The problem of memory

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  • cergirl
    • Jul 2024

    The problem of memory

    Wanted to share a few musings on the nature of memory that have arisen lately from my practise. In this context I am not talking about being able to remember the shopping list and how to do multiplication, although the latter I have never mastered, I suppose that would be called functional memory. What I mean is our memories of our selves, our experiences and of others. It struck me the other day that events as soon as they happen become memories. This was one of those revelatory zen insights that suddenly seem amazingly obvious when you discuss them. But I then realised that I could not tell the difference between the age of a memory in my mind if I looked at objectively. The fallible and fleeting quality of my recall of past events was fairly uniform. Yeah, sometimes in the very early childhood events are genuinely hard to recall, but overall I became aware that I had been creating a framework of organisation over my memories ie, I believed that if it was further in time away, it was more hazy, and if it was yesterday, it was clearer. Now I am not so sure about this. I am also amazed by how much I cannot remember, people, experiences, years that are gone until triggered by something. Pretty scary….

    The real question is, what does this mean for me? What am I going to do about it? Well I can and do say “seize the day”, but grasping one reality too strongly can be a way of running from another reality. I suppose my “revelation” simply reinforces the transience of life, which is a concept that fills me with both fear and wicked glee. Am I mad? I knew zazen was for me when read the following in the Rules for Meditation at my local soto zen group: “Of what use is it to merely enjoy this fleeting world? This body is as transient as the dew on the grass, life passes as swiftly as a flash of lighting, quickly the body passes away, in a moment life is gone.” (Don’t know where this comes from, but I’m sure one of you will.) Yet I enjoy living…..

    Does anyone have view on my wittering, I would love to hear what you think…

  • Lynn
    • Oct 2007
    • 180

    Re: The problem of memory

    Good day, Clare! (raising my cuppa in your direction)

    Well, just a couple thoughts of my own. I am old as dirt now, so memory is getting seriously twisted for me. Names of people and things are often incredibly hard to retrieve. What is hardest, perhaps, is the recognition that, even 5 years ago, there would be no problem. But this is really just a function of simple aging. So, rather than get frustrated, I just laugh at what my children affectionately term my "brain farts."

    As for the past past...I fall back on a very good teaching: if it is the important thing to the present moment, it will be there. It's a very interesting phenomenon for me, to watch the importance of the past. I work with seniors and one of the actual therapies used for those with advanced dementia or Alzheimers is called Remeniscence (think that's spelled correctly) Therapy whereby we take them back and try to get them to recall their lives as a way to stimulate the brain. It also serves to bring back to them a sense of purpose, a sense that their lives had some meaning which can give them, for whatever period of time, an enhanced quality of life.

    Sort of a dichotomy: we are the aggregate of our past actions and consequences, yet we cannot stay there in order to live in the present. So, how much importance does that past really have for us. It has brought us to this time, to zazen, to the Buddhist teachings, yet it really has no meaning in and of itself.

    I think

    Good topic!! I'll ponder it and see what others come up with...

    Be well!

    In Gassho~
    When we wish to teach and enlighten all things by ourselves, we are deluded; when all things teach and enlighten us, we are enlightened. ~Dogen "Genjo Koan"


    • louis
      • Aug 2007
      • 172

      Re: The problem of memory

      Check out the earlier thread on Dogen's Time-Being and the direction of time...

      ps Skye, the search works really well


      • Eika
        • Sep 2007
        • 806

        Re: The problem of memory

        Nice post, Clare . . . there is a significant body of research suggests that our memories are not very dependable. Our memories are, in Buddhist terms, dependent phenomena. We can create vivid recollections of events that never actually happened to us, we can alter memories to fit our ego's agenda, we can suppress memories of disturbing events, etc. In short, they are very shaky . . . Knowing this helps me not derive so much of my present view of myself from these unreliable mental constructs. It is easy for me to slip into thinking of memories as if they were a video-recording that is a fixed and (relatively) objective account of the events. But, I now see that science and Buddhism both tell me that the lens of my experience tampers with the video before it even gets to the memory portion of the brain where it is vulnerable to further alteration, etc, etc.

        Cognitive psych is an interesting field of which I know almost nothing (just what I have picked up at the lunchtable at work).


        Lynn wrote:
        Names of people and things are often incredibly hard to retrieve.
        I am not even 40 yet and I have a lot of trouble with peoples names. I wonder what will happen in another 10 or 15 years.

        [size=150:m8cet5u6]??[/size:m8cet5u6] We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life---John Cage


        • Skye
          • Feb 2008
          • 234

          Re: The problem of memory

          I listened to a really interesting show about memory a few months back...

          Apparently the more times you remember something, the less accurate it becomes!

          I too am finding when I'm sitting, that time becomes very non-linear sometimes, flowing backward and forward with lots of random memories mixing together, the now and then distinction getting very blurry. It's interesting, I just let it happen, and then it slips away. Neither now nor then, but also just now. I'm trying to just let it be and not over analyze but I find it very interesting too.

          Even on one blade of grass / the cool breeze / lingers - Issa


          • Longdog
            • Nov 2007
            • 448

            Re: The problem of memory

            This doc may be of interest:



            • will
              • Jun 2007
              • 2331

              Re: The problem of memory

              I don't know exactly what memories is or how it works, but it does.

              Well I can and do say “seize the day”, but grasping one reality too strongly can be a way of running from another reality.
              I think it's better to just let memory be memory, but practice is about the moment, so I guess let memory be memory in the midst of everything else that's going on. Not really holding on to it, but just letting it be what it is.

              Gassho Will
              To save all sentient beings, though beings are numberless.
              To penetrate reality, though reality is boundless.
              To transform all delusion, though delusions are immeasurable.
              To attain the enlightened way, a way non-attainable.


              • cergirl

                Re: The problem of memory


                Sorry I've been so late in replying to you all, sometimes find it hard to find time to sit down at the moment with baby Beren.

                Really appreciate all your replies. Memory is definitely not very dependable. Will check out that link Louis. It was just curious for me to catch my mind, yet again, at it constructing "reality". However, I suppose we need our minds to do that, otherwise we would never be able to function, but it's good to be aware of it's fallibility. I think having Beren must have brought up the transcience of life so strongly for me as he is growing so quickly. So issue noted and now move on......

                On another note, I've done reminiscience before in my day job as an occupational therapist and it can be very profound to see the extent of someone's long-term memories and the pleasure it gives them.