Jun 20, 2007

Time is an Illusion

A question from Frank:
"What exactly does one do when one meditates, Mr Wang? Do you think specific thoughts or do you try to "clear your mind"? I find it extremely difficult to "clear my mind" of all thoughts. The very act of trying not to think of anything, is a form of thinking."
Well, it all depends on what kind of meditation you're doing. However, for starters, meditators usually do some form of concentration meditation. So I'll discuss that.

Concentration meditation refers to those types of meditation where you pick one thing and focus your attention on it. The thing could be your breath. It could be background noise. It could be the sound of a chant "Om". It could be the luminous presence of your mind. Or it could be a candle flame. Etc.

Whatever the thing is, the idea is that you will keep your attention focused on it. You do not analyse it, you do not form opinions about it, you do not think about it. You simply observe it, and keep observing it.

Inevitably your thoughts will stray. For beginners, it will take approximately 7 seconds before you start thinking of something. You will start thinking about your work in the office, or your brother's new car, or your dental appointment next week. Anything but the one thing that you were supposed to be observing.

Anyway, as soon as you become aware that your thoughts have strayed, you bring your attention back to the thing again. And again and again and again.

One of the very first lessons you will learn is that you are not your conscious mind. Your conscious mind has a mind, a personality of its own and it usually will not be very happy that you told it to shut up for 20 minutes.

Next you will learn that you are not the master of your conscious mind. It may even turn out to be your master. You will see that your conscious mind seems to wander where it will, it simply will not follow your instruction to stay in one spot. It also has a surprising ability to walk away without you noticing, until much later.

Over time, if you keep practising your concentration meditation, you will notice several benefits. The monkey mind can be tamed. One benefit is that your concentration dramatically improves.

This obviously is of considerable practical benefit. For example, if you need to do some work, you can place your concentration on your work, and you will find that your concentration is very solid. It will sit on your work like a physical object, and it won't move until your work is done. You will not be easily distracted.

In other words, if you can concentrate fully, and wordlessly for 30 minutes on a candle flame, you will find it easy to, say, fully concentrate on your textbooks for 2 straight hours. Piece of cake, really.

But that is not what I really want to talk about today. Today, what I really want to talk about is presence in the now.

Being present in the now is a key idea in many different spiritual disciplines. It is literally what it means - your attention is fully aware, fully focused, on where you are right now, and what is happening right now.

In other words, you are not thinking about what happened last year, or last week. You are not thinking about what you need to do later today, or next month, or six months from now. 100% of your mental faculties is focused onto the present moment.

Presence in the moment is an attribute you can practise and develop through concentration meditation. If you are concentrating on your breath, you concentrate on your breath as it rises and falls, right now. If you are concentrating on a candle flame, you concentrate on it fully, right now. You do not think of anything else.

This is how you learn to be fully alive. Because all you can ever have is the present moment.

There is a fundamental spiritual truth here, but it's difficult to express it in words. But it's something you can experience.

The past, you see, is an illusion, and so is the future. Neither of them really exist.

The past is basically just memory. And memory is just the movement of certain electrical impulses in your brain.

The future is basically just imagination. And imagination, too, is just the movement of certain electrical impulses in your brain.

So you only have one place left. That's the present. That's why it is important to learn to concentrate on being fully present in the now. It's the only place where you can live. The more you concentrate on being here, the more fully alive you'll be.

Before anyone accuses me of being unscientific again, I'd better end with a heavy dose of Albert Einstein. In his own way, he obviously understood this fundamental truth too, although his description is on somewhat different terms. Instead of saying that the past and the future do not exist, Einstein says that the past, the present and the future all exist simultaneously:
Albert Einstein and the Fabric of Time

Surprising as it may be to most non-scientists and even to some scientists, Albert Einstein concluded in his later years that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. In 1952, in his book Relativity, in discussing Minkowski's Space World interpretation of his theory of relativity, Einstein writes:

Since there exists in this four dimensional structure [space-time] no longer any sections which represent "now" objectively, the concepts of happening and becoming are indeed not completely suspended, but yet complicated. It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.

Einstein's belief in an undivided solid reality was clear to him, so much so that he completely rejected the separation we experience as the moment of now. He believed there is no true division between past and future, there is rather a single existence. His most descriptive testimony to this faith came when his lifelong friend Besso died. Einstein wrote a letter to Besso's family, saying that although Besso had preceded him in death it was of no consequence, "...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one."
Einstein was a damnably smart chap. Through his physics and maths, he actually figured out lots of things which Buddha only found out through getting enlightenment. Einstein's words - "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." It's something that could have come out of Buddha's mouth.

