Clock Time vs. Cosmic Time: What good is telling time, if it is an illusion?

As astrologers, we are the appointed timekeepers of metaphysics. Throughout history we have been the jealous guardians of the astrolabe, the hourglass, the ephemeris and the computer tables, clocks and calendars which use the sky to tell what time it is. Sky calendars are our lingua franca. Yet we must grapple with a basic conundrum: clock time and calendar time do not exist in cosmic reality. This is one of those things that is obvious once you think about it. But we don’t usually think about it.Ever since humans have been on earth, they have been looking up, gazing at the sky, tracking time. The Julian Calendar used so widely today is a very recent invention. So are all linear calendars. These strange, flat chronologies that we now take for granted, which purport to replicate Time as regular, sequenced points plotted out in advance and printed up in a series of bound pages, are a relatively recent concept. Such calendars came along, as all cultural appurtenances do, to parallel a view of reality.

Human thinking did not always process information via the linear logic we now consider to be standard operating procedure. For the ancients, reality was circular rather than linear, holistic rather than mechanistic. As a species, we did not think in straight lines (which do not exist in nature) so much as in loops, spirals and parabolas. Though the fastidious modern mind tends to view every process as having a beginning, a middle and an ending, our ancestors saw themselves immersed in a natural world that was gloriously messy, with no pattern of finality imposed upon it. They assumed that everything in the universe, including human lifetimes, followed the same basic modus operandus they witnessed in plant and animal life: that of endlessly repeating cycles.

So how did they tell Time? The sundials, stone henges and round calendars of ancient peoples tell us something about the circularity that seems to have informed the prehistoric perspective. But those devices were, of course, man-made too. Every effort to trap and name Time is a concoction of the human mind.

As astrologers, we need to remember that though timing is our stock in trade, all attempts are stabs in the dark. Let us put our instruments down and ponder our roles for a moment. Who are we but translators of the unknowable, trying to aid and abet this tangible business of earth living? As we sit with our clients and try to describe how their lives correlate with celestial cycles, we are acting as intermediaries between the cosmic and the mundane; making a bridge, as best we can, between abstract principles of impossible subtlety and their probable three-dimensional expression. We cannot do this with any integrity unless we are aware that our charts are not the same thing as the ineffable universal patterns behind them.

We must not take our numbers too seriously.

To suggest that we astrologers not take our numbers too seriously has the ring of blasphemy. But let us take a second look at what is going on when we look in the ephemeris and confidently proclaim, for example, that the Full Moon will occur at 2:51pm the next day.

We astrologers tend to scoff dismissively when the layman says, “Oh, I thought the full moon was LAST night”. Trusty tables in hand, we gauge proper fullness not by sight, but by degree of exactitude. Our records tell us that at exactly 2:51pm, the 180-degree angle will be reached which defines a full moon; a geometrical occurrence which can, of course, occur at any point during the day or night. We presume to know the real story, because we’ve got the astronomical event zodiacally measured to the nearest clock minute; and we consider there to be a world of difference between our official timing (the accurate one) and the anecdotal timing afforded by the casual observer (the inaccurate one).

But let’s say an astrologer with an unusually precise approach comes along, and derides that 2:51pm figure as a gross approximation. One must determine not just the minutes, he says, but the seconds, in order to know the “right” time. Fair enough. But then along comes an astronomer with an even deeper investment in the accuracy model, who insists that any timing that didn’t use milliseconds was so inexact as to be useless. And so on.

This is the first problem with timing devices: accuracy itself is a relative concept. Like mathematicians seeking the last digit of pi, we may hunt down the chimera of accuracy until the computer blows a fuse, but we will get nowhere nearer trying to crack the mystery of Time.

So if it is not about finding the “right” time, what are clocks and calendars for?

Clocks and calendars point to things. Their job is to identify a focus– not in third dimensional space, but in that other dimension, the one which has been, equally arbitrarily, designated as the fourth. Our use of the days-of-the-week and hours-and-minutes reflects our effort to control or at least monitor Time, so that we can talk about it. We can refer to things happening before and after other things. We can get to dentist appointments, anticipate the ingress of comets into the solar system, and make fashionably late entrances at parties.

