Human Time Today

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At the start of Sacred Time, my summary of Gary Eberle's Sacred Time And The Search For Meaning, I said sacred time for Eberle is an interface between time and eternity that we have lost, but can find again. In commenting on the book, I want to look at each component of Eberle's argument in turn: time, eternity, then sacred time, how we lost it and how we can find it again. Here I look at time, in particular, the contemporary human experience of time.

I want to say at once that Eberle's account is wholly inadequate. Essentially, what he does is associate time as it is experienced today with technology, to the effect that the pace of our lives is ruled by the pace of technology.

Objective and subjective time

Eberle's error here lies in his failure to distinguish between objective and subjective time: between time as it is measured in standard units and time as we actually experience it, between time that proceeds at one steady pace and time that seems to us to speed up or slow down according to circumstances.

Eberle seems to assume that, because objectively our lives are organised to a considerable extent by the technology of timekeeping, then it is sufficient to characterise them as being dominated by it. But our experience of time is about how we feel about the pace of events around us and within us; timekeeping devices may or may not have a bearing on that: frequently not. For instance, who will deny that the older you get, the faster time seems to go by. That has nothing to do with technology, it's just part of the human condition.

The consequence of Eberle's failure to distinguish between objective and subjective time is that he ignores two absolutely crucial features of the human experience, namely goal orientation and the pursuit of special states.

It seems certain that both these two have been part of people's experience ever since humans became humans. The particular aim of this article is to explore them as they figure today. We'll look at each in turn. Of course, my perspective is British while Eberle's is American, but it is impossible to believe that the experience of time in the two countries is not substantially the same.

Goal orientation

By goal orientation, I mean the way in which people's subjective time necessarily gets structured whenever they are committed to objectives of some sort. When you pursue a goal, you inevitably get into a three phase articulation of your time. There is, firstly, your striving towards the objective, secondly, the moment of success or failure when the outcome of your efforts is revealed, thirdly, your winding down afterwards.

The wave pattern

We can imagine this structuring as a wave pattern replacing the featureless monotony of objective time. The flat line of your time as measured by the clock is replaced by a line that rises progressively to a peak, then sinks back down again.

An extremely revealing example of the kind of thing I'm talking about, as far as today's world is concerned, is happening as I write this: it's Wimbledon Fortnight, with the BBC TV schedules chock full of tennis. Viewed from the perspective of time, the whole event is made up of a hierarchy of levels, each of which displays the wave pattern characteristic of goal orientation.

From the player's point of view, as soon as a match starts, the inflexible structure of clock time, the seconds, minutes and hours, is pushed into the background by the flexible time structure of returns, points, games and sets, the number and duration of which depend on play.

The three part wave structure of subjective time patterned by objectives is already present at the very lowest unit of play, the strike or return. For this is made up of three components: preparing to hit the ball, hitting it successfully or not, acting appropriately after your attempted hit, successful or not.

The same sort of analysis applies to the next highest level of play, the point or rally. This level is made up of a variable number of returns that build up to a moment of success for one player and of failure for the other, when the point is won and lost.

The analysis then applies at each of the higher levels of a match, the intensity of the climactic moment increasing the higher the level. The points build up to a moment when a game is won and lost and so on, indeed, not only up to the end of a particular match, but right up to the moment when the whole knockout competition is won by one of the finalists and lost by the other.

Note that the structuring of the playerstime does not end with them exiting the competition after being sooner or later knocked out, or even winning. For a particular tournament like Wimbledon is only one of many each year. Achievement in a tournament contributes to a larger scheme of things, the playersrankings on the tour, a level of structuring that gives shape to the whole professional season.

Then, of course, above that there is the wave pattern that structures a player's whole career. A player typically is going to spend some years building up to a career high point, then dropping away from it as age and injury take their toll.

Clearly, human activity generally is not as tightly structured as a tennis tournament and the associated lifestyles of the players. But the wave pattern can be identified in whole swathes of human activity today: involving time scales ranging from seconds to decades. This means that for whole swathes of human activity, Eberle's view of human time today as essentially featureless is quite simply wrong.