Oh, as for those who want to know more about the interesting spiritual idea that the future and the past do not exist, I recommend this book:
The Power of Now. Note that it is not a "how-to-meditate" book, so go look for another title, if a "how-to-meditate" book is what you really want.


Anonymous said...

This is probably an aside from your original pt, which i gather is about mediation and more specifically, present moment awareness. Regarding the conception of space-time, it is true that physicists regarding space-time as a 4 dimensional world. However, there is also this concept of the "arrow of time" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_of_time which seems to suggest that we can only move in 1 direction for time, i.e. forward, rather bi-drectional as is the case for the other 3 dimensions. So it does seem that it is not so clear cut to view our world as a 4 dimensional static world in which past and future have no meaning.

Cappella said...

For those people who thinks about the n-th dimension stuff, see this site:


If you can envision and embrace the 10th dimension, you are Buddha. :)

The thing is, after seeing the Flash file, your heart sense you are aware of that feeling, but someone our 3-dimensional brain just aren't able to absorb it via the conscious mind. It will require the sub-conscious mind to awaken your true nature.

So ... in essence, there is no past, no future, no present. The present is actually the past and the future. It is just ... IT.

tsw said...

mr wang, this may seem like a cop-out, but i am one of the few who subscribe this set of beliefs as you have articulated through the examples of buddha and einstein.

thank you

Anonymous said...

> Through his physics and maths, he actually figured out lots of things which Buddha only found out through getting enlightenment

Aha, but from a Buddhist's perspective, what Einstein "figured out" is superficial, in that he was only able to talk the talk, but not walk the walk. So he could say: "reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.", but he would still cling on to this "reality" (i.e. not able to give up craving of those impermanent worldly stuff completely) and be subjected to rebirth again, and again.

The Enlightenment of the Buddha however is a real "figuring out", in that it resulted in him no longer clinging to "reality" and thus no longer subjected to rebirth. Such true "figuring out" (called Right Understanding in Buddhist terminology) requires life after life of training, and is hardly something that can be done in one life time.

Also, in Buddhism, enlightenment is not equivalent to becoming a Buddha. (An Arahant (Ah Luo Han) is enlightened too). There are different level of enlightenment and a Buddha is a supremely enlightened Being (sammasamBuddhasa). Being a Buddha brings other benefits, chief of which is he is able to read the mind of others and look into their past lives. This enabled him to tailor his teachings to each individual according to the latter's temperament and ability. Which is why he is known as the Teacher of Gods and Men. In fact, that's the main reason for anyone to want to become a Buddha - to be a supreme teacher. If it is just for enlightenment, it could have been achieved billions of lifetime ago, as an Arahant.

My personal analogy would og like this: Einstein is like a patient, who is clever enough to understand what his illness is, but who is not cured yet. An Arahant would be a cured former patient. A Buddha, in addition to having been cured, is a doctor who can treat other patients.

Anonymous said...

All of you are nuts.

Einstein believed in determinism. That is the right way to understand how "past, present and future can exist simultanously". And classical physics is deterministic, which lends weight to this believe.

Unfortunately, Einstein also does not believe Quantum Mechamics, a science which he himself helped father. He did not believe in QM becuase it was nondeterministic. And QM, the ondeterminstsics theory, has been shown consistently to be the correct description of matter at the small scale. So you see, ultimately, QM says nature is nondeterministic. The future is not written.

Singaporeans are not very scientifically literate. Even a hotshot lawyer like Mr Wang doesn't know the science.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Ah yes. Reality is indeed an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. ;)

xy said...

Mr Wang,
Your blog is getting more and more interesting. You have so many topics to blog about and share with us. I really enjoy reading your blog a lot. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

>"There is a fundamental spiritual truth here, but it's difficult to express it in words"

One way to express it in words is like this:

"They sorrow not for what is past,
They have no longing for the future,
The present is sufficient for them:
Hence it is they appear so radiant.

By having longing for the future,
By sorrowing over what is past,
By this fools are withered up
As a cut down tender reed."

Aranna Sutta

I am sure all religions have similar versions.

Physics, Ph.D. said...

Anon of June 21, 2007 8:59 AM,
You are the one who is really NUT!

Einstein was talking about his philosophical view of the relationship between the past, present and future. (Hey, can you read that Einstein said those things when his friend died???)

Can Einstein not give his opinion on topics outside of his General and Special Relativity subject?

Singaporeans are scientifically literate AND they also know that it is possible for a physicist to give his opinion on the philosophical meaning of time!

