Many of us regularly travel by air through different time zones, mindfully orienting ourselves to the time of our departures and arrivals at our various destinations, sometimes feeling like it takes awhile to truly arrive, body, mind, and spirit. When we fly, we are particularly attentive to the condition and experience of traveling through time. We navigate clock time—Pacific time, Mountain time, Central time, Eastern time, Atlantic time. We set our watches and schedules, adapting our sleep, meals, and meetings, so we can be on time wherever we are in time. Some of us even have watches that display multiple time zones, so we can more easily attend to the different time zones that constitute our worlds.
Yet, how many of us recognize that we are always traveling through time, experiencing different time zones from moment to moment? At any given moment, we are experiencing the multi-faceted nature of time—simultaneously traveling through past, present, and future, then, now, later, before, after, navigating digital time, analog time, calendar time, biorhythmic time, seasonal time, daytime, nighttime, dream time. We experience the elasticity of time, living years that pass in the blink of an eye, and minutes that hold eternity, and encounters that even seem to transcend time, depending on our experience of the moment. Our history and our potential are present in every instant.
Here's a thought experiment:
Imagine, if you will, that you suffer from a genetic disorder which causes you to involuntarily travel through time, arriving in another time and place without exactly knowing how you arrived there...
Imagine that you vanish from this here and now to arrive in another here and now sometime in the past or in the future...
Imagine how disorienting it is for you upon arrival...
Perhaps you arrive in the middle of a conversation that you’re having with your lover, or your child, or your business colleague, and struggle to follow the conversation because you were just someplace else. You are suffering from jet-lag. Your body, heart, and mind struggle to reintegrate in time, but seem to arrive in pieces. “I’m sorry,” you say. “Could you repeat that please? You see, I’ve just disembarked from another plane of experience, and it seems that neither my baggage nor my being arrived in one piece..."
This condition is imaginatively described in the tale of The Time Traveler's Wife, in which one of the main characters, Henry, suffers from a genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. He describes his experience.
"Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plaid cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite black jeans and the maroon socks with an almost-hole in one heel, the living room, the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have vanished. You are standing, naked as a jaybird, up to your ankles in ice water in a ditch along an unidentified rural route. You wait a minute to see if maybe you will just snap right back to your book, your apartment, et cetera...You've mislocated yourself again. It only takes an instant... When I'm out there in time, I am inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself. I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides. I startle old women and amaze children. I am a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible that I am actually true... Is there a logic, a rule to all this coming and going, all this dislocation? Is there a way to stay put, to embrace the present with every cell? I don't know. There are clues; as with any disease there are patterns, possibilities. Exhaustion, loud noises, stress, standing up suddenly, flashing light--any of these can trigger an episode. But: I can be reading the Sunday Times, coffee in hand and Clare [my wife] dozing beside me on our bed and suddenly I'm in 1976 watching my thirteen-year-old-self mow my grandparents' lawn. Some of these episodes last only moments; it's like listening to a car radio that's having trouble holding on to a station..."
Exhaustion, loud noises, stress, standing up suddenly, flashing light—any of these can trigger an episode—can cause us to fall out of the present. Moreover, Henry says, "When I'm out there in time, I am...changed into a desperate version of myself..." When we are chasing our futures and reliving our pasts, we are desperate versions of ourselves, desperately chasing happiness, success, whatever, anytime but here and now.
Well, experientially, this is happening all the time. We have all experienced being in conversation with someone only to realize that we drifted off or "zoned out", traveled or vanished. A sound, a gesture, or a phrase triggers a memory, a dream, another time, and suddenly we are wandering through our college years or planning our next vacation. Maybe you were talking to your mother and time-warped and suddenly you feel seven in your thirty-something-year-old body. Somehow or other, it happens, and we realize that our attention has wandered back or forward in time, and we missed something that someone said or did. We were missing.
Now, to continue our little thought experiment, imagine that you are in relationship with someone who has this unfortunate habit of simply vanishing into thin air. You're in the middle of a meaningful conversation and this person is suddenly gone. You are left somehow bereft with the absence of presence, like Clare, Henry's wife in this story, who has this experience:
“It’s hard being left behind… I wait for him. Each moment I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting…”
And that's how it happens; we travel through time without realizing it only to return to the present moment having missed something. And when this occurs, the people who experience this vanishing act also miss us. They miss our presence.
When we are aware that we are time-traveling as it is occurring, we have the capacity to consciously inhabit one or more time zones simultaneously, so we are never missing.