The Problem of Past and Future

An excerpt from the book of Lama Anagarika Govinda

Both time and space are the outcome of movement, the characteristic of life, from its highest spiritual manifestations down to the simplest physical phenomena. By intellectually separating time from space, and both of them from the experiencing subject, we arrive at an abstract concept which has neither vitality nor reality. In order to imbue it with a semblance of movement, we divide it into past, present and future, out of which neither the past nor the future seem to possess actual reality. The present, however, according to this division, is merely the dividing line between the past that is no more and a future which is not yet: it is a point without extension, with- out dimension, and therefore without the possibility of move- ment. Yet we feel the present as the most real aspect of time, the only point in which movement is possible.
Consequently some modern thinkers try to cut through the Gordian knot by declaring that there is no time and that the only solution to the riddle of life consists in living exclusively in the present, treating the past and the future as non-existent and illusory. In this way they arrive at their concept of spontaneity as the only true principle of life, forgetting that spontaneity is built on practice; in other words, that it is a product of long repeated actions in the past, actions that have been carried out consciously and deliberately over a long period and which have become so ingrained in one's nature that they need no further decision or effort of will.
The wonderful instincts of animals (which by far outdo our cleverest logical operations) are based on this accumulation of past experience, and the same holds good of the human genius, the man of unerring "spiritual instinct" (which we call "intuition"), or the virtuoso, whose technical perfection is the fruit of years of intensive practice, and whose accomplishments have become part of his subconscious or unconscious nature. In spite of popular belief, a genius does not fall from heaven - except from the heaven of his own making. Even the Buddha, according to Buddhist tradition, had aeons of practice on the Bodhisattva Path behind him, before he became a Buddha, a Fully Enlightened One. In the same way we have to assume that children - who display extraordinary faculties and accomplishments, before they had a chance to acquire them through education or training since their birth, can only have acquired them in a pre-natal existence. "The mechanistic theory of heredity," as J. S. Haldane says, "is not only unproven; it is impossible. It involves such absurdities that no intelligent person who has thoroughly realized its meaning and implications can continue to hold it." Science is unable to explain the astonishing feats of child-prodigies who - as, for instance, Mozart or Beethoven - could master complicated musical instruments and the even more complicated and subtle laws of musical composition. Mozart composed minuets at the age of four, while Beethoven had composed three sonatas even before he had reached this age. To explain this through the hereditary factors and combinations of chromosomes is as unconvincing as explaining the human mind as a product of the brain. The brain is as much a product of the mind as the chromosomes are a product of forces about whose nature we know as little as we do of what we call gravitation, light, or consciousness. The more we try to reduce the world into a play of cause and effect instead of seeing the infinite inter-relationship of all phenomena, and each individual relation as a unique expression and focalization of universal forces, the further we get from reality.
However, even if we admit that all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life. They will neither appear nor materialize effectively if we merely rely on the potentialities of our "unconscious mind," as the mediocre products of modern worshippers of the "unconscious" amply demonstrate in all fields of art and thought. just because the depth-consciousness (which I think is a better term than the "unconscious") contains an unlimited wealth of forces, qualities, and experiences, it requires a well- ordered, purposeful, and trained mind to make use of this wealth in a meaningful way, i.e. to call up only those forces, contents of consciousness or their respective archetypal symbols which are beneficial to the particular situation and spiritual level of the individual and give meaning to his life. "A more perfect understanding of the dynamic potentialities of the unconscious would entail the demand of a stricter discipline and a more clearly conscious direction," as Lewis Mum- ford said in his review of C. G. Jung's Remembrances.
As a reaction against the overintellectualization of modern life, the chaotic excesses of certain modern artists and writers may be understandable, but as little as we can live by the in- tellect alone, can we live by the "unconscious" alone. Nothing of cultural or spiritual value has ever been produced in this way.
Those who think that any conscious effort or aspiration is a violation of our spontaneous genius, and who look down upon any technique or method of meditation or the fruits of traditional experience as below their dignity, only deceive themselves and others! We can be spontaneous and yet fully conscious of the forms and forces of tradition. In fact, all culture consists in a deep awareness of the past. Such awareness, however, should not be confused with a clinging to the past or with an arbitrary imitation of its forms of expression; on the contrary, full awareness and perfect understanding free us from the fetters of the past, without thereby losing the fruits of our former experiences. We do not free ourselves from our past by trying to forget or to ignore it, but only through mastering it in the light of higher, i.e. unprejudiced knowledge.