But alas, you can't tell the difference and waste no time in boasting to us about your supposed superior scientific knowledge.

Deterministic classical mechanics versus quantum mechanics, indeed! Please lah, we know as much abt that as you do - want to talk about the grand unified theory that will unite both the big deterministic General Relativity, and the small underterministic Quantum Mechanics? ZZzzzz

Henry Leong said...

The aim of a buddhist is to reach the highest possible life conditions.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, I admire your previous work, but when you begin to make scientific statements, I think you should stop. Your past few articles in particular, showed the depths of your misunderdstanding, when you bandied about grand notions of the multiverse and tried to justify your religion with it.

Your quotes of Einstein are taken out of context. Furthermore, in his later years, Einstein was not very good at making good models of the universe and physical reality. I disagree with physics, phd. Anonymous 8:59am gave the correct interpretation of Einstein's quote.

Science is not a belief system, based on conviction, but based on the evidence. It is about making good testable models of the universe. Speculation is welcome, but unless it leads to an improvement in the model, it is useless.

Religion, even Buddhism, is not based on evidence, no matter how you wish to think otherwise. At most, religion can be an inspiration to doing science. I think Mr Wang might have benefited from taking a few cross-fac modules in his undergrad days.

Mr Wang Says So said...

" tried to justify your religion with it."

I don't have any religion. LOL.

Anonymous said...

This is the anonymous of 8.59am speaking ...

I agree with what anonymous of 10.21am said.

Mr Wang should stay away from making scientific statements.

Religion is fine, until it starts to cherry pick what it wants to believe from the quotations of famous scientists out of context.

Scientific literacy amongst bloggers is low. I say this without reservation.

And everyone has a religion: some just don't know what it is yet.

Anonymous said...

"Your quotes of Einstein are taken out of context."

The 2 anons who supported each other: care to tell us the context and what Einstein really mean then? And I don't mean YOUR own interpretation based on your own understanding of Physics. I mean, point out what EINSTEIN means.

For eg, when Einstein said: "...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one". To me, it is quite clear that Einstein is simply saying that he viewed the past and the present and the future as a continuation of one into the other and therefore cannot be separated into discrete distinct parts: t1, t2, t3...

Now tell us, what other meaning could EINSTEIN (not you) have meant if not that?

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous at 11.40am,

Oh my god. This blog is full of idiots. What do you mean my own interpretation. I gave you an interpretation in ANY standard physics textbook. But reading a textbook is too hard, you'd rather read blogs.

Scientific literacy in Singapore = a big fat zero.

Anonymous said...

Quote :Einstein was a damnably smart chap. Through his physics and maths, he actually figured out lots of things which Buddha only found out through getting enlightenment.Unquote

1.Buddha existed more than 2,000 years before Einstein. No body knows for sure whether Einstein was aware of Buddha's teaching before he made his discovery.
2.How then do u explain that a junoir clerk in the Swiss Patent Office could have come out with such a major scientific discovery ?
His academic record was not exactly excellent.

11:40 said...

12:10pm anon, dont bull me with your "standard textbook" crap. I happen to be a physicist by training. You can't scare with me with your mumbo jumbo. I challenge you to tell me exactly what Einstein means when he said THAT PARTICULAR SENTENCE and state your source. I can't do that for you because the onus lies on you since you insist that there is another "interpretation" to THAT PARTICULAR SENTENCE.

Anonymous said...

I repeat my assertion with a straight face and plenty of evidence to back it up: Scientific literacy in Singapore is a big fat zero.

Cappella said...

"I repeat my assertion with a straight face and plenty of evidence to back it up: Scientific literacy in Singapore is a big fat zero." <-- Using selected sample size? Is your sample size big enough to be conclusive? Or is it a selected sample size to let you make your claim? To say literacy is low, maybe, to say zero, that means it include you as well? Not very smart way of putting it, right?

Anonymous said...

i really like the way you write!
you are the few writers that can keep me occupied with their articles!
your ideas get across simply and easily, yet they are thought-provoking.
i'm not a good writer, but i thought i should let you know you are really good!

brad said...

much as i'm a big fan of mr wang, i'll have to agree with anon 10.21 & 8.54am abt E's being a determinist.

"How then do u explain that a junoir clerk in the Swiss Patent Office could have come out with such a major scientific discovery?" - this remark is so stupid i dont know where to begin. go read up on E's biography before you talk crap la pls.

onekell said...

Mr Wang, I like your series on personal development.

Like you, I believe that enlightenment can be achieved through many fields and avenues.