Without explicitly using the word very much, time is the issue at the heart of Buddhist practice. We see it alluded to everywhere: in the constant refrain that all conditioned things are impermanent, in “the deathless” being the goal of the path, in memory (sati) being the literal translation of what we usually call mindfulness. How—and how much—we remember, what we fear and want, and how confused we are about what lasts long enough to identify with, are all related to how we live in relation to time. And meditation itself is all about time in ways that are not immediately obvious.
When we try to be “in the moment,” what are we trying to do? Being in the moment is a spatial metaphor that means not being absorbed (read: living) in thoughts and feelings about the past or future. Being in the moment can include thinking and feeling about what’s happening as it’s happening, so it does not automatically mean not thinking, but since most thinking and feeling has the past or future as its focus, it usually means way less thinking. How do we set aside thoughts and feelings about the past and future? Through concentration.
Whether in formal meditation or in the flow of other activities, the energetic quality we call concentration consists of the intention to remain focused, enough energy to do so, and clearly understanding what I am connecting with in the moment. These qualities are stabilizing, calming, and often pleasurable. When combined with mindfulness, which includes discernment of what’s wholesome and unwholesome, what’s mine and somebody else’s, and how I should relate to what’s happening, the result is insight—about time.
The connection between mindfulness and memory is made clear in texts where the Buddha talks about needing mindfulness in order to remember clearly and in detail things that happened or were spoken long ago. Of course I can’t do that if I’m distracted, so concentration is needed, but I also can’t do it if there isn’t cognitive engagement with what’s happening. Mindfulness is the heart of memory because it’s the activity in the present that makes possible future remembrance of things past. Like a really good cookie you had as a teenager. You only remember what you notice. You also only remember that which rises above the stream of flickering impermanence by having some kind of emotional charge. Like a really good cookie.
Impermanence is the quintessential insight because it’s what’s most veiled by craving. The stronger our desire for things, or for situations to be the way we want them to be, the less we can accept the truth of their evanescence. Time is the narrative we tell ourselves relationally and collectively about what lasts and how long it lasts for. Setting aside thinking about past and future while we meditate is a radical rejection of the conventional narrative. To rest the heart in a space free from obsessive thinking is to insist that it’s possible to not be completely dominated by other people’s stories.
You didn’t come up with the story of human evolution, the story of your national culture and what it means, or even the story of your family, your own birth, and the importance of the day marking the exact moment in the seasonal cycle that you were born. And you certainly didn’t come up with the story of your immortal soul and its future career in heaven or hell, or the story of your infinite string of past lives fueled by craving, for that matter! All of these are narratives about time. They have to be taught, and crucially, we have to be taught to believe they’re important. Choose your sources wisely, the Buddha said, and don’t believe anything fully until you have strong enough direct experience to write your own narrative.
Meditating in a way that sets down external narratives brings us into one of the most free states possible in waking life. It’s an important detail in the story of the Buddha’s awakening that he mastered states of profound presence (the jhānas, or meditative absorptions) before directing his attention toward the problem of time. This is our primary practice: to get really good at stepping out of the conventional narrative by resting in an awake, embodied state not colored by emotional engagement with past or future. Once emotional engagement is rooted in present moment unfolding, impermanence is not only seen clearly, but felt viscerally, as the underlying story that fuels the habit of craving is seen for what it is: an image of time.
Liberation is called “the deathless” because if we stop craving we also get unhooked from narratives about time, and birth and death cease to be defining moments in our story. When the Buddha saw his past lives stretching back in a beginningless sequence, he had to make up a new narrative about time that’s different from anything he was taught. The narrative he told to describe his insight—that we are reborn in accord with our actions—only leads to liberation if we have it ourselves. Believing it isn’t enough. So we have to retrace his steps: silence the narrative of time temporarily in meditation in order to be able to recover from other people’s stories, and then remember our own past in enough detail to create a new story about who we are and what it all means. “Being in the moment” is a good meditation method, but what truly liberates is research: accurate enough memory to understand what time is and how we should best relate to it.