If we allow the past undissolved and undigested to sink into the subconscious, the past becomes the germ of uncontrollable because unconscious drives and impulses. Only those things which we have perfectly understood and con- sciously penetrated can be mastered and can have no more power over us. The methods of healing employed by modern psychotherapy as well as by the most ancient meditation - practices are based on this principle. Even the Buddha attained his Enlightenment only after having become conscious of his complete past. This past, however, included the past of the whole universe. By becoming, conscious of it, he freed himself from the power of hidden causes.
Ignorance is bondage, knowledge is liberation. So long as we are ignorant of the causes of the past, we are governed them, and in so far they determine our future. The course of our future is "predestined" only to the extent of our ignorance.
Fate is a very real aspect of our lives as long as we remain in ignorance, as real as the other aspect of freedom. What we call fate is the pulling and moulding of our lives from sources of which we are unconscious. Where there is the Light of consciousness all is freedom; wherever to us that Light does not penetrate is Fate. To the adept Siddha whose consciousness enfolds the whole range of manifested being there is no fate at all.'
Genuine meditation is an act of opening ourselves to that Light; it is the art of invoking inspiration at will, by putting ourselves into a state of intuitive receptiveness, in which the gates of the past and the present are open to the mind's eye. But unless the mind's eye is cleared of the dust of prejudice and selfishness, it will not be able to grasp the meaning of its visions, to assess their value or importance and to make use of them. Two people may hear the same symphony: to the musically untrained or uncultured mind it will be a mere noise, to the cultured or musically receptive it will be a revelation, an experience. Even the grandest and most sublime vision conveys nothing to the ignorant, or something that may be thoroughly misleading. (Herein lies the danger for those who use trance-inducing or consciousness-transforming "psychedelic" drugs such as Mescalin, LSD or the like, without having the knowledge or the critical faculty to judge or to evaluate the resulting phenomena and experiences.)
When I spoke about the gates of the past and the present, which are opened in introspective meditation, I did not mention the future. Neither did the Buddha when describing the experiences of his Enlightenment. Why was that so? Because the future is essentially contained in the past and focalized in the present.
Jean Gebser, one of the most creative and stimulating thinkers of modern Europe - whose philosophy is the gigantic attempt to integrate the most advanced knowledge of our time with the spiritual sources of the past - defines evolution as the unfoldment in time and space of something that is already potentially existent in its essential features, though indeterminable in its individual realization. The manner in which we accomplish this individual realization is the task of our life and the essence of our freedom, which latter consists in our choice either to cooperate with the laws of our universal origin and to be free, or to ignore and to oppose them, and thus to become the slaves of our own ignorance. The more we recognize this our origin, the more we are able to cooperate with it and thus with the universal law (dharma) of our inherent nature. And likewise: he who perceives the outlines of the past can recognize or foresee the structure of the future. Their similarity is such that most clairvoyants are unable to distinguish between them, as confirmed by research-scholars such as Alexis Carrel, who says with regard to clairvoyants:
Some of them perceive events which have already happened or which will take place in the future. It should be noted that they apprehend the future in the same way as the past. They are sometimes incapable of distinguishing the one from the other. For example they may speak at two different epochs of the same fact, without suspecting that the first vision relates to the future and the second to the past.
This, and other similar statements, have been taken by some people as proof that the future exists in the same sense as the past, namely as an accomplished fact, hidden only to the limited faculties of perception of our human mind. But certain clairvoyant experiences, of which a striking example was reported by a well-known research-scholar (the mathematician Dunne, as far as I remember), seems to contradict this view. It is the well-authenticated story of a man who, after having bought a ticket for a sea voyage, dreamt that the boat on which he was traveling caught fire and sank. He saw vividly all the details and his own part in the events, such as his efforts to save himself and others from the impending doom. The dream was so overwhelmingly real that he returned the ticket. A short time later he read in the papers that the steamer, on which he had booked his passage, had met with a disaster and that the things had happened exactly as he had dreamt-except with regard to his own person! If the future event had been unalterably fixed or existed in some "timeless dimension," he could not have changed his decision and escaped the impending fate.
