Making the most of time

7 mins read

Do you ever have that feeling when you go back to a familiar place that you never left? Even if months or even years have seemingly gone by?

alpacasI think this is because there is no time outside of impermanent things. Time is not like a soup or something, in which things bob about, like lumps of potato. Time is simply a characteristic of each impermanent phenomenon, their own cause and effect. The past and the future are just parts of the present moment, as Ven Geshe Kelsang explains in Ocean of Nectar. For example, this moment I have a past and I have a future. And the same will be true in the next moment, and the next …

If the past and future are just parts of the present moment, does it not follow that if we change the present we also change the past and the future?!

There is nothing inherently linear about time because it is momentary, as described in this last article. And Buddha pointed out that things don’t even last a moment 

I happen to be writing this on a train in Switzerland, to which I paid an unexpected visit this week. There is no past stretching out like the train tracks behind me or future stretching out like the train tracks in front of me. There is only now, only this moment. All functioning things are present. Everything is a momentary appearance, whether the stillness of Lake Geneva through the window (not too shabby) or the French kids jumping around in this carriage. moving scenery

There is no time outside of the mind. Time is mere appearance; we merely impute a continuum on cause and effect. Take a movie as an example. A movie is made up of many stills, but it has the illusion of movement, why? This is an illusion created by our own conceptual minds as we string the stills together through imputation.

Or indeed the moving scenery outside of my window … there is nothing actually moving out there.

Of course we then believe time is really out there, existing from its own side, because that is just what we do with everything when we have self-grasping ignorance.

church bell

Talking about Switzerland, I found the juxtaposition of ageless mountains and the (loud) ringing of the village church bell quite interesting … is the idea that being reminded of the time every 15 minutes helps us control it somehow? Slow it down?! Divide life into neat, tidy, and perhaps more manageable portions?! “So there, big old everlasting mountains! You can’t outwit me!” As if there is real time out there, being marked out by bell chimes …

Even when we know better, we can still get trapped in the illusion. For example, movies … even though we know there is nothing actually there, or really happening, they still have the power to freak us out as we get caught up in them.

Now and then

There is no real gap between being in a familiar place now and “back then” — it is just a continuation of karma ripening.

I feel it’s like we are having lots of different dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in our mind, each one arising fully and all at once with its spatial and temporal coordinates intact. Just like last night’s dream, and just as when we arose into the dream of this life.

TorbelThis January I had this experience in NYC when I returned there for a month – it was like I’d never left it since the previous January. Yet I know I had a pretty full 12 months in-between! But all that in-between time was like lots of dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in my mind. Nothing linear about it. When I looked in the restroom mirror, I could see that my body had seemingly aged a year! But that was because (a) my body had undergone some cause and effect, including one or two too many doughnuts, and (2) the new dream with the new me involved someone who was a year older.

I had the same appearance whenever I visit my parents in their flat in London, like now for example – it is like I have never left. Same for when I go back to Manjushri KMC, such as for the beautiful Summer Festival we have just had. It is another dream, with many of the same people, just all of us appearing older in the context of this new dream. I have many such experiences every year. There is nothing linear about my life or yours.

IMG_4369We often mark our lives with milestones, a wedding, getting ahead in our career, falling in love again, playing with our grandkids, or simply the chiming of a church bell – but in reality this advance through an inherently existent life is just an hallucination. The past and future are just projections of our minds. There is only now. We have to make it count.

Milestones on the way to what?

Plus, these kinds of milestones just light the way to dusty death. There are no “happy endings” in samsara, as Buddha said:

All our dreams are broken in the end.


That’s the thing about dreams. They are fleeting. They are momentary appearances to mind. They fall apart. And “all phenomena are like dreams”, said Buddha. The law of entropy is an example of how every impermanent phenomenon is spinning away from everything else all the time, even on a molecular level. That is time. The only thing that stays the same, as the saying goes, is change.

With grasping and attachment we try so hard to hold onto things – our relatives, our environment, our job, our enjoyments. This strikes me as so sad because we cannot hold everything together however desperately we try. When I left London, my dad was sitting forlornly on the front steps as the taxi drove me away – of course my parents didn’t want me to go and I didn’t want to leave. But we are all travelers. We have to leave everyone. We are always on the move. Even the great larger than life Aretha Franklin died today. The only way to avoid being flung afar over and over again is (a) Skype and (b) to control our own minds, rather than trying in vain to control the fleeting appearances of our minds.

IMG_4401 2.JPGWe need to train in pure love. Love keeps our connections alive.

Eventually we need to attain enlightenment, when everyone will be a mere aspect of our blissful omniscience, never separated from us again.

And one more thing while I am on this train …

Where is this train headed?

Since sitting on this train, a 2.5 hour journey from Visp to Geneva Airport, I have lost track of the number of people getting on and off this carriage. Our time with each other is vanishingly brief. Same for life, really.

