Feeling Discombobulated: Why Time Is Not Separable From Being

It’s so easy to feel discombobulated or unbalanced. We might rely too much on one person’s advice and lose sight of ourselves, or care so much about other people’s opinions we no longer know our own. Or we worry so much about a future event we lose touch with the present. We might get sick, anxious, afraid and doubt our ability to recover or face a threat. We might try to check emails while texting or do any two tasks requiring mental focus at the same time and can’t accomplish either very well.

Einstein described how space and time were not separated in two but relative to each other. Each needs the other to fully describe either. As far as I can understand it, since light, or the universe is always in motion, describing the distance between any two objects ⎼ or to describe any place anywhere we need both the where and the when. The apple tree by my front door on this gray spring day is so different from what it was last January, or yesterday.

If we try to do the impossible and hitch ourselves intellectually or emotionally to only time, then space zooms by. We always need a where as well as a when, the context or the whole of a situation to understand any part.

Such is true with any duality. If we consider just one half of any such linked pair, they both disappear. Try describing above without below, a parent without a child, or separating mind from body, self from universe. Or similarly, we might lose touch with ourselves by mentally dividing now from a wished for soon or a lost then. Or when it’s raining, we make ourselves feel even wetter and more miserable by imagining we could’ve been dry.

Yet, when we feel chilled, for example, it can be helpful to imagine a warm mini sun above our heads⎼ and its comfort spreading, inch by inch, down through our body. Or when it’s just our hands that are cold, we can picture and feel we’re holding a smooth stone, warmed by the sun cupped in our hands. Visualizing is one thing, but wishing or blaming doesn’t warm us at all.

A Zen Master from the 13th Century Japan, named Daito Kokuji, wrote:

No umbrella, getting soaked,

            I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.

I don’t think I can put into words exactly what this means. 13th Century Zen Master Dogen might have done what I couldn’t do, when he recorded his insight that time is not separable from being; that everything and every being is time, or “being-time.” The spring flower, this finger on the keyboard, this beating heart is time. We make a gigantic and painful mistake by thinking of time as only a phenomenon that ebbs and flows, or flies away from us, something we can divorce from beings and things. Dogen shows that when we realize this essential truth about the nature of time, the moment is absolutely alive, present, whole.

It was 1969. After graduating from college, I served in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Sierra Leone. I taught English and sometimes math or health practices. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions. They were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own.

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. In 1967, there had been, first, a closely contested election, then a coup d’état, which was overturned by a military junta ⎼ which was in turn overthrown by a popular movement and transformed into one-party rule. It was not unusual for people to be imprisoned for what they said.

I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business in his country and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a reality but a necessity because the political conditions in his country were threatening.

As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different from changing the position of a raindrop. So, no change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

Both of our perspectives had value. His pushed mine to a new place. By allowing myself to take in his perspective, I was able to learn from him how to think with a deeper and wider perspective.

Instead of huddling to get away from the rain, the cold, and the feeling of being soaked and miserable, I suddenly realized I could allow myself to feel the raindrops as my raincoat. I was not an isolated, skin-wrapped soaking package. I was one small element of a world constantly re-creating itself. And when I could act with this larger perspective in mind, my actions were more effective. I felt happier, more whole⎼ more like time and space were wearing me as one of its infinite hats or raincoats.




*The anecdote at the heart of this blog was published before by my own website and The Sunlight Press.


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