What is foreseeable are probably certain general conditions under which the future events take place, and these general conditions have as much stability or constancy as a landscape through which we drive. If we know the speed of our movement and the road or the direction which we want to take, we can safely predict where we shall be at a certain future time and what landmarks we shall have to pass on the way. This then is not because it exists in a future dimension of time, but because we move in a certain direction under already existing conditions, or more correctly, conditions whose rate of change is so much slower than our own movement that we can regard it as a constant and, in this sense, existing factor. Once we move in a certain direction, we are bound to meet certain events. But whether we move or not, and which direction we choose, this lies in our hand - provided we have the knowledge to foresee the results of our actions. This knowledge can come only from the past, from the remembrance of past experiences.
Here the question arises, whether the future is a real quality of time or merely a mental projection of the past into the opposite direction.
We can think of the past without reference to the future. But we cannot think of the future without reference to the past. If an astronomer can predict future events with accuracy, it is because of his knowledge of the past movements of heavenly bodies, from which he deduces certain universal laws. These laws are, in other words, the sum total of the past in its timeless aspect, in its ever-present potentiality, in the actuality of the present moment.
The past is ever-present, but due to the momentariness and limited range of our ordinary individual consciousness (or rather that part of it which we use in our everyday life) - which can dwell only on one point at a time, and which therefore has to be in constant motion in order to cover a wider range of events, facts, or objects - due to this momentariness we experience only that one point as present, on which our mind is focused, and all other points as past (or, according to our expectation, as future)., If we could see all the points simultaneously, the past would appear as another dimension of space.
Rainer Maria Rilke, perhaps the greatest mystic poet of our time, wrote in one of his letters:
It appears to me more and more as if our ordinary consciousness were inhabiting the top of a pyramid, whose basis within us (and, so to say, below us) broadens out to such an extent that the further we are able to descend into it, the more widely included seem to be those data of earthly and universal existence which are independent of time and space. Since my earliest youth I have felt the probability (and I have also lived accordingly, as far as possible) that in a deeper cross-section of this pyramid of consciousness, the simple fact of being could become an event for us, that pure presence and simultaneous existence of everything, which in the "normal" upper apex of selfconsciousness, one is able to experience as a "successive process." To hint at a (human) figure who would be capable of perceiving the past as well as the things that have not yet arisen, as ultimate presence, has ,been an urge with me when writing my Malte, and I am convinced that this view corresponds to a real state, though it may contradict all conventions of our actual life.
The aspect of "being" is nothing other than the total aspect of becoming. There is no question of choosing between these two aspects, as to which is the more real or true. Both are ever united, and those who try to build a philosophy upon only one of them, to the exclusion or negation of the other, lose themselves in verbal play. Even if time, as we understand it, is an imperfect way of seeing things, the movement on which it is based and the consciousness which perceives it are real factors of immediate experience and profound significance.
If time is movement, and movement is not merely mechanical motion but an autonomous expression of individual life, then the future is not something already existing (or existing in an absolute sense), but evolving out of the pattern of individual movements. Even if the sum total of all these movements amounts to something like an eternal "Body of Reality" or whatever we may call the ultimate state of transcendental quietness, harmony and completeness, for which the Plenum Void of Sunyata perhaps the most adequate expression - the fact remains that each individual pattern has its own meaning and justification, and this consists in an inalienable experience of freedom, without which no individual life would be possible or would have been able to come into existence.
Though in the average sentient being this freedom may consist only in an infinitesimally small part of his conscious activity, it is sufficient to break the rigidity and monotony of mechanical law. Even if from the individual pattern of behavior, the patterns of future events can be foreseen with a high degree of probability, we have to admit that probability is not certainty, not unalterable law, but merely the way of least resistance. The degree of probability becomes higher the more we are concerned with the general aspect of things or events, and lower the more we are concerned with the individual aspect. As Jung has said:
The more theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an in- disputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way. This is particularly true of theories which are based on statistics. The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. These considerations must be borne in mind whenever there is talk of a theory serving as a guide to self-knowledge. There is and can be no self- knowledge based on theoretical assumptions, for the object of self-knowledge is an individuals relative exception and an irregular phenomenon. Hence it is not the universal and the regular that characterize the t individual, but rather the unique.