I have been thinking lately of the duty of care, and how to understand it in context of past and future lives. It is like we are all on a train to Auschwitz. It is all very well being IMG_4400 2nice to the other people on the carriage – finding time to spend with them, putting a blanket over their knees, trying to make them comfortable. But every moment in samsara we are getting closer and closer to catastrophe, all of us. So if I really want to help my fellow passengers, my real job is to derail the train.

The most responsible duty of care, if you ask me, is therefore to use our “time” to purify our mental continuum so that our dreams become joyful and meaningful for ourselves and others, and under our control. And the time to do this, ideally, is right now. Before we die, while we still have these wisdom teachings that enable us to do it.

(Meanwhile, about that church bell … it is said that the sound of the bell symbolizes emptiness, and that Dakinis follow the sound of the bell. Plus writing about Switzerland has now given me the excuse to put my photos in this article 😄)

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

Once a Buddha, always a Buddha

How to handle things falling apart

Various articles on subtle impermanence



Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

12 thoughts on “Making the most of time”

  1. Please never stop writing about your experience on this topic, this article almost makes me cry, my attachment to the past has always made it difficult for me to move forward, letting go of things, people, places, situations … ¿Why is so difficult to let go thw past?

  2. The present can change the past. For example, if someone tells you they are sorry about something that occurred in the past, that changes the past for you. Now when you call up that situation in memory, it no longer creates the feeling that it once did. And, actually there is no future other than projection.

  3. I love the way you write. I understood almost everything … Thank you for sharing your experiences

  4. I took this train in 2015, and I couldn’t think of a deep dharma … Instead, I was shocked by the dazzling appearances of this country. Anyway, subtle impermanence has been a recurring feature in many classes that I have been listening to recently, and I have found the most enjoyable way to think of emptiness.

  5. Enjoyable article. Question: Since achieving enlightenment, The Buddha, and then dying, does he exist on another plane of realty? or trans-reality? Of course I am inquiring about his mental continuum and its actual existence in this universe. Thank you.

  6. Wonderful article, a lot to contemplate.

    I was intrigued by your exclaimed question:
    “If the past and future are just parts of the present moment, does it not follow that if we change the present we also change the past and the future?!”

    Just a couple of questions:
    – Is this speculative or can it be found clearly within texts such as Ocean Of Nectar?
    – Although I can see, with my very limited wisdom, that the future can be changed, in what sense can the past be changed?

    Many thanks for creating such a wealth of Dharma, I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to read your blog, kind wishes.

  7. Thank you for this beautiful article Luna – I’m especially intrigued by your closing statement “I have been thinking lately of the duty of care, and how to understand it in context of past and future lives.” Please speak more on this when you can 🙂

    Over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about time, and have come to realize how utterly selfish and greedy I am about ‘my time.’ I’m a little ashamed to admit it – but there you are, it’s the truth. I think before I started the job I’m in now, where I’m on-call for a large portion of my time (ha – there I go again ‘my time!’) I hadn’t realized what a greedy hoarder I can be about time! I’d turned time into a commodity outside of myself, an item that I ‘own’ and that that needs my protection! ha – what an idiot 🙂

    Fortunately I’m in a period of my life right now during which I don’t have the choice to continue on with this charade, as vast portions of my life now revolve around being on-call. As such, I’ve had to give up ‘my time’ and recognize it does not belong to me at all! I admit that I can still find my heart sinking when I’m on-call and my cell rings; and sometimes I still experience inner tantrums as I’m about to pick up “but I don’t wanna – I don’t wanna!” I’m not proud of these responses, especially given that the reasons for these calls are never good for those calling me. But there you are: at least these experiences are showing me just how deep and pervasive ‘my time’ greed is.

    In thinking more on ‘my time’ while reading your article, I began to recall various well meaning people telling me that I need to be on-call less and while I appreciate their concern for me, I think it’s misplaced. In fact, I think for me to really oppose my own self-grasping ignorance, I might actually do well to be on-call more! After all, perhaps the main reason I feel any tension at all about ‘my time’ is that on some level I’m trying to guard ‘my time;’ I’m trying to hoard and protect ‘my time.’ I’m believing that ‘my time’ is limited and that it can be taken from me; or as you so eloquently put it: “[We] believe time is really out there, existing from its own side, because that is just what we do with everything when we have self-grasping ignorance.” Who knows, perhaps I’ll even be able to extend this view out beyond my work environment and in to my sangha commitments, family time, friends, and other experiences. After all, just ‘whose time’ do I think it is anyway!

    Thanks so much Luna 🙂

  8. You have already said this, but I, much like you see time as an artificial construct that divides, hence plunges us into samsara. The naming of the time, 10:03 . . . divides between before and after. And the name itself is empty. But it is a good idea to know samsaric time: to get to work on time, to meet friends on time, to sleep and wake at a certain time. It is an imputation that is convenient at some times to help us stumble through samsara. And then again, this mind might have my guru wagging his finger at me for my . . . EVERYTHING

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