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Although Einstein discovered relativity and perceived time as events, much of Western science today relates to time as a fixed entity. In Western science time is mostly considered a quantity rather than a quality or qualities with characteristics.
To the Maya, counting time is a “key cultural pattern” and, as is commonly known, the Ancient Maya have created numerous calendars calculating a variety of what might be called rhythms of time. The Maya perceive qualities of time as did ancient people living before Christianity. The Maya understand the qualities or characteristics of time as a being— or rather beings—as living entities.
Moving Towards a Dynamic Concept of Time
Western science, in its perception of quantitative time, might eventually edge toward a dynamic concept of time (such as the Maya have). Physicists such as Fay Dowker (2018) have started to look for a way out of the concept of fixed time. Dowker says that her teacher Stephen Hawking only touched on the question of whether time really passes.
Dowker herself started to look for answers in Buddhism, where time is perceived as “becoming.” If that is so, Buddhism and Maya consciousness might close the gap between time as a lifeless fixed entity and time as a process or processes. If time is in fact a process, or processes, as Dowker puts forward, I would argue that time must then be driven by intention, which would finally imply that there is mind* behind or in time. This would show time clearly as a living being, or beings. (*This is not to be confused with George Berkeley’s (1734) concept stating that space depends on minds.)
Clifford Geertz has discovered that certain Balinese calendars state time as a quality, or rather that there are different qualities for different days, which is a system comparable to that of the Maya. The Maya distinguish time as an entity of quantity and of quality. While time moves events along, each day has meaning. These events create history and destiny.
Particularly, the spiritual Cholq’ij calendar gives testimony of how time is alive. Each of the twenty days of a month in this calendar is associated with a particular Maya day-energy, the so-called nawal and its related symbol, which exhibits that certain energy and has the power to influence humanity and the world. Each nawal can be distinguished from the others by its different qualities.
Shaman-priests work with these energies and call on them on the appropriate day of the calendar or whenever they need to work with the energy of a particular day. This is very specific to Maya spirituality. Twenty days repeat within each of thirteen monthly cycles. Therefore, when the Maya count time, it is not to distinguish Monday from Tuesday but mostly to count back (or forward) to determine the specific quality of a day and its corresponding event in the past, present, or future.
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Cyclic Order or Straight Lines?
Henri-Charles Puech describes the Greek perception of time as cyclical, Christian time as unilinear, and Gnostic time as a broken line that shatters other perceptions into bits. A straight line, as Puech elaborates, cannot detect or follow any rhythm. It kills the natural rhythms that time experiences.
The consequences of thinking of time as flowing in a straight line are grave. It makes people think in straight lines entirely, gets them to build cities in gridlocks of uncreative curvelessness, and makes them less attuned and adaptable to “curvy” nature. Naturally, a few generations of this kind of thinking leads people into a technocratic existence, unable to live in nature and tending to ignore, damage, or destroy it, as evidenced by the actions of modern Western culture.
The Maya acknowledge a time-space determined by the sun in which earthly life is possible. However, they observe time over periods that reach beyond one individual’s lifetime. Their astronomers have been doing so without interruption since the ancient past. Through observational astronomy the Maya could also calculate time-space mathematically. Through observational astronomy they have been able to record vast amounts of time and to grasp their cycles.
I believe that Western societies fail to grant themselves the opportunity to try to understand time as stretching over generations within vast cycles consisting of thousands of generations. It is therefore logical to assume that within their fairly short historic perceptions and their interpretation, manipulated conveniently to support the (selfish) interests of each nation, the Western approach may be unable to achieve more than their vision of linear time cycles allows.
Our focus on linear history makes us unable to even attempt to see a thing in its organic totality. One could say that by emphasizing our individualism, we live life in a desperate way. We remain unaware of our ability to connect to past and future generations to achieve a subsequent integration into wholeness.
To The Maya, Things End And Then Begin Anew
We may assign special significance to the manner in which the Maya perceive the cycle of life differently from contemporary Westerners. Despite the fact that Christian belief holds that there is an afterlife, in the Western worldview all things have a beginning and an end— in that order. To the Maya things end and then begin anew, and they think in that order. Their day begins close after midnight and takes a turn downward after 12:00 p.m., correlating to the sun’s movement. Spiritual ceremonies therefore begin in the early morning hours.
