Behind the Times: Viewing the Present from the Past

Behind the Times: Viewing the Present from the Past

past 2

When astronomers estimate the distance between earth and another astronomical entity, they often talk in terms of light years. For example, the Alpha Centauri star (that actually comprises three separate stars) is the closest star to earth other than the sun and is estimated to be 4.37 light-years away. This means that if we were to view Alpha Centauri from earth, we would be looking at the star as it was some 4.37 years ago. In others words, it could be said that our view of Alpha Centauri is 4.37 years out of date.

On a much smaller scale, the exact same principle applies when we perceive objects that are much closer to us. We see an object because light from the sun (or another light source) is reflected by the object before travelling to the light-sensitive retina at the back of our eyes. As discussed in our recent post on ‘The World Through the Eyes of the Central Nervous System, when sight receptors are stimulated, electrochemical impulses travel via a process of saltatory conduction and once received by the central nervous system, they are transformed into a coherent image that can be acted upon.

The speed of light is 299,792 kilometres per second but for the purposes of this post, we have rounded it up to 300,000 km/s. This means that if we look from the top of a mountain at a lake that is 30 kilometres away, it takes 0.00001 seconds for light from the lake to reach us. Therefore, our view of the lake is ever so slightly out of date. Likewise, if we look at a person standing just three meters in front of us, it takes approximately 0.000000001 seconds for the reflected light to reach us. In fact, it actually takes slightly longer than this because light travels slower through the earth’s atmosphere than it does through space, and it also takes a brief moment for electrochemical impulses to travel from the eyes and be processed by the brain.

In terms of how the average person goes about their daily business, we suspect that there are few (if any) implications of this observation. However, the fact of the matter is that when a person says that they are living in the present moment, this is not entirely true. They might be perceiving in the present, but what they are perceiving is the past. From this point of view, perhaps one could say that individuals following the fashionable trend of mindfulness are actually (slightly) behind the times!

 Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 Further Reading

Mendelson, K. S. (2006). “The story of c”American Journal of Physics, 74, 995-997.

Penrose, R. (2004). The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. Vintage Books.

Schaefer, B. E. (1999). Severe limits on variations of the speed of light with frequency. Physical Review Letters, 82, 4964-4964.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Torres, C. A. O., Quast, G. R., da Silva, L., de la Reza, R., Melo, C. H. F., & Sterzik, M. (2006). Search for associations containing young stars (SACY). Astronomy and Astrophysics 460(3): 695–708

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

Wiegert, P. A., & Holman, M. J. (1997). The stability of planets in the Alpha Centauri system. The Astronomical Journal, 113, 1445-1450.

Author: Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Dr Edo Shonin Dr Edo Shonin is research director of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness Research, and a chartered psychologist at the Nottingham Trent University (UK). He sits on the editorial board for the academic journal Mindfulness and the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Edo is internationally recognised as a leading authority in mindfulness practice and research and has over 100 academic publications relating to the scientific study of meditation and Buddhist practice. He is the author of ‘The Mindful Warrior: The Path to Wellbeing, Wisdom and Awareness’ and primary editor of academic volumes on ‘The Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness’ and ‘Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction’. He has been a Buddhist monk for thirty years and is spiritual director of the international Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has also received the higher ordination in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Edo regularly receives invitations to give keynote speeches, lectures, retreats and workshops at a range of academic and non-academic venues all over the world. Ven William Van Gordon Ven William Van Gordon has been a Buddhist monk for almost ten years. He is co-founder of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation, Mindfulness, and Psychological Wellbeing and the Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has been ordained within Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions and has extensive training in all aspects of Buddhist practice, psychology, and philosophy. Prior to becoming a Buddhist monk, Ven William Van Gordon worked for various blue chip companies including Marconi Plc, PepsiCo International, and Aldi Stores Limited where he worked as an Area Manager responsible for a multi-site £28 million portfolio of supermarkets with over 50 employees. Ven William Van Gordon is also a research psychologist and forms part of the Psychological Wellbeing and Mental Health Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University. His area of research expertise is the study of ‘authentic spiritual transmission’ – within mainstream Buddhism itself as well as within contemporary Buddhist-derived clinical interventions. His current research projects are concerned with evaluating the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness for the treatment of various health conditions. Ven William Van Gordon has numerous publications relating to the clinical utility of meditative interventions including in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. As a separate undertaking, William is currently writing-up his doctoral thesis which relates to the effects of meditation on work-related wellbeing and performance. Ven William Van Gordon enjoys fell running, martial arts, DIY, reading and writing poetry, caring for cancer patients, and studying civil litigation. He is a keen mountaineer with some arctic expedition experience.

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