This photo was taken in Hawaii in May 2010, almost nine years to the day that I returned to those islands with the kids last month. Julien was two years old back then, almost three. He was wide awake at 4am on account of the time zone change from the West Coast, bright-eyed and ready to start the day. I slow walked him down the street to a coffee shop, and we promptly sat down to enjoy a simple breakfast together as soon as it opened at 5am.
That’s when we had our first full length conversation — our first extended, bona fide, back-and-forth dialogue as rich as a two year old and his thirtysomething year old father can have about food and toddler philosophy. I cherish that memory so much.
This was, of course, all in the past… or was it the future? I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’ve just had some ayahuasca, but bear with me.
Our brains have cleverly evolved to interpret time in terms of space. Time moves as if we were on a journey from point A to point B. We speak of the past as something that is behind us and the future as something in front of us. Many quantum physicists call this nonsense, and observe that time doesn’t actually march in one direction any more than up/down or left/right does; rather, we’ve simply evolved to experience it that way.
But what if we could experience time differently? Rafael Nunez from at the University of California (San Diego) has studied the Aymara in South America, a people closely connected to the Quechua (Inca) that we’re learning a lot about here in Peru. The Aymara use forward-looking motions and language to discuss their past, as if they’ve turned the arrow of time around. (1) Not surprisingly, the Quechua concept for the universe, called the pacha, does not prescribe to a worldview where time moves in one direction. Instead, pacha can be loosely translated as “space-time”, and consists of three levels (hana pacha, ukhu pacha, kay pacha) of space and time, each of which exists simultaneously. (2) That is to say, the future may be explained by the past, but just as easily, the past may be explained by the future. Or as Steven Hawking (may he rest in peace) once asked, “Can we remember the future?” (3)
This is a profound difference in the way we experience ourselves and the world. For those of us cognitively married to a directional sense of time, consider that memory and imagination are evolutionary tricks that enable us to conceptualize time; they don’t exist ourside of ourselves. We remember the past and we imagine the future. A mosquito does not possess nearly the capacity for either, and is far more limited in its ability to conceptualize time as we do. But these capabilities also distort our understanding of time. We hold our memories to be truth, and dismiss our predictive imagination of the future as unproven and unknowable. In reality, our memories are a collection of stories we’ve made for ourselves, notoriously unreliable, as any psychologist or detective can tell you. And our predictive imagination of what may come is the compass we swear by that guides our choices. So what if we were to hold memory to be less sacrosanct, and honor what we imagine of the future more fully? Might we start believing that we remember the future and imagine the past, instead of the other way around?
A simple hack for doing this very thing is to envison what you want your euology to read, and to live your life backwards (or is it forward?) accordingly. Or to ask yourself, if you died today, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? If given the mindfulness and attention it deserves, it’s a hack that reverses the arrow of time and changes everything.
I frequently live in that space, occasionally to the befuddlement of others; sometimes holding more than one timeline in my heart, to the even greater befuddlement of others. But spinning the arrow of time gives me clarity, conviction, and courage to live in accordance to my values: to love fiercely and with integrity at home and at work, even when circumstances don’t make it easy; for I know that the choices I will make in the past have already become my future, with narry a difference between the two. In a very real sense, everything collapses into the present, and time ceases to be the illusion our evolutionary brains make it out to be.
This morning, I took myself back to that moment on the beach in 2010. My eighty-five year old self has waited so long for that conversation and knows how important it is. This year of worldschooling is no different, and I feel so lucky to be here. Thank you, Pachamama.
What would you do differently today if you could remember the future? What things would you say or do more courageously, knowing that the present will catch up to you sooner than you think?