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Joy of Life Despite the Difficult Memories

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

By Dr. Stephen Fulder

To what extent are we controlled by our memories, and what price do we pay for that? Obviously we need memory in order to function and stay a healthy person, for example to remember that a bus on the road can be dangerous. However we often find ourselves wounded and scarred from our difficult experiences. Unfortunately we tend to build our personality from our painful memories, circling around them like a moth around a fire them, allowing them to take up permanent residence in our consciousness. We are not quite sure where they are, how they are and what they’re doing to us but we live and feel and act from them. Persistent anxiety is a good example; traumatic events linger, creating unhappy anxious adulthood which is passed on to the next generation who have to deal with it as well.

An obvious example is the memory of the extreme pain of the Holocaust which passes from generation to generation and also horizontally through Israeli society creating a national PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It sits in the subconscious and like the image of the elephant in the room, which everyone pretends is not there, it makes everyone behave differently, and reduces joy and inner peace. Instead people constantly move to avoid it and those (often young people) who shout: ‘hey, there is an elephant in the middle of the room’ are pushed away.

Israel has created a social and psychological icon from the Holocaust, which, like the elephant in the room runs as a ‘background program’ in the national psyche, a constant multi-generational narrative of the victim. And it has a toxic outcome - a lack of inner peace and steadiness arising from a hidden nagging hidden voice that asks: where is the next threat coming from? Maybe opposite but related narratives are also lying in the Germany psyche. Both people find it hard to fully acknowledge, face and take responsibility for these memories.

A story that illustrates the way such a strong cultural icon creates chains of consequences, was told to me by my wife, who has been working with the elderly Arabs/Palestinians. On one occasion she took them to a museum called “Lohamei HaGetaot”, a holocaust museum. 50 elderly Arabs went on the tour and saw models of concentration camps. After the visit there was a sharing, and one of them said: ‘We never realized how much the Jews suffered in Europe. But why did you need to build your holocaust museum on our olive trees?’

In Buddhist psychology memory is one type of mental form or construction, called a “sankhara”. A classical metaphor of sankharas is a potter making a ceramic bowl. Memories are cast or engraved onto consciousness. Western neurosciences would agree with this model and assumes that the brain patterns that allow us to recognize a tree, a person, an idea, or time and space are actual specific networks of neurons in our brain. And there is nothing wrong with that, except that we believe that every one of the constructions in the mind is true, is a fact. How can it be a fact if it is made up of a construction in the brain? Where is the truth of it? When I was young, I used to love reading ‘The Jungle Book’ by Rudyard Kipling, because the hero, Mowgli, grew up with parents who were wolves and he thought he was one as well. For him the networks in the brain say I am a wolf and this is a fact! For me my networks said ‘I am a human child and this is a fact! As a child I thought it was a dramatic secret that only I knew: that there could not be any real ‘facts’. We build a fictional self and a fictional subjective world, which we then think is the absolute truth. This is described in the Buddhist world as ignorance (avidya). We suffer from the attachments to narratives that give us pain because we think they are true, the way it really is. The sense of being a victim, for example, is a sankhara that leads us to look at the world though that filter, and we look for and of course find proofs that we are a victim. But it is only a view, a story, it is not a reality. Even if it’s inscribed as a network of neurons; there is neuroplasticity and the neurons can be re-connected. The philosopher Heidegger once said that we forget at least 99.9% of what we experience, and we are left with a memory of only 0.01% and that is what we call reality.

Surprisingly, Buddhist psychology holds that there are 5 external sense organs, and what arises in the mind as thought or memory is the sixth. When a memory comes up to mind, consciousness receives it just like it receives a sound of a passing car which appears and vanishes. The Buddha said that in the present moment memory is like a line drawn on water that has no trace or track; as with the sound of a bird, it comes and goes. This is good news because it means that sankharas are much more dynamic than we first realized. We don’t need to totally believe in the reality of these constructions, because when we really look at the experience of them we see how they come and go like a smell or a taste of food. The same is true for the memory of a painful experience, which may arise in the present moment naturally, making us cry if we need to, but then passes on like all the rest. We can let our stories come and go freely, even such a painful story as the Holocaust, unless we hold on to them, deny them, bury them, be obsessed with them, be controlled by them, utilize them or identify with them. If we are aware of the fluidity of memory they become less personal and pervasive, and in this way our scars are healed. And as we open more inner space, we gradually discover a great freedom which was buried under the stories, which we forgot.

An example of what this feels like is described in the book ‘An Interrupted Life’, by Etty Hilleshum a young Dutch Jewish woman who lived under the Nazi occupation in Holland. It is an extraordinary tale of freedom in the midst of incredibly difficult experiences because of an ability just to see the changing flow of life as it is:

“ I went to bed early last night and from my bed I stared out through the large open window, and it was once more as if life with all its mysteries was close to me, as if I could touch it. I had the feeling as if I was resting against the naked breast of life and could feel her gentle and regular heartbeat. I felt safe and protected. And I thought: how strange. It is war time. There are concentration camps. I can say of so many of the houses I pass: here the son has been thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an 18 boy in that house over there has been sentenced to death. And these streets and houses are all so close to my own. I know how very nervous people are, I know about the mounting human suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and terrible sadism. I know it all.

