I went hiking one autumn on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that cuts through the northwestern corner of Connecticut. I picked up the trail a mile or so outside the town of Kent. The trail meandered through a marshy cow pasture, then up a steep rocky slope to the top of the mountain ridge that runs north and south along Route 7. This stretch is densely wooded, and often there is no clearly defined path. You have to follow the trail blazes painted on rocks and trees, and these are far enough apart that you sometimes have to hunt for them. Once you find one, you've got to lock onto the next one, and keep a sharp eye out for turns; otherwise, you are quickly lost.
We can think of time as a trail that opens up before us in dense woods. We must be careful to keep our eye on the path immediately before us. As soon as we allow our gaze to wander to the horizon, we are apt to stumble and fall or miss some crucial turn altogether. The mind is always trying to get ahead of itself. The truth is that we can't see past the present moment, not by a millisecond. But that's okay, because the present moment will always point us in the right direction, as long as we pay close attention to what is happening right now.
"We think in eternity, but we move slowly through time," Oscar Wilde wrote. Actually, I think he got that backwards. We think in time; indeed, we have no choice in the matter, because time is embedded in the grammar of our thoughts. But we live in the eternity of the present moment, which contains all our thoughts about the past and future. This becomes obvious as soon as we rein in our thoughts and see how we actually experience life. Right now is all there is and all there can be. When we stop thinking about the past and future, we discover that's all they are: thoughts.
We feel the passing of time like an amputee feels a missing limb. Time is a beguiling illusion, nothing more, a trick of memory. We remember yesterday and the day before and tell ourselves that time has passed. But what does that mean exactly? How is an hour different from an inch or a gallon or any other abstract unit of measurement? We believe time flows uniformly from past to future, but our subjective experience of it is quite different. Pain or boredom will slow time to a crawl, yet a lifetime can rush by in a blink.
Our thoughts are like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland who takes his watch out of his waistcoat pocket and cries, "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I shall be late!" And off we go down some rabbit hole. We can be tramping through the woods on a glorious fall day and be totally preoccupied with how soon we will have to turn back, when we should stop for lunch or some errand we have to run before we get back home. There is no remedy except to bring one's thoughts back to the present moment. Suddenly the tyranny of time dissolves into nothingness. There is only the crunching of leaves underfoot, the wind in the trees overhead, the warmth of the morning sun on one's face. Reality.