There's No Time Like the Present!
The idea for this paper first appeared in December 2004 in Priene, that most intimate and beautiful of Hellenistic cities on Turkey's Aegean coast, a jewel in the crown of Asia Minor. I was visiting with students and friends from the Beshara School at Chisholme House. One of our number was an archaeologist from Oxford who had never visited this city before, and he saw what generations of archaeologists, tourists and eager schoolchildren before him had sought, though overlooked: a genuine ancient Greek coin lying masked by dirt on the ground. He was, of course, absolutely delighted (and, I hasten to add, acted impeccably and handed it over to the Turkish authorities!). As I sat in the ruins of the Temple to Athene, enjoying the glorious December sun and the beauty of the site, I contemplated what a superb and gracious gift of the moment this was for him, particularly since he is an archaeologist, and I asked myself: if I were to receive a gift of the moment – a present of the present – from Priene, what would I like it to be? And I thought: I would like to have illuminated that facet of consciousness that is represented by the worship of Athene... a thought which opened up the idea for this paper.
Being is Single and Indivisible. Consciousness is Single and Indivisible. It 'contains' all Its own infinite possibilities of Self-expression – all possibilities of Its own becoming – not as a physical container contains something other than itself, but with the containment of identity. It is all Its own possibilities, just as the ocean is every possible configuration that the water may take, and just as a movement of consciousness is consciousness. Hence It is Single, Indivisible and Infinite: perhaps you could say that It is Uniquely and Infinitely One.
This is non-time, a state of Absoluteness which contains Its own relativity. Please note the difficulty with the words "This is non-time". To the extent that our minds operate within the realm of relativity, the words 'non-time' encourage us to begin with a premise that there is such a thing as time, then to negate it, or to implicitly assume that there was a time when time was not. However, non-time is not an absence of time; it is the Reality of Timelessness: ever here, Total Presence. And that Total Presence is totally present, now, whether we are aware of it or not, which is why it is true to say that there is no time like the present.
Time belongs to the relative image of absoluteness: absoluteness relativised so that all those infinite possibilities of Self-expression can be expressed, each according to its own nature, and the treasury of the beauty of that possibility be unlocked and brought forth. This is necessarily a relative image because only Totality is real. Any part of it, by itself, is an illusory image drawn from that Totality. For any unique possibility to be expressed – to be exteriorised or manifested and show its own uniqueness, it cannot by definition also exteriorise the uniqueness of another possibility. That prerogative belongs uniquely to that other possibility. So that Single Reality of non-time, which is both beyond limitation or definition and equally the origin of all possible limitations and definitions, appears uniquely as the image of each possibility without being limited by it. The interior unity reveals Itself as an exterior multiplicity. And it is this exterior multiplicity, the infinite images of the possibilities inherent in the unity, that are dressed in space and time to appear as the relative world, or the world of witnessing, in which we find ourselves.
But whatever the multiplicity of appearances, in Reality there are no separate things, people or events, separated by time or distance or anything else, because Reality never divides. The One and the Many never stood apart, except in our thought. There is never a time or a place in which the Whole is not present with all of Its infinite possibilities.
The endless self-revelation of the One in the form of Its own possibilities is, from the point of view of the possibility, the bringing into existence of that possibility with all its infinite states. From the point of view of that possibility, this is the gift of Being, perpetually renewed in each instant. Although we might use the words "the gift of Being", we must remember that Being is never 'given' in the sense that it is transferred to the possibilities: it remains that the One endlessly reveals Itself in their forms, according to their receptivities. Each instant, each moment, is the becoming of the Singular Reality. So from their point of view – or better, our point of view, because each of us is no other than one of those infinite possibilities – there is literally no time like the present. Our existence does not extend in time, but is renewed at each moment, and our present moment is the gift, or present, of existence in the form of our possibility. Thus for both senses of the word 'present' – 'present' as 'now' and 'present' as 'gift' – there is no time like the present: not because the present exists in time, but because time exists in the Present.
Being is Single and Indivisible. Consciousness is Single and Indivisible. That single consciousness, that ultimate ground of all that finds and all that is found, is equally the consciousness of the complete and perfect image of that Reality: the perfect human, al-insan al-kamil, Universal Man, where the word 'Man', both in Arabic and English, is used in its non-gendered sense as referring to the perfect potential of the human. This perfection belongs to every human being by virtue of their origin, by virtue of the fact that the One Reality is, and 'we' are not: that is, we, the Many, have no existence apart from that Singular Reality of which we are an appearance.
