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Time and Soul: Where Has All the Meaningful Time Gone-and Can We Get it Back?

Time and Soul: Where Has All the Meaningful Time Gone-and Can We Get it Back?

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by Jacob Needleman, John Cleese (Foreword by)

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- By the author of Money and the Meaning of Life (55,000 copies sold)


- By the author of Money and the Meaning of Life (55,000 copies sold)

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"Needleman is much loved and respected by his hundreds of inquiring students. He himself is a sower of spiritual seeds."

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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5.00(w) x 7.18(h) x 0.52(d)

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Where Has All the Meaningful Time Gone—and Can We Get It Back?

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Jacob Needleman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-251-7

Chapter One


There is a novel I want to write. The hero is a man of fifty, which was my age when I began dreaming of this story. His life is in crisis, as was my own then, and through magic he is sent back in time to meet himself at the age of sixteen. The hero's name is Eliot: Eliot Appleman. My name is Jacob: Jacob Needleman.

I speak of this as a fiction, but in my heart I don't think of it that way. Doesn't the sixteen-year-old Jacob (or Jerry, as I am called) still exist? And isn't it possible to go back and be with him? Time? Surely, time is not what we think it is. We are wrong about so many lesser things; how could we imagine we understand the greatest of all mysteries, time?

The hero of my story, Eliot Appleman, is a psychiatrist. As for myself, I am a professor of philosophy. Both Eliot and I presume to an ability to see beneath the surface of human affairs. He has been trained to look into the psyche for hidden patterns and I, the philosopher, regard the whole world as a tissue of appearances, behind which there operate great laws that can be discerned only through what the ancient teachers called wisdom.

In the course of this story the older Eliot learns that he cannot navigate his life without opening his mind and heart to a reality that the scientifically trained "Dr. Appleman" might have regarded as a mystical fantasy. Here, too, my own life corresponds, but in a reverse way: in that critical period of my life I was to learn that one cannot go far with great metaphysical questions, such as the question of time, without the hard work of confronting one's own inner emptiness.


I dream most often of the novel's opening scenes in which the two Eliots first meet each other. The teenage Eliot is at a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia with a young woman who is a year older. Her name is Elaine. He is falling in love for the first time in his life.

It is Saturday afternoon, the last weekend of the summer. The Turin Grotto is busy; black-jacketed waiters are everywhere on the run. The older Eliot quietly arranges to be seated at a table next to the two young people. They are absorbed in each other and do not notice him. Breathlessly, he eavesdrops on their conversation and watches them out of the corner of his eye.

The teacher who sent Eliot back in time gave him no special instructions about the laws of time travel. And Eliot was so stunned by what was being offered him that he did not even ask questions.

He has been sent back to study himself at what seemed to him to be a decisive and defining moment in his life. Nothing is said to him about whether he is allowed to intervene in the past and influence the future. Eliot soon discovers why such a warning has not been given: it is simply not necessary. The events of our lives are so tightly interconnected, and our lives as a whole proceed within such a vast network of purposes which we do not see, that no ordinary man or woman is able to know the real turning points of his or her life, the real crossroads where meaningful change can take place. Without that kind of knowledge, we can press and poke at our lives where we will, but it will have no more effect than a temporary disturbance that soon closes over again, as tissue closes over a minor wound. The kind of changes we seek to make in our lives are usually no more than superficial wounds in the body of time.

What Eliot is overhearing at the table next to him is a tumultuous conversation during which the young woman begins to cry. As yet, the older Eliot is so overwhelmed by the mere fact of his being there that he cannot even trust himself to look at the young Eliot. I mean to make a great deal of the moment when the two Eliots first look into each other's eyes. The younger Eliot will instinctively turn away without knowing why—as though he had just touched fire. The older Eliot will feel a tender sadness and the hint of a kind of love for which he has no name. I want to treat that moment as an example of what happens inside all of us when we even fleetingly breach our ordinary sense of time. What we loosely call memory is, in fact, the surface of a capacity that, in its depths, offers the only hope for mankind and for us as individuals. But we are content and conditioned to stay on the surface of memory; and there, on the surface of memory, we remain prisoners of time.

The older Eliot struggles to find an attitude of objectivity as he hears the young woman's tearful accusations. He knows very well the effect they will have on the young Eliot and what that portends about his whole future. But it is not the kind of knowing that makes a difference.

The older Eliot believed that he remembered this particular scene. But he sees now that he did not remember it at all. So that is what she really said! So that is how she really acted! No wonder I was so helpless!

