"Die to the past every day, you don’t need it.” - Eckhart Tolle
We live in an interesting age of brain science. As neuroscientists probe deeper into the workings of the mind, it seems the more we learn, the less we know. This is true for our current understanding of memory and how the brain stores and uses information. From the analogy of a filing cabinet, to a neural supercomputer, old ways of thinking about memory focused on the process of simply storing and retrieving. The current theory of memory describes a much more complex process involving a group of systems in the brain acting in concert to create a cohesive thought. That this “concert” often sounds like a symphony missing vital instruments, is further proof of memory as an art form. (One of my favorite tunes is trying to recall if I unplugged the iron before leaving the house.)
Science, however, has yet to explain how it is that certain things stick with us, while others seem beyond mental reach. It also falls short when describing the impact of memory on the individual. Are we our memories? Who are we in the absence of working memory? Are past, present and future separate or one large happening? And, most importantly, why can’t I find my damn keys when I need them?
For me, the art of memory is much far more fascinating than the science of the brain. As a psychotherapist, I often sit with folks whose memories are either burdens, a litany of regrets, sorrows and losses, or comforting balms, soothing remembrances, healing the miseries of their present lives. Some feel trapped, others never want to leave; imprisoned by rusted chains or shackles of gold.
The functional components of memory aside; what is it about the past the keeps so many of us in its grip? What do we sacrifice when we swim in a sea of nostalgia against in incoming tide of the present moment? Is it possible to ride waves that have already crashed on the shore? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to simply drift in the Now? And, what’s up with all of these sea metaphors?
The art of memory is the ability to recall what we need to deal with a situation, crisis, challenge etc. and not get trapped in the net of the past. It’s remembering that the quality of our present day is the living past in us; no need to revisit lines from a story written by a younger hand. It’s the awareness that, as Alan Watts once said, “The wake doesn’t drive the boat.” Which is to say, the past tells us what we’ve done and where we’ve been and then fades away. It’s the present moment that defines who we are.
Rather than coloring the past with biases, prejudices and preferences, let’s throw the whole Crayola box at what’s happening right here, right now. Whether it is with the skill of a Van Gogh, or the careful guide of paint by numbers, we are the artists who find themselves in the very painting we are working on. We are the medium and the message, the agony and the ecstasy and . . . that’s all of the art related symbolism I can recall at this time.