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“It’s about time” (Part 3)

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“It’s About Time” is a three-part series exploring the role calendars play in organizing our lives. It offers a perspective on the confusion surrounding the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” of 2012 by going into detail on the concept of a calendar. We will ask “What DOES a Calendar do?” (Dec. 5), “How has OUR calendar evolved?” (Dec. 12) and “What CAN a calendar do?” (Dec. 19).

“Fire in the Lake, the image of Revolution.

Thus the superior person 

Sets the Calendar in order 

and makes the seasons clear”

So it is written in the 49th Hexagram of the I Ching, called “Molting”. This is the image of a calendricist acting during a time of great crisis and transformation to establish a new epoch, or ground from which to measure time. This sets the theme for our third instalment of “It’s About Time”, in which we are going to be looking at different ideas for calendars while asking, “What CAN a Calendar do?”

As we saw last week, efforts to change the calendar are not a new thing – the Gregorian Calendar has been repeatedly challenged from within. Many proposals have been made, notably, August Compte’s Positivist Calendar, and the International Fixed Calendar, both 13/28 counts, dividing the year into 13 months of 28 days, with a “free day” to celebrate every year. During the French Revolution, a new calendar based on the metric system was constructed and used for 12 years before Napoleon agreed to re-institute the Gregorian. It was entirely atheist and named every month, year, and even day after a feature of the natural world, or a tool of some sort. It was an attempt to change the way we view the world on a fundamental level. Although it was retracted, it is interesting as it is the only example I know of a fully atheist calendar being implemented; most calendars are tied to religious systems.

Resistance to change

Many other proposals for calendar reforms currently exist. Because calendar reform happens over such long periods of time, it can often appear to be a non-issue. This has been the case since the defeat of the International Fixed Calendar shortly after the ending of the Second World War, which was rejected to a great extent because it broke the seven-day week cycle in order to make the calendar perennial. There was major resistance from the Catholic Church, and much general religious anxiety about tampering with the continuous seven-day pattern. Even so, the call for calendar change returns again and again; an insistent voice reminding us of the profound need not to take our temporal measures for granted.

Time, a priori

Think about pure un-interpreted time for a minute. Remove all the filters of language, knowledge, myth and code, and feel the inscrutable oscillations that pulse through this cosmos all the time, and on every level. This is eternity, and it has no set human story governing it from outside. With our timekeeping we have made ourselves houses of time within the measure of our societal rhythms; bubbles of myth regulated by the politics of the calendar. Despite being “mere” works of artifice, their impact on how we behave is profound.  These houses of number, symbol, and description, act to domesticate the presence of eternity. They make us what we are. They protect us from the fathomless wild infinity of nameless existence. Each is like a boat on an ocean. How many boats can you see? Which boat are you on?  Recalling that the term “epoch” means a fixed temporal anchor, governing a mode of experiencing time, these questions amount to asking: How many epochs are simultaneously running in the world at this moment, and which one do you live in?

Calendar as metaphor

A calendar is basically a schedule, or program. It tells us roughly how to pace our labour, when to initiate projects, and when to advance them through their phases of development from conception to completion. In short, a calendar is a comprehensive planning system. It can even be compared to a circuit. This being said, then, these “boats” are the different calendars of the various time-keeping civilizations on our planet: the Chinese, the Christian, the Jewish, the Islamic, the baha’i, the Mayan, and so forth. Each has their own epochs, their own socio-temporal circuitries.

Because we have forgotten that our human time is happening inside eternity, and we have come to believe (wrongly) that our own vessels are somehow truer than the nameless time we wish to be sheltered from, we clash with each other. We fall into the trap of thinking, “There can be only one”. There is not room enough, we think, for more than a single story of time, and when we cannot simply erase the others, we engage culturally in a prolonged campaign to undermine, outlast, and finally dominate the “other” that dances to eternity in their own way. We have it backwards. Our systems of understanding are situated within a universe that is un-coded, un-narrated by humans. They float on its surface, if you will. That does not mean our systems are “wrong” because they are works of human design, but just that they are vehicles. They are not absolute. Imagining them to be so, we have fought tooth and nail to dominate time, to be the “winning story”, the last boat on the ocean. Thankfully, this is not the only way of responding to the situation. The Maya and their calendars can shed light upon a strategy that can do us one better.

