illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
If you don't 'know' your age, here&now, what are you going to do?
When you say you're 39, which 39 is it?
Someone born on January 1st, 2000 reaches January 1st, 2039 and states "I'm 39 years old".
Someone born on January 1st, 2001 reaches January 1st, 2040 and states "I'm 39 years old".
On their respective dates, each of them is "39 years old"…
but one is 14,245 days old while the other only is 14,244 days old!
Between 10 and 13 days were 'lost' by people overnight, depending on locations and when they switched from Julian to Gregorian calendar (some time between 1582 and 1927)! Twins living each side of a border could thus celebrate their birthdays nearly two weeks apart for a while… In the UK, a baby born on Wednesday September 2nd, 1752, was on Thursday only one day old, although that was September 14th!
In some East Asian cultures, you traditionally were "one year old" the day you came out of the womb… Moreover, your 'age' would tick up at the beginning of the calendar year, regardless of when your exact birth day is in the year. People might thus be one or two years older in Asian reckoning than in the Western system.
Change is not 'time'
A few days ago, someone told me « since I'm 39yrs old with all these experiences which I've appropriated as mine, I infer that time has flown by. »
Such a narrative this is! Let's pass the imprecision of saying this any other day than your birthday…
Do you 'feel' your "39"? Do you 'know' "39"? If I banged your head and you became amnesiac, would you 'know' you're 39, without the stories asserting it as a fact (incl. the stories put down on paper, like in your passport)?
Let's imagine a huge body of knowledge. And let's imagine you know 39% of it. And when circumstances change, you then know 40% of it.
Is your gradual appropriation of the knowledge equal to the knowledge itself expanding? No.
The total body of knowledge might have shrunk, you learnt nothing but what constituted 39% of the earlier total now represents 40% of the reduced corpus. Or you might have learnt something while the body of knowledge practically remained stable. Or the body of knowledge to master might have expanded but you just learnt faster than it expanded…
Would you necessarily call this change of circumstances, this change in 'proportion' of knowledge, "time"? No.
So… the fact that the narrative appropriated as a 'self' expands really tells you nothing about time.
It isn't even clear the narrative appropriated as a 'self' is "expanding", the expansion is itself a narrative: you might accumulate memories in one sense, but you're also forgetting a lot (few people are able to pass, at 39, exams they were capable of passing at 18): maybe you're just replacing a narrative from "I'm 38" to "I'm 39", and that took a millisecond, not a year!
The change in the narrative appropriated as a 'self' tells you about a change in circumstances. It does tell you about some form of change, of impermanence. But it tells very little about 'time'; the 'inference' that time has passed is just a narrative.
You're infinitely old
Another reason why "I'm 39" says absolutely nothing is that you're not 39!
First, there's no ultimate 'you' (that is unchanged through change)… but, okay, let's consider the 'conventional' you (the caricature where you ignore change in order to project some 'identity').
The conventional 'you' might be seen as infinitely old: if you search your causal origin, you'll fall into an infinite regress! You have no legitimate reason to stop the causal regress on a particular event, that you'll call 'birth' or 'conception' or "meeting of my to-be parents" or "births of my to-be parents"…
And one year added to infinity is still infinity: one year later, you're not older, you're still the same "infinite" age! So you're not 39, at all! ;-)
Time is related to space
Time is empty of essence: if nothing at all moved (not even an electron, a photon of light, the handles of a watch…), how would you know that time has passed or not? how would you measure time without something 'moving' (i.e. crossing 'space')?
The passage of time is itself dependent on your speed (space / time) through space (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_dilation), or dependent on the speed of everything else if you imagine you're a fixed point in space.
You cannot separate time from space, time is empty of independent 'essence', it only exists in dependence to space.
Thus, when you count your age, do you just count how much you travelled (possibly back and forth, or spinning a wheel like a hamster)?
Cyclical karma vs. exit of the cycle
And when you tell yourself that a day has passed and you can point to changes to 'prove' that, are you telling the truth? Are the changes you're pointing at even relevant? Is your life really changed, or is it the same job, the same routine, the same unsatisfactoriness, the same cyclical samsara?
One of the reasons for which 'time' in Buddhism is a tough question is simply because it's "metaphysics" and the Buddha repeatedly rejected wasting time on metaphysics that are irrelevant to the cessation of suffering (e.g. "the origin of the world").
When you say that time has passed but that nothing has truly changed in your wisdom, was the time relevant to the Dharma?
Don't-know you age!
Time is a label, an illusion that we 'know' what has changed!
All we "know" is change, all we "know" is impermanence. But the impermanence might be in space, in time, in anything else; we don't know which one. One of the reason we don't know is that we cannot separate time from space, or existence from conditioned manifestation.
Impermanence is easily interpreted as 'time'. It doesn't have to be.
You might look at old photos to tell the narrative of your self, but what if I use one of these 'ageing' programs used to guess how missing kids might look a few years after their disappearance? Do you say "years have passed"? I only changed pixels on the photo, not time!
We assume 'time', when all we really see is change.
We label change 'time' when we don't know what else to name it… so we can reassure ourselves that we 'know', just because we named it, just because we conceptualised it.
We shouldn't be reassured though: when we label change as 'time', we still have no understanding of its cause. Which means we have no understanding of whether 'time' could suddenly speed up, stop, turn dramatic or prove beneficial… How can we be reassured just by naming something? We imagine that giving a name gives us control?
If you don't 'know' your age, if you drop the stories about who you are… here&now, what are you going to do?
This is not a "mere rhetorical question": most people proliferate thoughts about their age, and about where they 'should' be in life at 'that' age (e.g. married at 28, "manager" at 30, home-owner at 31, 2.1 kids at 37, life insurance at 40, retired at 65… in wealthy countries).
Such thoughts (re)started in the first months of (this) life when one's parents are tracking one's physical growth and cognitive abilities (and are giving unconscious feedback via the joy or worry they manifest), and it goes on forever by comparing oneself to others instead of assessing the appropriateness to the situation at hand.
We could look at such thoughts with a sense of humour, but unfortunately most people take them seriously so these thoughts generate anxiety, anguish and they bias people's reactions… These thoughts give rise to unsatisfactoriness.
If you don't 'know' your age (even if you don't drop notions of past and future), if you drop the stories about who you are, where you're at, and who or where you 'should' be… here&now, what are you going to do?
How do you make now 'relevant'?