Time is a mys­tery. It’s been defined as an increase in entropy, as the expan­sion of the cos­mos, as the prop­a­ga­tion of elec­tro­mag­netic waves from a radi­ant point. One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of time is that it is asym­met­ri­cal. For instance, you can mix together some eggs, milk, flour, sugar, and but­ter, sub­ject it all to heat­ing, and pro­duce a lovely cake — but you def­i­nitely can­not sep­a­rate out all those ingre­di­ents into their com­po­nent parts once you’re done. You can bake a cake, but you can­not unbake one.

The thing is that there is no sin­gle inter­ac­tion of any­thing within the cake that pre­cludes this from hap­pen­ing. The mix­ing, the phys­i­cal reac­tions of the mol­e­cules — and the atoms — within the cake, even the energy imparted by the heat­ing in the oven, is all reversible within the frame­work of physics. There is no law of physics, in other words, that pre­vents you from unbak­ing the cake — yet you still can­not do it.

This is called the arrow of time. What it means is that, as far as we are con­cerned, time moves in one direc­tion only, from order into entropy, from past into future.

But the prob­lem with this is that it’s a mechan­i­cal descrip­tion. All of our def­i­n­i­tions of time express them­selves in its effects, but none of them get down to cause. Even the cos­mo­log­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion of time — that it’s a bound­ary con­di­tion that was set when the uni­verse began expand­ing — just bypasses the question.

Time has been shown by Einstein to be cru­cial to our expe­ri­ence of the cos­mos — so much so that it’s con­sid­ered a dimen­sion. Everything we’ve been able to do since Einstein for­mu­lated Relativity seems to show that he was right. For instance, the faster you move through space, the slower you move through time, and that’s because of the fun­da­men­tal speed limit of the uni­verse: Lightspeed.

Here’s how it works. If you’re in an air­plane headed north at 100 MPH, and another per­son is in another plane headed north­east at 100 MPH, after one hour you will have gone 100 miles north — but your friend would have gone only fifty miles north. That’s because for every unit of energy your plane expended head­ing one direc­tion, your friend’s plane was expend­ing the same amount of energy going in two direc­tions — north and east. (Of course, after that hour, your friend would have gone 50 miles east, while you wouldn’t have trav­eled east at all.)

Something anal­o­gous hap­pens when we move through space and time. If we’re totally at rest in space (not head­ing east), we’re mov­ing as fast as pos­si­ble through time (head­ing north) — and if we’re mov­ing fast through space (east), our motion through time (north) must be reduced. The faster we go, the slower time moves for us.

It’s not just motion. Gravity has the same effect. The closer you are to a mas­sive body in space, the slower time goes for you. So grav­ity and veloc­ity are equiv­a­lent. None of this is in doubt. When it was first pro­posed by Einstein in the early 20th cen­tury, it shook up the world of physics, but it’s con­sid­ered a truth today.

Where it starts get­ting inter­est­ing is when you begin push­ing up your speed (or your mass) to a very high level. If speed in space equals slow­ness in time, and if light­speed is the limit, that sug­gests that you can move at the speed of light, and time would stop for you. (Photons, the fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of light, never age.)

That’s great in the­ory, but it doesn’t work in prac­tice. The rea­son we can’t push mat­ter to light­speed veloc­ity is that it takes a tremen­dous amount of energy to do. Even the most pow­er­ful par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor we’ve built so far can­not drive par­ti­cles to light­speed — though they can get pretty close — regard­less of how much juice we pump into them. You’d basi­cally need access to infi­nite power to pro­pel an object to the speed of light, and of course we don’t have that sort of energy avail­able to us. (Even more intrigu­ing, it’s been sug­gested that if we move faster than light, we might move back­ward in time — though that leads to all sorts of conun­drums, such as the one sug­gested by Robert Heinlein in Time Enough for Love. In that novel, Lazarus Long goes back in time and becomes his own grandfather).

I men­tioned mass. We know that increased mass slows down time, and there are objects out there which make time grind to a stop. They’re com­monly called black holes, and are believed to be the results of the col­lapse inward of super­mas­sive objects such as stars. Basically, the grav­ity of the star is so intense that it pulls itself into itself, until there’s no room left for any­thing to be com­pressed fur­ther — and then it keeps right on col­laps­ing. The out­come is an event hori­zon (a bound­ary that rep­re­sents total inescapa­bil­ity) sur­round­ing a sin­gu­lar­ity, which is mat­ter com­pressed to a dimen­sion­less point. The mass of that mat­ter also com­presses space and time into that point. So depend­ing on how you look at it, every­thing inside the event hori­zon has been crammed down on top of every­thing else, or — per­haps — every­thing hap­pen­ing inside the event hori­zon is hap­pen­ing all at the same time, everywhere.

Black holes appear to be real. We can detect them by two means, the first being the high-​​energy radi­a­tion emit­ted near them when mat­ter falls into them; the sec­ond being by the grav­i­ta­tional lens­ing they man­i­fest. Gravitational lens­ing is an opti­cal dis­tor­tion in the actual “fab­ric” of the uni­verse, caused by high grav­i­ta­tional sources warp­ing both space and time. (This is another effect that’s been observed, by the way; check out the link for some astro­nom­i­cal pho­tographs.) Some objects are so mas­sive that they visu­ally dis­tort space around them­selves — and as you might expect, they also dis­tort time, since time is another dimen­sion in our universe.

