Okay, I’m going to break your brain now.
Sorry, not sorry.
Because this is something you really need to understand.
Particularly if you believe that the present moment holds the key to a more spiritual mode of being.
Countless starry-eyed seekers have been captivated by the power of the Now…
But did you know that the idea of a universal present moment actually died at the hands of Albert Einstein over a hundred years ago?
The Now isn’t what we thought it was…
And the interpretations of our most sacred experiences can never be the same again.
From the ancient belief that the world we see exists in a single moment…
To Roemer’s discovery of the speed of light…
To Einstein’s paradigm-shaking unification of time and space…
To its devastating (and unrecognized) impact on traditional spirituality…
This post is going to get a little nerdy.
…but it’s also got pictures!
If you take the time to read it, you’ll understand Einstein better than 99% of the population.
And you’ll never look at reality the same way again!
The World in a Moment
The present moment is a fascinating thing.
And there are some very cool ways of moving our consciousness that reveal the present moment to be so much more than our everyday awareness would suggest…
There are whole traditions built around those techniques.
But as profound and obvious as those experiences feel, they also preserve a very shallow and archaic understanding of time.
And, ironically, promote a very self-centered perspective of reality.
What?? You ask…
How can traditions based on selflessness and freedom from ego possibly promote a self-centered view of reality?
Well, as you probably guessed, it’s all about “the present moment.”
And what that really means…
Take the following sentiment:
The past is gone. The future, yet to come. Only the Now is real…
Surely you’ve heard that?
It’s a popular way of looking at things.
And a very natural way to think.
And unless you have a graduate degree in physics, or watch a whole lot of nerdy documentaries, it’s probably what you believe.
So that’s where we’re going to start:
Only the present moment is real.
In this view, reality is something like a movie.
…or even better, like a slide show.
With each moment in time like a single cell in the stack of slides.
Many moments lost to the past… Many moments still to come…
And one moment—right Now—that shines brighter than all the rest.
And YOU are right in the middle of it.
Now, the cool thing about this slide show—aside from the fact that it’s as big as the entire universe!—is that we all get to watch it as we live it…
We get to look out at the world and see it unfold—right Now—all around us.
Or, at least, that’s what we used to think…
Once upon a time we thought we were seeing the whole world, all in real time.
Meaning, we thought that the world that we see was contained in a single moment in time.
In nerdy terms: we thought that the speed of light was infinite.
And so the world was vibrant. And alive. And immediate.
And we were seeing it live, and in action.
We knew what was real, because we were looking right at it.
Or so we thought…
As it turns out, light moves really fast…
But not infinitely fast.
On the scale of infinity, the speed of light is actually pretty slow… poking along at a measly 186,000 miles per second.
But on a human scale, that’s fucking ridiculous!
And so it makes sense that we started out assuming it was infinite.
But we really weren’t sure until 1676, when Ole Roemer determined light’s actual speed by observing the moons of Jupiter.
Nerdy side-note: the c we use to designate the speed of light—as in E=mc2—comes from the Latin celer, for fast.
Now, in some ways, a finite speed of light doesn’t seem like such a big deal…
I mean, so what? Life goes on.
But philosophically, it starts to change the way we think about reality.
Suddenly, we aren’t looking at the world in a single moment anymore…
The light that reaches our eyes took some time to get there.
And so when we look out at the world, we are actually looking into the past.
And the further away we look, the further into the past we see.
Kind of weird… And kind of cool…
That the things we see may no longer even be there. (ie. in the present moment.)
But it doesn’t change things too much.
It may give us a moment of contemplation to think that many of the stars we see in the night sky are Now gone…
That any one of them could have ended in a fiery blaze long, long ago.
But life goes on… The past is gone…
The present moment is what’s real.
And even though light takes a while to reach us, we can still use it to find the present moment.
If we want to get all precise about it, all we need is a clock and a mirror…
We start the clock with a flash of light, and then wait for the light to bounce off the mirror and come back to us.
Light travels the same speed to the right as it does to the left…
So if we divide the time in half, we know the exact moment that the light reached the mirror…
Even though we couldn’t see it yet, in the moment that it happened.
So really, it’s no big deal.
Even if we can’t see the present moment, we still know it’s there.
And we still know what’s real and what isn’t.
Or, at least we thought we did…
For about 229 more years…
The Death of the Now
The really weird thing about light isn’t the speed at which it travels…
Infinitely fast… Or just mind-bogglingly fast… It’s not such a big difference.
The weird thing is that the speed of light doesn’t change.