The consciousness of the perfect human is Reality's consciousness of Itself as One, Unique and Infinite: as both absolute and relative. What distinguishes the human from all other images of that Reality is that the human alone possesses in potential the synthetic nature. The interior of the perfect human remains, and equally retains, the original, essential, unlimited and unqualifiable potentialities of the state of Absoluteness, whilst by his/her exterior the human is individuated in the relative universe. The perfect human is thus the isthmus which unites and separates between absoluteness and relativity; between the necessary and the possible; between interior and exterior; between the One and the Many. It is in the consciousness of the perfect human that time and non-time intersect. Because s/he is present and alive both in the world of time and equally in the Total Present, the perfect human is the place of manifestation of non-time in time.
Just as the Timeless One is exteriorised as the Many clothed in the images of space and time, so Its perfect Image, the singular Reality of Man, appears as the many images of humanity throughout eras and, perhaps, places, known to us and unknown. These many images of humanity are the detailing of the singular Reality of Man. Since Reality never divides and is uniquely and infinitely One, the unique, individual image of humanity – you or I or anyone else – and the global image of humanity – all those who have ever lived, are living and will live – are both images of the same Singular Reality: Reality imaged by virtue of the One containing the Many, or by virtue of the Many manifesting the One. But the One and the Many never stood apart, except in our thought. The staggering variety of human cultures, beliefs, languages, philosophies, scientific and aesthetic creativity, and so on, belong at once to the multiple image of humanity extended over time, and equally to the single, all-inclusive Consciousness present in every moment as the Reality of Man.
From our relative perspective – that is, the projection of our reality into the realm of space-time – what distinguishes our experience of time is that time has an arrow, a direction. We can move forwards or backwards in space, but we do not say the same of time. We owe our modern scientific, relativistic understanding of time to Albert Einstein. The year 2005 was nominated "Einstein's Year" because some of his most ground-breaking papers were published in 1905; it seemed appropriate then to acknowledge this modern "Father of Time" in the Society's 2005 symposium dedicated to "Time and Non-Time". He has given us, as it were, the reverse image of the perspective brought by Ibn 'Arabi. Ibn 'Arabi looks 'down' from the infinity of uniqueness towards its own relativity; whereas Einstein looks the other way, 'up' from the relative to the infinite. He said, "Everything is relative, one to another, ad infinitum." One of the consequences of Einstein's general theory of relativity is that time is an illusion. The logician and mathematician Gödel proved that, according to general relativity, time travel is possible. And if it is possible to visit the 'past', then it hasn't 'passed' but is still present. In other words, all moments of time co-exist. What, then, is the arrow?
The arrow of time can be seen as the unfolding, like the nautilus shell, of an interior potential becoming exteriorised and actualised. Few people would argue that their own lives exhibit this unfolding. Since the individual and the global images of humanity are each mirror to the other, so equally the history of humanity exhibits an unfolding of potential becoming actualised. And further, since the One and the Many never stood apart except in our thought, these two images of humanity, individual and global, are "indissolubly interrelated". To quote Bulent Rauf, founder and first Honorary President of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, "There is only One Existence, therefore the unfolding of the destiny of the world as a global entity, and the individual destiny, is indissolubly interrelated, and both must be seen as aspects of Self-Revelation of the Singular Reality."
What is this destiny, this interior potential? How does it unfold and become actualised? As we have seen, the perfect human is the place – or better, non-place – of Consciousness and Vision whereby Reality reveals Its mystery to Itself, that is, reveals to Itself, through Love, the infinity of Its own Beauty. The purpose of human existence, individual and global, is to become realised in that consciousness and vision – to become realised in a truly Universal Perspective. For the completion of that realisation, the place, or the receptivity, must be prepared. Ibn 'Arabi uses the metaphor of polishing the surface of a mirror. The surface of the mirror must be polished in order to be able to reflect Beauty exactly as It is. To the degree that the surface is not perfectly polished, the resulting image will deviate from the original. The image will be of the subject, but according to the particularity of the surface. Anyone who has entered a hall of mirrors at a funfair and seen themselves looking like an egg-timer can appreciate this! When the degree of polishing is complete, the image is returned exactly as it came. But, he informs us, the very possibility of being polished only exists because the place already has the potential to become a perfect mirror. You could polish a ball of wool for eternity and it would never give back your image. Because of the already existing potential for perfection – because of the ever-present Reality of Man – humanity, individual and global, is perfectible. And if we should doubt that this is the case, or even that it is possible, we can remind ourselves of what is said in the Kernel of the Kernel: "the most important factor is to be bound with certitude to the perfectibility of Man."
