Relativity of Time and Awareness

“But Einstein came along and took space and time out of the realm of stationary things and put them in the realm of relativity—giving the onlooker dominion over time and space, because time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.”- Dimitri Marianoff


Einstein’s theory of relativity is based upon the notion that everything that is observed has to be viewed relative to the observer. Indeed from the perspective of an observer on earth, the moon appears to be orbiting the earth. But, from the perspective of an observer on the moon, the earth appears to be orbiting the moon. One of Einstein’s great insights was that not only the position of things is observed relatively, but so is time. He postulated that time is not constant but also changes relative to the observer. In other words, time is not constant, but is variable. Indeed as an observer is moving relatively approaching the speed of light time slows down and at the speed of light time stops entirely. In other words space-time is not a constant but varies with relative position and speed of the observer.


It should be noted that an observer is a conscious entity. So, how might we look at the experience of the observer? Perhaps, we might look at awareness in a relativistic way. The observer’s awareness is of the present moment and only of the present moment. The past is gone and the future isn’t here yet, so all the observer has is the present. What the observer experiences in the present can be viewed in two very different ways. It can be looked at that the observer is moving through time and viewing the changes that occur in time. The observer’s awareness is of the different things that are occurring at different moments in time. The observer is simply watching the stream of different sensations. This is the usual and typical way that humans look at their internal observer, otherwise known as awareness.


Alternatively, we can look at the experience of the observer as time has stopped but things are moving in observer’s awareness. The observer’s awareness in the present moment is the movement in the observer’s awareness.  Experiences then are arising and falling away in that singular moment. Time is defined as change. Because the observer detects things changing, the observer concludes that time must be passing. But as Einstein said “time is an illusion.” It is only because change is observed in the present moment that the observer concludes that time has passed. Perhaps time hasn’t passed but awareness has moved.


Let’s translate these ideas to the meditation cushion. When meditating the individual can sit and watch things happening as time passes. Maybe it’s the movement associated with the breath, or the sounds of a bird song, or the light penetrating our eyelids, or the odors wafting through the room. That is how most people meditate. But, in essence we’ve just translated how we view the everyday world to the cushion, making meditation just like everyday experience. Perhaps that’s why many people meditate for years without becoming awakened. How can we expect to see things differently if we’re looking at them the same way?


On the other hand when meditating we can sit and observe things moving in our awareness at a fixed point in time called the present moment. This is a radically different approach that is unlike our everyday way of experiencing the world. The rising and falling of the breath, the bird song, the light, odors, are simply movements of our mind that awareness observes in a stationary present moment. Time has stopped, but things are moving in our awareness. Perhaps this could lead to a redefinition of experience as the product of a moving mind being observed by a stationary awareness. Now this is different. It is unlike our usual way of experiencing everyday life. Perhaps this change in the perspective of the observer can lead to a different view of reality. Perhaps this can lead to an awakening.


This perspective then needs to be broadened and employed with our everyday experience and not just in the cloistered environment of meditation. All that is happening in the “real world” should be viewed as sensations and thoughts simply arising in our awareness in a present moment that does not move in time. There is no time, only things entering, changing, and leaving in our awareness. From this perspective it is possible that we will begin to see that time is an illusion and our essence is pure awareness in which experiences are created. This may take a while, as lifelong mental habits of viewing everything occurring outside in time with us as simply an observer that is also moving along through time, has to be unlearned and replaced with the new perspective. For some this happens suddenly in a life altering opening termed an awakening experience. For others, it is a slow progressive change that is hardly noticeable, but move inexorably to the same point, awakening.


So, try looking relatively at your awareness and see where it leads.


“I had a sneaking suspicion that time was not constant, but I guess I could never prove it…. I even had a theory that time didn’t go in straight line at all…… I had the sneaking suspicion that everything had happened, was happening, or would happen was really happening all the time. There was no past, present, and future. Everything was going on all at once and forever. If that was true, then each moment was eternity.”  ― Mark A. Roeder


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies