Doctor Who and the Eternal Now

At the end of the 9th Doctor’s tenure, in the episode The Parting of the Ways, when Rose Tyler is in the chip shop telling her mother that the Doctor is dying right now in a place located1 200,000 years in the future, a very interesting concept is brought centre-stage for that one brief moment:

Rose: Two hundred thousand years in the future, he’s dying and there’s nothing I can do.

Jackie: Well like you said, two hundred thousand years. It’s way off.

Rose: But it’s not! It’s now. That fight is happening right now. And he’s fighting for us and the whole planet and I’m just sitting here eating chips.

Not only is it typically really challenging to even entertain, let alone grasp, such a seemingly impossible situation of an event in the far distant future happening simultaneous to the present moment, it usually proves impossible. I’ve come to conclude this from several attempts at exploring this concept in philosophical conversations with friends. But those conversations didn’t take place within the context of discussing Doctor Who; they occurred within the context of discussing the Buddhist concept of the Eternal Now.

Over the course of these conversations, I’ve shared two different interpretations of what is meant by the Eternal Now. The first has to do with the understanding that there really is only the present moment – this is where our bodies are, our senses, our experiences, be they thoughts, feelings, or physical actions and sensations. When we think of our future, we are, by definition, not engaging in the present moment. Likewise, with the past, we leave our bodies behind and focus on memories. “Be in the Here and Now” is a common philosophical cliché bandied about in New-Age and Self-Help communities, but it has currency (if you’ll pardon the word play). It’s important to fully engage or engage as fully as possible with the here and now – to be present with our current physical circumstances, to be present with whatever emotions arise from whatever it is we’re experiencing.

This is not to say that there is no value in considering the future or in analyzing the past. As a historian and archaeologist-of-the-self who thrives on digging up and examining things from the past (both my own and our collective past), I can attest wholeheartedly that there is enormous value in reflecting on the past.

However, you cannot make your home there. Neither can you live in the future. Our bodies mediate everything we experience, and our bodies exist only in the present moment. So many of us forget to live our lives because we’re so busy worrying about the future or reliving the past.

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Reliving the past is a way of bringing the past into the now, which you can do any time you like, as suggested above, and even sometimes when you don’t like, in the case of PTSD flashbacks. It is not so much that we’re going backwards in time but rather bringing the past forward into present physical embodiment.

 

The other definition that the phrase “Infinite Now” or “Eternal Now” calls to mind is that everything – past, present, and future, all that is, was, and ever will be, is unfolding and occurring at this very moment. This is a much harder concept to grasp than the initial interpretation of the Eternal Now because we understand time from a linear perspective. It seems absolutely impossible for everything to be happening Now. Linear time is how we can even have a “past” that we remember and a “future” that we believe we have not yet experienced. This definition – this simultaneous, singular NOW moment – is what the Doctor Who scene illustrates with the events 200,000 years in the future occurring at the same time as Rose, Jackie, and Mickey in the chip shop in 21st century London.

On the Eternal Now site I linked to above, there is the following text:

The only time we can live is here and now in the moment. We live eternal now. We call it now is now. When next moment comes, we call that moment is now. Past is gone and future is not yet here. The only time we can live is now. Awakened ones live in eternal now. This is quality you can tell whether they are awakened or not.

In Mel Brooks’ movie, Spaceballs, there’s a scene where Dark Helmet and Colonel Sandurz are trying to locate Lone Starr, Barf, Vespa, and Dot. Colonel Sandurz has the brilliant idea of using the new “instant cassette” technology to assist in their quest. Instant Cassettes being, of course, VHS video cassettes that are available before the movie is even completed. Here’s the segment from youtube with relevant dialogue:

HELMET What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?

SANDURZ Now. You’re looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now.

HELMET What happened to then?

SANDURZ We passed then?

HELMET When?

SANDURZ Just now. We’re at now, now.

HELMET Go back to then.

SANDURZ When?

HELMET Now.

SANDURZ Now?

HELMET Now.

SANDURZ I can’t.

HELMET Why?

SANDURZ We missed it.

HELMET When?

SANDURZ Just now.

HELMET When will then be now?

SANDURZ Soon.

In this absolutely dizzying exchange, the characters are caught in a mise-en-abyme infinite recursion. YouTube commenters suggest that the Fourth Wall is shattered beyond repair and that, somewhere, Doctor Who is attempting to correct the time paradox that was just made.

Everything that happens now, is happening now. It carries a distinct Keanu Reeves aura of “whoa”. It is a slippery blending of the two different takes on the Eternal Now. If it is true, as it is suggested on the buddhist website, that the only time we can live is now, then all nows happen now.

DH: Go back to then.
CS: I can’t.
DH: Why?
CS: We missed it.
DH: When will then be now?
CS: Soon.

Now then, a digression from the Eternal Now, this section of dialogue plays on the multiple meanings of ‘then’: past then and future then, but as no distinction is made within the dialogue, it creates a further recursion of past becoming future becoming now. Additionally, in order to find the information they’re looking for, the Corporal rewinds the tape to earlier in the movie: the past becomes the now.

Because we experience time linearly and have a memory of the past but no memory of the future and because we can bring the past to life through memory, recall, and recreation, it seems like it would be easier for us to grasp that events in the past can happen simultaneously to what is unfolding for us in our current Now state. Even as I write it out like it, it seems far-fetched and way out in left field, but re-embodying an event that happened in our past, which we do automatically — recalling that experience in the body, feeling and sensing our emotional state as we play out the past again — makes aspects of our past very real in this Now moment.

