A Meditation on Memory — Order of Service

A meditation on Memory, August 24, 2014

Prelude

Unforgettable. Two candidate versions:

  1. Nina Simone.
  2. Aretha Franklin.

Opening Words

It’s the year 2100. Someone born in 2014 is now 86 years old. Electromagnetic Levitation Transporters have long since replaced airplanes as the preferred modes of transportation. ELTs are faster than airplanes used to be. Another thing that has changed since they were born is that people take off their clothes and their shoes before boarding an ELT.  All this undressing before boarding takes almost as long as a levitation flight does. No one knows what would happen if people were allowed to just board an ELT without taking their clothes off — would the ELT fall out of the sky? — the reason we do this has long faded into memory.

Reading

The Attic Flew Out the Window, by Kent Bowker

So much in our lives is sent to the attic
a place for memories to decay, or hide,
the images of families, the nice, and the sick
in tea chests along with thin doilies and the pride
of handicraft, layered with daguerreotype
of stiff, remote relatives we never knew.

These are nothing to us now. It’s the living
we tried to bury in newer boxes, out of sight.
We sift through the unshuttered remains,
journals describing a shattered marriage, and lost children,
notes from friends and lovers
residues of a long life, class notes and skates, aluminum pans,
boxes of obtuse technical papers, all the useless receipts
and obligatory tax returns..

Rubbish Man simply flung it all
out the window.

For a moment the past flew by
descending, crashing to earth
three stories below
shattering attachments, and the voices
that roared out of the trunks
were stopped,.
leaving cluttered floppy disks in the grass,
smashed glass- framed honoraria,
and all the things we thought would be useful some time,
records and board games, monopoly houses underfoot.

Did clearing the attic encumber us less,
take the voices from our heads
bring quiet to our gut?
This we don’t know,
even though
Rubbish Man
charged a lot..

[silence]

Chalice Lighting

Today let this flame light the way as we walk in our unity and our differences down yet another street.

[silence]

Joys and Concerns

Offering

For the beauty of the earth

Talk

About

I will note first that our gradually-slowing-brains may just be slowing because they are too full. And some speculation that the forgetfulness associated with ADHD may be due to an extraordinary memory (how contradictory is that?). Referencing Dan Gilbert (see references below), imagining a future is essential to growth and the more we hang on to memories of our past, the harder it becomes to imagine what can be and work to achieve it. Letting go is essential to getting unstuck. Maybe it’s not the past that’s holding us back, maybe our holding on to it is keeping us stuck?

The key in these cases is uncluttering that brain. Perhaps we should ask for regular tune-up for one’s mind. Perhaps we should be tending to the contents of our brain — specifically, our memories and our habits —  as we do our gardens and our dwellings. Perhaps such “memory therapy” can also help PTSD victims and victims of other psychological trauma.

Again, reminder to self: this talk is about moving past the memories, about moving on. It’s relevant to us in the personal context (as suggested by Pema Chödrön). It is equally relevant to us in a broader context, as done by Nelson Mandela in instituting a National Reconciliation Day

There are many who did not understand that to heal we had to lance the boil. There are many who still do not understand that the obedient silence of the enslaved is not the reward of peace which is our due. There are some who cannot comprehend that the right to rebellion against tyranny is the very guarantee of the permanence of freedom.

Memory is pretty plastic anyway, and not very reliable. Better to live life mindful of its unfaithful and ephemeral nature.

References

  1. The Shenpa Syndrome
  2. The Importance of Forgetting
  3. Daniel Kahneman
    When we experience things, there are actually two observers: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The remembering self creates the narrative. The experiencing self does the experiencing and “forgets about it”. What is remembered wasn’t what was experienced.
  4. Daniel Gilbert.
    We have a natural tendency to remember things and this is a lot easier than imagining our future. But imagining a future is essential to growth and the more we hang on to our memories, the harder it becomes to imagine what can be and work to achieve it.
  5. The Right Direction: Releasing the Past and Getting Unstuck
  6. The Older Mind May Just Be a Fuller Mind

Closing Words

I’m still learning to forgive (Corrie TenBoom)

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. …

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us.” “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” …

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each others’ hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

Postlude

Memory

Divine Viewpoints

Eventually, a few years hence, these viewpoints will become the raw materials for a talk.

For now, they are independent thoughts. You are invited to suggest others but there is no rush, obviously.

This one is not so divine but may be worthy of the time spent reading it:

  • The Cancer Chronicles. I was struck by the closing paragraph of the review: But perhaps not since Susan Sontag has anyone put cancer so firmly and eloquently in its place as Mr. Johnson does, casting it as neither metaphor nor enemy, but simply a natural part of the orderly disorder of the natural world. If you have read it, please let me know what you think.

