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When Time became History: Physics, Zen, and Cosmic Archetypes

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I spoke to a few history teachers over the week, trying to understand what differentiates history from time. Is history a human construct? A conceptual imposition of key notions onto bare reality? Are time and history even separable ideas? What I got were a few key ideas, that history consists of: Continuity, Chronology, Perspective, & Linearity.

All of this was prompted as I grappled with two strange ideas. First, that humans fell into history, and that this was a mistake. Secondly, that through this fall, we have the potential to make gold. As Terrence McKenna writes, we can “take what we learn from history, and fold it back into being truly human”. Now what does this all mean?

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Progression as a Circle

When I speak of progression, I’m sure the next concept you assume is linearity. That progress is a ladder, and its ascension is akin to the ever accelerating attainment of the novel. The novel being what we perceive as never having been. Yet so-called progress wasn’t always like this, and Mircea Eliade writes that older societies refused to be relegated into history — specifically — by preferring periodic return to the archetypal.

Mircea writes that: “For archaic man, reality is a function of the imitation of a celestial archetype” (The Myth of Eternal Return)

What is meant by the archetypal? Mircea argues that actions become real and sacred when they participate in the symbolic repetition of an original pattern. Consider the paradigmatic Hero’s Journey. When you engage in an activity that repeats this timeless pattern, then you are doing something sacred and meaningful. You are not necessarily discovering something novel in the conventional sense, but you are nonetheless progressing by virtue of having participated in a primal and archetypal journey.

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In short, successful integration of self and cosmos is attained when one fits into the environment, when one reveals and notices pre-existing patterns and attempts to repeat them. How do we find these patterns? Through listening.

The Less you Say, the More you Hear

We used to listen to the environment constantly, as it demanded our immediate attention and action. If we didn’t heed natures call to action (run, jump, hide, drink, eat) — we perished. Yet we have moved away from this primal necessity, to a mode of existence filled with contriving and conspiring as to how best to live. This movement is part of the fall into history. Falling into history appears to mean that we enter into a conceptual adventure away from the present.

A journey from where we are, to somewhere else. Along the way we hope to transmute something (a problem we appear to have, an external situation, a physical object) into gold. This is fine and fun! But the problem of history is when we never come home — when we are perpetually on the linear adventure of progress and never stop to re-integrate ourselves into the world. We forget to ‘drop out’ of history and return to the present moment. We forget to live in the now, and live in a world of linearly successive moments. Our fall into history, which is a fall into chronological time, is when we impose a perspective of inadequacy onto the continuity of previous moments, and linearly progress towards a resolution. We experience life as insufficient — and then carry out whatever is necessary to enact our dreamed change. We thrust oursevles upon the world in an attempt to transform it to our liking. But how impossible is that? Attempting to control the external world, in all of its chaotic movements, is a fool’s errand. Better yet — listen and allow the world to reveal you to yourself.

This dichotomy of either thrusting the self onto the world, or allowing the world to reveal the self is captured in these two lines from the Soto Zen master Dogen. In the Genjo Koan fascicle of his famous Shobogenzo he writes that:

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To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment.

Self in Time

So our conceptual creation of linearity goes hand in hand with conventional notions of time. On Time, Einstein writes that:

“People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

An apt quote, as his discovery of Special and General Relativity shattered our conception of a static cosmos. Instead, Einstein introduced a model of reality filled with movement, relativity, and importantly, the malleability of time. Yet this malleability is not only external to us, but as scientist Gary Weber says — our idea of being a “Self in Time” is nothing more than a circuit in the brain. As this video explains, there appears to be a neurological circuit that meditators and spiritual practitioners are able to turn off. In essence, turning off their perception of existing in time — and stepping out of history.

Falling into history, falling into “linearly successive moments” can only occur if there is a me/Self/Person to experience them. If there is no longer any notion of a separate individual existing in time and space — then all we have is the eternal, ever-present now. No history, no becoming, only Being.

The sage Sri Ramana Maharishi says it simply:

“Your duty is to Be
And not to be this or that,
‘I am That I am’ sums up the
Whole truth; the method is
Summarized in ‘Be Still’ “

Written by

Insatiably curious student of life | Writing about Physics, Philosophy, & Dharma | Newsletter @ apsis.substack.com | Personal Site @ sashamanu.com

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