The matter of preparation of the place, or of receptivity, is central to the question of time and non-time. As has already been said, each instant, each moment, is the becoming of the Singular Reality, in the forms of Its own possibilities. From this point of view, what is given, or revealed, is unlimited, unqualifiable, and unrestricted. From the point of view of the possibilities, the Singular Reality is revealed according to their receptivity and what has been given is what they have been able to receive. To give an example, if I hold a thimble under a waterfall, I am given a thimbleful of water; if I hold a cup I am given a cupful, and so on. If I stand under the waterfall without a separate container, I am perpetually drenched. The perfect potential of the human is to receive or contain the Real in the same way that the Real contains Its own infinite possibilities of Self-expression – not by one thing containing something else, but with the containment of no-otherness. And as we saw with the example of the mirror, it is because Man has this potential for perfect receptivity that his receptivity can be prepared.
This preparation has a direction in time because the reception of Meaning in one degree prepares the place for further reception. This fact is represented in the structure of the Fusus al-hikam. The revelation that is brought by each of the successive prophets, up to the completion in Mohammed, is a revelation of the singular Truth according to the receptivity of the people of that time and place. Through each setting of Wisdom a face of the All-inclusive Truth is exteriorised. The All-inclusive Truth remains the reality of the interior, and this interior Reality is present at all times and places for the one who has the eyes to see it. As is shown so clearly in the Ottoman commentary on the summary of chapter headings at the end of the chapter of Adam in the Fusus, what is hidden in the interior of one revelation becomes more explicit in the succeeding revelation, because the receptivity to receive the further revelation has been prepared by the reception of the previous one. The 'process' by which the receptivity is prepared is applicable to the whole of mankind, individually and globally, everywhere.
Paradoxically and more importantly, the reverse is also true, and this again is shown clearly in the Fusus. The present not only prepares for the future, but it is acted upon by it. This preparation and unfolding has a purpose and an aim: the full manifestation in the exterior of what is already known in the interior. The unfolding of the nautilus shell is determined at each turn by what it is to become, hence it unfolds as a nautilus and not a crab. This is the action of non-time appearing in time. What is yet to become, in time, is already completely present in the knowledge and consciousness of non-time, and the requirement for that to manifest in the exterior brings about the conditions whereby it can manifest. To put it very simply, as Rumi did, the tree comes into existence because of the fruit. As we saw earlier, the fruit is the truly Universal Perspective that is the birthright of Universal Man. The tree, growing from seed to fruit-laden bough, is the bringing about of the conditions, individually and globally, whereby this can happen.
It follows that each era, each time, each moment, has a specificity to it in terms of what it can exteriorise of the Reality of Universality; of the Reality of Man. In time, it follows from what came before, and it prepares for and is acted upon by what is yet to come. Equally, the moment is the reality of Timelessness, the Total Present. It is only in the singular consciousness of the perfect human that these two are united and separated. It is said that the perfect human "sees with both eyes". With one eye they see the timeless Reality; with the other they see the requirements and necessities of the specific moment in life in which they are situated.
We are born here, into the relative world, into a particular time, and that particular time has its requirements and necessities in accordance with the global unfolding of the Reality of Man. But the individual image of humanity and the global image of humanity are both faces of the Self-Revelation of the Singular Reality. Hence it follows that any human being must be inseparable from the era they are born into and indissolubly of their time, whilst at the same time retaining the potential to be present in the Total Present, the reality of non-time.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. It is not just that we are conditioned by our time, as so many have written. We are an image of our time, and our time is an image of ourselves.
The fact that we are an image of our time, and our time is an image of ourselves, has different aspects. One is that our possibility is already present in consciousness and in knowledge. The requirement for that to manifest in the exterior brings about the conditions whereby it can manifest. Thus the time into which we are born is nothing other than the matrix which is necessary in order to allow our possibility to be fully expressed. Equally, we are the matrix within which the possibility of the time can be expressed. So for us, there really is no better time than the present.
Another aspect is that as individuations, we are inseparable from the era we are born into. From the point of view of time, we cannot be of another era, of another time. We cannot know a previous era in the way that those who lived then knew it, because they were of it and it was of them. All we can do is look back through the eye of this era and interpret. We cannot be of a previous era, subject to its determinations. We can only be, and must be, of our time, receptive and responsive to what this particular time can manifest of Universality. Rumi said "No matter how many words there may be concerning yesterday, oh my dear one, they have gone, along with yesterday. Today it is necessary to speak of new things." To speak of is to manifest, to bring out into the exterior, and what can be brought out today is not the same as yesterday. It is only by being receptive and responsive to what this time can manifest of Universality, that we can fully realise the potential of ourselves and of the time.