Suddenly, she puts a cigarette between her lips. The young Eliot fumbles, looking everywhere for a match. Without thinking twice, the older man reaches over with his lighter. The woman looks at him with dark eyes as she lights her cigarette. A powerful current flows between them. His hand grazes hers as he takes the lighter away.

TIME AND PASSION The older man's heart pounds and he hastily turns back to his table as an anguished passion begins to rise in him. Emotions that are part of our essence do not change. They are covered over, but great feeling is not in time. It is always now; it does not know about the future or the past.

Very well, then, with what do we perceive the passage of time? Is time only a construction of thought—thought disconnected from feeling? Yet nothing seems more real and unchangeable than time and its passing. Nothing seems more constricting than the limitations of time. And nothing more powerful than our impulse to live, to live longer, to live forever and not disappear in the unholy infinity of unending time. Do we have so little time in our lives because we allow ourselves so little real passion?

The young woman runs out of the restaurant and the young Eliot remains at the table, sunk in confusion and despair. The older man hesitatingly starts to go over to him, but the young Eliot suddenly throws money on the table and runs out after the woman. The older man remains at his table and tries calmly to drink his cold water and to remember the aim for which he came back in time: to study, to understand.


It has long ago been said that time does not exist in itself. What we call time is an abstraction, something for philosophers to analyze and for scientists to make use of in their equations. Time in itself cannot be seen or sensed. Yet it enters into everything, as was said by Solomon the Preacher. Everything, everything has its own kind of time. And we will never solve the problem of time without understanding this ancient truth. We will never "manage" time, we will never understand our past, we will never be able to prepare our future without grasping the unique coloration of time in every real, human event, or every real, cosmic event—which means events that have breadth, length, love and hate, light and fury, energy, meaning, struggle and the silence of universal law. This universe, this galaxy, this earth, this body we call our own, all live and breathe and feel and have mind—and therefore they are infused by time. It is not only we who love and hate, who sow and reap. It is true of everything each in its way. What the Preacher has said of human life is actually being said of all that exists under the hand of God—that is, "under the sun."

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance ...


The scene shifts to later in the day. The older Eliot is driving in a car. He knows—he remembers—where to find the younger Eliot.

The young Eliot is on his way home, slowly walking along a parkway in the oppressive afternoon heat, not really caring what happens. The older Eliot slows the car as he approaches his younger self dejectedly walking along the edge of the parkway. For a brief moment he thinks of what he has left in order to come back in time. Back there, everywhere he turned he was crashing against the lies that made up his life. The facade of a "shared understanding" with his wife could no longer conceal the lack of any real connection between them. The young heart within him long ago was left to live on fantasy and resignation. As for his children, his natural love for them was again and again thwarted by ideas of what a father was supposed to be and by preconceived ideas of how his children were supposed to be toward him: lies in the form of guilt alternating with resentment. His profession? How long had it been since the trained psychiatrist had actually heard or seen a patient? Lies in the form of techniques that masqueraded as attention. What had become of the yearning for truth that had first drawn him to his work, where was the love of reality that saw the laws of God in the laws of the mind? Was that young physician still alive—somewhere in him, somewhere in time?

With sudden, startling clarity he sees the self-pitying slope of young Eliot's shoulders, a vision that goes straight into the older man's heart and soul and makes him aware of the essence of this characteristic emotion of his. This one glimpse shows the trained psychiatrist that neither his nor his patients' memories are as real or as deep as they need to be. My God, he thinks as he slows the car beside the boy, I have never really remembered; no one has. What a fraud: all this remembering is only the work of a small part of the mind, mixing its accidental thoughts and feelings with scattered, random fragments of the past. We have never deeply remembered! We have never really gone back in time. We have never seen the roots of our being with the whole of our mind.


Walking along the edge of the parkway, the young man is now aware of the dark green car slowing down alongside him. The passenger door opens.

"Need a lift?" the driver says.

Eliot had never before hitchhiked or accepted a ride from a stranger. But now, without the slightest hesitation, he jumps into the car and shuts the door. For a moment he wonders at that. Perhaps, he thinks, he was so preoccupied with his worries that he had no room in his mind to be afraid or even normally cautious. Or perhaps it was something else.

The car speeds off. "Where are you going?" the stranger asks.

