- Something that is remembered
- The cognitive processes whereby past experience is remembered
- The power of retaining and recalling past experience
Like a fantastic video recorder, our brain stores every piece of information that the eyes see, that the body feels, and the hands touch. Every comment, sensation, and experience is diligently recorded; and the amazing thing is, we never seem to run out of tape! Everything is stored, ready to be accessed at some future time. Some things we find harder to remember than others (in that they are stored somewhere on the tape that is harder to retrieve), but everything is there. Good experiences, bad experiences, pain, and joy, all there ready to help you form opinions about future events, people you meet, or situations you find yourself in.
So we know that memory is important. We need to remember basic things, such as how to brush our teeth, how to drive a car, how to do our jobs, or even how to make lasagne! But what I want to discuss with you here is something different, it is the use of memory to enable us to live in the past, not in the present moment. Let me explain…
Just yesterday, I destroyed all the photographs I had taken (digitally stored and printed), which to most people would seem like an extreme measure, something destructive. I assure you it was not, although it took a lot of courage to hit the delete key and to throw the other pictures on the fire. I felt a well of emotions rise in me, as I first looked at each picture individually and then watched as part of my life disappeared for ever.
To watch photos of my parents and I on happy outings, or my wife and I during our happier times travelling round the world, started stirring lots of feelings. Suddenly, I felt sad that my parents had split up, and I longed for them to have stayed together so we could have gone on family holidays, and I could have enjoyed their company together and watched them growing old, and how I longed for my wife and I to be back together so we could enjoy ourselves as much as we were enjoying ourselves in the pictures.
As I carried on going through my pictures it was like watching a movie of my life. Although the pictures were still, as soon as I viewed them I got the full movie running in my mind, courtesy of our old friend, memory. I looked at pictures of myself, and realised that the camera does lie. I saw myself with a group of friends in a bar, smiling as if I didn’t have a care in the world, but then my memory reminded me that at that time I was feeling terrible unhappy with my life.
My wife and I were separating, I was going to have to leave australia, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I tossed the picture on the fire.
Friends I would never see again, old girlfriends, people I met on my travels, people I worked with, people I got drunk with all either erased from my hard disk, or burnt on the fire.
My life was slipping away, my past disappearing, all that I was and am was burning. I would never see these people again, I would never see the way the light danced on a tree I had photographed, I would never again see how I looked last year on that specific day with that specific smile.
Then it came to me, that this whole memory thing was complete nonsense! I thought to myself: “Why do I need physical images, when I’ve got it all up in my brain?” Do you understand? But we like to have images of events that have happened to us or of people we know don’t we? We like to “look back” and reminisce about the good times, to say: “If only life was like that now.” But can you see what a dangerous trap we are setting for ourselves? Instead of living right now, in this moment, with pain or joy, we are returning to a safe place where everything is ok. We are living in our memories – which are past.
Can you see now why I, as someone who wants to live each moment as it comes, needs to let go of the past: why I must get rid of photographs? I can hear some of you saying now: “What’s the problem with a few photographs, they aren’t doing anyone any harm,” but hopefully, as we progress through our discussion it will become clearer.
Letting go of memories
It’s a strange thing memory, and as I got rid of the last photographs, I noticed something interesting had happened. I suddenly felt free. Free of the burden of my past! It was an enlightening moment, and one I could not have predicted would happen. As the final photograph disappeared, I realised that now I could live in the present. Hanging on to photographs just so I could “remember” people and places I have been was exactly the same as keeping old things because they bring back happy memories.
Are our lives so miserable that we need keepsakes (something of sentimental value) to be happy?
Last week, during the christmas holidays, I watched my girlfriend’s brother put some photographs into an album, which he carefully labelled and finally put away on a bookshelf. I asked him why he was bothering to take and keep photos especially as he couldn’t see them often, and he said: “so I remember where I’ve been.” For me this was rather a poignant statement. Rather than knowing where he is, he is content to know where he was.
And we all do this to some extent, don’t we? We carefully catalogue the past and plan for the future, but never do we once think about just accepting that we are alive now. Right at this moment. Think about it carefully for a moment. The past doesn’t exist and the future doesn’t exist, except in your mind. Memories are just an unfortunate side effect of living.