The idea that something in the future is happening simultaneous to what is happening right now in our lives is an idea that is, as I stated earlier, usually really challenging to wrap our minds around. But in the Doctor Who chip-shop scene, we get it. We understand exactly what Rose is getting at and, through this connection, we become more in touch with the extant multidimensionality of the universe. Jackie remains trapped within the linear frame of reference and has a more difficult time jumping out of that ingrained rut.

To jump topics a bit, with respect to the linearity of time, talking of past, present, and future, we almost always will talk of “past lives” when we speak of the concept of reincarnation. However, that’s not always going to be the case.

At the very end of the 1970 movie, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever2, the audiences are treated to a mind-boggling twist. The premise of the movie, based on the 1965 Broadway musical, is that of a woman with ESP who wants to stop smoking and turns to a psychiatrist for help via hypnosis. The psychiatrist discovers that he has inadvertently regressed her into previous lives – that is, lives in our linear past that she has already lived. The end, however, turns everything we think we understand about reincarnation and the time-space continuum on its nose. Dr. Chabot hypnotizes Daisy once more because he wants to know whether they had any previous lives together. She begins talking about a life she had in Virginia with him. He asks her what year it is and she responds with “two thousand thirty-eight”.

While this isn’t a real life anecdote, there is a book called Past Lives, Future Lives by Jenny Cockell, in which she explores her past lives and possible future lives.3  There are also plenty of visionaries tapping into some sort of potential future timeline. Nostradamus, for instance. Hildegard von Bingen. Could these visions possibly happen if the Future was not also happening Now? And those visions that do not manifest in our reality, could they have manifested in a parallel reality?

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, now a century old (see what I did there?), introduced to modern physics the idea of Time Dilation:

In the theory of relativity, time dilation is an actual difference of elapsed time between two events as measured by observers either moving relative to each other or differently situated from gravitational masses.

An accurate clock at rest with respect to one observer may be measured to tick at a different rate when compared to a second observer’s own equally accurate clocks. This effect arises neither from technical aspects of the clocks nor from the fact that signals need time to propagate, but from the nature of spacetime itself.

[…]

Clocks on the Space Shuttle run slightly slower than reference clocks on Earth, while clocks on GPS and Galileo satellites run slightly faster. Such time dilation has been repeatedly demonstrated (see experimental confirmation below), for instance by small disparities in atomic clocks on Earth and in space, even though both clocks work perfectly (it is not a mechanical malfunction). The laws of nature are such that time itself (i.e. spacetime) will bend due to differences in either gravity or velocity – each of which affects time in different ways. [x]

What this illustrates is that time is a malleable construct, rather than something linearly concrete. It moves at different rates, rather than at a constant, consistent, and universal rate and both speed and gravity have an effect on this. It is, indeed, like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… stuff.

On the one hand, we can feel completely befuddled by this notion of the malleability of time. On the other hand, we actually get it: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” And “time seems to drag on” when you’re not. Where we are in time, that is, where we are emotionally and psychologically, affect how we perceive time. When you feel light and joyful and fully in the moment, fully in the flow of things, time can seem to disappear completely for the duration of that emotional state. When you are weighed down by the gravity of worry, anxiety, grief, regret, and impatience, in particular, time moves more slowly.

What Doctor Who (and so many other pop culture examples) does is give us a full-colour, vicariously experiential illustration of the malleability of time and space using situations that are emotionally potent. When we bring a situation to life in such a way that we’re pulled in emotionally, we’re drawn in far more extensively than we would be were we listening to a university lecture or a TED Talk. Within this ‘drawing in,’ a much smoother transitional understanding is created for us, thereby providing us with a non-threatening frame of reference because it occurs as a seemingly logical element to a story line we’re invested in following, rather than as a discreet, distinct, academic, esoteric philosophy that confuses our system and pushes us too far out of our comfort zone (hence my use of the phrase ‘non-threatening’). When we’re pushed too far out of our comfort zone, we become dismissive. When we’re push out of our comfort zone in a way that opens up ideas and concepts in a safe way, we become more intrigued. By creating safe, fun, entertaining, story elements, Doctor Who, et al., makes these sorts of concepts far more accessible to a far wider audience than they otherwise would be in a different, more traditional context. In doing so, we are provided with tools to help us better understand the machinations of the universe. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction.

 

Endnote:

1. I use the word ‘located’ very purposefully here as a nod to ‘space-time’ rather than maintaining a definition of them as two separate entities. Location in space is location in time and location in time is location in space. When time-travelling into the past, you’re not just going back in time, you’re going back to a specific location as well. Same with the future. Same with parallel realities. These three short videos from CERN scientists provide a simplified explanation of space-time, but they leave out time-travel. Because CERN, not Doctor Who.

2. Even the title of the movie hints at the simultaneity of time. The word ‘forever’ is a time-based rather than spatial-based word. If you can see forever, then you’re able to see the past, the present, the future, as well as all parallel realities in all directions. This really is only possible if everything is being played out simultaneously within the Eternal Now. And while the movie only deals with past, present and future, Doctor Who brings parallel realities into play.

3. For more information on reincarnation, please refer to the case studies of Dr. Ian Stevenson. For a Jewish perspective, Reincarnation and the Holocaust.