Time and the Timeless Now

The Reality of Time

Eckhart Tolle says, “Time is an illusion.” He is wrong; clock time is real, objective time, correlated to the Earth’s rotation and solar orbit. Real time began when the universe began. The universe did not expand into space-time; the universe was the beginning of space-time. Space and time are inseparable; you cannot have one without the other. Space is the distance between objects. Without objects, the term space is meaningless. All manifested objects, even ones that seem inert, are intensely vibrating and constantly changing. Because motion, or change, is sequential, it can only take place in time. If time is unreal, then so is the universe.

The universe, meaning all existing things in space-time, is a reality, not an illusion. The universe exists, and that alone qualifies it as real. Eastern mystics have labeled phenomenal reality an illusion because it veils the transcendental Reality underlying it. But that’s like calling the thick coat of dust on a mirror an illusion simply because it blocks or distorts your reflection. The universe itself is not an illusion, but it can be said to possess an illusory quality in the sense that it hides transcendental Reality from the vision of ordinary men.

Time, as the measurable duration from past to present to future, is just as much a reality as the universe. And though time is not an illusion, it is illusory in the sense that it masks the eternal Now, preventing you from perceiving it. The eternal Now exists outside of the universe, outside of space and time. If it existed in space and time, it couldn’t be the eternal Now. The eternal Now is an incomprehensible Domain; it is the Heaven of Christ, the Nirvana of Buddha.

The Present Moment and the Timeless Now

Don’t confuse the “present moment” with the timeless Now. In reality, because change is ceaseless, there can be no such thing as a “timeless” present moment. The instant you take a snapshot of the so-called present moment, it has already changed. There is nothing wrong with referring to a series of immediate events as the present moment, just as long as you remember that the present moment pertains to a time frame and not to the timeless Now.

As long as you perceive yourself to be a separate entity existing in space and time, past and future will be real and important to you. As a cognitive entity, your life would have no meaning without the past and the future as reference points. And without a “past” and a “future,” you couldn’t even conceive of a “present moment.”

Are the past and the future real? As real as phenomena! Phenomena are things changing, and things can only change if time is a reality. Thus, if you deny the reality of time, you also deny the reality of phenomenal existence.

According to Tolle, “Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” Even if, as Tolle contends, the timeless Now, the all-pervading Being or Presence underlying phenomenal existence, is the context within which all change occurs, this does not mean that life doesn’t also simultaneously happen in time. Consider the analogy of a man in an indoor pool. He is at once swimming in a building (analogous to timelessness) and in a pool (analogous to time). But if we apply Tolle’s exclusive and reductive perspective to this situation, we would only acknowledge the reality of the building (timelessness), while denying that of the pool (time).

Tolle says that past and future “obviously have no reality of their own,” that their reality is “‘borrowed’ from the Now.” Contrary to what Tolle says, it isn’t the least bit “obvious” that past and future are merely the “borrowed” reality that he claims they are. If it were obvious, there would be universal agreement, rather than universal disagreement, with his assessment of time.

Tolle summarizes his only-the-Now-exists argument by stating that it “cannot be understood by the mind.” He is wrong. All understanding is via the mind, via mental concepts. Whether an experience is a mystical one or an emotional one, it can only be understood via the process of thought. Mystical experience—direct, immediate contact with the Absolute—results in gnosis (higher knowledge), but even this gnosis is only understanding by the mind.

Eckhart Tolle states that, “Time and mind are in fact inseparable.” Tolle’s statement is pure mystical poppycock. It is time and change, not time and mind, that are in fact inseparable. Mind is merely the faculty that measures time—rate of change relative to a standard—and that rate of change relative to that standard exists whether the mind recognizes it or not. For example, the Earth rotates 365 times in the course of its one-year orbit around the Sun. Whether the mind recognizes this cycle or not, it still exists. Just because the mind is rendered silent in mystical samadhi hardly negates the reality of time. Contrary to what Tolle says, even animals measure time in their own way. When birds migrate or a squirrel stores nuts for the winter, they are implicitly acknowledging the reality of time.

