I always considered myself to have a good memory. In the time-capsule of my mind lies an encyclopedia of events from age three onwards that serves to remind me of where I come from, what I have experienced, and who I think I am.
When I delve deeper into understanding these selected events that have formed my inward and outward understanding of self and other, I realize that for every one event remembered, thousands, even millions, have been cast aside. For whatever reason, they didn’t make the cut.
I never spent much time reflecting on why certain memories fixed themselves onto the casing of my semblance of self until I nearly lost that container. I became so ill I thought I might lose my life.
When I went through liver failure in 2013, an unexpected side-effect was nearly a year of sleepless nights due to physical and mental anguish. To appease myself and in order to cling to every fibre of self-hood I could muster up, I recounted my life’s story, one year at a time, to the best of my ability. Nostalgia, guilt, disappointment and grief overwhelmed even the happiest memories due to the fear that I might lose the gesture of a moment, the temperature of the air, the faint smells of my youth. I was literally clinging onto the memory of my life, of what it resembled in a distant memory. While I longed for that fantasy life, or any life that might have led me down a different path, at the same time I had some understanding that those memories weren’t real. Deep down I understood that through the suffering, life, as it was, was better than ever. I had life in the present moment. Beneath the fear and doubt, there was a thread of certainty and faith that what lay directly ahead of me was not death. Not yet.
Once I had the transplant surgery, my memory game re-appeared after several days, but it had been transformed. First, I obsessed over the details of the surgery itself. As the weeks went by, I began to re-form the story of my life once more, from the earliest shadow of a memory, leading me to my present. I felt reborn, and in a sense I was. My physical sense capacity was sharp and clear, and the memories came back saturated with colour and detail. I had a sweeter sense of my memories as a toddler; I reveled in my rebellious and wild adolescent spirit, even marveled at my ability to spontaneously concoct and execute elaborate whimsical plans. The best part was that even the painful memories seemed resolved; I felt compassion for my own missteps, and forgiveness towards the people and events where I was left bruised. As I lay there night after night, waves of emotion gave way to clarity. I felt free; free from the emotion of the memories, free from the acting of a part. I could observe and be entertained. In a sense it was like watching over an ocean, through it’s storms, sunny weather, and calm, moonlit resolve. Without judgement or preference, I took in the story as it if belonged to someone else.
I still consider myself to have a good memory, however, I no longer pin myself to the belief that my memory is accurate. In the aftermath of life’s daily occurrences, I do my best to keep the past in the periphery as a helpful reference rather than as an absolute stepping stone. My practice is in using the weight of the past as a grounding force rather than as an anchor, and the uncertainty of the future as a compass rather than as an alarm, and the present moment to breathe.
There is no doubt that it takes time and intention to undo the past, but the question is if there is anything to be undone. Perhaps if we let our memories be, observing them, relishing them, but not obsessing or trying to understand them, the past would untangle itself and any anxiety about the future would have nothing to tether to and simply blow away. We are all left free to be as we are, in the present.
Give up hope of a better past.