

“Time flies when you’re having fun! Doesn’t time go quick?” people often say. Didn’t it seem like yesterday when you stepped off the plane at the airport in Bangkok and felt Asia’s stifling heat for the first time?

“Just do it, you only live once!” Live today like it’s your last day on earth!” – are motivational quotes that inspire us to make the most of our days, years, and lifetimes. Perhaps they are also the notions that inspire us to grasp the moment and embark upon that once-in-a-lifetime-journey in the first place. We’re so scared of missing out on things and running out of time to do the things we want to do.

To anyone who has been in Southeast Asia for a while, you may have noticed that the concept of time is totally different here than in the Western world. At once discernible in the laid-back pace of life, the disregard for deadlines and the lack of urgency to get things “done.” Why rush things when there is all the time in the world? Why indeed?

To Westerners, the concept of time is a linear process. Time is like a river flowing from a source to the delta – once elapsed, it cannot be retrieved. No wonder  we consider it so precious, so important to use it wisely. Once it has gone, we can’t get it back.

In the East, on the other hand, time is viewed differently. Concepts such as karma, reincarnation, and the influence of Buddhist, Hindu, Tao and Confucian philosophy mean that time is not viewed as something which has a start and a finish, but which is a circular process. Just like the river flowing into the sea and evaporating into the sky, only to fall again onto the earth…time renews itself again and again. Time doesn’t run out. It doesn’t fly or go anywhere. There is always enough time.

For example, the Chinese calendar is cyclical and the years are dated using the signs of the zodiac, which repeat every 12 years. The Buddhist notion of karma is an endless cycle whereby the deeds you do in this life will come back to you in this life or the next. Even many Asian languages do not have tenses – perhaps reiterating the focus on the present, rather than a past or future. Just like the tides and sunrises, time is continuous and well…timeless.

So, what if time is just a way of measuring things, that’s all? It’s not a commodity to be used or spent. If we could get away from this idea then maybe we wouldn’t be in such a panic to get things “done” all the time. Could we just enjoy the now and not worry that we won’t have the time to tick everything off our lists?

If life became about the moment – right now – and you were free from planning, organizing and making deadlines for a future date…would this be the only way that we could really be free? How delicious it would be to take all the time in the world to do something…after all, we do have all the time in the world, don’t we? Of course we do. What else is there?

“The separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”  Albert Einstein

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”  Albert Einstein


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