Mindless Mindfulness Service

Prelude:

Instrumental Medley — Peg Espinola

Opening Words:

  1. All of us, from time to time, need a plunge into freedom and novelty, after which routine and discipline will seem delightful by contrast.
    ― Andre Maurois
  2. “We all have our routines,” he said softly.”But they must have a purpose and provide an outcome that we can see and take some comfort from, or else they have no use at all. Without that, they are like the endless pacings of a caged animal. If they are not madness itself, then they are a prelude to it.”
    ― John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

Reading:

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

― Portia Nelson, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

[silence]

Chalice Lighting

Today let this flame light the way as we walk in our unity and our differences down yet another street.

[silence]

Joys and Concerns

Reading:

Late last night, I decided to
stop using English.
I had been using it all day—

talking all day,
listening all day,
thinking all day,
reading all day,
remembering all day,
feeling all day,

and even driving all day,
in English—

when finally I decided to
stop.

So I pulled off the main highway
onto a dark country road
and kept on going and going
until I emerged in another nation and . . .
stopped.

There, the insects
inspected my passport, the frogs
investigated my baggage, and the trees
pointed out lights in the sky,
saying,
“Shhhlllyyymmm”—

and I, of course, replied.
After all, I was a foreigner,
and had to comply . . .

Now don’t get me wrong:
There’s nothing “wrong”
with English,

and I’m not complaining
about the language
which is my native tongue.
I make my living with the lingo;
I was even in England once.
So you might say I’m actually
addicted to it;
yes, I’m an Angloholic,
and I can’t get along without the stuff:
It controls my life.

Until last night, that is.
Yes, I had had it
with the habit.

I was exhausted,
burned out,
by the habit.
And I decided to
kick the habit,
cold turkey,
right then and there
on the spot!

And, in so doing, I kicked
open the door of a cage
and stepped out from confinement
into the greater world.

Tentatively, I uttered,

“Chemawa?     Chinook?”

and the pines said

“Clackamas, Siskiyou.”

And before long, everything else
chimed in with their two cents’ worth
and we had a fluid and fluent
conversation going,

communicating, expressing,
echoing whatever we needed to
know, know, know . . .

What was it like?
Well, just listen:

Ah, the exquisite seasonings
of syllables, the consummate consonants, the vigorous
vowels of varied vocabularies

clicking, ticking, humming,
growling, throbbing, strumming—

coming from all parts of orifices, surfaces,
in creative combinations, orchestrations,
resonating in rhythm with the atmosphere!

I could have remained there
forever—as I did, a will.
And when I resumed my way,
my stay could no longer be

“ordinary”—

as they say,
as we say, in English.

For on the road of life,
in the code of life,

there’s much more to red than “stop,”

there’s much more to green than “go,”

and there’s much, much more to yellow than “caution,”

for as the yellow sun clearly enunciated to me this morning.

— Lawson Fusao Inada Kicking the habit

Offering

Instrumental medley — Peg Espinola

Talk:

Mindless Mindfulness

Closing Words:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again(15).

— Barbara Kingsolver High Tide In Tucson: Essays From Now Or Never

Postlude:

After the Vigil — Peg Espinola

Mindless Mindfulness

It gets easier the second timeA recent New Yorker had a cartoon caption contest showing Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill. Next to him is this woman pushing a 2-baby stroller, and she is saying to him, It gets easier the second time.

Well, maybe.

I wonder if it gets easier after the 200th time. I’ve been thinking about what goes through his mind as he is pushing. “Oops, took a moment to look at the pretty woman and there goes my rock, hurtling down the hill.”

This is a job that requires total concentration. And total effort. And even then, for some reason or another, maybe there’s thunder and lightning, maybe there’s a flock of seagulls up above, the rock finds a reason to hurtle down. The reasons are different every time, but the end result is the same.

While Sisyphus is pushing his rock up the mountain, there is nothing for him but toil and struggle. Pushing the rock up, seems to me, is the easy part.

What goes through his mind when he is walking down the hill? The rock is already down there. His work pushing it up the hill has gone to naught, again. As he walks down I can imagine him thinking about what went wrong, what he might have done differently. Perhaps he thinks about how he is going to gather the motivation to begin again? Does he think about the futility of his life? In one way or another, he has to contemplate the absurd situation he is in. If he wasn’t aware of the absurdity of his situation when going up the hill, he is certainly aware of it walking down the hill.

So what exactly does he think about? Is his mindset similar to that of an office drone, same stuff, different day? Perhaps it’s like coming back from the funeral of a loved one, contemplating how he will pick up the pieces and keep going? Or perhaps it’s like his own funeral — as the Buddha might have said — another marker in the endless cycle of life and death and thinking about how he would lead his next life?

