Like many who write on psychological or spiritual topics, I often wonder about the nature of time. Does it have an existence or is it solely a product of our interaction with a world that we consider to be ‘out-there’?
Out-there is an interesting notion, for it immediately creates an ‘in-here’. What is the content of that? Does it have any substance?
One of my favourite philosophers is Gurdjieff, the creator of what became known as the Fourth Way system in the first half of the last century. He famously said that ‘time is breath’; an idea that, initially at least, sounds as interesting as it is preposterous. Most of Gurdjieff’s preposterous ideas turn out to be living gateways to a mental ‘crisis’ that precipitates a different way of thinking – which in turn creates a new way of living. His is not a way to toy with, unless you want to mess with the Universe… and the Universe just adores people who want to mess with the ‘normal’ view of it…and I mean that in a positive way.
Let’s go back to ‘time is breath’. Breathing is life, in the sense that we cannot sustain our organic life – and hence the consciousness that is built upon it – without its continuous cycle. Second after second, we live in a rhythm of in and out breath, vitally restoring our body with the oxygen and other chemicals that exist in the air. We can live for about a month without food, a few days without water, and a few minutes without air. We can safely assume this frequency is a sign of air’s importance to our ‘mechanism’, and, above that level of biology, to our sub-consciousness (unseen guardian of our biology) and our consciousness, a key part of which is the sense of ‘me’; an all-important identity.
The Buddha taught that the stuff of the world involved us to such a degree that we live in a constant state of interruption and confusion. We have a conviction that there is a ‘me’ experiencing this, rather than that there is just experiencing. He considered the most powerful method to combat this was to focus on the breath.
We’ve all read this so many times that it has lost what should be a deep connection to our existence. We have become ‘dull with the news of it’, but we shouldn’t. If we truly wish to create a wonderful doorway to the new in our lives we need to revisit and embed this into our waking consciousness – thereby altering our sense of ‘me’.
One of the sites I follow is Dhamma Footsteps, hosted by a man whose pen-name is Tiramit. He’s been running a series of posts to take us progressively deeper into a style of Buddhist meditation. It’s a gift from him, you don’t need to be a Buddhist.
The progressive instructions have been aimed at establishing a calming and restoring state of meditation via a focus on our breathing. This was the Buddha’s favourite and most powerful method of breaking the chain of events that make up our awareness of daily existence. When that link is broken, we automatically come back into contact with what is truly ‘us’. It’s that simple: when we stop one, we enter the other.
This ‘other world’ is calm, gentle and warm… and filled with love for us. There are two ‘fools’ involved in this deepening perception. As the Beatles sang; one of them sees the Sun going down, the other sees the world going round.
The ‘sun-down’ fool is the ‘me’. His or her daily life dominates the consciousness, which is so full of reactive stuff that it shuts out the greater and more real vision of the other fool; the one who sees – and feels – the world spinning round.
The ‘world spinning round’ fool is the ‘I’ or Self. We have to keep a clear head, here, because the word ‘self’ is traditionally associated with the reactive self – the ‘me’ in the paragraph above. Buddhist meditation is concerned with the eventual revelation that this ‘me’ has no substance; that it is simply a set of associated reactions to the world’s events. We don’t even see that world clearly, because we see through lenses that are built from our past, making it quicker to superficially examine what’s in front of us, much like machine learning, or AI does.
Working with the breath can be one of the keys to peacefully breaking this habitual existence; and letting in the light of new living, where we raise our heads in delighted surprise at the rush of a higher form of ‘oxygen’.
The technique, as given by Tiramit, is really very simple…
We find a quiet spot, ideally somewhere where our back can be vertical-ish. I have found it ideal to begin by a rush of consciousness from my feet to the top of my head, like a wave. To begin, this may be faint to nothing, but a surprisingly short period of practice will engender a gentle ‘wave of thrill’, as our mind – already freed from routine cares – energises the intent.
Before focussing on the breath itself, we have to prepare an inner place of working. With the same kind of ‘wave of thrill’ we take the whole of our past, and render it irrelevant. Just like that… What we are doing owes nothing to that past, no matter how much the ‘me’ protests. The ‘me’ has no place at this table…
Next, we free ourselves of the future in the same way. If the future had any importance in this work, it would already be here. Yes, that’s right, meditation is all about involvement with the now… and only the now. It’s another revelatory concept that has been dulled with repetition, but its effects are instantly life-changing.
Gently close down any thoughts that don’t support this now place of working. Feel yourself to be a bright bubble of essential existence – not the reactive soul that wanders the troubling world of the day.
Now, into this bubble of essential experience, bring one thing: the awareness of the cycle of your breathing. Don’t try to alter it – simply listen to what its doing. We could stop here, and, if you did this several times a day, this would change you and your world.
But we can go deeper… As we engage with the breath, passively, not trying to change, it.. it changes itself, intelligently watching us as we watch it. The results of that cannot really be described, they have to be experienced… and it’s very simple to do that. We just have to work at it a few times until we have the basis of a fool’s habit – one that will serve us for the rest of our lives.
Gurdjieff’s ‘time is breath’ statement now makes more sense. Time is involvement with the true unfolding of the world, seen from that loving and calm perspective – which is freed from past and future.
In that gentle and powerful place, we can choose which fool we wish to live as… and take the results of that into our daily lives.
©Stephen Tanham 2021
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.
http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog
A lot to think about here, Steve. Reading the idealist philosophers, they say time is something we create mentally, that helps us make sense of the world, and survive in it. I’m in instinctive agreement with this, though I do find their often wordy reasoning difficult to follow, but it means time isn’t an inherent property of the universe as it really is – only as we see it – no passage of time then, as such, only the way we order events like pictures in an album. Yet it’s impossible to relate this to every day experience.
Your meditation guidance reminds me that breath is everything in Qigong, which I translate literally as breath work. My practice has fallen away with the pandemic, which disrupted our classes, and I never seem to be disciplined enough to practice independently these days.
Thank you for that link, lots of valuable reading there. A valuable practice for troubling times, in granting a transcendent perspective.
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Thank you, Michael. I, too, have the instinctual feeling that we create time. But not in our ordinary consciousness. Qigong seems to be an excellent discipline. I wish you a speed return!
Thanks for the link Steve and your comments Michael. I have wandered away and feeling a bit at odds. You have inspired me to return to Qigong and I am off to check out your link. Chris
A lovely post, Steve. I was aware of breath while reading, and its rather stunning how calming that small shift can be. Yes, clearly time is breath, an infinite number of moments or a few seconds depending on one’s paradigm. What a gift to experience. So much to contemplate here. Thanks for sharing.
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A joy to share that with you, Diana.
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