What if ... time is an illusion?

Mar 26, 2024

Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.

(Edward Sapir)

There are two words that throughout human history have had the power to transform our reality. “What if …?”

By asking these two words and applying them to any situation, we have the ability to reframe things and see things in a different way. Seeing things differently, from other perspectives, helps us gain clarity.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the yoga teacher and the clock. A yoga teacher is leading a meditation class when, all of a sudden, a clock on the wall crashes to the floor. The class is shaken for a moment but not stirred, because without missing a beat, the yoga teacher says, “Time is an illusion.” Calm is restored and the class continues.

I have heard the expression “time is an illusion” many times, as I’m sure you have too, but I hadn’t really paid a great deal of attention to it until last weekend when I watched a film about aliens. Normally, this would be the last type of film I would watch, but this one was different. ‘Arrival’ centres around a professor of linguistics who has been called in by the US military to communicate with a group of aliens who have suddenly and mysteriously appeared in various different countries. The whole world is thrown into a state of turmoil as the leaders of these countries argue about the best way to deal with the situation. Time is of the essence and the military leaders want the linguist to ask the aliens what their purpose on Earth is. Are their intentions peaceful? The linguist points out the complexities involved in finding out this information when neither she nor the aliens share a common language.

How can we even be sure, she asks, whether they understand the concept of a question or an answer?

Two things have stayed with me since I watched this film. The first is the concept that we are all born with a capacity to communicate. No matter what language we speak, our brains are already equipped to help us do this and make sense of the world, or worlds, around us. Every living being, it seems, has some capacity of understanding, some desire to connect with others around us, some realisation that we are on some level already connected. Noam Chomsky stated that the ability to learn languages is hard-wired into our brains and that children have an inborn faculty for language acquisition.

When we apply this idea of the language we use shaping our perception of reality, we see how this shapes our whole concept of time. Think about the words we have about time. In the Western world, we tend to view time as a resource, something we spend or exchange in return for something else. In general, we are paid money in return for our time at work. Think of the words we use with time: spending time, a waste of time, I don’t have enough time, time is money, and so on.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, suggests that the language we use shapes our perception of reality, influencing how we think about the world. Which brings me to the second thing I took away from the film Arrival.

What we in the Western world consider as time does not necessarily correspond with that of other civilizations. For example, picture a timeline with a past, present and future. You will probably and without too much effort make a mental model of some form of line where the past appears at a certain distance from the present, and that the future is marked at some point closer to the opposite end of the line. Our idea of time is linear. The words we use reinforce the idea of time as moving in a straight line from the present towards some point in the future. We measure time absolutely. The past is literally and figuratively behind us. By contrast, Mandarin speakers conceptualize time as being both linear and vertical.

The idea of time presented in the film was non-linear. Perhaps you could describe it as three or even four dimensional, where events overlapped, happened simultaneously and not in the sequence we might expect.

Now, (if I can even use words such as now after this!) what if time is an illusion? Would this change the way you viewed things, or did things? Would you live differently? What would your life look like and what would you be doing?

The magic of applying those two little words “what if” can transform your perception. When you transform your perception of something, you change the way you think about it. When you change the way you think about it, you can change the way you feel about it. And when you change the way you feel about something, that is when true magic happens.