Being oppressed by time is a sure sign of being caught in the story we tell about our life in the world. Narration is about ‘before’s and ‘after’s, about how long it takes to do something or go somewhere. We align it fluidly with our other mental concepts like distance; don’t think twice about answering the question “How far?” with the amount of time it takes to get there. It seems so pervasive, we think it’s real. It’s an example of an idea that’s been reified, being treated as though it’s an external independent thing. And to the extent that it’s a contract we make regarding the calendar, and an essential measurement in science, it has powerful influence. What we actually experience is much more flexible. Henri Bergson drew attention to the neglected concept of duration where inner experience expands beyond conventional ideas of time. Stepping free of the thin stream of linear cause and effect, he sees everything as always acting on everything else. Every one of us is a feature of the picture. Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience when her left narrating hemisphere was disabled by a stroke was of a timeless merging with everything. The self in time would appear to be a feature of the left hemisphere, dominant due to the focus on words and symbols in our culture. When one of my students questioned the importance of visual art, he said he couldn’t think of any painting that changed his life in the way that books and music had. I couldn’t help but wonder if this had to do with our conditioning being oriented to stories, that being locked into stories in time, other time based art would be the best at elucidating experience. But this could leave us thinking we’re only our stories. Throughout the narration are reverberations interacting with others that affect other action. We live in a constant flow of imagery with currents flowing in and out from many directions that affect us without words. Because we don’t pin it down we often don’t recognize this rich visual realm consciously. In his brilliant book, “The Alphabet and the Goddess” Leonard Shlain describes how the visual culture of the goddess was displaced by the patriarchal linear narration which included laws that bound one to the story. Noting the shift from books to screen, he ends his book with a section about the two most influential images of the twentieth century. One was of the exploding atomic bomb. The vividness of its destructive power was what kept people from using it once they saw it. Likewise the photo of our planet from outer space, all blue and white and brown is clearly seen as a place we share with no separation between countries except natural boundaries.
Attachment to the story binds us to time with self as protagonist headed to a future destination. But when something really interesting is going on the focus is outside the self, attentive to what’s happening in that moment. This is the center of meditation, to experience consciousness without narration. Everyone is more emancipated from time than they realize. The deeper the focus the more unaware of time we are. Seeing the next step or the answer to a problem can be instantaneous.
There’s no linear time in a painting. It’s the stone dropped into the pond, center of the ripples in the changing inner state. Maybe the Great Age of Visual Art is yet to come. It’s the only art that’s free of time.