Imagine if you lost your memory. Who would you be without it? This does happen to people, and they spend a huge amount of time trying to find out who they were! Do you see? It makes no difference to me if you remember the good times of our relationship. Now that relationship is over, it is past. I live now. What I am trying to understand with you here is what benefit memories (apart from the ones that enable us to carry out daily tasks in life) have for us, as humans?
Do animals have memories? They say that some do, including elephants; but do they reminisce about the good old times when so and so was around before he got eaten? Or the time when they all climbed a tree or flew around? Of course not. They live right now.
It seems it is only the human being who desperately clings to the happy past in order to protect himself from what seems to him a very scary present and future, although perhaps there are animals who have the unfortunate burden of the reminiscing device, for it is a burden.
Maybe it is part of our make up as humans that we attach memories to our emotions. Maybe in the past it had some biological benefit, such as remembering that a lion was a dangerous animal and thus triggering the body to act, or remembering that a certain fruit with a delicate scent was very tasty. From a survival point of view it makes sense. From a “living in the present moment” point of view, they are a hindrance, a burden that man can do without.
I remember that song…
Have you ever noticed how you can hear a piece of music and are instantly back to where you first heard it? A certain love song you listened to with a partner, or a song you used to dance to when out with your friends? Of course you have.
There are literally hundreds of songs, that as soon as I hear them, I can see myself laughing with an old girlfriend, or at school, or out with friends at a pub, or crying, miserable because my girlfriend has just left me, or angry with someone for betraying me, or not paying money back they owed. It’s incredible isn’t it? The worlds best video recorder!
I may not have thought about an ex-girlfriend for fifteen years, when suddenly a song comes on that was playing a lot whilst we were going out together, and I’m back. Cue video and… Action! My masterful memory machine kicks in. The video is running in my mind. I can see my girlfriend and I out in the car, laughing and joking, having so much fun, listening to this song on the radio.
And then suddenly I feel sad. It’s such a shame I split up from her, she was really nice. Then cue profile video. I can see her beautiful hair, smell her sexy perfume, see her smile, her figure… Roll back to the present. The song ends. You forget about her!
Our memory works by association. We associate things in the present with things in the past and compare them. As we said earlier, that worked perfectly for our ancestors. It works the same with smells.
Three months ago I smelled a perfume on a woman, as she passed me in the street, and it was the same perfume a girl I had a six month relationship with wore ten years ago!
I hadn’t seen, nor heard from this girl in all that time, but when I smelt the perfume, I quietly said her name aloud and then quickly turned around to see if it was her. It wasn’t, of course, but nonetheless my heart was beating with a little more excitement than usual. Why was this? After all, I remember when we split up. It wasn’t pleasant, lots of shouting, and swearing and “I hate you.”
But memory is something else. It only remembers the good times. The same way as someone who is addicted to alcohol is shown lots of lovely pictures of himself and others having a rip roaring time whilst out drinking, subtly forgetting to mention the bad times where he fell down, got in a fight, lost his job etc…
Freedom from the past
I am sure, that like me, you like to cling on to your memories – whether they be physical objects or a process in the brain – but how can we hope to let go of fear and the past, if we hold on to it so tightly? That is why I have stopped taking photographs. I want to experience the moment. I do not want to look back to the moment, months, or even years later. The moment passed and I experienced it. The end. I do not need a physical reminder.
When people go on holiday and take photographs, they inevitably take most of them of their friends or family. “That’s me on the beach, oh, and that’s me on the jet ski, and that’s me and john drunk in the bar, oh, and that’s me…”
So why do we take them? Because we want to matter. We want to prove we existed. We don’t want all traces of ourselves and our lives disappearing when we die. We want someone else to be able to see that at one point in the history of the universe, we were here. Physically. And here is the evidence to prove it. What do you think?
Do you care if people knew you existed? Do you want memories left of you when you die, so that people can look back and say: “Oh, and that was my great grandfather joe…”
What does it matter? The universe has been in existence for billions of years. The universe will always be in existence in some shape or form. The earth will not.
