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Breaking Free From The Illusion Of Psychological Time

Posted in Mindfulness, Psychology, and Spirituality

psychological time
The past is memory. The future is imagination.

Spiritual growth is an unlearning process. Awakening into the true nature of reality requires constant unlearning of false beliefs and a re-discovery of the direct experience of the present moment. Conceptual reality is a house of mirrors, a myriad of illusion. Of all illusions, psychological time is the trickiest to detect.

Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years… The passage of time is seemingly objective and compatible with experience. Events appear to unfold sequentially, superimposed onto the clock. But the past is a memory. The future is imagination. Life is eternally present, an infinite succession of Nows.

As Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” So much of our attention and energy is spent on holding on to days-gone-by or worrying about things that may never materialise. How does life change, once liberated from these opposing forces?

The illusion of psychological time is the greatest barrier to living fully in the present. Buddhist wisdom explains that attachment to any thought, through indulgence or resistance, causes suffering. The deceptive nature of psychological time leads to attachment. It appears real. And we respond as if it is, by indulging in events once lived or resisting make-believe futures.

Psychological time is a prison precisely because it restricts us. Fixation on the past leads to nostalgia, regret, guilt, resentment. Fixation on the future leads to anxiety, fear, craving, impatience, restlessness. Either way, our attention is removed from the one place offering genuine freedom — the present moment.

Breaking free from this illusion isn’t easy. But the benefits are life-changing.

Anxiety: The Teacher Of Psychological Time

All of us are trapped in the illusion of psychological time to various degrees. At the extreme end of the spectrum, anxiety provides a tough lesson in the intrusive and restrictive nature of the illusion. It’s impossible to ignore. For example, when experiencing panic disorder, attention gravitates constantly towards mental images of worst case scenarios and catastrophes.

When my anxiety was at its peak, my attention fixated on the future with an incessant sense of impending doom. During a university workshop, our group were asked to take turns to present on camera, as everyone else watched in the studio. We were given a day’s notice. My mind went into overdrive. I felt I wouldn’t cope, that I’d experience a panic attack for all to see. Images erupted into my consciousness, carried by waves of panic.

I became aware that I wasn’t responding to the presentation, but to my own thoughts.

I didn’t know this would become a pivotal moment. I spent the night before with my then-partner. As time passed, transitions of relative ease were disrupted by sudden flashes in my mind’s eye. My body responded to these images as if they were a genuine threat. But because the experience was so visceral, I became aware that I wasn’t responding to the presentation, but to my own thoughts.

This was a breakthrough; although I didn’t sleep well that night, each resurgence flickered with inauthenticity. The mirage was fracturing. And you know what? The next morning, I went to the workshop, volunteered to go first, and it went well. As Twain highlights, some terrible things happen, most don’t.

The Great Escape To A Timeless Realm

If psychological time is an illusion we are all imprisoned by, what is the opposite? What is beyond the barbed wire and prison gates? What is freedom?

Timelessness is freedom. When fully engaged with the present moment, time ceases to exist. Yet what ceases is simply identification with the illusion, the psychological trick. Hence, timelessness is our true nature.

Positive psychology defines complete absorption in an activity, where the usual sense of space and time disintegrate, as flow. The mind stills. A sense of separation disappears. Focus on an activity is effortless and unbreakable. Such moments pepper our experience. They are snippets of freedom beyond psychological time.

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Without consciously noticing flow states, their emergence appears spontaneous. However flow emerges, the experience leaves a lasting impression; long-term benefits include reduced depression and anxiety.

Common experiences are happy accidents occuring while listening to or playing music, dancing, writing, having sex, exercising, painting, playing sports, hiking in nature. Spiritual practices offer purposeful techniques and disciplines to cultivate a mindset primed to experience timelessness and flow by moving beyond the thinking mind.

Setting The Landscape For Timelessness

The opposite of psychological time is timelessness.

My meditation practice has enhanced control of my mind. Timelessness has become a regular occurrence in daily life. But these moments are small sips from the fountain compared to the prolonged and pronounced state I experienced during a Vipassana retreat. After 10 days of intense meditation, I was immersed in the warm glow of timelessness.

Enthused, when I returned home I stopped wearing a watch and attempted to integrate this enlivened experience of timelessness into day-to-day life. Oh, the ambition! I’m sure many return from retreat with similar intentions. Unsurprisingly, the pull of the illusion dimmed my perception. I found it increasingly difficult to separate “clock-time” from my direct experience.

The subjective experience of this perception fascinates me. When absorbed, all apparent sequential events flow effortlessly into each other. Each Now feels vibrantly alive and pleasantly transient. When in attached to the illusion, the passage of time is a thick syrup. Moments tend to stay in place, dense, fixed, permanent. The present feels unsatisfactory, rigid, and dull. The illusion is illuminated in my mind’s eye.