The Sisyphus myth is a metaphor for all of these questions. If we can learn how to handle mindless repetitions, continuing cycles of effort and disappointment, we have learned the lesson the Gods wanted us to learn.

Background

Some here might remember my talk from a few years ago. The main point of the talk was discovering your inner self. We go forward from there. Who we are, who we know ourselves to be, is a starting point of today’s journey. How we perfect ourselves and become who we want to be, and how do we deal with setbacks, is the topic for today.

The guiding theme for today’s talk borrows heavily from Albert Camus, the Algerian-French author who was part of the resistance movement in WW-II. I found his essay on Sisyphus enlightening.

There is a fundamental contradiction in the human condition. On the one hand, we live with an inborn desire to find some sort of unity or reason in the universe. This desire to make sense of the universe makes us believe in a meaningful life or in God. On the other hand, the universe gives us no reason to believe that it contains any kind of reason or unity.

This feeling that we associate with Sisyphus walking down the hill is the feeling of absurdity, the awareness of the contradictory universe in which we live. The absurd man is someone who lives with the feeling of absurdity, who consciously maintains his awareness of the senselessness of everything around him.

In those moments where Sisyphus descends the mountain free from his burden, he knows that he will struggle forever and he knows that this struggle will get him nowhere. So long as Sisyphus is mindful of this, his fate is no different and no worse than our lot in life.

Maybe the title of this talk should have been Mindful Mindlessness.

About Sisyphus

Before Sisyphus was cursed, he had what we could only call an indomitable will to live. According to one myth, he had been punished for imprisoning Death. Another myth says he was punished for ratting on Zeus when Zeus stole someone’s daughter. In return for this information, he got her father to build a fountain for his people. Then, after he was dead, he tricked the lord of the underworld (Pluto) into letting him go back up to take care of some unfinished business — and then wouldn’t come back down. Mercury had to be sent up to grab him by the collar and bring him down again.

I think of him as an innovator. I mean, who would think of imprisoning Death? And not just think of it but do it! Personally, I admire people like that. But the Gods had other ideas, obviously.

Futile Struggle

We react to his fate with horror because we see its futility and hopelessness. Life itself is a futile struggle devoid of hope. However, this fate is only horrible if we continue to hope, if we think that there is something more that is worth aiming for. Our fate only seems horrible when we place it in contrast with something that would seem preferable. If we accept that there is no preferable alternative, then we can accept our fate without horror. Only then, Camus suggests, can we fully appreciate life, because we are accepting it without reservations. Therefore, Sisyphus is above his fate precisely because he has accepted it. His punishment is only horrible if he can hope or dream for something better. If he does not hope, the gods have nothing to punish him with.

Happiness and absurd awareness are intimately connected. We can only be truly happy when we accept our life and our fate as entirely our own — as the only thing we have and as the only thing we will ever be. The final sentence of Camus’ book reads: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But why must we imagine Sisyphus happy? We have no choice in the matter.

Actually, there is an alternative but it involves a leap into hope or faith. If the leap into hope or faith represents an attempt to escape from the reality of our fate, and if happiness is only possible through such a leap, then happiness would essentially be an escape. Life itself would be inherently unhappy and happiness would be a sham born out of denial.

Genuine Happiness

We must imagine Sisyphus happy if we want to believe in genuine happiness. Though this is the last sentence of the essay, we might see it as the initial premise that starts Camus’s reasoning. Because, like Camus, I essentially believe in the idea that individual human experience is the only thing that is real, if the happiness is to be it has to be based on the  experiences, not on their denial of experience. If happiness is real, we must be able to find happiness without relying on hope, faith, or anything else that goes beyond immediate experience. The Myth of Sisyphus is essentially an elaborate attempt to show that this is possible, and it concludes with its starting premise: if genuine happiness is possible, then Sisyphus must be happy.

I don’t want to say that there is no order to the universe, there is no God, etc. Rather, it is to ask, if we could construct a life that did not depend on those assumptions, what kind of a life would it be? Because there is at least the possibility that there is no order to the universe, that the whole thing is random, this way of thinking makes sense to me.

Degrees of Happiness

I’d like to leave the question of happiness and move to a second question: what would make Sisyphus even happier, within the constraints the Gods have imposed on him? We’re moving beyond Camus now, recognizing that happiness is not a binary thing, just like being rich or being thin is not a binary thing. One can never be too rich or too thin.