And that really fucks with people when they first stop and think about it…
Nobody was more surprised than Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, when they first discovered it in 1887.
But it’s true nonetheless.
In every other aspect of life, motion is relative.
Throw a ball… Shoot an arrow… Jump in a plane and go…
If you follow after fast enough, you can catch up.
But light is different.
The speed of light is constant.
No matter how fast you go, you never get any closer.
And no matter how fast you move, light always moves away from you at the exact same speed.
Now, if that starts to mess with your head, and gets you thinking of weird scenarios trying to find a loophole, just leave it be for now…
It’s only weird because of how you think about the present moment.
That’s why we’re doing pictures. Pictures make it way easier.
If we picture shining a light, both from the ground and from a moving plane, it looks like this…
Obviously the speed of the plane isn’t to scale with the speed of light.
(That would be one really fast plane!)
But other than that, there’s nothing strange about it.
The greater the speed, the greater the angle of the worldline. And the light-like lines stay the same.
As for us, our motion is relative.
You think that I’m moving… I think that you’re moving…
And both of us are right!
If motion weren’t relative, then that wouldn’t be the case.
And life would be very, very difficult…
Try to take a drink while driving on the freeway… and your coffee would hit your throat at 70 miles per hour!
Get out of your seat in an airplane… and you’d be smashed to the back of the cabin at more than 500!
But of course that doesn’t happen…
You can throw a ball back and forth in the aisle of a plane and it’s just like playing catch on the ground.
Because you and the ball and plane are all moving along together.
And besides, who’s to say who’s “really” moving anyway?
You might be “sitting still” right now as you read this. But to someone floating out in space, the Earth itself is in motion!
One point of view is just as valid as another.
But getting back to light…
A couple pictures back, we used a clock and a mirror to find the present moment.
I just assumed that we were doing that on the ground.
But we could do the same thing on a plane…
Put the mirror at one end, and stand at the other. Flash the light and start the clock. And you can determine the precise moment that the light reached the mirror.
There’s no reason to make a new picture for that, because it would look exactly the same.
At least, it would to the people on the plane…
For someone standing on the ground, it would look a little different. Since the plane itself is in motion…
From that point of view, it looks like this:
The clock starts with a flash, and stops when the light bounces back.
Divide the time in half, and there you go: the moment the light hit the mirror.
You can even extend the line outward in both directions.
And make that moment as big as the whole universe.
Still not so strange, right?
It’s exactly the same as the earlier picture. Just slanted a bit because we’re looking at it from a different point of view.
The mind blowing part comes when we put the two together…
Motion is relative.
Flash the light on the ground, and find the present moment.
Flash the light on the plane, and find the present moment.
The speed of light is the same for everyone.
But the present moment isn’t.
From your point of view, the present moment is everything on the dashed gray line.
From my point of view, the present moment is everything on the dashed blue line.
Our Now’s intersect…
But they aren’t the same moment.
So which “present moment” is the real one?
Surely that’s an important question…?
Our whole view of reality is predicated on the idea that only the Now is what’s real!
Or, at the least, more real that the future or the past…
Right Now, this very moment, there are people flying in planes and driving in cars all around you.
And none of their Now’s match yours.
They don’t even match with each other…
Different speeds and different directions: different present moments.
So which one is real?
All of them.
Come 1905, we all stopped living in the same Now.
Even if we didn’t know it.
But let’s take it even further…
Let’s say that you’re on the ground, and I’m on the plane, flying away from you.
When you think of me, right Now in the plane—you’re actually thinking of me in the past.
My past anyway… Your present.
And when I think of you, right Now on the ground—that point in time has already passed for you.
Your past. My present.
Each of us says that the other is “living in the past.”
And both of us are right!
Brain breaking yet?
Don’t worry, the pictures make that easier too.
Just follow the arrows…
When you say Now at b, you mean me at y.
But when I say Now at y, I mean you at a. Which is in the past for b…
From my point of view, when I say Now at y, I mean you at a.
But when you say Now at a, you mean me at x. Which is in the past for y…
Both of us think that the other is “living in the past,” and both of us are right.
Now, the reason both of us are tilted to the past is because I’m flying away from you…
If I were flying towards you, our present moments would both be tilted into the future.
(Hint: just look at the picture again, but turn it upside down.)
Right Now, for me as I’m flying towards you, you are living an experience that hasn’t happened yet for you!
And vice versa.
Even the time order of spatially separated events is relative.
(a happened before y | a is simultaneous with y | y happened before a)
But we’ll leave that one alone for the moment…
The point here is that none of us share the same Now.
Well, not very many of us anyway.
