“Clocks slay time…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” –William Faulkner
“You can’t go back.”
“We must go forward.”
…now take a moment, look away from the computer, and think of a pink elephant hovering over your head.
Take another moment and think of the last elephant you saw, whether in Africa, in a zoo, or on T.V..
Now take a third moment and plan a trip to go see an elephant. You can plan to go to Africa on vacation, or plan a trip to the nearest zoo, or just figure on watching Animal Planet tomorrow night. Whatever you want. It’s all good.
But now, stop a moment and consider that those three elephants had in common.
Can you guess?
You imagined them. In each of those three moments, you used your imagination to create an elephant. All three of those elephants were imaginary.
In fact, right now, when you think back on those three moments, you’re using your imagination. When you think about the past (i.e. the last elephant you saw) or the future (i.e. the next elephant you want to see), you imagine those elephants.
That’s how “time” works. It exists in your imagination. So actually, the “elephant in the room” isn’t even time per se, it’s imagination. Imagination is everywhere. It’s so pervasive in fact, that often we don’t even recognize it. If you stop and really think, it’s incredible to realize how much of what we experience in any given moment is conjured up, or colored over, by our imaginations. It can be hard to tell where sensation stops and imagination starts, in fact. That is the real elephant in the room. But for now, let’s stick with just the topic of time.
If you want to sense something, you have to do it now. Right now is always available to your senses.
The past and future, however, are not available to your senses. They can only be thought. When we imagine the past, we call this “remembering”, but imagining is what we’re doing. And when we imagine the future, these imaginings wind up being even less accurate than our memories (since we imagine the future by extrapolating from memories). Ultimately, that’s how disappointment happens…but more on that some other time, maybe.
In other words, time doesn’t exist except in our heads. And the more we live in the past or the future (i.e. the more we focus our attention on imagining pasts and futures), the more we live in our heads as the world goes by. Because things in the present move. In fact, that’s exactly what clocks do. They move. And “time” is a useful mental construct for coordinating movement. I have a gadget on my wrist that moves predictably, and you have a gadget on your wrist that does the same, and if we want to meet, we coordinate our movements to the movements on our wrists so we can intercept each other.
Ok, so how does all this relate to “primitivism”?
Well, in lots of ways. But one is that people are often fond of telling primitivists they “want to live in the stone age” and that obviously “you can’t go back to the stone age.” Heck, some primitivists will even use this language. And sometimes for convenience, I even say such things.
But ultimately, it’s all bull.
Present reality is a bit more simple. Stones exist. Right now. So the “stone age” hasn’t gone anywhere. All that’s changed is how (most) humans choose to use stones at any given moment.
Right now, in the Amazon jungle there are people who use stone tools. Right now, in various parts of the world I have friends who make and use stone tools. Are these people “living in the stone age?” I can’t speak for the folks in the Amazon, but most of my friends around the world who make and use stone tools also have watches, and their watches say about the same thing mine does.
And I’m pretty sure if you gave a watch to one of those folks in the Amazon, it would continue to tick along about the same as back when it belonged to you.
Any one of us is perfectly capable of putting down a steel knife and picking up a rock, breaking (i.e. knapping) it into a stone blade, and using it to cut something. We can then put down that stone blade, and pick up our steel knife again. We can do all this without resorting to time travel. The notion that time travels in just one direction is an illusion. Everything moves in the present — and things move all over the place. Mostly they move round and round.
The “stone age” never went anywhere. It’s at your feet, right now.
All you have to do is reach down and touch a stone.
Exactly! The only thing that makes the stoneage seem to be gone is if you narrow down your perspective and only notice the modern society and it’s alienating ways.
Very nice, Glenn. Love the time topic. And when I’ve seen rock art in person, I somehow feel the time evaporate.
great essay Helkinator! imagination seems so much more freeing than analytically thinking about history, events, etc… I imagine you right now sleeping with the smell of the forest and the sound of the river…
Thanks Gitte and John! Yeah Gitte, whenever my perspective broadens to focus on all my relations in this big wild world, modern society gets very small and fleeting by comparison. And yeah John, I’ve noticed that a few times as well. It seems rock art is a good focus for drawing one’s mind into those eternal, primal, ever-present realities. Good stuff, thanks for the comments.
Hey Mark! Good to hear from you on the blog, and glad you liked this one. Yeah, imagination is so powerful…it can be used to enliven or deaden experience, for sure. Had a great night on the river last night, actually!
Thanks for the gourmet servings of food for thought. Keep it up, chef.
I’d like to inject some Zen perspective: we imagine our existence–everything is a mental construct, whether it be envisioned or “real.” Even if I physically touch the elephant, he is still of my making. Many times I have been certain of what I’ve seen or experienced, only to be shown otherwise. Even then, the real real sometimes turns out to be fallacious as well.
We create a similar faux-reality with time. With or without a clock, we like to segment time into past, present, and future components. In Zen consciousness, all of them–even the esteemed Now–are imaginary constructs. The three occur simultaneously, which I can demonstrate by envisioning my future and my past right now. Like the elephants, fantasy time is real time, and vice versa.
The Stone Age, then, never was and always is. I can prove it never happened (http://archive.tamaracksong.org/view.html?page=Stone%20Age%5Bq%5D%20Not!%20Stick%20and%20Bone%20Age,%20Yes..htm&title=Stone%20Age?%20Not!%20Stick%20and%20Bone%20Age,%20Yes.), I can prove it still is (contemporary Adaman Islanders), and I can prove it will be here tomorrow (your example of picking up a stone). Yet all I have proven is that I have an imagination. Yet even the concept of imagination is a mental construct.
So why bother with all these mental gyrations if they amount to nothing substantive anyway? I sometimes wonder if we have a choice in the matter, and I suspect we don’t as long as we hang onto our fear of the unknown. When the mind starts working, it tends to reduce the terra firma we stand on to quicksand–best substrate for keeping us sharp and adaptive to an ever-changing world. However, when the mind is fettered by fear, it creates constructs for us that seem solid as concrete. Such as our beliefs in real-imaginary and past-present-future. And no devil Zen is going to put a crack in them.
Interesting thoughts Tamarack, thanks! Btw, when you mention “being certain of something you’ve seen or experienced, only to be shown otherwise”, how were you shown otherwise? Was it more sense/experience (i.e. additional sense/experience that expanded upon or revised earlier interpretations of sense/experience)? Or something else?
Glenn, I can’t wait to read this post…just as soon as I have some time…SMILE.
You asked how I was shown that my certainty was only another illusion. Most of the time it was by others who perceived more than I did, but occasionally I discovered holes in my own beliefs. At one time I was such a rabid vegetarian that I drove my wife to tears when I wouldn’t eat the meal she prepared with a utensil that flipped her pork chop. It took me two or three years to see through that one, and—thankfully for others—it’s not taking me quite so long these days.