Field noun.1 an area of open land...4. Physics: the region in which a particular condition prevails, esp. one in which a force or influence is effective regardless of the presence or absence of a material medium.


Introduction to Horizontal and Vertical Time

I took the photograph above in a park in Phnom Penh, a fortunate moment of composition that captured three boys and three monkeys interacting. As the playful grimace on the one boys face illustrates, the monkeys were a bit intimidating; street monkeys surviving in a park frequented by strolling families and drug addicts (it was rumored the monkeys sometimes sniffed left-behind glue).

Just as with the boys and monkeys, all living creatures experience life as occurring within an environment - jail cell or a mansion, ocean floor or treetop - and within that, the conditions governing that environment. The Wheel of Vertical Time is an illustration of the environment or field our life occurs in; its openness, as well as subtle forces that play upon us in this field. These forces are subtle not because they are weak, but because it takes time-within-awareness to notice them.

Curiously, as soon as we bring awareness to the "inner" conditions of our lives, we readily find we are in a field - one we know little about, one attempting to communicate with us, one with messages of truth that are constantly being offered, like ripe fruit on an unclaimed tree.


Horizontal and Vertical Time


The the intersection of "horizontal" and "vertical" time is one way of illustrating this field of space-energy. We have a path to move from a conceptual-mental relationship to time and place into a more direct and less mediated one, a place where we experience that time itself is a concept; there is not a past and future that we can find outside of the present moment, outside of nowness. Past and future are seemingly real, whereas nowness is absolutely real, non-divisible.

Seeming time is "horizontal," it has a past that is remembered and a future that is imagined (or more accurately expected or hoped for). Horizontal time is linear and collective in that narratives about it are shared and agreed (or disagreed) upon. Vertical time is "outside" of linear time in the way the sky is "outside" of clouds or birds; it contains them, but is more than them. Horizontal time is by nature conditional and becomes increasingly habitual as we leave childhood and become adults. Vertical time intersects and disrupts our experience of linear time; it resets or refreshes us.

Vertical time comes to us in small doses. Moments of awareness; moments when we feel more, see more, feel awake or experience epiphany. These moments are very small, yet absolute. Mist on a peony; the sight of one's child approaching; a drink of water. These moments cannot be further divided, any more than an epiphany or God can be. Yet each of these moments also create a conversation, but one very different than the narrative of agreed upon linear time. Each moment is a "word" in a streaming sentence of meaning: peony, child, water. It is possible to experience this as a conversation in a more continuous way, as actual "guidance."

Composer-theoretician John Cage said we must "quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences...

A quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come into our senses and up through our dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living."

Our "ego," in the sense John Cage used the word, imposes its own narrative of hope and fear, of expectations and and uncertainty upon us. What obstructs us is our thought stream and how we identify with it, a narrative we acquired and fell into believing. But within us are other thoughts - or other ways of experiencing thoughts. Ibn 'Arabi called thoughts "visitors from heaven that cross the field of the heart." Just as there is a great difference between how we normally experience a peony and that of receiving its conversation, there is a great difference between how we normally experience thought and that of experiencing thought as a visitor from heaven.

The Wheel of Vertical Time




The "wheel of vertical time" is a symbolic map for entering vertical time and discovering guidance. The vertical axis represents the vivid and energetic "place" we stand in (or sit or sleep in). Creative or spiritual inspiration streams "down," while the earth pushes "up," asking us to receive the inspiration and manifest it. Horizontally, behind us, is our past, something we can never retrieve or revisit, but that is the source of who we are now, and this we can draw strength from. In front is our future, unknown and not dependent - ultimately - on the past. Here, in the next moment, we can "break" with the past, with the conditioned stream of conventions, habits, arbitrary rules and blind dogma, and fall into our future - a kind of gap - the moment of unrestricted creative potential.


The Practice of the Wheel of Vertical Time

This wheel or mandala is an expression of living within vertical time. It is not a “mandala” that one visualizes so much as it is a reminder that can be applied to any moment of time; a way of practicing in daily life as one stands in ones room or walks down the street. It is also a way of reflecting on our life, identifying the issues we face and how to approach them.

The basic principle of vertical time is to become the place of “pure receptivity and manifestation” so that one is awake and able to be the “servant of the present moment.” This corresponds to the "primal" or "earlier heaven" arrangement of the I Ching (and its eight trigrams), where heaven or pure yang is above and earth or pure yin is below. In the case, having “pure receptivity” means to reset between heaven and earth, to be in both worlds with the intention of “nothing is moving me except my seeking them.”

As long as we are alive we are standing (sitting or lying) on the earth and we are part of the particular conventions we were born into (including having a human body). Without leaving this world, we switch or tune into the world of heaven, the dralas. As they are joined and we recognize vertical time: pure alignment or awake.

The verticality of the human posture obviously expresses vertical time (is the vessel of vertical time) and so does our “subtle” body, particularly the “central column,” as it is referred to in many systems of tantric or inner practice. A tree is a literal image of vertical time, and a powerful reminder or metaphoric model of how we ourselves might be. Our lower pelvis and legs connect us to the earth just as a tree’s lower trunk and roots do. Like the branches of a tree that extend out and up and embrace the sky, our upper body, head and arms do the same.

The unchanging, primordially awake and always available wisdom that is ours to recognize and tune into. It is of course not “outside” of us (any more than it is “inside”), yet we correctly identify this with what is above. Through simple awareness we tune into this - and without becoming aware we have no way to begin, no way to develop ourselves, no way to proceed and no way to find mastery. The horse is the image of what is below, literally what we ride.

