The Circle of Now

In our home, there are eleven clocks. Some may say that eleven clocks in a home is eleven too many. I disagree. I will grant that a clock is no longer necessary in the twenty-first century. A home today is filled with devices that tell the time which we do not call clocks, things like appliances, televisions, and computers; the count of eleven clocks in our home includes none of these. A clock is a device which only tells the time. Even now, when the basic information they provide is ubiquitously accessible to me, I find that clocks have much to offer.

I don’t collect clocks. I am fascinated by time. Though I have on occasion worried that I am overly preoccupied with the subject, I have mostly accepted that time is, for better or worse, a central theme of my life. Time, of course, matters to everyone; we all are acutely aware of the limited time we have on this Earth. But beneath the counting down of a diminishing resource, there is a subtlety to time — a movement to it that is, when you listen, not unlike music. Time is not rigid. It is not the meter of a machine, but the ebb and flow of experience.

There is beauty, though, in the steady, numeric system a clock displays. The perfection and balance I perceive in the circle of numbers one through twelve may, of course, be itself a product of time. The twelve-hour hemi- of the twenty-four hour -sphere is how time has always been marked for me, and I’ve likely inherited a bias for it from 3,500 years of epigenetic passage. We humans have been marking time in day/night increments for at least that long.

However, beneath the numeric dial is an abstraction that provides a richer expression of time. The circle is the most succinct expression of perfection we have. It contains the grandest mysteries — that symmetry, balance, eternity should even exist, for instance — within the humble restraint of a simple visual idea: a line without end.

The circle is one of our most enduring symbols. We’ve been using it to express ideas since before we used words. Whatever notion we were trying to express — the sun, perhaps, or one of the many cycles of life — our first circle was likely scratched in dirt with a stick, not to last the next rain or strong gust of wind. The irony was probably not lost on the artist. Even the persistence of a later circle, carved in stone by a more ambitious author, had nothing on the eternity of The Circle.

Like every geometric form, the circle is unnatural. The strictest definition of a circle is a collection of points equidistant from a fixed central point. You will probably not find such a thing in nature. However, a circle’s most commonly identified property — curvature — is everywhere. So much of nature is round. From celestial bodies to human bodies to the atoms they comprise, roundness is consistent. But even though we are inclined to describe many natural forms as spheres or depict them as circular, they are hardly so precise. The Earth, for example, is not truly a sphere. It is an oblate spheroid. While gravity pulls matter toward a central point, which, on its own, would create a sphere, most celestial objects are also in a state of spin. The force created by the spinning motion of an object causes matter to gather at the center of the spin; in the case of planets like ours, that means they are wider than they are tall. Atoms, too, are not as round as our diagrams often depict them to be. An atom isn’t even really a singular thing; it is an irreducibly complex unit of matter composed of a nucleus — which is, itself, a collection of protons and neutrons — and at least one electron. Neither an atom’s nucleus or its electrons is a sphere. All of these elements are in constant motion, which means that the shape of an atom is defined by the motion of its elements. This is where things get very interesting. Because the sizes of atomic elements are so incredibly small, it is not possible to predict with any precision the location of an electron relative to an atom’s nucleus. The “shape” of an atom is, then, anyone’s guess. It contains all the places an electron could be. The average shape that might define is as likely round as it is unlikely spherical or circular. Roundness, roundness everywhere, but not a circle in sight.

That we can imagine a circle suggests, though, that circles do exist. With our mind’s eye, a circle can be seen in all the perfection that Plato ascribed to The Circle. And though the Platonic realm of perfect forms may be out of our reach, our ability to depict these forms is increasingly precise.

We’ve gone from an arm’s arc in the sand to compass curves on paper to vector projections on screens. And yet, there remain limitations. A computer-generated circle’s mathematical precision will always exceed the screen’s ability to faithfully render it. I find awe in that. That every circle is a symbol of perfection in a world where perfection only has meaning because of its impossibility is so mysterious that my body’s only means of processing the thought is to shiver. A circle is a ghost in this world.

The mandala is the midpoint between the flawed human scrawl and the machine’s mathematical model. It accepts the imperfection of the body and elevates the beauty it can achieve by patience. Mandalas often depict etherial domains, diagrams of spiritual attainment, or systems of transcendence. In that way, they are all metaphors, approximating the ineffable with the mundanity of marks and color. But they are also tools. To look upon a mandala is to enter into a practice: to train the eye to open the mind to release the spirit.

Typically, a mandala is a radial design placed within a square. This is fascinating in and of itself, as a conscious choice is made to use geometry to depict a temporal and somewhat paradoxical truth — the spirit within the human, the ghost in the machine. The square frame, though, is always penetrable. Each side of a mandala’s square will contain a gate, which serves as a point of entry for the eye to be drawn into the turning design within. That’s its formal function. The truth of the metaphor is the mystery of our existence — the boundlessness of spirit. A body may be a container for the soul, but it is not the container; the soul may come and go. The mandala, at its most basic, provides a microcosm of this principle. That it can be a means of mental practice — a tool to induce the transport of the mind, even for a moment — suggests it can be one of spiritual practice as well, so long as there is desire in the onlooker. Moments, after all, are the atoms of experience.

Of the eleven clocks in our home, my favorites are the mandalas. One, in particular, struck me immediately as being more of a symbol for daily reflection than a timepiece. That’s why I bought it. Its face is a gorgeous, radial gradient of color representing the seasons, and its single hand makes one full rotation every 365 days. Today, the hand is between “two and three o’clock,” entering into the green quadrant of spring. I put this clock in a place where I would see it always in passing. It hangs by our front door, which is at the foot of the stairs. I see it every time I come downstairs in the morning or go upstairs at night. I see it every time I leave the house and again, when I return. Each glimpse is an opportunity to stop and be drawn in to its spin and consider the truth this mandala contains — that time is not a substance but an experience; not a noun, but a verb. Time is change. Just making the mental leap from the twelve-hour radial schematic of an ordinary clock to the one-year span of this one begins a process of slowing down. You begin with a simple question: “What is this clock measuring?” To answer it, you take time. You use it to understand its expansiveness. You feel it growing, not shrinking. This clock measures time given, not time taken away.

Stewart Brand describes The Clock of the Long Now — a clock designed to last 10,000 years — in a beautiful way:

“Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.”

Many aren’t convinced of the utility of such a clock. Why build a machine to mark time we will never experience? Why sink millions of dollars into a monument to futility? But what are monuments for? They’re reminders of events; symbols meant to recall for the viewer the values they espouse. What Stewart Brand describes is a monument to time. Marking spans that exceed human experience is intentionally paradoxical. To imagine a human alive to hear its chime a thousand years from now is to consider the slow persistence of life across time, and to wonder at it.

My clock, my household’s mandala, does what Brand describes. It is sufficiently impressive and well-engineered to embody time deeper than I can feel on a momentary basis. A year contains a multitude of moments; to consider a year in every moment I look at this clock is mental and spiritual exercise. The wonder of the stretching and twisting of time is the charisma of the clock. It does for thinking about time what any image out of scale of my own perception — Earth from afar, or the atom within — can do. It makes the measurement the material. Time, not lost, but experienced right now.

If we must think of time as a currency, then it is better to think of it as invested, not spent. This, like many truths, is too slippery for matter to hold for very long. And so symbols are necessary to help us retain the truths we capture in moments of wonder and clarity. The next time you look upon a clock and trace with your eye the sweep of its hands, think of now rather than then. Make it a mandala. Practice its discipline.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 5, 2021,   In Essays

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