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The Ramifications of Emotions (continued)


Subjective Time

Subjective time can have various meanings. It sometimes refers to a person's subjective impression of the speed at which time passes, something which varies from person to person and also according to the situation. But here, I will use it to refer to one of the ways – indeed, the commonest way – in which we think and feel about the past, the present and the future.

Subjectively, our memories of the past and our expectations for the future seem to represent the whole of our personal slice of time. The past stretches back as far as we can remember. The future stretches forward as far as we can imagine. On the other hand, the present – right now seems (if we think of it at all) rather like a mathematical abstraction, an infinitesimally small point on our time line, where the past cuts (in the cinematic sense) instantaneously to the future.

All that you, personally, know about the past is what is in your own memory. Some, or even most, of the information has come from external sources. But, apart from the instant of perception, everything must be stored in your memory before you can access it. And even the most recent event belongs to the past by the time you access it in memory. If your memory remains accurate, it will never change, because the remembered event has already happened.

Your perception at the time of the event may have been faulty, information provided to you may have been incorrect, your memory itself might become faulty – but events that have happened cannot change. They are complete and immutable. They are, effectively, mummified as they reach completion – because what has finished happening is not still happening.

Mummified, then – but not exactly ineffectual. There is an apparent contradiction here. The past that we remember is certainly as dead as any prehistoric skeleton – and yet most of us are well aware that it continues to affect us, as if it were still a living thing. Or perhaps, in some cases, a living monster (as will be explored under Unfinished Business, in Section 4).

In other words, the past may be dead, but it is not gone – it can still cause pleasure or pain, at any time of day. So what about the future? That certainly hasn't happened yet, or it wouldn't be the future. Nevertheless, we often think about the future. So where does our knowledge of the future come from? I'll tell you where it comes from. We make it up!

No, that wasn't a joke. It is a simple fact, which you can observe in your own mind, any time you like. Making up the future is an everyday activity. We frequently think about possible scenarios set in the future. In one sense, this is so normal as to be completely irrelevant. In another sense, it is simply tragic – because it is the source of untold suffering.

I am not talking here about the (totally unknown) real future – the one that will actually happen, when it finally does happen. We do not make that up, though we often wish we could. It is our subjective view of the future that we make up. This is a projection of the future as we think it may be – usually with many hopes and fears attached. Our subjective future is an image, a fantasy – it is a mind-made edifice.

We use whatever materials are called for in building this edifice, but we do not source them externally – they are entirely recycled from within the mind. It is our memories of the past which we use, to build our images of the future. There are no other materials available. So we take bits and pieces of our memories, rearrange them, fasten them together – and sell the result to ourselves at full price, as if it were brand new.

As a forecast, it is not usually very accurate – but that doesn't stop us worrying about it! Sometimes, instead of worrying about it, we either enjoy it, or suffer from it – all in the privacy of our own minds. So, although it is only a fantasy, it is a very powerful one. And it is built entirely from the raw materials we find lying around in the attics of our minds.

Those building materials are the leftovers of a past which is dead, but not gone – and some of which is painful. It includes unresolved grief, guilt, stress, and so on; and perhaps many pleasant memories as well. And when we relive that subjective past – or the subjective future built from it – we feel again, to a varying degree, the pain or the pleasure of those memories. Little wonder, then, that we have great hopes for our imaginary future – and equally great fears.

Does this view of time seem rather depressing? I certainly hope it does. My reason for describing this "normal" approach to time is not to encourage it. Rather, it is to offer encouragement to any readers who would like to ameliorate its effects. And to do that, it is necessary, first of all, to understand it. Only then will we have any chance at all of finding an alternative.

Now, I have been talking about living in the remembered past and also in the imagined future. However, as that future is concocted entirely from the past, what I have been describing amounts to living entirely in the past. And as the past is as dead as any dodo, I wonder if that is really living at all. If it is not really living at all, is there anything else on the menu?

The idea of living in the (subjective) present is sometimes suggested as an alternative. It is an attractive idea, but it does not seem very realistic. It would be nice, certainly, to step aside from all the pain of the remembered past and the predicted future, just by gravitating, in some magical fashion, to the present moment. Nice – but perhaps too fanciful to be of much practical relevance during daily life.