And yet - at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop……

Most of us don’t understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead. We cease to be alive, being full of fear and bitterness and hatred and despair…., I am with the hungry with the ill treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life……..I believe that I know and share the many sorrows and sad circumstances that a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them, I do not prolong such moments of agony. They pass through me, like life itself, as a broad eternal stream, they become part of that stream and life continues…And if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich”

What do we need to do to experience life like Etty Hillesum? Fundamentally it’s about waking up to see very clearly how experiences come and go in the present without suppressing them, nor looking for them nor denying them nor projecting them. They become, as Etty said, just the stories that flow and enrich our life.

We might ask how it is possible not to identify with memory if it forms who we are and our individuality. Indeed, memory is a form of shaping. I live alongside lots of olive trees, which have an amazingly expressive character which clearly shows everything that has happened to them. If a branch has been cut or if the tree reaches out in a certain direction, or lumps are formed on the trunk or dry weather makes the leaves fall, you can see it. The shaping of the tree is its memory, its sankharas, a response to conditions. The tree doesn’t have a problem with that, and there is no reason why we should have a problem either; we are also just shaped, constructed, by life. We are given a body and it develops and changes dynamically according to conditions – and we arrive in each moment as we are, and the world arises and meets us as it is, and all we need to do is to appreciate it and let it be. Stories are just stories, narratives are just narratives, embodiment is just embodiment. If we let go into this flow of life, the wounds will dissolve, the scars will be softened and brought back to life, and we will find ourselves in the garden of the now instead of the prison of yesterdays. A difficult experience can come up just like an unpleasant visitor arriving in our house, we can cry and the next minute we can laugh and there is no visitor.

This may seem like an encouragement to forget the past, but actually it is the opposite – it is a living engagement with the past. In Israel the fear of forgetting the Holocaust is so strong it verges on social panic. But such anxieties actually do the opposite – turning the Holocaust into something it is not, into an icon, an obsession, a social identity, a symbol, an oppression, instead of what it is – a hugely painful past experience leaving wounds in the present. Experiencing it as it is when it comes up, we may be deeply touched, and then we move on. We know the painfulness of it, we know the suffering that exists for us, we know it’s also not entirely personal but part of the experience of all embodied beings human or otherwise, and we just allow it be what it is.

Meditation is a very effective training of the mind to let go of its chains. Vipassana, Buddhist mindfulness practice, is especially good at helping us see things as they really are instead of our usual projections and beliefs about them. Not only is it a place beyond the usual circles and loops and cacophony of the thinking mind, but it helps us to see that we don’t need to get rid of the stuff which haunts us, because we realise that it goes by itself. We do not need to struggle to be free of difficult memories, because if we look with mindfulness at mental content we see that it comes and goes and cannot control us. Of course there is much more to meditation than a window on memory. Meditation is also a way to discover natural quiet, inner peace and inner spaciousness. It is as much about the white page as about the narratives written on it, as much about the room as the elephant in it that we are trying hard to avoid. And it is not that easy. To touch deeper sankharas and fully meet inner life often does need time, practice and some direction, and sometimes supportive conditions, such as an intensive retreat.

We also need to be kind and balanced in meditation practice. We shouldn’t force it, or push ourselves too hard. In some of the retreats I have taught in Israel, there have been Holocaust survivors. On one occasion I noticed an elderly woman who seemed to be so deeply peaceful. When I asked her about her experience she said that she loves meditation because when she breathes mindfully, she is not 70 years old, she hasn’t been through the Holocaust, she doesn’t have arthritis, and the grandkids don’t annoy her: ‘I am just breathing, it’s all so simple’. Another man said: ‘I can invite and become mindfully aware of any pain, which reduces it, but I will not touch the pain of my childhood in the Holocaust. This is outside the territory of my meditation practice’. This shows a wisdom about how far he could go and how far he couldn’t go, just as when we have pain in the body, our wisdom will tell us when we can explore it and meet it with mindfulness and when we have had enough.

A beautiful word often used in the Buddhist sutras to describe the way we can let go of attachments once we see them for what they really are, is: disenchantment. For example, we may hold a story that I am a victim and all of a sudden we realize that the story we believed in as completely true is just a story. As if a kind of spell has suddenly been broken. Many times we (the ‘self’) says I don’t know what I will be without my story; I need my stories, even the most painful ones, if I lose them who will I be? And yet when we wake up and become disenchanted we always feel a relief, and cannot understand how we could have carried such a heavy burden all that time. As Ramana Maharshi once said, it is like a passenger on a train that carries his suitcases until someone comes to him and tells him he can put them down and let the train take him and his suitcases.

Dharma practice moves us constantly towards more freedom, and Nibbana, awakening. These are big words but they mean being fully alive and yet unconstructed, unattached, unclosed, unboxed. This is a continuing work of liberation, which starts with dealing with the scars and the wounds, touching and bringing life to the difficult places and just keeping going towards a fundamental existential freedom. Like Etty says “life is just life”, it brings the biggest tragedies and the biggest joys, and it is uncontrollable. Our aspiration is to become a free open vessel for this eternal life. As we do so our heart embraces a wider world than our own suffering, and becomes able to respond and vibrate with all other beings.

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