Mayan calendars, then and now

As we all know, the Mayan Long Count Ends on December 21, 2012. This will be a date numbered in their reckoning. According to many ill-informed new age and conspiracy sources, this will be the “end of the world”, but according to the living Maya themselves, it is a transition period to a new cycle in which human beings will have an opportunity to live in greater concord with the planet and each other. There is clearly social momentum toward a meaningful pan-societal change. It seems worthwhile to contribute to this, and I feel that there is a real possibility that taking the issue of the calendar seriously could lead to positive developments. Instead of talking about “the end of the world” as such, it might be better to replace the word “world” with the word “epoch”, and work toward steering our collective story in a different direction. After all, an end is a beginning.

…according to the living Maya themselves, (Dec. 21, 2012) is a transition period to a new cycle in which human beings will have an opportunity to live in greater concord with the planet and each other”

It is wrong to speak of “the Mayan Calendar” as if they used only one. The Maya were, and are a society that functions using many calendars – as many as 20, it is said! How would this work, and what would be the purpose of having so many different temporal rhythms operating in a single society? The Maya were organized so that different sectors of society actually had different calendars, and so there were common as well as private, and even secret, calendars. The society as a whole had a base rhythm which became more and more ornate the more calendars a person knew. Because there were points of agreement, or compatibility, built into the calendars, the vast diversity of measure would actually overlap, or “fit” with one another, much in the same way that multiple tracks on a recording, or multiple instrument lines in an orchestra introduce variation whilst staying in rhythm, and thus add to the overall coherence and beauty of the piece of music.

Ancient wisdom + new challenges = big opportunity

I propose that the anxieties surrounding the end of the Mayan long count actually hide an opportunity: to reconsider whether we must be bound, as a culture, to one single measure of time, or whether time-design itself might be a field in which there is still room to innovate. Could the integrated use of multiple calendars by the Maya provide a clue as to how we, an emerging global society, could reconcile our diverse cultural perspectives and learn to work together without losing our distinctiveness?

Things truly change not when they are forced to collapse, but rather when something is added to them that makes them a part of a more comprehensive vision. Enter the idea of a meta-calendar: a matrix that weaves multiple times together. This is the true innovation of the Maya. The only thing such a matrix would reject is dissonance between its different calendars. It would appear to us as a common image of time upon which all the various counts can be hung. It would be as if a crowd of epochs were to come up against the rim of a great basin, or crucible. Within that common space, they would begin to be woven together.

Who knows – maybe one day, 300 years down the road, time as we know it will look vastly different and we will dance in it differently than we do now. Maybe a new rhythm will emerge, which in retrospect will mark this Winter Solstice as a time when our collective direction changed. When we remembered what a calendar was capable of, and began to consider how we might use that knowledge to give ourselves a better future. We will perhaps realize that our calendar, like all calendars, is evolving and is open to innovation. To dance a new rhythm does not require total social consensus, either. It only requires a few people willing to play, and if in this play they find something that sustains them and empowers them, this movement will spread naturally. Perhaps, beneath all the doubtlessly “doomed-to-be-disappointed” outward hype, some subtle new heartbeat will stir that will eventually lead to a deeper, longer-term vision of time than we ever have before.

The Maya predict the end of an epoch, and the beginning of another. I believe they are correct. I have tried to show that the mechanism to catalyze such a potential change is not “supernatural”, but is actually caused by their calendars, and the awareness they raise.  All of our societies are governed more or less invisibly by calendars, and that that is soon going to become very obvious simply because the discussion has been started. The real “apocalypse” (in the sense that the word means “to reveal”) is as simple as the questions we have asked in these three articles. To consider what a calendar does, and what it could do, is quite enough to change the world-as-we-assume-it-be.

Have fun and challenge yourself!

So what can a Calendar do? Let’s find out. I propose a challenge: this coming year, get to know a calendar that you are unfamiliar with. It could be another cultural calendar like the Hindu, Mayan, Baha’i, or Chinese; it could be an alternative count, like the French Republican Calendar, or the International Fixed Calendar. Perhaps even Jose Arguelle’s “Dreamspell”, a new-age approach to the Mayan Tzolkin. You could also invent your own, if you were brave. The Calendar Wiki is one place to go to learn about a variety of different counts, both traditional and proposed. Keep track of whatever calendar you choose, alongside your usual calendar. Keep a journal and record your observations over time. Talk about it, think about it, share observations and ideas. See if you can peer out from the cracks of counted time into the eternity beyond, and ask yourself what we could accomplish if we choose to become intelligent pilots of our temporality. It’s about time for that, I’d say.

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