All Time Like the Present
I recently celebrated my birthday, the time when - as a colleague of mine used to describe it - "the earth once more passes close to the same arbitrary point in space that it did when I was born."
We all use language that refers to time, and have a vague feeling for it, but beyond noticing that it passes beyond us we don't really have a grasp of it. We may say "I don't know where the time went," but never comment on the fact that we don't know where it's coming from either. We throw around terms like 'Thursday,' but really have no true concept of Thursday-ness. As Ford Prefect observes in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."
In the Thirteenth Century Dōgen Zenji, the great founder of the Sōtō school of Zen wrote a treatise on time called Uji or 'The Time Being.' In it he lays out a theory of the oneness of time and being, observing that we don't understand time because we don't doubt our experience of it, and so like a fish not understanding water so we don't understand time.
Now I am not going to pretend for a minute that I understand what is taught in Uji, or that I can even begin to scrape it's depths. However, meditation is an empirical activity, and we can in our own practice explore our relationship with time. This is what is meant by 'doubting our experience of it' - not denying the existence of time (which would be foolish) but instead opening up to the fact that our experience and our assumptions may not be the whole story.
In Uji Dōgen says:
Do not regard time as merely flying away; do not think that flying away is its sole function. For time to fly away there would have to be a separation [between it and things]. Because you imagine that time only passes, you do not learn the truth of being-time. In a word, every being in the entire world is a separate time in one continuum. And since being is time, I am my being-time.
What he's saying here is that while the nature of time is to pass, that is not all there is to it. If we focus solely on it's flow, how it leaves us, then we miss the deep connection we have with it. We are beings that exist in time, we are not separable from it.
One of the ways we can explore this in meditation is to choose one of the phases of the breath and use that phase as a place we can dwell in the present, experiencing the expansiveness of that point in time. I find that using the phase between the end of the out-breath and the arising of the new in-breath to be the perfect place for this (what medicine calls the 'expiratory pause'). During this time we can learn to experience our connection with all of time, what some people call the 'spacious present.'
I have linked below a fully guided thirty-minute meditation where we practice experiencing this spacious present. If you find it useful feel free to incorporate it in your own practice. However we experience time, and whether we see viewpoints such as Dōgen's as literal or metaphorical, we can all learn from exploring and questioning our relationship with it.
Uji quote taken from Dogen on Being Time - https://www.themathesontrust.org/library/dogen-on-being-time