The timeless moment
How we can alter time-consciousness through drugs, sex, music and other methods
There’s a remarkable moment of TV history from 1955 where, on an episode of Panorama, British MP Christopher Mayhew takes mescaline under the guidance of his friend, the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, and is then filmed under its effects.
He says this to Osmond:
I assure you that from my point of view, from the time I begin this sentence and the time I end it, I shall be gone…a long time Humphrey. I am moving from one time into another time, and back again. There is no absolute time, no absolute space, there is simply what we impose on the outside world.
30 years later, Mayhew had this to say about the experience:
About half a dozen times during the experiment I would be withdrawn from the surroundings and myself and have an experience, a state of euphoria, for a period of time that didn’t end for me – it didn’t last for minutes or hours, but for months.
The psychiatrists afterwards and common sense all say that’s nonsense, you couldn’t have these experiences because there was no time. I accept that. At the same time, they didn’t have the experience. And when I look back even now, after 30 years, I remember that afternoon not as so many minutes spent in my drawing room, but as years and years of heavenly bliss…I think the simplest explanation is that I had these experiences, they were real, but they took place out of time.
There has not been a great deal of research or attention focused on this time-altering aspect of psychedelics, but back in the 1950s, when Mayhew took mescaline, there was. Indeed, this was one of Aldous Huxley’s principal reasons for trying psychedelics two years before Mayhew, also under the guidance of Humphrey Osmond. He was trying to escape time.
Aldous’ mother died when he was 14. Her death gave him a deep sense of the suffering of a finite life lived in time. He later wrote:
The most intractable of our experiences is the experience of Time - the intuition of duration, combined with the thought of perpetual perishing.
How can one escape time-consciousness? He initially tried through hedonism, and then, in his 40s, he turned to mysticism, as explored in books of the 1940s like The Perennial Philosophy and the novel Time Must Have a Stop. He practiced Vedantic meditation in California, during World War two, in the hope of escaping the wheel of time. He wrote:
liberation might be defined as the process of waking up out of the nonsense, nightmares and illusory pleasures of what is ordinarily called real life into the awareness of eternity.
He thought western civilization had gone wrong because it had become stuck in time – obsessed with worrying about the future or ruminating on the past without any lived sense of the eternal now. Most religions were ‘religions of time’ – obsessed with some glorious future or idealised past.
Instead of these debased ‘religions of time’, he thought the human race needed to turn to mysticism, to the ‘Eternal Now’ in which true eternity could be found. He wrote:
In all the higher religions the doctrines about eternal Reality, and the practices designed to help worshippers to render themselves sufficiently timeless to apprehend an eternal God, bear a close family resemblance… He only is completely saved who is delivered here and now. Immortality is participation in the eternal now of the divine Ground.
Contemplation would render people timeless, literally, take them outside of time and make them eternal beings. That was the hope anyway.
It is a very Modernist concern – the attempt to wake up from the nightmare of history by somehow settling in the Eternal Now. It reminds one of Aldous’ friend TS Eliot, writing in the Four Quartets about glimpses of eternity:
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
How can we mortals escape time? The classic recommendation is meditation. In Buddhist mindfulness practice, for example, one can gather one’s mind and train one’s attention on the breath, the body or consciousness itself, so the mind becomes less caught up in the river of time.
Practitioners report – and various experiments have confirmed – that their sense of time changes in deep meditative states. As the ordinary sense of self and body changes, so does the sense of time, until both the noise of self and the sense of time dissolve altogether, and it feels like you have transcended time and entered a dimension beyond time.
The hope – in all the great mystical traditions – is that by bringing one’s consciousness constantly back to the ‘still point of the turning world’ (as TS Eliot called it), one might somehow get off the wheel of death and rebirth and in some way or other become timeless. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: ‘If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.’
Monastic traditions faded in western culture, but the idea of transcending time became central to the Romantic religion of Art and Culture. The artist, it was thought, is an ecstatic being who in moments of rapture receives ‘intimations of immortality’ which they communicate to their audience through their art, carrying them also beyond time.
The western poetic tradition is full of poems that attempt to capture timeless moments, like the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan’s poem, The World:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
Frank O’Hara’s poem, The Day Lady Jane Died, celebrates how music, especially live performances, can give us this sense of transcending time. The poem begins very much in the world of industrial time:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
And then the narrator sees a newspaper and the news that Billie Holliday has died, and suddenly he is transported back in time to a moment in a jazz bar when time seemed to stand still:
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Psychologists have begun to study music and experience of time. This from a 2013 review by Schafer et al:
The most widely reported experiences with regard to music listening are the feelings of timelessness and time dilation. Hills and Argyle found that musical experiences are highly similar to religious experiences in that both are characterized by the feeling of timelessness. Kohlmetz et al. investigated the performance of a pianist playing for 28 hours and found him to reach meditative states characterized by “the loss of the external framework (time, space, and bodily sensation) and mental content (inner and outer perception)”. Hutson described the ritual character of rave parties where people can experience altered states of consciousness that include the feeling of timelessness…In a large-scale qualitative study, Gabrielsson and Lindström Wik found that strong experiences with music were often characterized by changes in time perception. Exemplary statements of interviewees were “We stood outside time,” “Time had stopped; it felt as a single long moment”.
Others have tried to escape time through the rapture of sex. Laura Riding was an American poet, witch and lover of Robert Graves, the novelist, poet and early psychonaut. She, Graves and Graves’ wife Nancy lived together in London, and the menage-a-trois became a menage-a-quatre with the Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs.
