Look After Your Mind – Time’s Arrow

The idea that time moves on from the present to the future, while the past dwindles behind us, is a phenomenon that runs in the background of our lives. A concept in physics called time’s arrow or, more technically, the asymmetry of time. An idea developed in 1927 by the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. 

The notion of an arrow is a vivid metaphor, as is that of the ‘flow’ of time, with its connotations of water running on like a river. Past, present and future are deeply embedded in the way we perceive the world and, in turn, in the way our minds work.

When I was a teenager the future seemed endless and full of possibilities. I was lucky because as we all know, many people are not blessed with such a feeling of potential and optimism. Now, all these years later, while the future still glows with promise for me there’s an acceptance that my past is ‘longer’ than my future.

This realisation has two immediate effects. One, that each moment becomes increasingly precious, something to savour and not take for granted. And two, looking back, that I have lived through some astonishing moments in history, though both good and bad, I have to say.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said, rather bleakly:

We look before and after, and pine for what is not

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

That many people do not savour the moment but harbour regrets and cling on to hopes that may or may not come to pass. That was Shelley’s view of the world, but it need not be mine.

Present-moment living

The philosopher Alan Watts said:

One’s life is like a cat falling out of a tree. The cat cannot stop falling, but it can choose how to position itself on the way.

Philosopher Alan Watts

Watts also reinforced the notion of present-moment-living by using another metaphor, that of music and dancing. He rightly says that when we listen to music (he was thinking classical) or watch a dance – or dance ourselves – we don’t think of pasts and futures. We simply let the music or the dance unfold. And while we can appreciate the whole thing once it’s over, if we are captivated by what we’re listening to or watching, time seems to dissolve away and we lose ourselves in the flow of the spectacle. 

Losing oneself in music and dance, or in a good book, is deeply relaxing but also uplifting, helping us to look after our minds. Watts goes on to say that the same idea can apply to at least some parts of our lives. That if we become too fixed on past regrets or too driven in trying to improve our futures, we may forget altogether to live them.

So while I may at times look before and after, I can choose not to pine for what is not, but just let myself find a suitable focus and let myself become lost in the moment and in the unfolding of time.

Steve Bowkett