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Martin LeFevre: An Excess of Memory

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

An Excess of Memory

Suddenly the light and the water changed dramatically. The rain had just stopped, and an intensely blue-gray cast filled the eastern sky over the Saginaw Bay. The tide had also gone out, and the wind was blowing offshore, so that the bay appeared to contain sandbars as far as the eye could see.

The ethereal light, which bathed everything in a luminescence that appeared to come from within every object, contrasted with the unearthly sky. A pair of seagulls wheeled in the foreground, their white bodies glistening against the gunmetal clouds.

The effect vanished in a few minutes, and the normal appearance of the water and sky returned, leaving one almost wondering if the stupendous beauty was real. The sacred is like that—it comes when the human brain creates within the mind a timeless opening in the flow of familiarity.

It may be counterintuitive, but inducing, through unwilled attention, a break in the flow of familiarity is the way not only to religious insight, but also to keeping the brain healthy. Conversely, to preserve the faculty of memory, one has to shed unnecessary memories on a regular basis. Passive observation of thoughts and emotions as they arise gathers attention, and attention, when strong enough, dissolves psychological memory.

Most people say, ‘why would I want to dissolve psychological memory? My memories are precious to me; they define who I am.’ If one thinks that way one will go on accumulating memories, and living through them. One can imagine a computer in the not too distant future being programmed to say the same thing. For what else can a computer be but its memories? A human being, on the other hand, has the potential of being immeasurably more.

When memory is continuous and accumulative, when it is given the highest value, space in the mind gradually shrinks, and one increasingly lives in the past. I grew up in Michigan, but left when I was 19 for California. It’s a common practice in the area where I grew up, as it is in many places, to gossip about neighbors, friends, and family. When I would return for a visit, my parents would invariably try to draw me into this kind of talk. But closed-loop thinking and talking was one of the prime reasons I left. Besides, my memories of childhood social interactions, much to their dismay, had faded away. Indeed, the meditative states that were awakening in me often deleted psychological memory altogether, at least temporarily.

Is the mind merely a set of operations carried out by the brain, or is it potentially something vastly greater? Understanding the biological nature of the human mind largely means understanding how memory is recorded and stored. But if the mind can be more than memory, more than the operations and functions carried out by the brain, then no matter how much knowledge of the brain scientist’s gain, Mind, in the larger sense of the word, will forever elude them.

This is where the scientific mind leaves off, and the religious mind comes into play. Without resorting to theological or pre-scientific concepts and terminology, we need to develop a language that opens a space for exploration of the deep shifts in consciousness that are occurring in more and more people.

Though the term ‘mystical experience’ is very imprecise, it does refer to a category of human experience that cannot be analyzed or reduced by science. Obviously something happens in and to the brain during the meditative state, when a radical shift from memory-based consciousness to attention-based consciousness occurs. But during the meditative state, the brain is not ‘constructing sensory experience,’ nor is it constructing anything.

What happens when passively intense observation (as distinguished from introspection, which retains rather than dissolves the separate observer) induces a shift in consciousness? The individual brain inhabits the unlimited space beyond symbol and memory, and that has tremendous meaning for humankind.

Of course if one asserts that there is no such thing as ‘immaculate perception,’ then mystical experience is merely some kind of illusion or delusion generated by the brain. The irony is that strict materialists have to concede that the construction of identity is itself illusory, since ‘I’ don’t actually exist except as a bundle of memories.

There is a quality of mind that has nothing to do with memory, a quality that derives solely from intense, unwilled, and undivided attention to what is. As the computer replicates consciousness based on memory, this is the infinite frontier for the human mind.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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