Dream time works on a different scale from the waking world. In the movie Inception, the slowing of time in dream reality was expressed in an approximate ratio of 1 to 20. One minute of sleep in this world would give you 20 minutes of time in the dream. But that is only one level in. Take the plunge into a dream within a dream and suddenly you have 6 hours and 40 minutes on your hands. Descend once again to the dream within dream within the dream and 133 hours and 20 minutes have elapsed for a mere minute of sleep in the real world. Have the misfortune to get dumped in limbo and 111 plus days go by in that same single minute. Without putting too much emphasis on the precise degree of time dilation, we can simply say that layer upon layer of dream reality slows time to a crawl. Limbo in particular marks an almost timeless time due to its glacial pace relative to our starting place.
How can we understand this in Kabbalah and Chassidut? Before, we explained (from the bottom up) how each of our worlds signified a ‘dreamy’ or abstract state as compared to the world below it. Just considering the three levels down that Cobb and his cohorts were intending to enter (which in our system of worlds would correspond to the leap from the world of Action to the world of Formation and from Formation to Creation and Creation to Emanation etc…) each of these spiritual worlds also exhibits time dilation but on an even grander scale than in the movie.
To get a sense of this, consider how long doing anything (Action) takes as compared with speaking about doing it (Formation). I can issue a few verbal instructions that may require hours or perhaps longer to translate into action. ‘Clean the basement’ can be said in a second but may require days to actually do. Similarly, the transition from speech (Formation) to thought (Creation) compresses time even further. In practice, this means that we can pack a lot of thought into a small time frame of action. This would be somewhat comparable to moving on the ground at walking speed verses traveling at the speed of light in one’s mind. Going over the tasks of the day, my mind can quickly process them but when I attempt to verbalize them (especially in a comprehensible form) it may require a long conversation.
The ‘dreaminess’ of this time shifting can continually catch a person by surprise and result in exclamations such as ‘I didn’t think it would take so long to speak about.’ How often do we grab someone for a minute (or even more absurdly with the opener ‘do you have a quick second?’), thinking that what we have to say will really only take a minute to give over, only to be astonished that an hour has passed and we still didn’t adequately cover everything? The truth is, in our mind when we were thinking it, it really only took a minute but speech happens in a way that is considerably slower than thought. Comparisons across two levels (action verses thought) make the discrepancy even more profound. Perhaps this explains the propensity for procrastination–we think a task will be quick and easy when in practice, it is frustratingly difficult and extremely time consuming.
Ascending to the highest world of Emanation, where we intuit everything in a flash (chochmah), we skip the whole thought process and logical progression and move directly to the insight. As such, the experience of intuition (chochmah) is virtually instantaneous when compared to our thinking things through so as to analytically understand them, speak about them and act on them (i.e. the three lower worlds). Our soul powers grant us a momentary blast of insight (what we often refer to as accessing ‘timeless wisdom’) where we see everything all at once in the eye of the intellect.
Yet, this would not be quite the limbo stage in the film that’s four levels deep. The comparison breaks down somewhat at this point. With the time signature reduced to such a crawl as compared with the ‘awaking’ world, it is as though no time-change occurs and this is already happening in the world of Emanation (just three levels deep). Waking up from 50 years of a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream, it is as though a single lifetime happened in a day, an hour, a minute. However, true ‘limbo’ in the kabbalistic scheme would relate to Adam Kadmon (Primordial Man) where all of Creation, the whole of civilization, history, even time itself, would look like a blink of an eye. A moment there would last ‘forever’ and not only the duration of one lifetime.
This same time compression idea can be found in other descriptions of the system of Four Worlds. In his commentary on the Zohar, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (Biurei Hazohar Leadmur hatzemach Tzedek p.258), explains how the Ba’al Shem Tov would ascend to the world of Formation where he would experience 10 or 15 years of time compressed into a single moment. In this way he was able to see future events well before they happened because in this elevated framework all of that time exists all at once. Different ‘stretches’ of time get grouped together. Only in the lower world of action does it seem to be that one instant of time exists and then passes away. This is really just a filtering of our perception that allows ‘real’ time action to take place. After all, we would have significant difficultly proceeding from task to task if the time of one task persisted and extensively overlapped the time of another task. Talk about multi-tasking–such a reality would mean that it would be possible to be at work in one’s office and at home asleep at the same time!
The basic principle is that the higher in the system of worlds one ascends, the more time is compactified or bundled together. Unlike in the film Inception with its relatively small time compression ratio, the interval in the Four Worlds entails massive time distortions and chronological discontinuities. Climbing all the way up to the world of Emanation, and time in the familiar sense ceases to exist. Instead there are only time sequences (seder zemanim) of before and after that all concurrently exist. It would be as if the total film strip of Creation would be on the reel–history all assembled together from beginning to end–but that when it is projected, the projector selects only small slices and individual time frames for us to consciously screen. The present moment in the lowest world of action would amount to the smallest individual still. Each new moment would advance the film exactly one frame with the past becoming the frames that were already projected and the future being the upcoming frames that have not yet run through the projector. The standard film length is based on the first week of Creation. Based on Psalms 90:4 “For a thousand years in Your eyes are like a day (yesterday)…” the sages derive that each of the days of Creation in the opening of Genesis represent a thousand year time period on this alternative scale. In Kabbalah, we learn that these 6 days are 6 ‘days’ within the context of the world of Emanation. 6000 years of world history gets squeezed into just 6 days of ‘dream’ time in the highest world (3 levels in).
Returning to the highest level (which is the lowest plane of descent in the movie), Primordial Man does not witness time at all. Past, present and future are all the same. In the other world-contexts, there are differences between past, present and future (there is either time or at least temporal ordering) which make the past as memory and the future as anticipation, ‘dreams’ of the present [waking] world). But this is not the case at the level of Primordial Man. There, the ‘dream’ (past-future) becomes real (present). Eternity exists in each moment and each moment lasts for eternity. We have effectively transcended time altogether. The sequence of before and after no longer has meaning. Everything is ‘contemporaneous’ as a ‘meta-present’ (and no longer constitutes 6 days even). The beginning of the world is just as accessible as the end of the world–as well as all times in between for the world is always only Created something from nothing for each moment.
Chassidut explains that a true Rebbe–and by extension the insights of a Rebbe–views reality and the Torah from this vantage point. There is no longer any element in the Torah which is lost in the past or waited for in the future. Everything that is read (as ‘dreamy’ as it sounds) happens all at once. In light of this, the Ba’al Shem Tov would often emphasize when beginning a teaching that the Torah is equally applicable to all people, at all times and all places. This kind of trans-temporal universality strikes the mind of one who lives within the common everyday time of the physical world as impossible. Such a person has difficult relating to the Torah as anything other than a history book. Not to say that we cannot learn from history, but the extreme relevance of the text is felt through and through when the whole of its unfolding becomes wrapped up in every immediate moment of my life. When learning the Torah on this level (the level of Chassidic teaching), all distance is gone. The story becomes the story of my own life as it occurs play by play without exception.
The inception of Inception (the film) ultimately convinces me that what I am thinking comes from me. Similarly, the contemplation of the Torah at the highest level assumes this same experience of ‘inception.’ I accept the truth of what I am learning because it arises in me from the depths of my being, from the core of my conscious, where there no longer is any distinction between the Torah, God and the root of the soul. As the Zohar (III 73a) puts it: “there are three entangled levels, one within the next: God, Torah and Israel [with ‘Israel’ coming to signify the Godly Soul/Soul Essence/Soul Root].”