In order to re-pledge our allegiance to metaphysical truth every once in a while, astrologers need to step back and consider what exactly we are telling when we set out to tell Time. But in order to re-pledge our allegiance to metaphysical truth every once in a while, we need to step back and consider what exactly we are telling when we set out to tell Time. While we know that the deepest fact of the universe is that it is a massive swirling chaos out of which we and our world of matter unaccountably congealed, we humans nonetheless doggedly attempt to tame the roiling flux. We name the planets and identify their apparent orbits with calculated schedules.

The resulting cosmologies match the needs of the culture in question. The earliest astrologies, which focused upon the moon alone, were simple systems, sufficient for the settled tribes whose life cycles matched the lunar clock. Later astrologies, which incorporated the five visible planets, got quite a bit more complex; they were developed by pastoral peoples who needed a more involved timing system with which to clock their own wanderings.

The nature of Time does not vary; timing devices do. The question is not, Is the clock accurate? but rather, What function must the clock serve? If we’re timing the lighting of a ritual candle, a wristwatch works just fine. To call the winner of a close race, an Olympic judge requires a more precise instrument. And a physicist timing subatomic particles in a lab experiment needs a calibrating device that could barely be called a timer anymore, given that once we get down to the submicroscopic levels of material reality, time has shown itself to break the laws it follows on the human scale.

Much has been written about the affront the New Physics presented to our notions about time, notions that western science had always presumed to be inviolable. Einstein proposed a New time, alarmingly more elastic than good old-fashioned Time; and to the mechanistic materialists who would prefer Time to be as neat and measurable as woodwork, this is a hard one to digest. But to devotees of the mystery schools, who have long been hearing from the great sages that Time is an illusion, the news falls right into place.

Let us consider the transit in referenced above, for example, the exact Full Moon. At 2:50pm, it has not yet happened; at 2:51pm it is already over. The Full Moon is a moment, not a minute. Essentially, the Full Moon is not an event at all, but an idea. Its meaning is archetypal, not measurable. It is knowable only through an understanding of the greater cycle of which it is a part: that cycle which begins at the New Moon, reaches a crisis point at the quarter, culminates at fullness, and then immediately begins to wane, headed back towards its origin point.

Theories of circularity and interconnectedness seem to be coming back into favor as the scientific establishment, in spite of itself, lurches into a post-Newtonian worldview. As conventional ways of understanding Time become outmoded, astrologers will be ahead of the game: we have always been cousins to the mystics and shamans who travel between the worlds, where Time does not exist.

In contemporary western culture, where astrology is generally trivialized at best and demonized at worst, we practitioners may find ourselves tempted to cater to the lowest common denominator of understanding, framing what we know in soothingly banal, event-oriented terms. I wonder whether, as a group, we have been trying to keep our concepts as measurable as possible, and our counsel as literal as possible, so as to be judged less harshly by a skeptical public and by the new secular priests, the scientists. It is a trend which might buy astrology greater social currency, but if it is credibility we want, we must cleave to our roots in higher meaning. Otherwise we will surely find that, in the end, we will have failed to justify our ancient art to those with whom we seek acceptance, meanwhile betraying our work by downplaying our identities as chroniclers of divine knowledge.

Timetables and ephemeredes are not the truth behind Time. As systems of categorizing human experience, they can service certain predetermined needs. But to the extent that we astrologers are also devotees of universal truth, we need to keep in mind that we do not have the mystery solved, we have merely given it a name and a number; and to presume that our numbers do anything more than make respectful reference to the ineffable cosmic dance performed by the wheeling, intersecting, inter-connected planets is something on the order of hubris.

Humility is a gift of experience. It is true in every esoteric field that the veteran practitioner is more conscious of what he or she does not know than is the acolyte. When we begin a chart interpretation knowing full well how much is lost in the translation from geometry to truth, we will find ourselves opening up psychically, privy to mental pictures and flooded by the right words to say. Commencing our interpretation with the data in front of us, we will find our understanding taking off from there, until our minds are smitten with meaning from within and from behind the data in front of us. At that point we will have the illusion of Time on our side.