Christianity flourished when rationality was imposed, and so church leaders desperately wanted to break the Greek cycle of time. History does repeat itself, and this process can be witnessed. The Greeks eventually gave in to one way of thinking rather than continuing to allow multiple ways. Giving up on a good part of their reality, they limited their beliefs to one religion, standardized their laws, and adopted one calendar.
The Western cultures that developed soon after the epoch of ancient Greece tried to globalize culture and language first into Latin and later into English. Instead of being open to the concept of cycles of time and different ways of thinking, these cultures thrived on being right by imposing rational ideas, including their singular way of expression—the written word. I wonder, aren’t we, the Westerners, the illiterates of the world?
Beginning in ancient Greece and Rome, the process of some of the world’s conversion to Christianity became stronger, more accepted, and little by little imposed a hierarchic or linear time concept. Church leaders convinced people that the way to free themselves from the never-ending cycles of life was to be catapulted beyond them into an abstract though individualized eternal afterlife in which they would live close to perfection (God). Subsequently, this shift in perception pressed time into a scheme that caused all things to move from a beginning to an end.
Leaving the historic-philosophical perspective for a moment and turning to the non-Western world of the Maya, the end in their cyclic cosmology is never truly an end, because it is always followed by a new beginning. Consequently, time, and with it human consciousness, are endless. Puech reminds us that for the Greeks, as it is for the Maya, there was no absolute chronological “before” and “after”.
A Circle Has No Beginning or Ending
No point in a circle is a beginning or middle or end in the absolute sense; or else all points are these indifferently. The starting point to which the “apocatastasis” or the completion of the “Great Year” restores the course of things in a movement which is regression as well as progression is never anything but relative.
Finally, Puech’s illustration of movement can reflect how the Maya are able to predict the past and future. To them, because everything cycles back to its point in time, real change is illusory.
Past, present, and future are the same thing in their conception of an unchanged universe. As they see it, as long as things remain the same, the future will be the same. That is the concept by which the Maya have always lived, and in that concept lies the reason why traditionalists such as the Maya leader Don Tomás and the Elders of the Quiché attempt to keep their society homogenous, and also why they tend to do things exactly as their forefathers did. For in doing so, they can predict some of the future, living by the mantra that was also known by our European ancestors: “He who knows his past, also knows his future.”
I would consider the above to be one of the main Maya teachings to people of industrialized societies who, on the other end of the spec- trum, tend to run away from themselves and who they really are, constantly changing their lifestyles and calling their changes progress.
As with the predecessors of any preindustrial society, the Maya method is one of consciously integrating (fitting) into nature. Through a dynamic oral tradition between the generations, large and old parts of history have remained active in Maya consciousness. This way of bridging time is the secret to the survival of their culture.
From this perception of time, the Maya experience of life, the world, nature, the cosmos, and divinity is not separated. It is an integrated one—one that phenomenologists like Jan Patočka call “natural.”
From this perspective, we can grasp the Maya need and responsibility to respect all of those components of life, and we can see why modern societies have lost so much. We can also understand why, to contemporary Westerners who have lost their sense of cyclical time, it makes sense to incorporate the afterlife into each person’s existence. However, to the Maya the afterlife is not something beyond or dead or ended; it is continuous, encompassing every moment.
What once was served by world religions needs a new frame today. To the Maya, human existence lies on the axis between the two cosmic focal points: “Heart of Sky” and “Heart of Earth.” To them it is the responsibility of human beings to hold together the connection between Sky and Earth for cosmic harmony, which can be achieved through the good behavior of humanity.
©2019 by Gabriela Jurosz-Landa. All Rights Reserved.
All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Bear and Company, an imprint of: www.InnerTraditions.com
Transcendent Wisdom of the Maya: The Ceremonies and Symbolism of a Living Tradition
by Gabriela Jurosz-Landa
Illustrating how contemporary Maya life is suffused with spiritual tradition and celebration, the author shares the teachings of the Maya from her initiate and anthropologist point of view in order to help us all learn from the ancient wisdom of their beliefs and worldview. Because, to truly understand the Maya, one must think like the Maya. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Gabriela Jurosz-Landa is an anthropologist and Maya shaman-priestess initiated by her teacher Tomasa Pol Suy in Guatemala. She has researched Guatemala for more than 20 years, living there for 6 years, during which she participated in ceremonies with Maya spiritual and political authorities, including the 2012 New Era celebrations. The founder of the Forum of World Cultures, she writes and lectures internationally. Visit her website at https://gabriela-jurosz-landa.jimdo.com/