Martin LeFevre: Deleting Memory Awakens Insight
Deleting Memory Awakens Insight
After a light but all-night rain, the clouds cleared and the sun made a welcome appearance in the early afternoon. People got outside and into the parkland in droves, including me. Meditation was just igniting through undivided, undirected observation when a rollicking group of boys descended on my sitting place.
They all wore the same orange striped shirt, and none saw me sitting on the other side of a tree as they ran down the bank. Their father (he seemed rather old to be their father but one of the four called him Dad) looked down from above. “There’s a man fishin,’” he said. Not fishin’, I replied. “Wishin’ then,” he retorted. Not that either, I thought.
One of the boys came around the tree and stood next to me. He was about seven, and had a wide-eyed, innocent face. ‘Why are you all wearing the same shirt?’ I asked. He smiled, as if he’d been asked this question many times, and just said something about “looking for oak balls.”
‘Oh I know what you mean,’ I replied, and it occurred to me that they could well be quadruplets, since they all looked the same age. The boys had obviously thrown the fungal spores (which grow in large numbers on the plentiful oaks in the park) into the creek upstream, and had run downstream to watch them float by.
In the meditative state, there was no distance between the boy and oneself, and indeed, it seemed almost as though I was looking at myself as a boy of his age. It wasn’t just that he reminded me of myself as a boy, but in a deep sense, there was no separation at all.
Without attention, the pathways of conditioning in childhood become well-worn ruts as we age. Children under seven or so don’t have the barriers and barricades of fixed identity. They could be shown how to observe in a way that keeps their brains young and insights flowing even into old age. Instead, memory is overvalued and given primacy, as it is by Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel in his book, “In Search of Memory.”
Kandel says that he would “like to develop a reductionist approach to the problem of attention.” He reflexively links his question, “what is the nature of the spotlight of attention?” with “the encoding of memory throughout the neural circuitry.” For Kandel, “selective attention is one of the royal roads to consciousness” because it encodes and seals memory.
To my mind, that is false and wrongheaded. Kandel is really talking about concentration when he speaks of “selective attention.” Inclusive and undirected attention is essential to awaken meditation and higher states of consciousness. Concentration does indeed “encode memory,” whereas attention deletes memory. And erasing memory is far more important than encoding it.
Why? Because most memories are not just unneeded, they are harmful to healthy brains and cultures.
The brain automatically records and accumulates experience as memory, perhaps nearly all experience--though of course not all memory is consciously available. That is the heart of the problem; most people act out of a vast unseen reservoir of mental and emotional memory, the residue from family, culture, race, class, and personal conditioning. A human being, on the other hand, is essentially free from conditioning. And to be free from conditioning, one must be able to delete divisive and useless memory.
Discerning which memories to delete and which to keep is not an act of conscious choice, but of the intelligence of awareness. Observing the movement of the mind and emotion, the spurious barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind dissolves, and the entire movement of thought and emotion reveals itself. Sustaining a non-exclusive and intense attention, the mind/brain effortlessly lets go of everything.
Paradoxically, the ‘amnesia’ produced by inclusive, undirected, and intense attention in the meditative state sharpens the faculties of thought, including memory. With complete silence of the content and mechanisms of thought, the brain is renewed. Rather than the synapses tunneling in the same old ruts, one is liberated from deepening grooves of memory and habits of thought.
In letting go of psychological memory, the mind has the space and energy to see and create anew.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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