About Memory, Forgetting, and Being Mindful
”The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” Frederich Niezsche
My Obsession with Big Books
I’ve always been fascinated by the etymology of words. It all started with my discovery of the OED (for the non-adepts, The Oxford English Dictionary) as an English major. The OED is a massive 20 volume dictionary with a much more ambitious mission than that of Proust’s 7 volume about that morsel size sponge cake, also known as a madeleine .
Just joking, sort of. I did enjoy my reading of A la recherché du temps perdu (the one volume I was able to get through, in any case), but what I thoroughly enjoyed as a wide eye university student was going through the pages of that massive dictionary; that archive of the history and the evolution of the English language.
By looking up just one word in the OED, you get pages upon pages about its origins, its evolution through the ages, the patterns of interconnected relations between languages and cultures. It may even give you a sense that even if more than 6.000 languages are spoke in the world today, we all ask ourselves the same questions about life. We just make different sounds.
What’s in a Word?
Take for example the word memory. We have an instinctual sense of what the word means. We certainly use it often enough. Memory refers to the mental faculty that allows us to store information we might need to access later on—the process by which that is decided actually involves both our conscious and our subconscious mind.
More broadly, memory is thought of as the repository of our identity. After all, what is identity, if not the self through time? Memory is key to how we see ourselves, and insofar as we share those memories it is the means by which we let others see us.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the words memory enters English usage in the 1200 by way of old French, and that the etymology can be traced back to a Latin variation of the word memor < “mindful, remembering,” and the Greek merimna < “care, thought” and mermeros < “causing anxiety, mischievous, baneful.”
I don’t quite see what memory has to do with mindfulness; in fact I believe the two may even be mutually exclusive. I’m with the Greeks on this: memory can be pernicious and cause great distress. In fact, this whole post was inspired by something I’ve been thinking about for a while: what has kept me sane all theses years is actually my bad memory (at least in the area of personal history).
So Hard to Forget
The ability to forget past events—or to reduce them to faded black and white images so far from your mind’s eye that it is hard to focus them—is in fact a necessary preamble to being mindful, and engaging the present moment.
Identity may very well be the self, or the ego, through time, and as such it is inextricably liked to memory and to future projections. Mindful awareness—which is also key to the Buddhist—is about “cutting through our basic fixation, that clinging, that stronghold of something-or-otherwhich is known as the ego.”
DISCLAIMER #1: While I often find my thoughts and feeling resonate with many eastern traditions, I chose to learn from all, but ascribe to none, conveniently making room for further learning unimpaired by rigid or inflexible beliefs. This also goes for Western religions.
Willful Forgetting is Not The Same as Forgetfulness
Perhaps our fetishistic obsession with the past as individuals, and as a society (i.e. the cyclical return of the 60s, the 70s, the 80s…) has its roots in the mechanism by which we create identity (individual, cultural, regional, national … ).
Even when we make a conscious attempt to forget something BIG—a trauma, an embarrassing historical fact—it resurfaces angrier and more fierce than before.
After all, how can we make a “conscious decision" to forget an event, when the very act of making that choice requires us to recall the offending memory in question? As I said, memory is pernicious.
The Virtues of Mindful Awareness
If forgetting is untenable, try forgetfulness. Unlike willful forgetting, being forgetful is a more reflexive, or unconscious act. You don’t do it on purpose, or more specifically you don’t do it with purpose (Just ask anyone who’s ever lost their house keys).
Any repetitive activity that gets you out of your head and into a focused state in which you, as the voice in your mind, disappear is an act of mindfulness. In my case what provided a seven years distraction, albeit intermittently, was graduate school.
When I was talking about my bad memory as being key to my sanity, it occurred to me that perhaps the at times rigorous discipline and focus required by a graduate program may in fact have led to moments of mindfulness. The same mindfulness offered by manual activities like gardening, or knitting: you lose yourself in the task, and somehow feel regenerated (granted, my view of graduate school may belie a certain degree of masochism on my part).
DISCLAIMER #2: I’m not saying that I was enlightened, centred, and in tune with the universe while in graduate school. Mental states (of which mindfulness is one of the most resourceful) are always fluctuating. In fact my friends will attest as to the occasional debauchery and general silliness that characterized my life in those days. I was in my 20s, give me a break.
A Few Words About Meditation
Obviously, meditation can provide a more sustained exercise in mindfulness, and it is scientifically proven to help both the proper functioning of the heart and the brain.
The “mode of consciousness” you reach through meditation is similar to that of day dreaming or being lost in thought; while in these instances we get there almost by accident, in meditation it is purposeful.
However, meditation is so much more than erasing all thought and emotion from your mind. Meditation is not about control, it is about gaining perspective. It is a way of stepping back and looking at those thoughts and emotions, and seeing how they ebb and flow without judgment. It focuses us.
If our minds were a 20 volume dictionary, it would bogs us down and eventually crush us. Carrying that amount of “information" would weigh on us, day in and day out. In fact, forgetting is a key brain function, as important as that of memory. It is only if we take the dictionary of our mind one word at the time that it can help us in move forward, and reach a balanced life.
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