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Connecting Hawking and Tolle: A Musing on the Relative Nature of Time

“One of the twins went for a long trip in a spaceship at nearly the speed of light. When he returned, he would be much younger than the one who stayed on earth.
This is known as the twins paradox, but it is a paradox only if one has the idea of absolute time at the back of one’s mind. In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving.”
— Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988
Photo by Josh Gordon on Unsplash

Time is relative. Meaning time is not absolute. Meaning time, or whatever notion we have of it, is an illusion.

I’m a business and arts kid. I’m very future focused. I’m very visual. I’m very goal-oriented. I have never contemplated something so fundamental as to how I think about and live my life, like the nature of time, before. I take it for granted. I’ve never questioned it.

I should have. I feel so much better. I feel so much more present.

I actually first heard this idea — the idea that time is an illusion — articulated from spiritual writer and teacher Eckhart Tolle, who states that the only thing we actually have is the present — now is the only moment that ever actually exists, and to dwell on time, in the past or on the future, is to forego what is actually real:

“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time — past and future — the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.”
— Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, 1997

How interesting to come across this idea again not just as a spiritual reckoning, but as a statement of fact. And how interesting that I should have a similar reaction today to Stephen Hawking’s explanation as I did reading Tolle several years ago.

On reconciling the IDEA and FACT that absolute time does not exist with my perception of how I feel time: Most acutely, I feel relief, and then peace.

Immense relief. Grand relief. Like a huge weight — like the weight of the Universe (haha) — has been lifted from my mind. It is relieving to think and feel in moments. It is relieving to narrow down my focus. It is relieving to relinquish control of my past and future. It is literally relieving to alleviate the pressure of time that I now recognize I largely impose on myself every single day.

And to have physics come in and validate Tolle’s ideas scientifically (well, I realize Hawking and the scientific community published well before Tolle, but for me this information is validation since I’m only just now learning about the relative nature of time…business and arts kid, business and arts kid) is like a double shot of relief. It’s like, not only can you find relief thinking about time this way, but it’s actually the only accurate and real way to think about it.

This hit me hard. Like, one of those light-bulb moments except it’s not an idea, it’s a feeling that sinks into your skin and eventually burrows into your bones as it becomes one of those tiny keystone moments of change in your life.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

I’ve been contemplating this visual explanation from PBS’ Space Time series, about a monkey who is travelling at near the speed of light to the event horizon of a black hole (I highly recommend watching this series if you’re interested in the science, especially if you’re a visual learner like me). The host explains:

“Our space-faring simian begins his journey and emits a regular light signal that we observe from a safe distance. As it approaches the black hole, these light rays have further and further to travel through increasingly curved space-time and so the interval between receiving signals also increases. The progress of the monkey appears to slow to a halt very close to the event horizon, and the final signal at the moment of crossing never reaches us…If [the monkey] could instead hover over the event horizon then it would see the universe in fast forward.”

So for a monkey travelling near the speed of light into space, his monkey twin on Earth would have lived and died in basically the time it takes the travelling monkey to take a single breath.

“See the universe in fast forward.” Like holding down the remote button on a film or TV show. Like everything is pre-determined, like it’s already happened, happening, happened.

So counter-intuitive. So relieving.

Thinking about time in this way, for me, has both made me feel more grounded and more free. Like staring at a night sky on a cloudless night in the country, feeling the weight of the stars that I now understand “lived” years ago, and I am only just now receiving their light, am only just now able to know that.

It’s relieving. It’s humbling. It’s a much needed perspective change from a day that’s paced by someone else’s clock, by problems that, to a monkey sitting on the edge of an event horizon, exist and then don’t in less than the blink of an eye. We’re here and then we’re not. We’ve lived, we’re living, we’ve lived, and then we’re not.

Time is relative. Don’t let its illusion bully you into feeling anything other than what’s real, the present moment.

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