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More about Time and Health

Henri Bergson is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. His thinking on memory and perception includes an innovative take on how we perceive time and our modern attitudes to time.

Without going into his philosophical arguments too much, consider their possible practical consequences on how you handle time in your day-to-day existence and, hence, your health.

Briefly, time can be perceived in two ways, as clock time or as experienced time. Clock time is measurable and the measurements can be analysed. Experienced time is how we feel about any period of our real life. Many of our problems, according to Bergson, stem from our inability to keep these different concepts apart.

Our usual reliance on clock time misleads us because any sequence is subdivided into a series of discreet points in time. Seconds add up to minutes, minutes to hours and so we imagine that we are analysing time in terms of exact measurements just as we do with distances between two points in space.

So, we operate as if time could be a sum of stationary moments, a little like a series of stills adding up to a complete film.

’Real time’ does not however consist of discreet moments but of continuous events that flow ’in a never-ceasing rhythm’. No string of one-by-one moments, then, but moments that continually join and fuse: Bergson’s comparison is with a melody in which the notes follow each other but cannot be separated since the tone of one influences the next.

Bergson’s arguments met with a certain resistance from others, including Albert Einstein, but have inspired many philosophers, academics, artists and writers.Perhaps they will inspire you to ask questions about your health. We will now go on to consider three areas that may be relevant to you.

  1. To fragment clock time or to experience real time

We often try to carve up time to make it fit our timetables. To plan efficiently in clock time, we finesse our arrangements in hours and minutes. But, as Bergson sees it, minutes and hours are only symbols of our attempts to reinterpret reality in standardised units. Like all symbols, they give a skewed view of reality.

But, when we are completely engaged in the present, we perceive real time through intuition. It happens for instance when we join wholeheartedly in actions like boisterous play with children, sport, music-making and dance. Or in uncomplicated stillness, perhaps contemplating nature, mindfulness or prayer.

Intuition is our only means of arriving at a complete experience of reality. Bergson explains that intuition is like strolling through a town, and clock time like studying the town on a drawing.  People who are very much alive in the here and now can be said to ‘live in the flow’– a mode of being that has been shown to reduce stress and increase wellbeing and health.

Naturally, we must all adjust to modern society with its insistence on planning and synchronicity but, now and then. It is surely worth asking yourself this: Do I tend to carve up time, or have I truly entered into the moment-to-moment flow?

  1. Striving to reach a state of perfection or experience reality

Perhaps you recognise in yourself a constant drive towards new goals as if the meaning of your life was to reach certain desirable states: if only my pain would stop, my weight were ideal, my project a success, my house or my holiday perfect. As if time was nothing but a route to something else – bigger and better.

According to Bergson, we are deceived by the symbols we use to measure clock time: symbolic entities such as definite dates and times of day that are designed to impress us with the concept of static situations and times of happiness that can be captured, just as a photo captures a moment in time. While we are, probably in vain, chasing elusive ideals, we miss out on experiences in real time as it flows by. In this way, we are actually missing out on life itself.

That is why, in our goal-oriented world, it would be worth asking more often: Do you focus on the journey or the goal, on reality or its symbolic representation?

  1. You change constantly, whether you want to or not

While we have been working on this set of web pages, we have been talking to a variety of people about health and lifestyle. It turned out to be quite common for them to say that they’re fine and don’t want to change anything as in, for instance: “I’m pleased with the way things have panned out, so I can’t think of anything to change in my life right now”. Or this: “I’ve already changed my habits as much as I can.” Yet others say that change is not for them, it’s too late anyway.

 The underlying assumption is often that a change entails a disturbance of some situation that would otherwise have remained constant. This has its roots in our habitual take on clock time as a series of pre-set units.

This notion, Bergson reminds us, is wrong and unreal. On the contrary, reality – the moment-to-moment flow – is in constant movement. This means that our body and our surroundings are also in a constant state of change, whether we like it or not. Your health, your life changes today, regardless of the lifestyle changes you made yesterday.

That is why we have a choice: to affirm change and to a limited extent, try to modify the way it affects us or else, we have to close our eyes and passively allow ourselves to be carried along.

In which way would you like to change yourself just now?


Henri Bergson (1859 -1941) has become a focus of renewed interest. His works, often collections of articles and essays, are being republished. Most of the material discussed here is drawn from his article Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), that became part of The Creative Mind, a collection published e.g. by Dover Publications, 2012.

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