Introduction – Different Experiences of Time
We are all familiar with phrases like “Time flies when you’re having fun,” or the feeling that some activity (e.g. a boring class or meeting) seems like it’s taking forever to finish. These are examples of our subjective perspective of time and how it seems to speed up or slow down under different circumstances. Although these experiences sound odd when compared to the “everyday” perception of time as a uniform succession of events, the feeling that time is sped up or slowed down is undoubtedly common and relatable.
While I do not intend to set down a complete explanation of this phenomenon, I propose that we might be able to understand such experiences by applying a metaphor. Specifically, we could consider our experience of time – especially, the perceived rate at which it “flows” – to be like the effects of time dilation. Perhaps this description is not merely metaphorical, but I leave that judgement up to the reader.
Time Dilation – Just the Basics
I am no expert in physics, and don’t purport to have mastery over the concepts involved, which is why I choose to present this as a metaphorical explanation rather than a straight-forward application of scientific principles. For those who are less familiar with time dilation, the basic idea is there is a difference in the time measured by two observers as a result of a difference in velocity (or gravitational potential) relative to one another. So, if person A is moving at a higher speed compared to person B, it will seem to person A that more time elapsed for person B than the time that elapsed for person A themselves.
Put another way, person A’s watch will record that less time has passed than the time recorded by person B’s watch. However, this effect is miniscule in the context of relative velocities that we are familiar with in everyday life. For this effect to be noticeable in the hard scientific sense, person A would need to be moving at incredible speeds – near or equal to the speed of light.1
The Symbolic Nature of Time
For our purposes here, we’ll not be concerned with what two clocks tell us about the passage of time. Clocks measure time only in the sense that human society has established a certain metric (a system of measurement) and we compare what our personal clocks say (our phone, watch, grandfather clock) to that “objective” metric. That is to say, clocks only measure other clocks. Naturally, through scientific discoveries, we’ve come up with more and more precise ways to calibrate our clocks to one another (e.g. using the rate of decay of atoms).
Yet, achieving higher degrees of precision does not avoid the fundamental point that time – as something that can be measured – is not a feature of the Universe. It is, instead, a symbolic, representational system imposed by humans to effectively coordinate our activities. We can, of course, choose natural phenomena to serve as the basis of that metric (e.g. the decay of atoms, the speed of light, the rotation of the earth, etc.), but the chosen metric is only a reference point for clocks. In no case have we established anything about the flow of time as something we experience.
The Flow State
Let’s return to the opening idea that our experience of the passage of time varies in different contexts. One of the most demonstrative examples of this idea is the “flow experience,” a particular state of consciousness described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.2 Again, I will not dig deeply into this intriguing phenomena, but only provide a brief overview of the idea (though I encourage readers to pursue the topic on their own!). In its simplest form, the flow state is characterized by being completely engrossed in your current activity – to the extent that you lose conscious awareness of pretty much everything else: other people, bodily needs, and time.
The person in flow (unintentionally) merges their awareness with their actions to such an extent that self-reflective consciousness is no longer present. Put another way, your attention becomes so focused on the activity that none of your attention is available to put toward other activities, thoughts, or concerns. The do-er and the activity being done become one and the same, with the action-reaction interplay becoming nearly simultaneous and indistinguishable. What’s more, the experience of flow is also described as being intrinsically rewarding – the subjective value of engaging in the activity is potentially limitless.
This analysis of the flow state comes from a psychological lens: what’s going on in the individual’s conscious experience. However, what does this psychological state tell us about the relationship between the person in flow and the world around them? Csíkszentmihályi describes the state of flow as an “optimal” experience. True or not, I’m interested to see what this psychological state indicates about one’s state of being. As an aside, we should not overlook that the experience of flow can’t be reported while it is occurring, as reporting on the state of consciousness would be a self-reflective activity (and thus, the person would no longer be in the flow state). The experience of flow can only be described after the fact, which always comes with complications: memory can be a fickle thing.
Returning to the main thread, what is the link between time dilation and flow, or any other instance in which our sense of time doesn’t conform to the “typical” experience of time? My suggestion is that it all has to do with vibration. There are several senses to this word, whether we want to talk about physical phenomena – the vibration of particles and energy – or the more “New-Agey” way we might talk about a person, event, or experience having a higher/lower vibration. I intend to use ‘vibration’ in both senses – after all, words don’t always have to be used with a single, explicit meaning (something we tend to forget as modern English speakers)3. What’s more, the latter sense of the word is at least partially derived from the scientific usage, so the two meanings already have a linguistic connection.
