“Memory and Pride were fighting about the correct representation of an event.
Memory said ‘It was exactly like that,’
Pride with her nose up in the air said: ‘It couldn’t have been!’
Each asserted her superiority and tried to convince the other.
Finally, Memory gave up and Pride won.
End of story.
I love this fable from Fritz Perls who was the founder of Gestalt therapy, a type of therapy that I enjoy.
If I had to extend this fight to memory and identity then the undisputed champion between memory and identity would have to be identity.
Depending on what our identity is, we remember our memories. Let me explain.
A memory is a residue of an experience. In any experience, there are different kinds of sensations – sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch, and our thoughts and emotions related to the experience. It is an impression that is created on the mind. For instance, the memory of a family holiday when you were 10 years old – splashing water on your cousins in the turquoise blue waters of Goa with much squealing and laughter. One remembers what one felt, what one experienced, and the related thought. Each of these sensations is fleeting but all these sensations combine to form a memory.
In Indian thought, memory or Chitta is a function of the Antahkarana, the inner instrument called the mind. You might remember from previous episodes that Antahkarana consists of four aspects and their related functions – 1. Buddhi – decision making, 2.Manas – feeling, desiring, wanting, 3.Chitta – Memory, and finally the Ahankara, the I notion that holds it all together.
Modern Psychologists further classify memory as short-term memory or working memory, long-term memory, episodic memory, and so on. When it comes to learning something there are 3 steps – memory acquisition (learning),
memory retention, and
memory retrieval. And then within it are the types of amnesia.
We remember things that had an impact on us positively or negatively and rarely remember things that are routine and familiar. Like you won’t remember what you ate for lunch two months ago unless it was a special lunch. Difficult memories haunt us if we have not processed them. The more we try to forget them, the more they persist.
The event whatever it was happened twenty years ago. We try to make sense of the event. We replay the event over and over in our minds thinking of all the possibilities. Why did he or she say this? Why did he or she do this? Why did he or she not say and do what was important? We try to reconcile the event and what it said about us then and also our identity now.
Leela is 55 years old now. For a long time, she had painful memories of her childhood – seeing ugly fights between her parents and being beaten by her father. In her early adult years, the not good enough and the feelings of helplessness spread their tentacles all over her relationships. Any disagreement at work or with friends and she would flare-up. Why me? was the constant refrain. She was not able to isolate the emotions she felt from those events in childhood because she had not processed them.
As we review any painful event in our mind, the memory of the event, produces the same chemicals in the body, almost to the same degree as if the event was happening. In Leela ‘s case, it was the event of being beaten by the father, the helplessness, anger and sadness, and the judgment about herself that There is something wrong with me, I can never do anything right. The self-judgment would repeat itself and feed into the emotions which would feed into the memory of the event.
By constant repetition, we remember the event again, the thought, and that produces a feeling. And then we have the memory, the thought, and the feeling. As we keep repeating in our minds, the memory of the event is not so distinct, the thoughts face way, finally, we are just left with the feeling. We have memorized the feeling to be a part of our identity and to be a part of our personality. Each time we remember the event, the chemicals of that event associated with that event begin to condition the body. Over time the repetition of the feeling shapes the development of identity-based on feelings.
If I feel helpless I must be helpless. If I feel I am not good enough, it is true. In the long run, the body begins to know better than the mind.
When we are feeling angry, sad, and helpless, we are in the state, physiologically and chemically, in which the body begins to respond as if the event is happening. The body just like the unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between whether the event is happening in your reality, or you’re making it up in your mind because it only has feelings as its language. On the other hand, if you are feeling the blessings of good health, or if you are feeling the love for your children or you are feeling gratitude for being alive, your body begins to become conditioned. And it begins to respond as if the event is taking place. When we proactively change our physiological state to one of gratitude, peace, and love we condition our bodies chemically to feel this and also start to see our life as a life of blessing.
Meditating on what has been given, focusing on the present, yogasanas help in taking charge of your emotional landscape. We are no longer tossed about from one end to the other subject to the vagaries of the storms of external events. The impressions on our minds are also called vasanas and the impact of these and their influence on our lives can be certainly reduced so that we stop reacting and operating unconsciously.
If you are confronted with someone who says – Why do you act so helpless in situations? You will have an answer about some situations in life. But the situation now and the situation twenty years ago are not related at all. You relate the two because you are so conditioned by the feeling that it is difficult to be objective.
Through many processes of life, Leela was able to heal from the impact of the childhood event. Some of the things that helped her were –
Leela grew to find herself acceptable and lovable. She saw that the feelings of not good enough had no basis in reality. What she felt was valid but it belonged to incidents of the past. By contributing positively in her relationships and recognising that she was a manifestation of Ishvara helped her soften the calcified shell of worthlessness.
Leela realised that what had happened was bad enough but what she was doing to herself was even worse. She was unconsciously perpetuating further hurt and helplessness by replaying the memories and the negative judgments about herself. Leela was able to bring the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita about taking responsibility for herself and making constructive choices in her life while offering these to Ishvara.
Leela at 45 years, stopped going into a helpless daughter mode. As an adult, she was able to objectively see that her parents had their own background and problems. She started her journey of acceptance by accepting that she could not accept. In time she was able to accept that her reactions and her parent’s reactions were a part of the psychological order of Ishvara. She would often remember Bhagavan Krishna ‘s words – sarvasya chaaham hrdi sannivishThah mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam cha – I have entered the hearts of all. From me have come smriti – memory, jnanam – knowledge, and apohanam – forgetfulness.
Most importantly Leela was able to reclaim the three Shaktis we have given every moment. iccha shakti, – the power to feel differently, jnana shakti – the power to know what was happening to her and how she can change it, and kriya shakti – the power to change. Leela no longer defined herself by an event. She saw herself as powerful and capable of making the change she wanted, in her own life.
Walks in nature, practicing yoga asanas, pranayama, and some therapy sessions based on bodywork helped her to transform the painful, traumatic memory into an event that happened in her life. No more. No less.
With chanting and her understanding of Ishvara Leela was able to turn on an elevated state of gratitude, love, and trust in life, without any external conditions. She changed her focus on what she could do in an overwhelming situation and increasingly felt hopeful and optimistic. People liked being around her as she had developed a cheerfulness and enthusiasm that came from seeing herself as an instrument of Ishvara.