We just don’t notice it because we never move very fast, and we aren’t very far apart.
But it isn’t the distance that causes the discrepancy.
A lot of people get caught up thinking that it’s all about the time it takes light to pass between us…
But that isn’t correct.
It’s relative motion that makes us disagree on the present moment.
Distance just magnifies the effect.
The greater the relative motion, the greater the angle between our present moments…
And the greater the distance between us, the larger the gap where our Now’s intersect each other’s worldlines.
So, even if I was on the opposite side of the universe, as long as we weren’t moving relative to each other, we’d still share the same present moment.
It’s called the relativity of simultaneity.
And it has a profound impact on the way we view reality.
We can no longer claim that the present moment is the only thing that’s real.
Or even “more real” than the future or the past.
In a very real way, every moment is just as real as every other.
And we can draw that too…
Imagine that, right Now, in a galaxy far, far away—there are other beings walking around on other planets.
Or even flying around in awesome space ships.
You may not have any way to reach them. And the light from their cities may not reach the Earth for another billion years or more.
But that doesn’t matter.
You still know that other planets are out there—right Now—even if you can’t see them yet.
They are real. In this moment. Elsewhere in the universe.
And yet, if they are moving relative to you… Getting a tiny bit closer, or a tiny bit further away… Even by a few measly miles per hour…
Then their Now is not the same as yours.
And that makes things even weirder…
Because surely if they are “real” to you in your Now… then you are just as “real” to them?
And certainly you are real to YOU…
(You are real… right?)
And yet, YOU—right here, right Now—are not a part of their present moment!
If they don’t understand the relativity of simultaneity…
If they think that the present moment is “more real” than the future or the past…
Then in their minds, YOU—right here, right Now—are less real than you were when you were 5 years old.
Or 15… Or 80… Or a hundred years to dust…
Time is relative.
The present moment is relative.
Unless you are a solipsist, and believe that everyone and everything in the universe is just a figment of your own imagination…
Then every moment in time is just as “real” as every other!
The Birth of Spacetime
If you’ve made it this far, then you already understand Einstein better than 99% of the population.
And we’ve still barely scratched the surface!
But there’s still one last point that you need to understand…
Lots of people like to say that Einstein discovered that “time was the fourth dimension.”
Or that he discovered that “space and time were inseparable.”
But both of those ideas were around long, long before Einstein.
(A solid rule of thumb: anytime somebody explains Einstein, and your head doesn’t completely fucking explode and your whole world change… then at least one of you didn’t get it!)
What Einstein actually did was unify space and time.
He showed that, not only are they inseparable—they are really just two aspects of a single, more beautiful symmetry.
A thing that we didn’t even have a word for…
Hence the term: spacetime.
To picture that, we don’t really even need a new drawing…
But I’ll do one anyway, just to make it easy.
Think about that distant alien, in a galaxy far, far away…
Or even just someone here on Earth, driving by your window…
And about how their Now sits at an angle relative to yours…
Well, the line that they call a single moment… ie. what they call space.
Is, to you, not just an expanse of space…
But also window in time.
Space is just relationship—a distance between two points.
Time is as well. Though we call it a duration.
But a line in spacetime is both, depending on who’s looking at it.
It’s a stunning insight!
One that completely redefines our understanding of what’s real and what isn’t.
Roemer’s discovery—cool as it was—pales beside Einstein’s.
It’s not such a big deal to not be able to see the present moment…
Because space is still space. Time is still time.
And the Now is the same for everyone.
But there’s no coming back from Einstein.
Not for physics. Not for philosophy. Not for humanity.
And not for the spiritual traditions…
Spiritual people love to gush about the power of the Now…
And the experiences that they’re talking about really are amazing!
But what does it mean to remain in the present moment, when the present moment is subjective?
If all moments in time are equally real, and consciousness is connected to all things, then why are we not equally aware of all of them?
What does it mean to reach Enlightenment in a reality where time is relative and consciousness is evolving?
These questions may not seem like a big deal, so long as we confine our beliefs to our own self-centered view of the universe…
But our confidence is misplaced.
We may feel the silent Witness within us…
Immerse ourselves in formless absorption…
Become One with everything that arises in the present moment…
And the answers to those questions may feel apparent.
Just as it’s “apparent” when we look to the night sky, and conclude that the stars revolve around the Earth.
But once we open our perspective to include the perspectives other people…
To the worlds of those around us…
Those comforting sacred stories begin to crumble into nothing.
The old spiritual philosophies cannot survive the world that Einstein revealed.
The real question is…
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About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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