Tolle tells us to stop “creating” time. He says, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” First, human beings do not create time; they simply recognize it as a reality. Second, the idea that the present moment is all we ever have sounds like a mantra Tolle extracted directly from a ’70s LSD-inspired hippie manual. Anyone with his brain intact knows that before the “present moment” there were endless past moments, and that after the present moment there will be endless future moments. Anyone who drops past and future moments from the context of his life is going to end up in serious trouble. If you don’t believe it, consider this: in 2008, renowned New Age guru Wayne Dyer was soliciting donations on public television for Baba Ram Dass, the now-needy author of the cult spiritual classic Be Here Now, who was hoping to retire in Maui.

A serious problem with Tolle is his tendency to conflate the present moment with the Now. The present moment, what conditionally is, is not the timeless Now. The present moment is the passing, or temporal, “now,” not the changeless, or eternal, Now. The present moment can be, but isn’t necessarily, a doorway to the Now. Being present to the moment opens the door to the Now—but unless you step across the threshold to the “other side,” you’ll simply be present to arising phenomena and oblivious to the noumenal Reality beyond it.

Many successful people live part of their lives in the present moment, but that doesn’t grant them automatic access to the Now. For example, living in the manifest “now” is common for great artists and athletes, who possess the ability to single-pointedly focus their attention on immediate conditional phenomena. Many of these artists and athletes possess monstrous egos, so Tolle’s claim that resistance to the present moment reflects the egoic mind hardly accords with the observable evidence.

Transcending Time

Tolle says the key to disidentification from the mind is “ending the delusion of time.”  As I’ve already explained, time is a reality, not a delusion, and anyone who chooses to function under the illusion that time is unreal runs the risk of ruining his life.

As a means to transcend time, Tolle enjoins us to “honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be.” What if a crazed criminal were about to kill your child, would you simply “honor” and allow it? I don’t know about you, but if I had a gun on me, I’d pull it out and shoot the bastard. Tolle’s idea of “allowing” relative to the present moment is not only irrational and irresponsible, but in some cases it is even immoral.

Time is the measure of change and becoming. As long as there is change and becoming, meaning manifest existence, there is time. To deny the reality of time is to deny the reality of the manifest. If time is an illusion, as Tolle claims, then the world, by implication, is also unreal. If you believe the world is unreal, then time isn’t precious at all. If, on the other hand, you accept the reality you perceive via your senses and mind, then time, necessarily, becomes very important.

Tolle states that the Now is “the most precious thing” because it is “the only thing…. It’s all there is.” Tolle then tells us that the Now is the “only point that can take [an individual] beyond the limited confines of the mind… the only point of access into the timeless and formless realm of Being.” Tolle’s statements raise a few questions: If the Now is the only thing, then why does Tolle describe it as a “point of access” into Being rather than as all-inclusive Being itself? Why does he create a division between the Now and Being, with the implication being that the Now is a separate point of access that leads to transcendent Being? If the timeless Now is a “point” of access, what, exactly, is this point? We know it can’t be the present moment, the ephemeral now, which, as Tolle says, is simply passing phenomena rooted in “illusory time.” What, then, is this “point of access”? Tolle fails to tell us.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike May 7, 2016 at 12:04 am

He is talking about psychological time, rather than clock time. Dont identify with yiur past and stop wanting the future. It’s not meant to be taken quite as literally as you appear to be taking it. We live through the perpetual present moment we interact with the time now it is only ever now, not in 10 minutes. When we interact with it in 10 minutes time it will be through the now but in 10 minutes time


FK June 11, 2016 at 6:34 pm

Time is so confusing so to people. I good read is cosmologist Lee Smolin’s recent book Time Reborn. I think the last comment is right that people confuse clock time and psychological time, but I do think it is better to re-frame time, rather than reduce it completely as Tolle does (because that can just reinforce the “timelesss” mechanical paradigm). There are other older takes on this. See Alfred N. Whitehead’s “Process philosophy”. In physics Ilya Prigogine already started the paradigm shift on how we view time back in the 80s, he distinguished between the “physics of being” and the “physics of becoming”. This ties in nicely with current superstar physicist Smolin’s views. As Smolin is not a strictly “materialist” scientist either, he also thinks consciousness is real too.


Ryan February 15, 2018 at 6:17 am

Great post. However, in the deepest sense time is an illusion. We exist in time, yes. But, time is always illusory and thus the deepest reality is always Now. Everything happens now. It’s all one big happening. But, of course ONE big happening is essentially nothing without time/meaning/logos/the word of god. All of this is real, all of this is reality I agree. His words are just pointing to the Ultimate reality.


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