A Breakdown Of Psychological Time

My Vipassana experience cemented permanent shift in my perception of time and deepened my understanding. So far, psychological time has been explained as follows:

  • The past is an illusion based on memory.
  • The future is an illusion based on imagination.
  • Mistaking past and future as truth identifies with thought and causes suffering.
  • We respond to imagination and memory as if they were true, causing unsettling emotions such as anxiety or guilt.
  • True freedom is timelessness.
  • To experience timelessness we have to avoid the illusion of psychological time.

I’m increasingly aware of the illusion. I’ve been meditating on this dizzying dance between two make-believe destinations. This led me to contemplate numerous questions. Why aren’t we present all the time? Why does the allure of past and future change, day-to-day? What changes the level of attraction to the past or future?

The result is the Two Magnet metaphor.

The Two Magnet Metaphor

Some days I’m caught in memory, other days I’m distracted by future projection. Sometimes I rapidly move between the two. Both experiences “pull” attention from the present. Just as metal is attracted to a magnetic field, attention is attracted by the magnetic field of past and future. When attention is fully magnetized to either, this is attachment.

The stronger the field, the more likely attention is pulled towards it. However, the magnetic fields of the past and future aren’t consistent.

Memories and projections are always encoded with emotional responses.

What changes the magnetic field of past and future? Emotional resonance. Memories and projections are always encoded with emotional responses. Following a break-up, memories of an ex may be encoded with sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, and other intense emotions. This field is strong enough to abruptly pull attention from the present.

Jumping ahead, my university workshop experience is an example of intense emotional resonance based on projection. The images of catastrophe playing out in my mind’s eye were encoded with extreme anxiety. Again, attention was pulled from the present and I attached to these images.

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Mistaken Truths

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce emotional resonance. Remember the link between mistaking thoughts for truth, and the consequent emotional response? Mindfulness cultivates non-judgement of thoughts, emotions and sensations. Memories or projections are viewed as just thoughts — nothing more, nothing less.

In this metaphor, non-judgement reduces the magnetic field of the magnet because it reduces the emotional response. It adds balance. Stability.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, samadhi is the state of intense, single-pointed concentration. The Buddha identified right concentration (samma samādhi) as an element in the cessation of suffering. As well as reducing emotional responses, meditation increases attention on the present.

Consequently, timelessness is experienced for longer durations. Avoiding the illusion becomes easier. But what about falling back into the trap? Is it down to chance, like landing on the “Go To Jail” space in Monopoly? Or can we do something about it?

Remaining Free From Psychological Time Is The Hard Part

Mindful concentration is an ongoing practice. Someone in top physical shape who stops exercising and eats junk food every day will notice a rapid deterioration in health. The same is true of the mind. Neglecting meditation weakens the connection to the present, making us susceptible to the magnetic fields of past and future.

Breaking free and remaining free is an ongoing process. It’s an experience lived in every moment. Every flash of past or future provides us with an opportunity to step back and re-focus on the present.

The emotional resonance of past and future changes over time, too. As we grow, new experiences enter our lives to test us. For example, when preparing to present at SAND Italy, the magnetic field around the future was strong, fuelled by anxiety around my “big break.” Often I found myself completely attached to these images.

The same is true of the magnetic field for the past. Someone you love may die. You might lose your job. It may be as simple as experiencing a tough time, and longing for happiness once felt. In these instances it’s understandable if the emotional resonance creates a strong magnetic field and attention goes towards the past, or fears of an uncertain future.

Building Resilience And Increasing Comfort Zones

Picture this related to your comfort zone; as you stretch yourself and continue to grow, new challenges mix with the illusion. Fortunately, spiritual practices such as letting go and right concentration build resilience to these magnetic fields. The “magnitude” of events reduce. Emotional responses become subtler and subtler.

Talking from experience, when my anxiety skyrocketed, my consciousness was infiltrated by constant, domineering images of the future like a mental 3D IMAX. The emotional response was instant and frantic. Every quickfire, super-HD, surround-sound projection of a basic social interaction triggered panic.

As I’ve grown, 3D IMAX moments are a rarity. Mostly, mental images enter my awareness like a light mist. They come and go, fleetingly. The magnetic fields lacks attraction. Occasionally, for a multitude of reasons, they appear denser. Regulating and purifying these aspects of mind are one of many aspects of spiritual growth.

Once skills are cultivated to return to the present with increasing efficiency, they won’t disappear. They’ll enable you to experience greater and greater challenges, while remaining balanced. The illusion will rarely present itself as truth; and when it does, you’ll have compassion for yourself.

Ultimately, the freedom beyond the illusion of psychological time is a tonic to feeling truly alive. It’s empowerment personified, a reminder that the prison is escapable, that our inherent nature is to bathe in timelessness, free, liberated, magnetised by the magic of the present, the richness of this very moment.


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