When we talk about the other “directions” of vertical time we talk about what is in front and in back of us. This corresponds to the I Ching hexagrams #30, the Clinging Fire or Illumination is in front and #29 The Abysmal water, abyss, danger pitfalls is in back of us. These arrangements are always relative to the context, and if we ask: Why is danger or pitfall in back of us, it is because we are always holding onto the past, and we are simultaneously constructing our expectations of the future from the past. We create a dual-sided prison, a pit we continuously fall into.

To live in vertical time means to free-fall. The past, in a relative sense, truly is an abyss. As Ibn Arabi commented, "The present moment does not return." We cannot retrieve a single second of what has happened, yet we live in our internal narratives, the thoughtful, grandiose or puny perspectives we have about it all. Our past drops away instantly, it is an abyss we can never retrieve or change. Thus, the way to live in vertical time is to instantly release the past, to free-fall.

The future, as Chögyam Trungpa taught (see Glimpses of Abhidharma, chapter Auspicious Coincedence), is vacant. When we fall into the gap between the stream of our conventional mind-consciousness and the immediate vacancy we “land” fully awake. In this free-fall we discover “our” auspicious coincidence, not ours in a personal sense, but ours in a participatory and less-dualistic sense. We land in the only reliable element or ground that there is, space.

What we are facing does show us how to proceed. This corresponds to “seeking illumination” the essence of hexagram #30, which, like the other three “timeless” or “eternal” hexagrams (#1, 2, 29) applies to all situations. Thus, this wheel also is a depiction of these four timeless hexagrams, the makeup of vertical time, of living in the challenge.




Practice of the Lineage Tree

The “lineage tree” represents the root of our inspiration and vision, as well as what has literally brought us to this point: all our relations – parents, grandparents, friends, family – and our teachers. These roots also include places and events. The tree should be imagined creatively, intuitively, flexibly. Many people or events or places could be brought to it that we have otherwise forgotten or have not considered worthy or appropriate. The tree should be comprehensive and should include both the “sacred” and “profane.”

The tree is also a source of healing. In life, people we once loved will inevitably become “enemies” (as in divorce and other relationship breakups) or simply lost through movement and over time and through death. We can include these people on the tree and recognized the growth we shared with them; we can include them with gratitude and make them part of the living present. Even if a branch becomes broken, it is no less part of the tree of who we are.

Anyone we place (through depiction and/or imagination) on the tree will no longer be purely in the past, but will “approach” us from the future. We are after all – in this moment – facing them, which means to face east, the only place we can ever face, the place of what arises. Thus our relationship to all our ancestors is one of creative arising and is “governed” by the dralas, auspicious coincidence.

Tree as a Practice

The tree is also a “body-practice.” When we stand we can imagine ourselves as a tree, we can be a tree. Chinese qigong recognizes the analog between the human body and a tree. In standing, our legs form a sense of trunk, but even more so, roots. These roots extend into our feet and through our feet and can actually extend (intangibly) into the earth (even infinitely far). From our pelvic floor our upper body, while also a trunk, is the trees branches; we can tune into the sense of verticalness which extends up and out – up all the way into the vastness of heaven, the cosmos (infinitely). If we extend our arms up over our head we bring about and amplify the experience of branches reaching toward infinity. Like the top of a huge tree, we ourselves become (are) a vessel for receiving the sky.

The Posture of Lying Down and Practice

Naturally, every posture of the human body is an expression of vertical time and each holds us in a different way, as well as bringing forth unique dimensions of the wheel. When we lie down, we naturally connect to earth. We receive earth’s complete support. To lie down is most fundamentally to rest, recover, restore (nearly all words that begin with the prefix re are restorative, salubrious). Lying down also offers access to sleep and dream.

Earth in this sense is safety. We must feel safe – and often private – before we lay down. It is in the support and safety of earth that we sleep, dream, rest, make love. We recover from illness or injury this way, and this is the way we normally die. The safety, nourishment and support of the earth can also become a negative cocoon, the place where habitual patterns of sloth, laziness and ignorance set in.

If we lie down during the day we can explore the sensations and phenomenology of this posture, the differing ways we experience horizontal and vertical time. This exploration often cannot be easily made when we lie down at the end of the day when we are tired and lacking in alertness – then we are often asleep before we know it.

When we lay down we stop the momentum of horizontal time, but vertical time is also less pronounced. Relaxation of the body is immediate. If we close our eyes, the sense of space – especially “inner” space – becomes tangible and paramount. Immediately there is a kind of dislocation of reference points. Since we are no longer doing something, the things we do become vague. Everything begins to mix and swirl around: sensations intermingle with the various “types” of thought - memories, worries, wanderings, imaginings, analysis, insights. The earth aspect of horizontal time increases and the heaven aspect becomes harder to access. In a sense, up and down lose meaning, as do the other directions.





Changing the Flow of Karma

Although currently you have ended up with a very bad situation, you can suddenly change the karmic flow with a tremendous, quite sudden and forceful effort. You may have ended up in a tremendous depression, but you are able to make a jump in your life and overcome that. You are able to change the flow of your particular lifestyle. You might be used to being very lazy and sloppy, but the sitting practice of meditation could tighten up your lifestyle so that suddenly you become a tidy, vigorous and uplifting person. There are second thoughts happening each time you act. There is hesitation, and from that hesitation or gap, you can go backward or forward. Changing the flow of karma happens in that gap. So the gap is very useful. It is in the gap that you give birth to a new life. - Chögyam Trungpa, from The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, page 56.


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