Archive for July, 2011

Slow Time

Many  years ago, when I was tackling Einstein’s theories on relativity – just for fun, you understand – my mind-set collapsed when trying to grasp one basic fact the author (not Einstein) was stating:  that when you really comprehend the implications of time being the fourth dimension and perceptions of speed and time being only relative, you had to accept that here-now was only here-now, not anywhere else.  This meant, the author went on, that our idea of a here-now on the other side of the galaxy – that somewhere out there an alien was having a cup of tea  or whatever it is that aliens do – in this present moment, was an illusion.  Only the here-now as I’m typing this (or, for you, as you are reading this) exists.  The inference therefore was that nothing out there was real.  This blew my mind, because even though I grasped and accepted as much as possible the constraint of light speed, and that travelling long distances through space was not feasible within my lifetime, I tended to draw comfort on the belief that somewhere out there across the universe, things were happening independent of me – great, exciting things that we could only imagine through science fiction tales such as Star Wars.

Since grappling with that concept – that here-now is only here-now, not somewhere else – I have tried to retrieve that statement from the writer but have never managed to find it, even doubting at some point whether he was the source, if it weren’t in fact someone else, or if perhaps I had imagined it.  I don’t know, and I don’t know any relativists I can interrogate on this issue; but strangely the mystical – even the quantum-physical – assertion that only here-now exists, or possibly nothing exists, I have no problem with subjectively.  I can feel, I can experience the truth of that even if I can’t articulate it.  Put it in an Einstein paradigm though and my brain short-circuits.

The flexibility of time I grasped fairly swiftly.  I was also swayed by the poetry of it, the way in which gravity and acceleration slow down time, or in other words stretch the space-time continuum.  This seemed quite magical to me, although it was science: how time is faster on the top floor of a skyscraper than the bottom floor, that a watch rotated at an extreme speed would be slower than a watch that was stationary, that the moon did not so much pull at the sea as stretch time out…  Pure magic.

It was with this in mind that I created the character Adagio in our comic Omni.  (Yes, in case we’ve all forgotten, this blog started out as an offshoot of our brilliant comic ‘Omni, Man of Nothing’, which we are still working on and which you can visit at Omni .)  Adagio is one of a group of time manipulators, all based on the Laws of Relativity, and his particular gift is the ability to – you’ve guessed it – slow down time.  ‘Adagio’, in case you don’t know, is the instruction to play ‘slowly and carefully’ in classical music.  I personally tend to prefer Andante sections of music, but there was no call for a ‘moderately slow’ character in our little group of superheroes, so Adagio turned up instead, walking at sunset along a beach, deeply at peace with himself.

Adagio would be a superhero pretty much at this moment in our society, acting as a counterpoint to the frenzied drive to do everything faster.  Recently there was an experiment done on electronic addiction by universities around the world, where volunteer students were asked to do without email, computers, television and – horror of horrors – mobile phones for something like 48 hours.  Those observed were very quickly showing classic withdrawal symptoms.  One girl I saw in the programme, walking along a beach (where else?) said she could see it was beautiful around her but couldn’t appreciate it because she was worrying about the emails and text messages she hadn’t received.  This drive to know more, faster and faster, with more or less complete disregard to the quality of the information being communicated, can be linked to the perpetual global panic buying of the latest computers, mobile phones etc.  When I saw that 3 million computers being thrown on landfill sites every week, I didn’t believe it till I checked the figures and saw they added up.  Psychologists talk about ‘problem recognition’ where a person feels fine with their life till they see something for sale that is so new and exciting they now feel their life is incomplete till they own that object; also ‘reference anxiety’, where you feel content with what you have until you observe that a neighbour or friend has something that is ‘better’.  These two stress-factors strike me as corner stones of capitalism, where growth is always best and you are never satisfied.  All of this conspires to the speeding up of time; of subjective time that is.

Do you remember when you were younger, and the summer holidays seemed to stretch out forever?  Or, less wonderfully, the time spent in detention seemed to stretch out forever? The contrast between our childhood perception of time and our grown-up perception, has been attributed to the way in which a child’s heart usually beats faster than an adult’s, therefore the relative time external to the child lasts much longer; whereas for the adult ‘the days just seem to shoot by’.  Professor Alan Dix at Lancaster University sums it up quite poetically:  ‘As we age the exceptional and magic of our youth becomes the everyday and mundane and as we recall the recent years they seem less full, less time filled, than the earlier. The similarities and repetitions of the past decay the present, so like rust the base events of the normal fade into the soil of our memories.’ Professor Dix’s website is the first I discovered on searching for ‘Slow Time’ on the internet (Ecosia, not the carbon-spewing Google) and it’s something of a gold mine.  Take a look for yourself at Slow Time and try the slow time spreadsheet if you have the inclination, or time.

Professor Dix’s poetic sensibilities continue with this advice:  ‘But we can sometimes fill our moments of boredom by resignifying the insignificant: seeing the intricacy of a spider’s web or the smile of a passing child. Like rehearsing our memories can counter the decay of forgetfulness rehearsing our presents can counter the decay of carelessness.’  Essentially he is talking about meditation, though he doesn’t use the M-word.  Using whatever meditation technique rocks your boat – or more accurately, slows down the rocking – the brain can slow down from its day-to-day Beta rhythm of worries and calculations, to Alpha or even slower.  Then indeed, external time can appear to slow, and one can regain something of eternal youthfulness.  Try it now.  Notice your connection with the chair, with the ground.  Notice what sounds are around you now.  Notice your breathing.  Observe your breathing for a while.  Notice what thoughts are racing around in your head, and allow them to do so, let them go on their way. Sit.  Be still.

Okay, you can come back now!  But this technique and innumerable others are available whenever you too want to be a superhero and slow down time.  You can act on this in daily life too.  Ignore the people pressing behind you at the supermarket, and take a minute to engage with the person at the checkout, acknowledge them as a human being.  Drive at – dare I say it – the proper speed limit, or even (!) slower.  Every now and again don’t check your phone or your emails for a day.  Try doing nothing for a while, not even watching TV.

The main character in the hilarious film ‘The Tao of Steve’ bemoans the fact that in America if someone doesn’t do anything they’re called a slacker, whereas in the East they’re considered a Buddha.  Yet we don’t have to incorporate eastern mysticism to enjoy stillness.  As referenced in the popular ‘Eat Pray Love’, the Italians have a phrase for it:  ‘Dolce far niente’, the sweetness of doing nothing.  The Puritan work ethic demands that we have to strive for that ideal before we deserve it.  Other cultures know better.  And yes, our hero Adagio in ‘Omni’ is, as it turns out, Italian.  Viva Italia!

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