Wisdom of the Maya: Perceptions of Time

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The following is excerpted from Transcendent Wisdom of the Maya: The Ceremonies and Symbolism of a Living Tradition by Gabriela Jurosz-Landa, published by Inner Traditions.

On May 16, Gabriela Jurosz-Landa will be discussing her new book, Transcendent Wisdom of the Maya, on an Evolver Awakening live community call, where participants are invited to ask questions and join the conversation.

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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, as reasoned by Parmenides. The Maya concept of time can also be defined as twofold, as Absolute Time and Ordinary Time, although there may be many other layers of time to be discussed in the future. The two approaches differ, however, in a significant way. 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” (Vogt 1985, 167),* and, as is commonly known, the Ancient Maya have created numerous calendars calculating a variety of what might be called rhythms of time (details in part 3 of this book). The Maya do not count their days for the purpose of counting a number entity that has been cleaned of its substance. Time is not only moving but also has substance filled with life and intention. They 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. What they are and how the Maya use them, much of this book will expose.

*See also Vogt’s concept of “replication” (1969, 571).

*This is not to be confused with Parmenides’s idea of static time being immobile.

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 premise of a concept of time as a living being or beings, which is supported by the Maya concept of time, will require further observation and evaluation. Nevertheless, in the light of this thought I respectfully question Einstein’s famous quotation “God does not play dice” and wonder if someone does play with dice after all.

*This is not to be confused with George Berkeley’s (1734) concept stating that space depends on minds.

Clifford Geertz (1973, 391f) 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. (More will be explained in part 3 of this book.)

In light of the concept of time as living entities as described above, it is not surprising that the Maya relate time to the human body. Mr. Tigüilá, among others, demonstrated this for me using the central sculptures in the Plaza Oxlajuj B’aqtun. Mr. Tigüilá translates the Quichéan word on the plaque at the entrance to the plaza, b’aqtun, into English as “coccyx.” He explained that the coccyx is the very “center of Maya cosmology.” Envisioning this reveals the gap between Maya and Western thinking, and possibly our inability to grasp the significance of time in its depth. While Western thought has ripped apart the understanding of time and space, the Maya see them as tied together, even considering a human being as a physical and visible microcosmos for the concept of time. The correlation between micro- and macrocosmos is real to the Maya, and the connection is reflexivity. The Maya are educated to think reflexively, while the people in the industrialized world, I would argue, need to relearn the flexibility of mind that connects the world’s dimensions—perhaps by studying Comenius and/or a certain phenomenological approach.

To the Maya, the coccyx represents the very nucleus of time. In it, they see a time cycle concluding and then revolving back to its beginning, starting a new cycle thereafter. This invisible and yet visually imaginable concept teaches us how the Maya perceive the human being as a part of the cosmic movements. Humans are embedded in the universe, where they hold their place.* The coccyx, to the Maya, is a place where past and future meet to conclude creation and then create all over again. The underlying imagery reflects a biologically mirrored or integrated display of universal time. The concept has a visual correspondence to the universal macrocosmos as well as a tangible one to the biological microcosmos of a human being. In other words, time has a manifestation that is reflected in human biology. Intimately correlated, man is a part of the cosmos and its manifestation. There is no separation between nature and man. Time-space and the influencing forces within it are the structures that human life and actions depend on and are moved by. As Mercedes de la Garza would say, “Time orders history” (1975, 103), with an emphasis on “orders.”

*In Christianity, the body of Jesus Christ placed in the center of the cross represents a similar point of significance of cosmic dimension.

In archaeological glyphic depictions, the ancient Maya carry their ancestor in the back part of the lower body where the coccyx resides. Here, in the nucleus of time, the coccyx symbolizes the past and is simultaneously a link to the future, because humans move through time. José Luis Tigüilá says that it is where past, present, and future come together. On the forehead, they wear a symbol of their guardian spirit (nawal), which is the energy of the calendar day on which they were born. Everything depicted in a human’s world has its corresponding equal in the universe. Perhaps with the Maya one might say that matter, including human beings, is made out of time.

Perceptions of Cyclic Order

The Maya respect for time depicts each person as a biological individual or member of a legacy and as an element of time cycles. A person is not only a singular or individual sequential occurrence in a historical time line but an eternal protagonist embedded and participating in recurring events in vast cycles of time as well. The fact that time cycles reoccur might indicate that the things or energies within it, including humans, reoccur as well.

Henri-Charles Puech (1958) explains all Gnostic systems of time as follows:

Time is part of a cosmic order; on its own level it is an effect and an expression of that order. If it moves in a circle it is because, in its own way, it imitates the cyclical course of the stars on which it depends. Its endlessness, its repetition of conjunctures, are, in a mobile form, images of the unchanging, perfect order of an eternal universe, eternally regulated by fixed laws, an order of which the heavens, with the uniform revolution of their luminaries, offer still more sublime images. (43)

The Greeks, as many pre-Christian cultures, conceived of time as above all cyclical or circular, returning perpetually upon itself, self-enclosed, under the influence of astronomical movements which command and regulate its course with necessity. For Christianity, on the contrary, time is bound up with the Creation and continuous action of God. [As opposed to the Greek view, the world of the Christians (including God) is created in time and must end in time.] (46)

The world of the Christians . . . begins with the first chapter of Genesis and ends in the eschatological perspectives of the Apocalypse. Moreover, the Creation, the Last Judgment, and the intermediary period extending from one to the other are all unique. This created, unique world, which began, which endures, and which will end in time, is finite, limited at both extremities of its history. It is neither eternal nor infinite in its duration; it will never be repeated, nor will the events that occur in it. The world is wholly immersed in time. (46)

It is needless to point out that humanity has had many definitions of freedom, but none of them was lived eternally so far, which left the human being “free” only in a temporary time and space. 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 (1958, 42), 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.

*. . . and that the Maya count in the measure of nawales.

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.

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” (1958, 42).

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. (41)

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.”

*As revealed to me in personal conversation with members of the Maya administration.

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 spectrum, 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.” (See the introduction to this book.)

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.

Time being tied to the bodily experience furthermore enables the skilled Maya shaman to overpass time-space borders and travel in time and space. The problem of physicality in Western philosophy does not arise for the Maya, since they are aware of a nonphysical being within the human body that can change time and space by leaving the material body.

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