Thursday, September 24, 2009

Memory cold as ice

"Erickson was born the first summer Dennis brought me to Santa Fe, so I know he was there when she was born. He was about a year old or so."
"No, my kids are both older than him."
"But I was only invited to her birth to take care of the kids, your first, and Erickson, so I know he was born before her."

"Do you remember where MaryAnne did her readings? Was it on the second floor landing, or the third?"
"It was the second. Our wedding party was on the third."
"oh, yeah. That's right."

"After that boat ride when Gary ran into the dock, I never got in the boat with him again."
"When was that?"
"Oh, it must have been around 1969. I know he's more careful now, but I just never get in with him."
"It's 2009. It's been 40 years. You know, I never actually heard anything about that wreck. I thought I knew everything about them during that time."
Thinks to himself, "I lived with them during that time. I'm not so sure that wreck you remember actually happened at all. Maybe it did, but why didn't I know about it?"

I've always thought of memory as a utility, a tool that I need to do my work, to be creative, to carry on an intelligent conversation. Comes in real handy when you need to read 20 books on a subject and synthesize their authors' points of view on a related subject. Fairly important if you need to draft a legal opinion. In fact, all integrative, analytic and synthetic thinking depends on a good memory. Learning from our mistakes requires memory too.

In August and early September I took some trips* that brought some of memory's other functions forward from the places where it works, often unexamined and even unappreciated. Memory is a utility, yes, but it's also the basis of who we think we are. We become our past, or rather, we develop an ego identified with our actions and feelings from the past. My friends could say about themselves, "I was a smart-ass in high school," or, "I opened a head shop in the late 60's." Their past is part of who they are today. *The photo above is of the sky over Ocate, New Mexico, a place where Dennis and many of his New Mexico friends hung out a long time ago.

But I also saw, over and over again, how shot through with holes our memories are, and even how absolutely wrong they can be. We make up things that didn't happen when we remember them "wrong." And we forget so much of what happened, inventing a past that never existed. In this fractured process, we invent a "me" that doesn't exist, except in our minds.

And there may come a point for some of us when we remember little of our own past. Not where we grew up, not where we lived when we were 30. Not who our relatives are, our friends, not even the name of the nice guy who lives in the room next door, with whom we take three meals a day, and who helps us with every aspect of those meals because we "remind him of his wife." Who are we then, when we have no memory as utility, no memory as who we are, when accuracy and details are no longer the issue, but simply whether we remember anything at all. Who are we then?

Why do we remember some details vividly but wrongly? Why do we forget some things that others who were there with us remember clearly? Why do our memories fail as we age? Good questions, but curiosity about those matters isn't enough anymore to take me away from the day-to-day of simply experiencing life and being in the present with everything that comes up, especially when what's coming up is how fundamental our memories are to who we think we are and how memory's functions are all connected by that thread of our remembered conception of ourselves, our thoughts and feelings that constitute our egos. We have a good memory; then we have a not so good memory; then we have no memory at all. We remember ourselves as helpless and afraid; we remember ourselves as wild and crazy; we remember ourselves as compassionate and loving; we remember ourselves not at all. We recall how we were in the 70's (maybe, if our memories can be trusted); we recall how we were in the 90's (again, maybe); sometime in the future, we won't remember any of this at all. If we identify with our memories, whether as utility or more fundamentally, as who we are or even who we think we should be, who are we when we don't remember anything?

A memory-less emptiness resides just one step away from annihilation, non-existence, or so it seems to me as I watch my mother's expression as she listens to music from the 40's. If it's clear that "I am this or that" ends with death, whether the death of memory, that is, mind itself, or the death of the body, when both mind and physical form die, there is reason to think long and hard about whether Buddha might have been right when he said it was a mistake to identify with ego, with what our minds construct out of our past experiences, our versions of "I am this or that." But it's one thing to recognize the natural consequences of identifying with something that dies. It's quite another to know that what dies is not really me, that "I am" is something distinct from "I am this or that."

So, when I saw and accepted that I remembered an event wrong, I was in that moment free to give up identity with "me," the whole constructed set of events, actions, thoughts and feelings. Knowing that my memory was wrong even once, and likely wrong a lot of the time, I could accept that I didn't really know what happened when. If I don't know the past and I am my past, I don't know me. But that realization only sets me on the doorstep of not knowing anything, Buddha's not knowing. Buddha accepts much more than the mere fact that the "I" of constructed memories does not exist: the "I am" that transcends the ego's limited view of "I am this" accepts as well, every moment, without judgment and without identifying with it or the events that take place in it. It may be too big a leap for me at the moment, but at least I can see the way one maybe gets there. I can imagine it.