Special states

The second characteristic of subjective time experience that I want to explore is special states. Let me explain what I'm getting at. I think we assume generally that we have a normal state of consciousness, but that we can and do depart from it one way and another, from time to time and for varying lengths of time. The special states I want to look at are the various alternative realms of consciousness we understand people as being capable of visiting when they depart from the assumed norm.

We ought to be clear first of all that any particular categorisation of special states of human awareness and of the time experience involved turns out to be somewhat arbitrary. Indeed, there is already some overlap between goal oriented behaviour and special states. For it seems fairly obvious that the peak moment in goal oriented behaviour, the crest in the three phase wave pattern, can in certain instances involve some sort of special state, including an altered awareness of time. After all, the prime example of the wave pattern is sexual behaviour, in which intense experiences can transport us into altered consciousness.

That being said, it is extremely illuminating to make the effort to distinguish between various sorts of special state and the experiences of time involved. For the purpose of understanding the particular nature of contemporary experience of time, I want to identify two types of state: passive participation states and highs. Let's consider at each in turn.

Passive participation

What I mean by passive participation becomes immediately apparent when we take another look at Wimbledon and consider the experience not of the players this time but of the spectators. Over all, attending a sporting event as a spectator is goal oriented, involving getting there, watching the event and returning home afterwards. But within that structure there is something else. While you are actually watching the event, your experience of time is determined not by your own behaviour, but by what you are watching.

Consideration of spectator time experience in tennis and other sports leads us into identifying all kinds of other passive participation activities by which people in our society are transported out of their normal experience of time into some realm of consciousness in which time is articulated differently. One of the most common of these activities is listening to music, which imposes its own distinctive time. Then there are, for instance, cinema and theatre, both of which involve us in suspending our awareness of passing time, as part of our overall suspension of disbelief. Reading fiction is another example, and so on.


However, the most widespread passive participation activity has to be TV. Eberle assesses TV merely as one of the ways by which technology enforces its tyranny over people, by occupying their leisure time. But that approach tells us nothing about the way people are actually experiencing time in our world. We need to understand watching TV as the most favoured method by which people disengage from their everyday world with its normal time sense and enter a state of consciousness in which time is articulated as it were artificially.

Buzzes, rushes and highs

Alongside TV viewing, I want to place the consumption of alcohol as a key route to special states of consciousness in our society. This takes us to the pursuit of highs.

But to return to tennis for a moment, one of the things that commentators, ex-players themselves, go on about is the players getting pumped up and having adrenalin rushes and the like. Indeed, achieving an incredible buzz or some other expression for a moment of intense excitement sometimes seems to be what sport is all about: the latest extreme sports seem to be dedicated to nothing else than courting danger, so as to generate natural highs in which a heightened state of consciousness is achieved, which will include an altered time sense.

Obviously, it is a short step from natural highs to chemical highs, where the altered states come from drugs rather than from body chemistry. And clearly, drugs cannot be ignored as a major resource for people in our society who seek to achieve heightened consciousness.


But at the present time, alcohol is the by far the most important route to altered awareness in our society. It is omnipresent, almost as popular as television. What more can I say about it? Well, I have an advertising t-shirt on which there's a picture of a rat-faced leader of the pack type young man holding out a bottle of beer. The message ends Get a life. Get a (beer)., where (beer) is the brand name.

I find that to be a central message of our society. Whenever you hear somebody saying Get a life or You should get out more, in the final analysis what they mean is, You should be out drinking.

[After I wrote the above, a report came out saying that 1 in 4 British adults drink to dangerous levels.]

Now it may well be that in part people drink to relax, to escape the pressures of work. Indeed, that will also be the reason why so many people watch so much television and so on. But if we want a proper understanding of people's experience of time we need to take into account both sides of the coin: not only the pace of technology that Eberle refers to, but at least equally as important, the ways people seek to handle it.

(c) John C Durham, 2003