How will this scene now proceed? How to understand what happens in us when we first make contact with our fate? Fate: the word has lost its meaning for us, it has become a cliché; at best a superstition. But suppose there really exists such a thing as fate? Suppose, underneath the windswept ripples of our everyday battles with time, our anxious, everyday efforts to steer our lives, there exists a deeper current carrying something essential in us to a predetermined future? And what would that something be within ourselves that lives, or tries to live, wants to live, beneath the surface of time as we know it; that wants to break into the daylight of our consciousness—there to grow with us, perhaps? What happens in an individual when we first feel that something deeper within ourselves is calling to us, trying to see us, not only from the past but from the future—a future we cannot even imagine in the midst of our crowded, complicated minutes, hours and days, but which is in fact what we are really starving for when we are starved for time?

To the question, "Where are you going?" the young Eliot is tempted to answer, "Anywhere, I don't care." But instead he says, simply:


Eliot is only vaguely aware that stranger seems to know which route to take. He is drowning in his emotions about Elaine. Why was she trying to push him away, and why did her pushing him away have the effect of making him even more attached to her? More willing to make insane promises to her that would destroy his life?

The car is humming along the leafy East River Parkway, heading toward North Philadelphia. The open windows let in the hot, humid wind carrying the fragrances of late August.

The voice of the stranger breaks into young Eliot's thoughts:

"I guess pretty soon school will be starting for you."

Eliot turns his head to look at him: stocky, medium height with broad shoulders; small, sinewy hands gripping the wheel. His longish hair and wispy beard are faded brown heavily streaked with gray. Young Eliot rightly guesses him to be about fifty.

Eliot feels a sensation of warmth and relaxation and starts to respond to the small-talk question about school. But thoughts of Elaine are commanding his attention. Of course, he cannot know that his actual future is sitting there next to him, plainly visible, and that the relaxation he feels is, in part, due to his subliminal intuition that nothing of what he fears is going to happen. He cannot consciously know that his fear and anguish about the future are based completely on imagination—or, rather, one part truth to a hundred parts imagination. He cannot know this, but still he is bemused to see how easily he is set free for a moment from his anguish. Nevertheless, he turns his attention back to Elaine—in a sense, he allows his attention to be swallowed up again by fear and imagination.

My intention here is to let the story begin to explore our general pathology of time—in this case our crippled relationship to the future. Under the surface of our continual worrying, our tense efforts to foresee and manipulate the future in our thoughts and in the countless unnecessary actions that are, simply, what we may rightly call a waste of time—under the surface of all this agitation, which comprises so much of our waking life, there is a knowing which can be very deeply hidden, but which sometimes surfaces for a moment—as in the ancient symbol of a great, wise fish brooding deep beneath the surface of the waters. In certain symbologies this profound inner knowing is represented by the salmon—which takes its name from Solomon the Wise. Not only is this the wisest of the creatures of the deep, but its action is directed toward one thing—to struggle with incomprehensible perseverance against the onrushing current. There is a wisdom in us that knows and intends in a manner that we are blind to while in the course of our lives we are driven helplessly away from our source by the currents of automatic time. There is that in us which could give us an entirely different kind of future than the one we are trying to fabricate in our anxious imaginings, and an entirely different kind of future than what actually awaits us at the end of our individual allotment of automatically flowing time. But, as we are, we do not and cannot see the future for what it is. All our agitation, all our planning and preparing, all our manipulations never lead us toward the future as it actually takes form. We can barely even imagine what it will be like to cross to the other side of the room, far less imagine what our life will actually be like in five years or one or six months or even in a week or a day. It is one of the fundamental illusions of humankind that we can imagine the future in any true sense. We may pick certain aspects of the future and predict them, but the main thrust of the future, with all its levels of interconnecting events and detail, is never seen at all. This lack is due to our state of being; it has nothing whatever to do with the nature of time itself.


Eliot keeps casting sidelong glances at the stranger, who has kept his eyes forward and has allowed the silence to exist without attempting further conversation. But when the car leaves the parkway and is stopped at a traffic light, the stranger suddenly turns to face Eliot.


Excerpted from TIME AND THE SOUL by JACOB NEEDLEMAN Copyright © 2003 by Jacob Needleman. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jacob Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of many books, including The Essential Marcus Aurelius, Why Can't We Be Good?, The American Soul, The Wisdom of Love, Time and the Soul, The Heart of Philosophy, Lost Christianity, and Money and the Meaning of Life.

Cleese is known the world over for the roles he has created and played in Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda, and Fierce Creatures.

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Time and Soul: Where Has All the Meaningful Time Gone-and Can We Get it Back? 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book while on deployment and it really helped me through some devastating times.