A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Memory Is Not Truth

"You never have a truly complete memory of an experience because it would take as long as the experience itself.  Most of our memories are like still photos or a series of photos highlighting something that was important or stood out about an experience.  They are whittled-down, highly edited versions of what happened.  Like an amateur movie they are jumbled and patched together, often without even a thread to the story line."   Nirmala   "Nothing Personal"  p. 3

There are some truthful things in our memories, but memory is not the truth.  At best it is a close approximation and at worst it is a fabrication.  Despite this we organize our lives based on short and long term memories.  Some of this is very necessary as in remembering where you put your keys and wallet or remembering to turn off the stove.  We need our memories in order to function, but how much faith do we put in memories?  After rereading the beginning of Nirmala's "Nothing Personal" I've been trying to look at my memories, but it is hard.  I find that many of my memories are slight impressions instead of being a clear and detailed image or scene.  Perhaps that why much of human culture attaches so strongly to photographs and videos -- they jog the memory and make it more vivid, more real.  But though they are artifacts that reflect a past reality in the present, they are not in themselves present reality and are not real.  They are fixed echoes.

We take our use of memory for granted and we assume that our memories are true.  In the course of a day, we make so many assumptions.  Memories and assumptions are like the glue that hold our fragile sense of self together.  Buddhists assert that this sense of self that we hold onto so tightly is an illusion.  And if the sense of self is an illusion, then much of memory is an illusion, too, which is why spiritual teachers regularly compare life to a dream.  I don't really want to believe that and yet for most of the day I am caught up in thoughts which necessarily include memories.  During those times I am not grounded and connected to the visceral present moment.  I exist in space and time and yet I'm not quite here now.  I'm very attached to my thoughts and feelings.  I even think that I'm doing some good for myself in thinking things through and sometimes I am, but I'm also living in ignorance and denial mainly because I'm not awake enough to be aware.

Nirmala writes about how thoughts are not real.  Because we over rely on our thoughts in the same way as we over rely on our sense of sight as opposed to the other senses, we miss out on training ourselves to be aware.  We follow our habitual patterns; we react to life instead of respond to it.  It's not fun for me to see how on automatic pilot I am.  And I'm confused.  I've convinced myself that I need my thoughts and that the key to happiness is inside of them.  If thoughts and memories are not real then the happiness I am weaving out of them is not real either.  And the self that I worry over is also insubstantial.  And yet this is not an existential conflict because the moments I have without thoughts are not barren and empty, but full and rich.  My awareness is much greater than my narrow thoughts.  When there is a gap, some silence in my mind, I am still flooded with sensory input and in this way still connected intimately to my surroundings.  Much of this input I ignore unless I'm being mindful.  Mindfulness is particularly effective when I am doing a simple physical task like washing the dishes or cooking dinner or practicing yoga stretches.  Mindfulness heightens the experience, makes the experience a felt experience instead of the disembodied experience of being lost in thought.

There are times when I really enjoy being lost in thought.  It's like reading an excellent book and stopping every page or so to reflect.  I think there is an illusory sense of safety in it.  I believe I learn important lessons from ruminating.  Getting into writing is similar.  I'm using the thoughts and feelings in my mind to deepen my understanding and to come to a conclusion of one sort or another.  For me, this is important work, but eventually I have to return to the simplicity of the present moment.  That simplicity is the foundation for my life, despite how I often ignore it to attach to thoughts.  What I'm waking up to is that in not taking time to just exist I have become unbalanced, a lopsided version of myself.  I read somewhere that the difference between a delusion and an illusion is that a delusion is one person's misapprehension, whereas an illusion is something that groups of people can come to believe in like watching a movie.  I know about delusions, but what I'm experiencing when I'm lost in thoughts and memories is a common illusion that we are what we think when we're not.

It's not that thoughts and memories are totally useless, no at points they are very necessary, but we over emphasize their importance and rely on them to make important decisions.  I guess it's like this, reading the instructions on how to put something together cannot take the place of actually putting something together.  The real importance and joy comes from the doing more than the thinking about doing.  My father, who is someone who lives inside his thoughts a lot, loves to study maps, but is at a loss at finding landmarks to make his way around an unfamiliar place.  As long as he has the map, he can manage, but without the map he is a babe in the woods.  Our thoughts are like that map, a virtual reality, but not the thing itself.  That goes for writing as well; it's something that points back to reality through the imagination, but it can't take the place of real time experience.  Fantasies give temporary respite to painful existence, but ultimately they are empty.  It's like eating a bunch of candy instead of having a good meal.

While I'm saying this with some conviction, I am resisting it as well.  I was taught as a very young child that language is a way of expressing thoughts and getting needs met.  I learned language through a great deal of repetition.  I labelled objects and people with words.  I let the word take the place of the thing.  I became enamored of the power of words.  The power lay in my ability to use my imagination and at times my imagination seemed able to move mountains.  I spent many hours lost in dreaming, especially when I couldn't relate to my family members.  Dreaming and playing are essential to learning a language and kids do it a lot of the time.  Of course some of that is healthy and necessary, but it also teaches children to get caught up in their fantasies to the point where they are not engaged in the world itself, are not mindful.  Children (and adults) hold onto memories especially of those wrongs done to them.  In that way memory gets transformed into fact, when it is still just an approximation of the lived experience.

I resist writing that memory is not truth because I use memory as a major building block to decide what is and isn't true.  If my memories are suspect, this illusory construction of my past leaves me open and vulnerable in my present moment.  And yet really all there ever is is the present moment.  That's where reality and truth reside, in the living, not in the imagining.  This is why there's so much emphasis on the importance of meditation because it breaks through over and over the trance of thinking we get hooked into and it places value and importance on the gaps between thoughts.  In those gaps is the heart of mindfulness which can be brought into daily activities once off the meditation cushion or chair.  Instead of imagining what might be true and what might not be true, we can experience truth directly in the gaps and in our daily life's activities.   
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