However, the non-scientific meaning of ‘vibration’ also comes from ideas in Indian philosophy and spirituality; Om from Hindu/Vedic and Buddhist traditions is the symbol of cosmic vibration, signifying the fundamental essence of reality. That the entire Universe (and therefore persons, events, etc.) is a confluence of vibrations is a notion that was around long before any scientific ideas about particles and energy. All that to say, let’s not get ourselves stuck by clinging to one, explicit meaning of ‘vibration.’ The core idea that I want to draw on is that our individual experience is in some way constituted by vibrations: our physical bodies could be described as vibrating “wavicles” of energy that are embedded in the larger field of wavicles that is the Cosmos.
Conscious Experience as a Frame of Reference
So, let’s start putting all the pieces together. To reiterate: time dilation occurs when the measurement of time from one frame of reference (or, perspective) does not correspond to the measurement of time in a second frame of reference – this is due to the difference in velocity between the two frames of reference. The difference in velocity usually has to be quite large for this effect to be noticeable when we are measuring time with clocks. But perhaps this does not have to be the case if we consider our frames of reference to be a person’s experience of time: i.e. their individual perspective as a locus of experience.
Thus, if my immediate/direct experience establishes a particular frame of reference, then time dilation could occur when comparing my experience to that of another person. Either experience could include awareness of time as it is being measured by a clock. Whether this description is strictly metaphorical, or we wish to expand our concept of time dilation to include differing experiences of time, this idea seems to have some fascinating implications.
Flow: Psychological and Metaphysical
In particular, let’s consider what this could indicate about the state of flow. Earlier I noted that the flow state describes a particular mode of conscious experience. But I suggest that we can expand on that idea. This state of consciousness could be a reflection of the individual’s overall state of being – a metaphysical state – a general idea which is not uncommon to many spiritual, mystical, or philosophical traditions, especially those originating in Asia. The Vedic and Buddhist traditions originating from India, Taoism from China, and many of their offshoots such as Zen all make use of the idea that, in some sense, reality is a manifestation of consciousness.
This metaphysical state is where vibration comes in. When in flow, the person experiences a unity between their actions and the responses from their environment. Put in terms of vibration, the individual as a pattern of vibration has completely merged with the vibration of the Cosmos. The “two” patterns of vibration have merged so seamlessly that the distinction between “the person” and “the environment/Universe” disappears. This description probably sounds familiar to those who’ve studied Taoism, Zen, and other mystic traditions. This is no accident, as the flow state seems to be a (western) psychological perspective of the kind of pure awareness often ascribed to mystical states of consciousness: satori, nirvana, and the like. As such, I cannot claim to be saying anything new or revelatory with regard to flow as a state of consciousness. But I do hope to offer an insight on the shift in temporal experience which seems to occur in such states.
Conclusion – In the Flow State, We See Time Dilate
The final move I wish to make is the suggestion that we can combine the idea of a perspectival frame of reference and this metaphysical state of flow. If we accept the suggestion that a person’s experiential perspective can serve as a frame of reference, we can then ask: what happens when that frame of reference merges with the frame of reference of the (local) Universe?
If the individual’s vibration is in complete harmony with the surrounding vibration of the Cosmos, I suggest that there would be little (or no) experience of time as we would normally describe it: a linear sequence of changes, or something to that effect. In a typical state of consciousness, we are aware of the changes that occur around us – changes considered separate from the consciousness that is aware of them. But when one’s vibration is in tune with the vibration of the Cosmos, consciousness is no longer tracking changes as something happening apart from, or Other than, itself. With this harmony of vibration, there is no resistance to change: no restriction to the flow of the Universe.
Meanwhile, for someone outside the state of flow, consciousness keeps itself involved with tracking the changes in case something “goes wrong” and must be altered, fixed, or corrected. This sort of thinking creates resistance, and so, from that frame of reference, an experience of sequential/linear time.
Thus, the person in the flow state experiences no resistance – their “actions” are indistinguishable from the ever-flowing changes of the Universe. Their experience of time (if it can be called an experience of time at all!) is of the ever-manifesting present, the NOW, the Tao. 4
Zak has two master’s degrees in philosophy, from Brandeis University and University of California Santa Barbara. He is currently the lead editor for Dungeons in a Box, and he spends much of his time in the realm of fantasy crafting new plots and ensuring the adventure is in mechanical balance. When he’s not DMing, he also enjoys hiking, studying eastern philosophy, and playing board games.
- 2.99 x 108 meters per second.
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990.
- Ancient Greek, for instance, was a much more linguistically dense language. E.g. the word ‘logos’ had over a dozen meanings, many of which would be implied simultaneously when using this one word.
- I am not saying that the mystical experience of “the eternal now” can be reduced to the flow experience. But I do think that the experience of the flow state can offer glimpses into what might otherwise be called a “mystical” experience.