Things I have learned from an hourglass

Some meditations on time and memory: a starting point and compass for the coming year-long journey.

This past holiday season, with the looming shadow of the Mayan Apocalypse overhead, I took up the practice of sitting and doing nothing for an hour a day while I watched sand slip through an hourglass. Like Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha”, who made the river his teacher, I have become the student of the hourglass. Sometimes I close my eyes and let my imagination carry me away as I sit there and breathe, but at other times I stare intently at the sand-timer and watch it do its thing. As Michel Serres once remarked about the open sea, it is also the case that the apparent simplicity of the hourglass is actually an illusion.

When you start the timer, by turning it so that it is sand-filled side up, the sand can settle in a variety of ways: flat, slanted, pillowed, etc. More interestingly, it changes very slowly as you watch it. It is almost imperceptible at first but about 10 minutes in there is an unmistakable depression in the surface of the sand in the top bulb. This depression grows and grows, and eventually becomes a vortex that will devour all the sand, pulling it through itself, and through the gap, to rest at last upon the pile in the lower bulb. In there, the sand slowly piles up, and if I stare closely at the point of impact, I see a small crater forming, little particles flying off in different directions, always consistent, always different. The pile slowly grows until it covers the glass at the bottom of the bulb. Eventually the crater at the top reaches a critical height, and a landslide happens. There is no way for sure to say when it will occur, or in what direction, or how big it will be. As the ribbon of sand flows, this mountain is constantly changing its face, its surface being remade by the capricious and random fall of the sand.

I think about time…

…about what it means for time to pass. I think about the difference between the sand above, which exists as pure potential, and the sand below that is now inert, having had its chance to pass through the eye of the needle. A metaphor comes to mind: the upper glass is the future, waiting to be drawn through the present, that little gap, and to pile up below, as the past. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author Robert Pirsig made the observation that, contrary to common assumption, we do not face the future as we move towards it. Rather it is as if we are riding a horse in one direction while sitting in the saddle facing its opposite: we watch the past accumulate as we move back on, into the future. We are blind to the future, even though we sense it by drawing patterns of what to expect from the past (including those times we have been surprised!).

I think about how memory forms…

…as I watch the pile accumulate below. If we are traveling backwards into the future, then, as our memory accumulates, it changes how we see ourselves. The lower pile grows, and we grow in our memory of ourselves, but beyond that the sand says something else: that at any given point we only see the surface of ourselves in our memories: an image that is composed entirely of recent memories. When the wee impact crater of sand overflows and sends a cascade to cover the surface of the accumulating pile, it captures the way in which our deeper past is settled – undeniably present but always being re-imagined, obscured, re-coated by a layer of memory that is close in relevance, relatively speaking, to the present.

Up top we have the future: our hopes, dreams, and intentions. Not all will come to pass as we expect them to, but there is something to be said for how whatever we do – every day, in the present – contacts the distant horizon of our lives (perhaps it is our retirement, or even our eventual deaths) and makes a dimple in it that slowly grows.

We go toward it on a thread or river of movement, engendered by our present actions, and their consistency with each other, and eventually we become what we did.

And eventually that future, carved entirely out of the present, will pass through us completely. It will become “what has been”, and we will be gone. As well, somewhere in that dimpled mass of sand, though I cannot see it, I know there is a stream of moving sand: a river through which the particles flow to enter the gap of the present and accumulate as memories in our past. Our future then is projected outside of the present, like a “strange attractor” on the surface of some final moment, which becomes clearer and clear the closer we approach to it. We go toward it on a thread or river of movement, engendered by our present actions, and their consistency with each other, and eventually we become what we did. That invisible river fascinates me. I know what I value, and I work towards it: I can even see its image taking shape in the far future, but the path my actions are creating, not just in the present but in the near, mid, and far future – that will always be hidden until the moment it passes through the present.

That present moment…

…is the most enigmatic of all. Pure motion, no image. It is difficult to focus on, yet without it nothing would flow. I recently read David Abram’s Becoming Animal, in which the author tells us of his adventure in Nepal, being tutored by an old sorcerer in a technique of shapeshifting. The practice started the same: stare at a raven for hours on end. Don’t blink. Then, put your senses into the raven, develop sympathy with it. Put your sight into the raven, your smell, your touch, your hearing. Feel them located outside of your body. The altered state that resulted took Abram on a visionary flight through the mountains. Here I do the same: I put all my senses into that point of flow, the present moment, knowing how deeply connected it is to both the past and the future. I experience a synaesthesia of time. My mind releases, and there I am, within the moment, being filled up with a strength of presence that can only be drawn from, well, the present. And this sense is gold. As the days pass, I find it cropping up more and more in my daily life: be present, but connect that present to the ever approaching horizon of the future. Watch the memories accumulate, but always look for the river of moving time, that thread that is uniquely mine, projected out from my presence, and growing in form, like a blooming flower at the point of my eventual death. I know that this path is the one of least regrets, and of deepest fulfillment. Why? Because it comes from being here, for no other reason than because this is where I am.

So the lesson is what?

Respect your time. Don’t kill it, and take care to minimize its waste. Don’t work ALL the time, but dedicate some part of each day to just being awake, to recognizing that in a real sense you are in the company not only of your past, but of your future. All yourselves are here, in some way, at once. It is, after all, those awake moments more than anything else which will characterize the way the future forms, as habit creates a vortex in one’s mortal destiny, if you will. In the end, you become what you have done. I suppose it can be summed up as a way of choosing one’s actions, one’s values: Always do that which you wish to remember yourself as having done. That is a guideline that has been with me consciously for a decade, and I have never once regretted it.


This series is all about travel, and travel is all about time. I start with these somewhat abstract reflections because they are my compass, my mode of journeying through time, and really the starting point for any adventure. Over the next year, I will go to some strange, as well as some familiar places. I will look for the magic there, add some of my own, and tell you the stories. So, if you return in a month’s time, we’ll have a talk about the difference between “active” and “passive” traveling, I will consider the art of hitchhiking, and I will take you to meet a Tree that changed my life.

Get our weekly newsletter for in-depth reporting and analysis delivered straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time. Have a question? Contact us or review our privacy policy for more information.


Sign up for our weekly Indygestion newsletter


Sign up for the Indygestion newsletter

Each Saturday, we'll deliver a recap of all our in-depth reporting and analysis from the week.

Our donors make it possible.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s premiere outlet for progressive ideas is only possible with your support. Will you join us?

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top