The Enigma of Time

by Fernando Perfas

| Photo by Ricky Rillera/PDM

My fascination with time started when I was young. Since we didn’t have any timepiece at home, we marked time by sunrise and sunset. At dawn, we listened to the crowing of roosters to estimate sunrise and the tolling of church bells announcing the Angelus to anticipate nightfall. Grandma would look at the sun’s position in the heavens and shadows cast on the ground, reckoning the time of day. These things amazed me and fed my curiosity about time and timekeeping.

Now that I’m older, my fascination with time has become fond of photographs and collecting vintage timepieces. Photographs capture moments in time, and timepieces measure the passing of time. I have photo albums and files of photos of things I’ve done and places I’ve been to. I enjoy tinkering with watches and looking at them. I’m captivated by the melodic chime of my vintage mantle clock. I tell my wife how old the pieces are and express my surprise at how they still work, but she is unimpressed and thinks they are junk.

What is time? Is it a friend or foe? It depends on your state of mind. We “buy” time when a delay is to our advantage. We curse time when waiting is costly. When our mind perceives time as “moments,” it is divided into “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow.” It is often said that time is precious. It is so when the space it creates turns into a productive activity. In this respect, time becomes a commodity.

“Let’s look a little closer at how our mind perceives or interacts with time. If there is only the “here-and-now,” the past and the future are mere inventions of the mind. Imagine for a moment when everything in the universe stands still. There is only “what is” or “now,” there is no past to remember nor a future to anticipate.

In the labor market, we bargain for hourly pay rates or when benefits begin to accrue. We even write literature or history books out of our past. We invest in stocks and bonds, and now cryptos, to bet on future market trends. Are these “real” or mere social constructions? In other words, we all agree about these things to be so and have a consensual agreement of how we organize our lives and society within a time framework. All social contracts and agreements have time-stamps, establishing either time limits or none. It is only possible because of how the mind perceives or reckons time. Or perhaps how the mind invents time out of a series of moments that flow eternally.

Let’s look a little closer at how our mind perceives or interacts with time. If there is only the “here-and-now,” the past and the future are mere inventions of the mind. Imagine for a moment when everything in the universe stands still. There is only “what is” or “now,” there is no past to remember nor a future to anticipate. We experience glimpses of timelessness when we are absorbed in creative activities or in full communion with someone we love or deep mindfulness. These moments in time are expansive, blissful, and regenerative. I believe this is our natural state of being when the mind becomes totally free of all conditionings that have been accumulated throughout life from birth to the present moment.

The material universe, from its vast reaches to its tiniest particles, is in constant motion. The concept of time is the mind’s way of experiencing and tracking this motion. The functions of recording the mind’s perception of events or experiences within space-time are relegated to different parts of the human brain. Our experiences are organized in the parts of the brain that store memories and specific parts of the brain put a time-stamp to those memories. It allows us to re-live memories without confusing them with what we are experiencing in the present moment.

In severe cases of psychological trauma or PTSD, however, the parts of the brain that store time-stamped memories are often dysfunctional. When internal or external stimuli trigger these memories, such as being reminded of a painful event, a loud banging of a closing door, or a misfiring of a car engine, the person re-experiences the triggered memories as if they are happening now and eliciting an intense emotional response. To help the person shake off this traumatic re-enactment of past memories, he must be brought to the present moment by grounding him to the here and now.

To some degree and in a less dramatic fashion, this pathological experience of the illusion of time happens to many of us when we re-experience in the here-and-now painful memories such as the loss of loved ones that trigger a torrent of negative emotions. Many of us are capable of snapping out of this illusion and regaining our mental equilibrium. For some who are deeply emotionally wounded, it is a curse. And for those with a healthy mind, time does heal.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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