There is nothing in our world that is more mysterious than time and there is nothing more intrinsic to our existence. In my view, time has three dimensions, meaning that we can speak of a volume of time just as we can speak of a volume of space.
The first dimension of time is succession, time’s arrow, the time measured by clocks. It is difficult to imagine anything existing without this ‘horizontal’ flow of time. Can you see what a brilliant innovation successive time is? If you were to create a universe from nothing, would you not begin with this dimension of time? Because of this time, not everything has to happen at once.
Succession creates the possibilities of past and future, evolution, cause and effect, fate and free will, uncertainty.
The word succession means one thing stepping into the place of another. In the present moment, which is an infinitesimally short period of time in the horizontal dimension, the present is immediately replaced by another present, unendingly. This is the very nature of impermanence, instability, non-presence. To identify with the things of this world is to fall under the dominion of time passing and to accept a state of mechanical non-existence, the status of a non-entity.
In horizontal time, the one who experiences can never catch up to the present moment because it does not actually exist; it is gone before it can be known. By the time we know what it is, it was. It slips through our fingers, leaving only an impression of what was there.
The second dimension of time is the realm of continuous occurrence. This continuity is not by way of repetition; it is an always resounding, a note that does not diminish or vary. This is eternal time, not eternal in the sense of a long time, which is the first dimension of time, but eternal in the sense of neither beginning nor ending.
Consider the contemplation of love, a feeling from the second dimension of time. Its nature is never different. To the extent of your capacity to accommodate it, this feeling is an enormous, simultaneous download which includes all of the associated gestures and feelings of love—submission, combustion, tenderness, humility, ecstasy, joy—which are exquisitely excruciating. We can attempt to unbundle these strands but it is their very intrinsic relatedness which makes the experience unsequential, not in successive time.
The second dimension of time contains and hides the world of being which is available to heart but not to thinking because thinking is successive. Events in the second dimension are made available to thought through myth—stories that construct an apparent sequence from simultaneity so that the essence of these stories can be invoked, such as the life of Christ, the illumination of the Buddha and the salvation of Noah. These ‘events’ are complete, compound entities in the eternal realm, Meanings containing enormous amounts of information, the traces of which are preserved in teaching stories suitable for the ordinary world. These stories do not leave factual evidence in our world because they did not happen here. The stories are meant to point to there, the eternal world, where they have transcendent meaning and continue to occur.
Events in the second dimension of time occur perpendicular to the first dimension and they behave somewhat like standing waves in physics–a wave in which each point on its axis has an associated constant amplitude. The locations at which the amplitude is at a minimum are called nodes and the locations where the amplitude is at a maximum are called antinodes. In the eternal, a node is the point of non-accessibility while the antinodes are where the wave is available to be experienced.
To be present is to be at the intersection of the first and second dimensions. The present is made real because presence, being eternal and timeless in relation to the first dimension, is able to exist and continue in the impossibly brief moment of time passing. Only the eternal presence can catch up to the present and make it real. To stand at this intersection is to enter the Real World, as the Sufis say, and to be a Real Human Being.