Our impression of time, as a sequence of events, arises from memory of past experiences, some of which have only just happened. We have not yet experienced the future, so this impression of time extends only into the past. We can, of course, anticipate an event that may happen tomorrow, or next year, and so extend time into the future, but this future event has no conscious reality until it actually happens – and there is no certainty that it will happen. Nevertheless, we are convinced that something will happen in the future, and since we cannot imagine a moment when nothing happened in the past, or nothing will happen in the future, our extrapolation of time has to extend from the present moment to infinity, both backwards into the past and forwards into the future.
Although we can have no conception of what infinity is like this view of time comfortably supports our theory of what existence involves. It enables some thing, or an event, to have a beginning and an end, and yet form part of a process that has no beginning and no end. Even the concept of God fits into this view of time – things, events, that have a beginning and an end are not eternal but God, being part of the continuing process, or even being the continuing process itself, is eternal.
Some people have to make just one exception to this view of time – Man himself. They believe that there was a moment when they were born (or, if you like, conceived) and that before that moment they did not exist; but they cannot accept that there will be a moment when they cease to exist. For them the thought of dying is so hard to bear that in order to make it tolerable they have to believe that, for Man alone, there is a beginning but no end – that he has life after death that extends into the infinite future. (Clearly, there would be no point in believing in life after death if it did not extend to infinity, otherwise it would merely postpone, not eliminate, extinction). Others, finding this uniqueness of Man in relation to time too incredible, yet still wanting to preserve the idea of life after death, expand the exception to cover all sentient beings, and they may also introduce the concept of reincarnation, whereby the departed come back to Earth to live another life, in a continuing process of life and death. A still further development of this last concept envisages a kind of hierarchical scale, whereby the departed come back into a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ grade of existence, according to how well they behaved in the previous life. (Mostly they do not bother to consider how animals, whose behaviour is presumably determined by natural instinct and not moral judgments, can move up the scale).
But, what is it these people want to preserve? Ask them what they consider to be the most important moment of their lives and the chances are that they will single out an event in the past that left the greatest impression on them, or was a major turning point, such that their lives took on a new meaning or direction. Some might say it was the moment they exchanged wedding vows; others, that it was when they started a career that settled their whole way of life, and a few might say it was the moment of “conversion”, when they “accepted Christ into my life”. Ask a hundred people this question and, although you may not get a hundred different answers, you certainly will not receive the same answer from them all. But, how many of them are likely to say, “Now – this very moment is the most important moment of my life”? Yet the Here and Now is not only the most important moment of our lives, it is the only moment of our lives!
We do not live in the past, nor do we live in the future, we live (experience) only the present moment, with all its complexities of sensations and memories – yet, even as we say “this present moment”, it is gone. It is so elusive that we cannot pin it down to a moment in time at all. Time is measured in days, hours, minutes and seconds, but how long is the present moment? One second? A hundredth of a second? A millionth of a second? We cannot imagine a period short enough to give a firm answer – and yet the present moment is always with us!
In other words, we find that the present moment cannot be measured in time at all – it is timeless. But, if the only reality we know (experience) is timeless, does this not mean that time, itself, is an illusion, just as the impression that grass possesses greenness, is an illusion? And if the present moment is timeless, yet is the only reality we know, how can it be preserved when the very notion of preservation involves time?