But fanciful or not, exploring the idea of living in the present a bit further might contribute to our overall task of building the second pillar of Wanterfall work.[55] And perhaps, when that task is complete, Wanterfall work itself might contribute to our understanding of the possibility of living in the present. But isn't that whole idea completely ridiculous?

I think the idea of living in the present, subjectively, is fairly ridiculous – but not totally so. I also think it is related to freedom from duality, as well as from subjective time. Indeed, I think it is the mortal enemy of both. Could it also have some relationship to conditioning, or conflict – or even both?

But perhaps it is not really possible in any case – at least, not by trying. Trying to live in the present, while stuck in the past, would simply create one more duality. So, instead of that, I would like to think a bit more about living in the present – and especially about its relationship to duality and subjective time.


The essence of subjective time, as we have seen above, is that the mind, swept along by the Wanterfall, makes excursions into the subjective past and the subjective future – often creating considerable suffering in the process.

The essence of duality, as we have seen previously, is that the mind, swept along by the Wanterfall, makes excursions into both sides of any pairs of opposites about which it has preferences – often creating considerable suffering in the process.


The preceding two paragraphs show a very close similarity between duality and subjective time, but also an apparent difference. Subjective time creates suffering by projecting painful emotions through time, whereas duality creates suffering by dividing reality into wanted and unwanted sides (positive and negative, or whatever you like to call them).

But hang on a minute. The emotions projected through subjective time only cause pain because they have been divided into opposites by duality. And the opposite emotions created by duality simply cannot survive in the absence of subjective time, because, in the subjective instant now, only the centre of duality exists – not its opposite arms (or sides, or whatever you like to call them).

So each phenomenon (duality and subjective time) is created from itself plus the other. If we call duality "A" and subjective time "B", that would mean that A consists of A+B, and B consists of B+A. And that makes it easier to see how two phenomena, which each include the other, are really just one phenomenon, given different names because they are viewed from different angles of view.[56]

That is not to say that the terms duality and subjective time should not be used. Although they both express the same adverse effects of wanting, they do express them rather differently. Therefore, each can offer independent possibilities for insight, if observed dispassionately (recommended).

Anyway, in considering the possibility of living in the present, we need not worry which of its mortal enemies dies first. Either would do equally well – for both would fall together in any case. The problem is that neither will usually let go at all. In fact, the whole idea of living in the present is a paradox.

I call it a paradox, because in one sense we cannot avoid living in the present, and therefore we obviously do live in the present. Whatever time it is, we're there. But subjectively, we constantly bounce out of the present into the subjective past and the subjective future; where, as usual, we meet all the pain that duality creates. So we do live in the present – and we don't.

Paradoxes, of course, have a habit of collapsing when you examine them more closely. And, sure enough, this one is propped up artificially – by the inclusion of both chronological time and subjective time in a single idea of "the present". Of course, we live in the present in chronological time – how could we not? But we very rarely live in the present in subjective time.

Here is an analogy which is often used to illustrate the idea of living in the present. Just imagine that you are standing up to your knees in a flowing river.[57] There is always water flowing past your legs. Therefore, your legs are always wet with water – you can always feel the sensation of water flowing past them.

However, it is not the same water from moment to moment. There is water by the tonne upstream, some of which will flow around your legs – but it has not reached you yet. There is water by the tonne downstream, some of which previously did flow around your legs – but you will never see it again.

If you worry about the water which has not yet reached you, all you will achieve is worry. If you regret the loss of the water which has gone on downstream, all you will achieve is regret. Only the water touching your legs at a given instant is part of your water experience. And any attempts which you make to experience any other water will inevitably fail.

That analogy is framed in chronological time, so it needs to be translated into subjective time to reveal the full extent of the unhappiness so freely available to you. If the subjective future and the subjective past are substituted for the upstream water and the downstream water, it makes a lot more sense.