Laura Riding thought she could literally stop time for the entire universe, if she had a sufficiently strong orgasm. She demanded that Phibbs assist her in this apocalyptic endeavour.
'Time has been going on long enough', she would say earnestly. 'We can break through and stop it. Not just move about in it as Donne has shown is possible, but smash it up altogether.' She expected him to do his share of the work. No shirking was allowed. She had a timetable.
This attempt drove young Phibbs to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Riding may not have been popular with Graves’ friends, who thought she was an insane egotist, but she was on to something – love intensifies consciousness and alters time. Perhaps you’ve had some ecstatic nights with a lover, when you seem to exist outside of ordinary time, in the sort of ‘eternal time’ one occasionally experiences in a rave or other moments of intense consciousness.
And then there are the accidental moments of time-expansion – especially during near-death accidents, when your consciousness suddenly expands, and the few seconds of falling off a cliff or seeing a car coming towards you slow down, stretch and seem to last forever.
All of this confirms that time is not regular and uniform. It changes, according to our attention, our emotions, our state of mind. As Christopher Mayhew pointed out, there is no such thing as ‘absolute time’, it only exists in subjective consciousness. A minute can feel like months, a week can pass like minutes.
The most reliable way to alter time-consciousness is with drugs. Every drug changes time-consciousness. Caffeine and amphetamine speed it up. Alcohol likewise – an evening passes in a blur while a dinner party without booze seems to last far longer (which is why the non-drinkers are usually the first to leave). You take MDMA at a rave, and suddenly it’s 5am and the sun is coming up. Opiates stretch time out to aeons, as opium addict Thomas De Quincey noted in the early 19th century:
I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.
Psychedelics and cannabis, especially, are famous for their time-stretching capacities. This was one of the reasons Aldous was so excited to try mescaline. He hadn’t had much luck escaping time through meditation, but here, finally, was a chemical short-cut to eternity. He wrote:
to be shown for a few timeless hours, the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended directly and unconditionally by Mind at Large, this is an experience of inestimable value.
His experiments with psychedelics gave him greater confidence in eternity. When his wife Maria was dying of cancer, he sat by her side whispering: ‘Peace now, I kept repeating. Peace, love, joy now. Being now. Peace in this timeless moment. Peace now, peace now!’
Huxley and Mayhew were not alone in finding time altered by psychedelics. As Shayla Love wrote in a piece on psychedelics and time:
A study from 1954 found time disorders in 13 out of 23 people under the influence of psychedelics. Most of them felt a "sense of temporal insularity,” where only the present was real and the past and future were far, far away.
Alan Watts emphasized the time-altering properties of psychedelics in The Joyous Cosmology. The first sentence of his person account is ‘this world has a different kind of time’. Later he writes:
Those of us who live in this driven and overpurposeful civilization need, more than anyone else, to lay aside some span of clock time for ignoring time, and for allowing the contents of consciousness to happen without interference. Within such timeless spaces, perception has an opportunity to develop and deepen in much the same way that I have described.
There’s less interest in psychedelics’ affect on time-consciousness these days, because we’re so focused on these drugs’ medicalized uses. But time-alteration can affect people’s moods and mental health, in both heavenly and hellish ways.
Most obviously, if people are facing the end of their life, psychedelics can heal them of ‘death anxiety’ by giving them a glimpse (illusory or not) of eternity. Tania Landauer took psilocybin when dying from cancer, and achieved a new perspective on time. She writes:
If only [people] understood that we are all light beings dancing and traveling into eternity. Death can also be a time of joy, if one looks at it from this perspective.
Mental illnesses like depression involve distortions in self-consciousness – excessive self-rumination, disconnection from others and the world, self-criticism – and distortions in time-consciousness. Time, for the depressed person, weighs heavy, it drags. Their present experience is polluted with ruminations over the past or anxieties about the future. When they try psychedelics, meditation, music, or other means of altering consciousness, people can alter their time-consciousness, be liberated for a moment from the weight of the past, and feel the fullness of the Eternal Now.
However, psychedelic time stretching can work the other way – if you’re having a ‘bad trip’ or an emotionally difficult experience, it can feel like the experience is lasting years, decades, even several lifetimes. Here’s a quote from one interview we did, of someone who took three and a half grammes of mushrooms:
I completely lost any connection with the passage of time whatsoever. And I had the distinct experience that I had been tripping for 10,000 lifetimes.
People sometimes report the experience of being stuck in hell for eternity:
The experience itself had distorted my perception of time to feel like an eternity had passed, and was incredibly intense.
I was in the afterlife and more than that I was in hell and hell was an eternal loop…I was shaken for the rest of the trip and for six months after. [from this Vice article]
It was like eternal hell. Every moment felt like eternity, and every moment just felt like absolute hell. [from this article]
The actress Megan Fox reported such an experience. She tried ayahuasca in Costa Rica, and told journalists: ‘On the second night, I went to Hell for eternity. Just knowing it's eternity is torture in itself, because there's no beginning, middle or end.’
Such bad trips remind one of the ‘time prison’ in Black Mirror, where a person’s sense of time is digitally stretched so that five minutes seem like 1000 years.
If you want to find out more ahout the new science of time-consciousness, I recommend Marc Wittman’s book Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Outside of Time. Wittman has studied time-consciousness more than any other scientist, including how psychedelics and meditation alter it.
What do you think – do spiritual practices like meditation and psychedelics give people a genuine glimpse of eternity, or is it an illusion?
After the paywall, a piece on trainee psychedelic therapists using breathwork to experience altered states, a BBC radio documentary on psychedelic spirituality, and a new paper from our team on what helps people cope with extended difficulties after taking psychedelics.