My Pet Theory about Time

(Drafted on 17 January 2010.  Time flies!)

Ever heard about how time starts to go faster as we grow older?  I heard that when I was a kid and over the years, I begin to observe this phenomena myself.  As a kid, we could play for a really looong
time and find that it is only lunch time, and still have the whole afternoon to go.  Or in some cases, do some boring homework for a long time and still have even more to go.  We would check the time and it would only be 5mins into the homework session.

When we are in our teens, we start to experience our day go by a little faster.  Maybe it is because we cannot wait for the lessons to end or to get home to do what we want.  But by the time we go past our teens and reach our 20s, time continue to speed its way past.

This is my theory, a pet theory.  Time, is a product of our perception of our experiences as it happens.  But our experience and perception of time itself is coloured by our past experiences of time.  More accurately, it is compared unconsciously with our past experience of time.

Consider a person with $1000 in his bank account.  To him, $1000 is 100% of what he has.  If he has $1000 extra to save, it would increase his savings by 100%.  To a millionaire, $1000 would be a meager $1,000 / $1,000,000 = 0.1%.  Saving or spending a $1000 would be perceived as a 0.1% difference for the millionaire compared to a 100% difference for the person with $1000 in his bank account.

In reality, that $1000 is the same in both cases, just perceived differently.

An hour perceived by a five year old is likewise different for a 20 year old.  The five year old would have around two to three years of memory of time while the 20 year old would have around 17 to 18 years of memory of time.  I’m assuming that most people like me, have no discernible memory from birth till around 2 or 3 years old.  So for a person with X years of age, he probably have around X – 2 years of memory of time.  I am not suggesting that we have easy access to this memory of time, or our life as well, just that we have a memory or perception of having lived that long.

An hour to a 5 year old is a larger fraction of the life he has lived compared to that of a 20 year old.  Likewise, a year is a larger fraction of the life of a 20 year old compared to an 80 year old person.  The older person will perceive time as a smaller fraction compared to his own life.  Consequently, the perception that time flies when one ages.

Implications

The average lifespan of a Singaporean is currently between 80 to 90 years old.  Let’s say that in the distant future, advances in medical science improves our lifespan to 200 years.  Assuming that memory retention is proportionate to the ability to live as long, then the above perception of time may remain true, and the later 100 years of the bi-centenarian will not feel the same as the first 100 years — it will feel shorter than the former or time will feel like it is going even faster.

If we dial up the lifespan, then perhaps someone who lives a 1000 years do not feel that it is that long as well.  Perhaps he would simply experience it as just one lifetime, just like we do for a 100 years (80 ~ 100 years anyway), except with the unit of years factored upwards.

One Sutta Account on Time

In the Anguttara Nikaya 7.70 Arakenanusasani Sutta: Araka’s Teaching, the Buddha recounted the teachings of a religious teacher called Araka who lived long time ago.  His teachings to the people then were that life was brief and short, that “just as a dew-drop on the tip of a blade of grass will quicly vanish at sunrise and will not last long; even so, brahmins, is human life like a dew-drop.”

At the end of the numerous metaphors describing the brevity of human life, the Buddha declares how “the human lifespan at that time was 60,000 years and at 500 years girls were marriageable”.  After that, the Buddha referred to the present day (in his time) human life reaching up to around “100 years or a little more.”  The Buddha declares how he has reckoned the life of a centenarian and exhorts the monks “to meditate and not be negligent”.

If the perception of time applies for someone living up to
60,000 years, then time would really really fly past exponentially as we cross the 100 and 1,000 year marks.  Perhaps, as mentioned, it becomes a matter of scaling the unit of measurement of time and not an absoluteness of time?

So?

So stop wishing to live up to 120 years old or 200 years old!  😉 It is more important to live our life meaningfully, to practise the Dharma and cultivate our mind, freeing ourselves from habitual tendencies.

And while the Buddha’s advice in the sutta was directed to the monks, we should realise that it applies to anyone who seeks true happiness, Nirvana!  If you are a Buddhist and wish to make a change in your life, then it does not matter whether you are a monastic or a lay person.  If you want happiness, you must take charge and do something about it.

Don’t wait until you are 80 years old and look back to this day and exclaim “It was just like yesterday that I read that blog entry on time!  How time flew past! “.  Go meditate and practise now!

Reference

AN 7.70 PTS: A iv 136 – Arakenanusasani Sutta: Araka’s Teaching

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.070.than.html