The subjective future (the water which is expected to arrive from upstream) includes a complex set of hopes and fears. The subjective past (the water which has already vanished downstream) includes a complex set of satisfactions and regrets. All of this could be avoided by simply remaining with the subjective experience of the moment (the water which is wetting your legs right now). More often, though, we have a tendency to reach both upstream and downstream, in order to grab large handfuls of pointless and unnecessary suffering.

If you could live completely in the moment, subjectively, you could certainly throw this book away. The problems illustrated by the Wanterfall model would simply not exist. That is a very tall order, of course, and would surely need help from a deeper part of the mind than the part that most of us usually inhabit. But I think the conscious mind can also move a little closer to the present moment – in the following four ways.

The first way in which the conscious mind can help, is to make a clear distinction between forward planning and worrying. The latter immediately drags us into subjective time, but the former need not. If I am on my way to a meeting, I naturally need to think about what might come up, and how to respond. If I will be bidding for a house, I obviously need to think about how much I can afford to pay for it. Even if I am just on my way to buy fruit and vegetables, I still need to think about which ones to buy, and where to buy them. And so on.

Almost everything I ever do requires me to think about future possibilities and probabilities (but not future certainties – there are none of those). So how can I remain in the present, when I constantly need to think about the future? I certainly cannot abandon forward planning. But perhaps I can, with a little practice, separate it from worrying.

The secret of doing this is to keep the distinction between chronological time and subjective time very clear. If you are firmly planted in the subjective present, but thinking about the chronological future, you can wonder, you can plan, you can solve a potential problem – all the time dealing exclusively with future issues – but you cannot worry. You cannot worry, because you would have to leave the subjective present, in order to worry. Worrying has to do with the subjective future.

The second way in which the conscious mind can help, is by using a very simple, but sometimes very effective, trick. It is basically a matter of breaking up the incredibly daunting idea of "living in the present" into bite-sized pieces. Living in the subjective present all day would be a tall enough order – let alone living in the subjective present forever. But to live in the subjective present while getting dressed on one particular morning – that may not seem so impossible.

After that, you might decide to stay in the subjective present while having breakfast. Of course, you might not succeed very often. But giving it a go for a short, defined period, is much less daunting than the idea of doing it all the time. And the experience of occasional brief periods of time free from regrets and fears might well encourage further experiments.

The third suggestion is also very simple – it just consists of wondering idly about the concept of the subjective present, and what it might be like. This doesn't sound very active, but keeping the idea floating around in your mind might perhaps get a deeper part of your mind interested in it, too.

Then, one day, when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing, you may notice that you are neither worrying about the future, nor reliving the past – because all of your attention is occupied with what you are doing right now. And when you fall back into "normality", you will surely notice the return of the various small or large anxieties and sorrows that go with it.

The fourth way in which the conscious mind can help to prepare you for a potential experience of the subjective present is through relevant study and practice. This might include pondering over philosophical ideas, or learning and practising techniques like relaxation[58] and meditation[59]. Again, there is a possibility of unexpected calm, which inevitably challenges the supremacy of the "normality" of the subjective past and future.

But what about that less conscious part of the mind previously mentioned, as a potential source of assistance? Well, just as subjective time is really the same phenomenon as duality, the unexpected fall from the "sticky log" of duality, discussed in the previous article, could also separate you from an equally "sticky log" of subjective time. Equally sticky, because it is the same log. And equally possible to fall off, with the help of that less conscious part of the mind, for the same reason.


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[55] Remember that the second pillar of Wanterfall work will not be solid until the whole of this series of articles has been read and digested. It is wobbly until then!

[56] Perhaps this argument for the equivalence of duality and subjective time does not quite attain mathematical exactness. Nevertheless, I do think they are both underpinned by the same basic mixture of thought and emotion.

[57] Don't try it literally, unless your river is free of health hazards – in which category I would include anything from crocodiles to flatworms.

[58] Discussed in A Few Self-Help Techniques, a free e-booklet (in preparation) from

[59] Discussed in Meditation Demystified, a free e-booklet (in preparation) from

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Tao symbol as a clock, depicting subjective time


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