All of that is intrigu­ing, but it still leaves us with our basic ques­tion. Even if time is a dimen­sion in space,* what is it? How do we per­ceive it? Is it a fun­da­men­tal aspect of con­scious­ness? Does it really unfold as we seem to think it does? If the uni­verse is expand­ing in three spa­tial dimen­sions, is it also expand­ing along a time dimen­sion — and if so, what would that mean, and how would we even know? What is the arrow of time?

My inter­est in Buddhism began with Zen, as I think it often does with west­ern­ers, par­tic­u­larly col­lege stu­dents. At the time I was shift­ing away from the beliefs of my her­itage, since I’d found them to be so unsat­is­fy­ing and frus­trat­ing, and since they made a spe­cific demand of me that I could not longer meet. (That demand was that I believe in the lit­eral exis­tence of a lit­eral cre­ator god, who was lit­er­ally male and, pre­sum­ably, had a lit­eral penis. Put so plainly, of course it’s an unlikely notion.) I had begun unrav­el­ing the weft of Christianity, and with it went the entire Abrahamic reli­gious lin­eage (Judaism and Islam). So I looked at alter­na­tives, includ­ing New Age stuff, Zen, and Hinduism via the vehi­cle of Hare Krishna teaching.

I couldn’t ulti­mately get into the New Age approach, because by then I was in a pretty strict “show me” frame of mind. I wanted to know exactly how psy­chic pow­ers could man­i­fest, with­out any appar­ent cause. I wanted to know exactly how a quartz crys­tal (or any other kind) could alter mood, even though the stones were phys­i­cally inert. I wanted to know exactly how I could con­nect to pre­vi­ous lives, when there wasn’t any trace­able link from the body I had then to some other body a thou­sand or more years dead.

Hinduism answered some of that, par­tic­u­larly in the arena of rein­car­na­tion, and while I don’t accept its teach­ings, I think there’s con­sid­er­ably more fair­ness to them than we typ­i­cally find in Abrahamic sys­tems. The Hindu the­ol­ogy is really more of a bureau­cracy, a bit like the Catholic raft of saints, which I sup­pose makes sense (it’s a big uni­verse, after all) — and the notion of rein­car­na­tion strikes me as being much more fair than the idea that you get one chance and one chance only, and you’d bet­ter get it right the first time. (Hinduism was also the only reli­gion I found that spoke of the age of the uni­verse in terms of bil­lions of years.) But it still required that I believe in deities of some kind, and by then I’d more or less let go of the idea of god/​s or goddess/​es, because it seemed like an unnec­es­sary elab­o­ra­tion, and one that could not be ver­i­fi­ably demon­strated to be true.

Nevertheless I felt need for some kind of philo­soph­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion or frame­work, one that didn’t rely on belief in any deity, and Zen seemed to offer that. The prob­lem was that Zen, as pre­sented to me at the time, seemed unap­proach­able — almost slip­pery. The rea­son for that is because Zen doesn’t really want you to attach your­self to Zen. What I mean by that is Zen is a con­cept, a frame­work, a notion, a set of beliefs. But in Buddhism, the “ulti­mate goal” is to get away from con­cepts, frame­works, notions, and beliefs. So Zen seems to spend a lot of time telling you what it isn’t, and exert­ing lit­tle to no effort in descrip­tion of what it is. That makes it hard to get a han­dle on.

What I liked a lot about Zen (and still do) is how it can some­times behave as a logic puz­zle or a rid­dle. Those kinds of games have always intrigued me. So I kept com­ing back to Zen because it seemed like there was some­thing there, even if it was elusive.

The most famous kind of these puz­zles is the koan (pro­nounced ko-​​ann, not cone). The koan is intended to break past con­cep­tual bar­ri­ers and give the mind a moment to exist in a space where there are no frame­works of any kind, where there is a kind of free­dom from pre­con­cep­tion, dis­cern­ment, or dual­is­tic think­ing. This is a space sim­ply of aware­ness, with­out fix­a­tion on iden­tity, sep­a­ra­tion, or even definition.

The most commonly-​​known koan is prob­a­bly what is the sound of one hand clap­ping? The ques­tion has been reduced to cliché, and has even been lam­pooned on The Simpsons, but it’s worth explor­ing nev­er­the­less. When we think of clap­ping, we always think of two hands, since noth­ing else makes sense. The koan, then, forces us to look at our notions of clap­ping, of hands, even of sound — and to resolve the ques­tion, we must undergo a kind of con­cep­tual metamorphosis.

There are quite a few other koans — hun­dreds, if not more — which range from the odd to the bizarre to the annoy­ing, and many of which seem to man­i­fest a kind of dis­tant, Vulcan-​​style dry humor. Quite a lot of them were com­piled in the 13th cen­tury by Eihei Dogen, who was instru­men­tal in form­ing the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. They all share the char­ac­ter­is­tic of tak­ing on our notions of real­ity, and chal­leng­ing them, and per­haps lead­ing us to con­clu­sions which can only be expressed in terms of what they aren’t, rather than what they are. Zen’s rep­u­ta­tion for opac­ity is well earned.

Suppose, now, we deter­mine a way to move faster than light, Einsteinian physics be damned. Suppose we go back­ward in time as a result, and end up in 13th cen­tury Japan. Suppose we bump into a Zen monk, and he asks us: What is the sound of one hand clap­ping?

We could present him with a ques­tion of our own: What is the arrow of time?

And he would nod and offer us tea.


* Gallifreyan physics doesn’t apply in this context.

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