Unstructured Time

Sometimes I think that there is more confusion about the nature of time than about anything else. Usually, when people talk about time, they are talking about a representation of time, not time itself. We represent time in so many ways, for example, in the form of clocks or more generally, by replacing time by the occurrence of change or the making of a choice. In the first case, time passes only if things change, so if nothing changed, no time would pass. This has been argued most forcefully in physics by the maverick physicist/historian Julian Barbour, in his excellent book The End of Time. While Barbour might be right about the role of time in physics (since physics cares about dynamics more than anything else, its no surprise that time = change as far as a physicist is concerned), physicists have no ultimate monopoly on the nature of time. Similarly, looking at time in a narrative context, the role of time in stories is deeply tied to action and events, which involves characters making choices (see McKee’s excellent guide to storytelling). Once again, sure, I agree that time, when represented in narrative, is structured in the form of events and actions, but that only says something about the representation of time on stories, and not necessarily anything about time per se.

Contemplatives (such as Krishnamurti) talk about a kind of time that does not involve change and has no structure, a choiceless awareness if you will. You could call this bare time, or unstructured time, or “time on its own” as my friend Emily called it in our conversation about this topic. However you name it, there is an existentially potent kind of time that was never implicated in change, never moving from past to future and always present. I don’t think this bare time is supernatural or otherworldy or mystical, its just beyond the reach of our structuring mind which one shouldn’t confuse with the mind as such.

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