Should we view time cyclically?

Back to the Future 

I often hear people talk about their goals for the future. Married by 28, kids by 30, becoming executive vice president by 35, etc. Their happiness seems largely determined by how much progress they are making towards these goals. Not married by 25? Time to panic. Earned a promotion earlier than planned? Fantastic!

This goal-based way of living assumes a linear view of time. Time moves forward and thus you must move forward with it (as measured by progress towards goals).

But this causes an exceptional amount of stress. It invites comparison to others (being jealous of your Facebook friends) and you constantly feel like you’re either wasting time, or getting ahead of it, without really being present in the moment.

But what if there were a different way to think of time?

The Hindu view of time

Hindus believe that time is cyclical in nature. Each cycle is divided into four sub-periods called yugas: Krita, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali. The four yugas total about 4.32 million years. The Krita represents the beginning of the cycle, where virtue reigns supreme and humans live approximately 100,000 years. The Kali sub-period is the last part of the cycle where virtue is minimal and people only live to about 100 at most.

Each cycle spans the creation of the universe and dissolution of it. We are currently in the Kali sub-period which means we are in the process of dissolution.

I hope I hit all my goals by the time that happens…YOLO.

While you don’t have to believe in this type of cycle, what would happen if you adopted this outlook on time? Here’s what I think.

Being in a “good” or “bad” time becomes irrelevant

The modern metric for determining whether we are in a “good” or “bad” time is our economy. GDP growth is down? We are in a bad time. Unemployement is high? We are in a bad time.

We view the economy in the same way we view our personal goals, in a progress-centric fashion. It’s as if things continue to get better, we will get to a point where we can say “ah, we’ve made it, let’s take a break.”

But Hindus would think this nonsense.

Once you accept that time is cyclical, and that we will always be moving towards decline or rebirth, we can stop worrying about the time period we are in, whether good or bad. If we’re in a good period, we learn to appreciate it. If bad, we attempt to act as virtuously as we can.

If we viewed time as cyclical, we wouldn’t worry so much if the “economy” is hindering our progress towards whatever arbitrary goal we set for ourselves. 

You experience awe

Every once in a while, I experience “awe,” which is a “sense of overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness.”

This feeling of awe is usually set off by vising epic landscapes (mountains, oceans, etc.) or being alone in a normally crowded area (4 AM in a city). I get the feeling that I am essentially irrelevant to the universe, in the sense that I don’t have a separate identity that really means anything. Everything is what it is.

Contemplating a cyclical view of time can do the same.

Just take a second to imagine how long you will live (maybe 100), and how long the world has existed and how long it will continue to exist. Imagine the world dissolving into nothing, and then reappearing again.

Now contemplate that cycle repeating again, and again, and again, forever.

Now just contemplate the concept of infinite time.

Did your mind just melt?

That was awe.

Your perception of yourself changes

Hindus also believe that this perception of time only exists because we think there is such thing as a separate “self.” Our brain and senses makes us believe that the self consists of things like personality traits, likes and dislikes, etc.

Hinduism teaches that the concept of time only exists because we have this sense of self, a “dualistic” identity where we are separate from the world around us. How can you break time into discrete chunks without relating it back to something in your life?

The ultimate goal of Hindu spirituality is to achieve Moksha: realizing our true nature. And our true nature is not separate from Brahman, the universal spirit that permeates everything. The greater reality, the one that lies underneath the sensory perceptions, is the true Self, which is not really a self at all.

Once you achieve Moksha, you are liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth and therefore escape cyclical time.

You can’t achieve Moksha overnight. It would require years and years of serious yoga training to get to that point.

But at the very least, contemplating your relationship to time, especially linear vs. cyclical time, will force you to reassess what role you play in the world and how tied it is to a superficial sense of progress.

Final Thoughts

Western civilization prides itself on all the progress it has made over the past 3 or 4 centuries or so. It has made great political advancements (democracy, for example), technological advancements, and intellectual advancements. You could argue that we are nearing the pinnacle of civilization, and that as time goes on, we’ll continue to make marginal improvements.

But this concept of accomplishment doesn’t transfer so neatly to our personal lives, at least not without great psychological cost.

If you think you have a maximum of 100 years to live, you would try to make as much “progress” as you can. This is the relationship with time that most of us are familiar with, at least in modern western culture.

But if you imagine yourself in the context of infinite cycles of birth and re-birth in a universe that is doing the same, how would you live?

I suspect most of us would stop putting so much pressure ourselves to “get things done” and we’d be able to view our actions in context of the vastness of time and space. We would view ourselves not as unique individuals, but rather, a unique part of a greater reality.

Now, time to go cancel some boring meetings….I can always reschedule them in the next yuga.

  • Less_Antman

    In my case, the psychological impact of being in cyclical time is to see the world is a game I’m playing because sitting around waiting for eternity to end gets awfully boring.
    The world MUST be cyclical: linear time is impossible as there can be no way to have gotten to the starting point.

    Although the temporary implication of this view is to stop seeing myself as separate, that obviously isn’t a permanent change (in a cyclical reality, how could it be?) and being the One with nothing that needs doing eventually becomes as tedious as staying in bed all the time, as nice as rest seems when you’re not getting enough.

    Still love the Woody Allen quip on enlightenment: Having achieved Oneness, I’m graduating and moving on to Twoness.

    Set the goals and work for them in the spirit of endless play. It’s the best of both worlds.

    • You sound very much like Allan Watts right now 😉

      I don’t think anyone can exist in a permanent state of Oneness, but incorporating this feeling into our lives on a regular basis is absolutely necessary. I like your view of living life in the spirit of endless play.

      • Less_Antman

        My life changed completely on September 12, 1990, the day I first listened to an audio version of Alan Watts’ THE BOOK: ON THE TABOO AGAINST KNOWING WHO YOU ARE. His story of the universe at the very beginning was my personal AHA! moment. Of course, YMMV

  • Magicub

    I wasn’t expecting this type of thoughts at this point of the year now that this cycle is ending

    • I wrote this a few months ago but just posted it recently.

      However, it does put our New Year’s resolutions in perspective.