Transcending time

Looking within to manage ourselves is a way of coming to terms with the impermanence of our lives.

January 27, 2018 04:42 pm | Updated 04:42 pm IST

The dying of the new year, the arrival of a new one.

Has anything changed?



Well — Happy New Year!

At the eternal level, nothing has changed. The sunrise on January 1 is guaranteed to be no different from what we experienced on the day before when we told ourselves that the previous year had come to an end. Likewise, the water in the pipes on New Year’s Day will fail exactly like it did on December 31, or 30. The electricity too might drop for an hour or two.

Abstract notions

Consider the power of our abstract thought. We have divided and parceled up Time itself: A.D./B.C, The Middle Ages, Modern Era, the 21st century, and more. Until fresh evidence is produced, we are telling ourselves that our species is 70,000 years old — give or take. We have surrendered to the mythology of the calendar so completely that we are now obsessed with the passage of years. We want to either stop it or reverse it. Some people believe that its signs can be reversed with treatments; we even make arrangements to preserve our own blood in case we need our past to repair the possible disaster in some distant future.

Concepts of timelessness have always bothered humankind ever since we grew conscious of ourselves as memory-making creatures. We train ourselves to be mindful of how rapidly things grow, ripen and work towards their end. It is something we constantly live with. The Buddhists spend days drawing elaborate mandalas and then wipe them out. Likewise, we have the Kalamezhuthu of South India, which too, is fashioned arduously with colours and materials found in nature. This too is rubbed out after the ritual performances end. One of the purposes of these acts is to remind ourselves of the impermanence of our own lives and their products in order to warn people not to get too attached to the idea of themselves — self-seriousness being just next door to narcissism.

Time! How it rules us.

“Send me your response by the end of the day” is a frequent demand (bordering on the discourteous) on email or phone — another time-related pressure designed to destroy efficiency and accuracy. And yet another part of the artificial framework into which we have gracefully inserted ourselves.

The outsourcing of human memory and ingenuity to electronic data banks is the first step towards our species becoming redundant some day. If a smart truck doesn’t need a driver and a robot can do your housework, where does that leave human cleaners and drivers? And yet — can any machine replace a teacher like Jothi Thiagarajan? She places a globe on her student’s desk, asks him to close his eyes and spin it. She then says: “Place your finger anywhere on the globe to stop it. Open your eyes, and tell me what materials you would use to build a house if you were living where your finger is?”

It is only in the classroom that one can arrest the spinning of the globe. The only way we can manage the march of time is to manage ourselves. For that, we need to look within, examine ourselves and live with awareness. Then perhaps we master time by making our days meaningful.

The author is the series editor of Living in Harmony (Oxford University Press).

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