This uniqueness is not a contradiction to the basic universality of the individual, but a focalized expression of that universality at a certain moment of time and in a certain spatial relationship to other phenomena of the universe at that moment. On the universal scale everything appears as law, on the individual scale law dissolves into mere patterns of probability. Law is the general frame in which individual movement, individual life, takes place. Just as a picture gets its meaning, i.e. becomes a "picture," because it is related to a frame, so freedom has meaning only within the framework of or with reference to law.
Law, however, is the accumulated, crystallized past, the conscious as well as the unconscious memory, the sum total of past events or movements (or "emotions"), which in the individual condenses itself into form-tendencies which we call character." But since character is not something different from the individual, but that in which individuality consists, we cannot separate these two concepts and play the one out against the other by saying that because an individual acts according to his character, therefore there is no freedom of action. On the contrary, if an individual were forced to act against his character, he would be unfree. Freedom is neither waywardness nor lawlessness, but the expression of one's inner law. Freedom and law do not exclude each other (as little as the picture excludes the frame or the frame the picture). Though the frame imposes a limitation on the picture, it strengthens it at the same time. In a similar way laws, though imposing limitations upon our freedom, not only strengthen it, but make it possible. Freedom consists in the right application of laws, in making the right use of them, and this depends again on the degree of our knowledge or insight into the nature of things", i.e., into our own nature. It is only there that freedom can be found. To express one's own inner law, one's character, in one's actions, is true self-expression, and self- expression is the hallmark of freedom. Freedom, like all spiritual realities, is one of the great paradoxes of life, and like life itself it is beyond proof or logical definition.
The problem of freedom is closely bound up with the problem of the future. If the future were something existing, in the same way as the past, there would be neither freedom nor meaning in the unfoldment of individual life, no responsibility for our actions, no moral or ethical values: life would be reduced to the clockwork of a mechanical process which runs its course to an inevitable end or in an endless circle of blind necessity or predetermined action. No system of thought that believes in ethical values and ultimate freedom or liberation through individual effort and a certain measure of free will and insight, can subscribe to such a view. The Buddha himself rejected this fatalistic outlook of pure determinism in his emphasis on self-reliance and in his condemnation of Makkhali Gosala's doctrine of predestination (Samannaphala Sutta ).
The Buddha treated the past as an unquestionable fact, the present as the decisive time-element, but he never speculated about the future. Though he often spoke about the past, of previous existences as well as of previous world-cycles and of the Buddhas of the remote past, he never indulged in prophesies. This in itself is significant and shows that , the past and the future cannot be treated on the same footing, or as possessing the same degree of reality.
Since time and space are the two inseparable poles of the same reality, we should expect a parallelism of their structure. But do the three dimensions of space correspond to similar three dimensions of time? Obviously not; because if we divide time into past, present and future, then the present is not a dimension at all, but the incommensurable point which separates the past from the future. Nor can we say that the past and the future are opposite dimensions; they are one and the same movement, pursuing the same direction. If the past and the future would constitute movements in quite different or opposite directions, we would be justified in calling them different dimensions.
But time is movement in one direction only, and has therefore only one dimension, as indicated by the phrase, "three dimensions of space and one of time," which latter, therefore, has also been called "the fourth dimension." Of this question (which we shall consider in a subsequent essay), Alexis Carrell had this to say:
On the surface of our planet those dimensions are discerned through particular characteristics. The vertical is identified by the phenomenon of gravity. We are unable to make any distinction between the two horizontal dimensions. As for the fourth dimension, or time, it takes on a strange aspect. While the other three dimensions of things are short and almost motionless, it appears as ceaselessly extending and very long.
No concrete thing has only three spatial dimensions. A rock, a tree, an animal cannot be instantaneous. Indeed we are capable of building up in our minds beings entirely described within three dimensions. But all concrete objects have four. And man extends both in time and in space. To an observer living far more slowly than we do, he would appear as something narrow and elongated, analogous to the incandescent trail of a meteor. Besides he possesses another aspect, impossible to define clearly. For he is not wholly comprised within the physical continuum. Thought is not confined within time and space.