This raises the crucial point: what we know our time to be is a reflection of our knowledge of ourselves. And further, what we know ourselves to be has a profound effect upon the time. Thus if one person follows the path of the perfection of humanity, so clearly exposed and mapped by Ibn 'Arabi, this has an effect upon the receptivity of the time and hence on the preparation of the place for what is yet to come.
In time, we stand between the Sealing of Mohammedian Sainthood by Ibn 'Arabi and the Sealing of Universal Sainthood by Jesus. One way that we can look at these two faces of the Seal of Sainthood is in terms of the individual image and the global image of humanity, in that both are faces of the Self-revelation of the Singular Reality and are indissolubly interrelated. Ibn 'Arabi manifested here, in the exterior relative world, the completion of the Meaning of that Self-revelation in and as the Reality of Man, and he informs mankind of and from that level. The era of the Seal of Universal Sainthood will manifest this completion in the global image of mankind. Insofar as this time is preparing for and is prepared by what is to come, the choice we make individually in resolving to come to know ourselves according to the Reality of Man, or not, has profound consequences.
Now, at last, to return to where I began: the sun-soaked stones of the temple of Athene at Priene, stones which have witnessed a number of eras come and go, and the thought that I would like, as my gift of the moment, my present of the present, to have illuminated that facet of consciousness that is represented by the worship of Athene. The temple in Priene is dedicated to Athene Polias – Athene of the City, one of the designations of Athene. Athene represents the Divine Wisdom, the hagia sophia. The city is the symbol of the Heart. So Athene Polias represents the Heart ruled by Divine Wisdom, which can be no other than the place of the Reality of Man. The exterior revelation of this meaning was according to the receptivity of the time and place. The fullness of the interior meaning became more explicit through succeeding revelations, but was completely present at that time for those with the eye to see it, the person or people of perfection.
So, to have that facet of consciousness fully illuminated would require two aspects, that of non-time and time. It would require illumination of that meaning according to its timeless, interior reality, and it would require illumination of its specific unfolding in time and of what that worship really meant to the people of that time. And both of these are possible only by virtue of the singular consciousness, which is Mankind's true estate.
As we have seen, by virtue of their own individuation, a person is inseparable from the era they are born into and so cannot know a previous era in the way that those who lived then knew it. But this is not the case for the one who has gone beyond having any fixed eye (or 'ayn), any point of view fixed by his or her own particularity, but who has instead become the place of the vision that Reality has of Itself. In this vision, those eras are present and witnessed. What he sees in each era is nothing other than himself, nothing other than the possibilities which are totalised by his own being and by his own consciousness.
To quote Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi,
When the Real gave me to witness this tremendous place of witnessing, I saw that its possessor has no fixed entity and no reality... When you witness this, you will know that you perceive each thing only through that thing itself and inasmuch as you are identical with each thing. Thus you are the attribute of every attribute and the quality of every essence. In one respect, your act is the act of every actor. Everything is the differentiation of your essence. In this state you are the common measure of all things; you make their manyness one and you make their oneness many by the constant variation of your manifestation within them.
I should like to end with some lines of poetry from a contemporary writer, Ben Okri. I choose a contemporary writer because for me, Ibn 'Arabi is a Living Meaning and what he exposes of the Reality of Man is universally and timelessly true. The importance of his Meaning lies in its universality and timelessness, and hence the possibility for every human being to realise the truth of it, here and now, in our present – to the end that both the individual and the global images of humanity may become the place of manifestation of non-time in time.
The illusion of time will give way
To the reality of time...
And time present is made
Before time becomes present.
For all time is here, now
In our awakening.
1. First presented at the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Symposium entitled "Time and Non-Time", held in Oxford in May 2005.
2. Referring to the Arabic word wujud (being, existence) which has the root of 'finding'.
3. World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein by Palle Yourgau (Allen Lane, 2005).
4. Bulent Rauf, unpublished lecture, ca. 1975.
5. Medieval mirrors were made of metal, with a surface so highly polished that it became reflective.
6. Ismail Hakki Bursevi's translation of the Kernel of the Kernel by Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (Beshara Publications ), p. 18.
7. Ismail Hakki Bursevi's translation of and commentary on Fusus al-Hikam by Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (Oxford, 1989).
8. The Fusus details the bringing into complete manifestation, chapter by chapter, of the pre-existing Mohammedian perfection and the Wisdom of all the prophets is looked at from that perspective.
9. Nafahāt, pp. 263-6, quoted by William C. Chittick in "The Central Point: Qūnawī's Role in the School of Ibn 'Arabī", JMIAS XXXV (2004), p. 37.
10. Ben Okri, Mental Fight, Phoenix House, 1999, p. 67.