Eventually the earth, as we know it, won’t exist anymore, but we keep gathering more and more to prove we were here. In our desperate desire to never die, we even have grave stones erected with our names on them, and sometimes people come and light candles and say a few prayers (the act of communicating with a deity) for us, or if we are cremated, we have our ashes placed in a little urn above someone’s fireplace! We want to remember, and we want to be remembered – even if that memory is just a process in the brain.
But what will happen to those memories in a billion years? How many things and how many people do we want to remember? How many photographs will we keep? As with all things on the earth even photographs change state. The ink breaks down as does the paper and hard disks stop working. Eventually we are going to have to let go, don’t you think?
Sometimes the memories are not even personal ones. We are passed down memories from our parents and our teachers about entire nations! For example, some jewish people still hate the german people for what was done to their ancestors during the second world war, even if they weren’t even born then! We have to pay the utmost attention to what our memory is doing, to how it is moving, and why if we are to be truly free of the prison of the past.
On the surface, you can probably see why jewish people may hate the germans but the german people are not those who actively murdered their ancestors. That moment has passed and now is now. The people are different because they live NOW. Even if we, or our ancestors have been wronged in the past, we must let the past stay where it is, and not attempt, through memories, to bring it alive again – that is truly destructive, and can only fuel further animosity between people.
The british did some terrible things to many millions of people during their violent reign over different countries, so some people say we must remember it to avoid it happening again, but that can never be the way forward. Why must we force ourselves and our children to remember events from the past?
Even if you were part of the events, they are gone, never to be repeated in the way you remember them, for now is now. Remember that. You may have suffered, your friends and family may have suffered, but they are past, and no amount of remembering them, or the suffering you endured, will change those events. Do you follow?
The children must remember
In school, we are forced to remember dates and places of great battles country has fought in, amongst many other topics. This teaching forms part of what they call history (a record or narrative description of past events) and all over the world, historians are writing books about the past, and all over the world, children are reading and remembering about the past. It seems natural, doesn’t it? Most people would agree that no education would be complete without learning about the past.
But I am not talking about biology, or geology here, this is about our human past. The history where we conquered, where we controlled, where we killed and were killed, where we grew powerful, where we became rich, where we built great cities. The history we want to remember. The history that forms part of our national identity. Through the countless books and talks, children are imprinted once and for all with this sense of nationality. So as you see, teaching about the past is not simply part of education, but of conditioning.
Children don’t know why they have to learn about the past, they are just told that they must, in order to pass their exams. “It is important,” say the teachers, “that children know the history of their country.”
I have but one simple question. Why? What sort of damage do you think telling children they must remember the past is having? Do you think that teaching about the past is psychologically beneficial? Sure they may be able to pass their exams but that isn’t what life is about. Life is about living right now, experiencing every moment. Living each day with joy. Learning about battles and famous emperors doesn’t help us do that.
So imagine for a moment, if you will, that we didn’t teach about the past! Imagine if we taught that living now is the only important thing, and the past does not matter because it does not exist. It did exist, not as past, but as the present which is now. I hope you are following all this!
As humans we are psychologically attached to memory. Memory is not just something you access when you are looking for information, it works autonomously, giving us helpful (it thinks) little snippets of past video or information that it thinks is important to the current situation, but it isn’t. When we approach a new situation with memory we are not meeting it without judgement, which is crucial if we are to live in the present moment without fear, with intelligence and clarity.
If a jewish man or woman meets a citizen of germany, they are bringing all their ancestors memories and their history education to the meeting, do you understand? There is great fear and mistrust based on what they “know” happened in the past. But that past is not now.
We must let go of all psychological memory. You may find this intolerably hard, but do not fight with it, just watch your mind carefully. Do not imprison yourself in the misery of the past, let go and be ready to approach each new day with fresh eyes and a clear mind.
Start today. Take a photograph that “means” a lot to you and get rid of it. Watch how your mind desperately clings to the memory not wanting to let it go, how you desperately want to have that image of someone close to you. But they are. They are all still filed away meticulously by your brain. The most wonderful video recorder in the universe.
by alan macmillan orr
“The Natural Mind – waking up”