Starting in the 70′s Marty Seligman has been leading the “Positive Psychology” movement. What a terrible name! It always makes me think of faith healers and the like. Think positive thoughts and everything will turn out OK? Pshaaw! I’m a trained engineer, used to evaluating things as they are, not through rose colored glasses. I believe in facing up to situations, literally staring them down to assess them and act accordingly. What’s this Positive Psychology stuff?

But Dr. Seligman is for real. He went on to become the chair of the APA. I won’t go into psych theory here but the techniques he teaches are essentially about habits. How do you stop at a critical juncture, just as the rock has started to roll down the hill, and decide the best way to respond. That instant, it turns out, is key. The first step of that process is to be totally present, to know all the forces at play. Maybe it will stabilize again, and you can push it a bit further up.

Some people collapse as soon as the rock begins to slip but for Dr. Seligman, it’s partly a matter of who you are, more a matter of training yourself. Pretty soon you have trained yourself to go around the pothole rather than stepping into it.

Out of Dr. Seligman’s work came more recent work on Happiness Theory, by Jonathan Haidt and others. I know some people here who have read Prof. Haidt. If there is a theme to the recent spate of books on Happiness Theory, it’s their recognition that 90% of all human activity is not conscious at all, it is driven by habit, and habits are more malleable than we think. You need to first recognize and then control patterns of thought: the cues, actions, rewards system in the brain. One need only to think about organizations like AA to know it’s not easy to change habits, but it is possible. And the risk of reversion remains high for a long time.

Kool-Aid?

But I have a bigger problem with Happiness Theory: I’m not sure I believe in it. I’m sure it works at some level but I wonder if positive psychology didn’t have a role to play in the sub-prime crisis. Go ahead, take out that home equity loan. Do you doubt it’s a good idea? You’re being driven by your negative attitudes again. Look, the Jones’ are doing it. What could possibly go wrong? Scientific American had a different term for it: Kool-Aid psychology. This was surely not what Dr. Seligman intended when he researched optimism and promoted it as the superior way of life. He meant to help notoriously negative people and, I am sure, he often succeeded.

I do not believe that happiness is synonymous with or dependent on positive feelings. Instead happiness to me is having a good relationship with the whole of life, with the light and the darkness, the good and the bad, the concrete and the indefinable. How could there be lasting happiness if we exclude a part of life that is real and that serves a purpose. This understanding should inoculate everybody against the pressure of having to feel optimistic all the time.

OK, so we’ll leave optimism aside and conclude that we want to look at all aspects and assess things as realistically as possible, embrace it all, assess as objectively as possible and go from there.

In the mid-nineteenth century, work began on a crucial section of the railway line connecting Boston to the Hudson river, from Greenfield to Troy. It required tunneling through Hoosac Mountain, a five-mile thick impediment. All estimates were that the mountain was composed of soft rock and the tunnel would cost at most 2 million dollars. Everyone was wrong. Digging through was a nightmare. The project cost more than 10 times the budgeted estimate. If the people involved had known the true nature of the challenges, they would have never funded the Troy-Greenfield railroad. But had they not, the factories of Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship their goods so easily to the expanding West, the cost of freight would have remained stubbornly high and the state of Massachusetts would have been immeasurably poorer for it.

You might say the mis-estimation of the difficulty was a happy accident.

Mindless Mindfulness

So what are we left with? Pessimism doesn’t lead to happiness, Optimism can lead to misery, Realism is a bit better maybe but sometimes it is better to leave it aside and do things while being open to accidents – happy or otherwise. This is what I call Mindless Mindfulness: to be mindful at all times, to strive without expectation and keep pushing the rock up the hill.

Joyfully.

Epilog

The Epilog is from my imagination.

Then one day, Pluto and Mercury came down to see how things were going.

He escaped again, Mercury said.

No, no. He’s still there. See, he’s gotten really high this time.

I know, Mercury said. I see him. That’s not what I meant. I meant, he seems to be enjoying himself. We couldn’t take away his freedom. See, he seems happy. And if he keeps pushing even higher, he won’t be in Hades any more.

I guess they call it Nirvana, said Pluto.

Understanding Passions

The progress we have made in 2000 years:

For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.

— St. Paul, Galatians 5:171

My flesh is under stimulus control. Our brains, like rat brains, are wired so that food and sex give us little bursts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is the brain’s way of making us enjoy the activities that are good for the survival of our genes.

— Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Basic Books, 2006.

George McGovern, RIP

Senator McGovern passed away today.

He ran for President back in 1972, my first year in this country. I would have voted for him had I been able to vote. Only one state voted for him. I first heard of Massachusetts when I learned of the election results. “Must be a pretty special place”, I thought to myself.

6 years later, I was fortunate to receive a job offer from a school in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was like coming home.

Massachusetts is home to me not because of Harvard or MIT or anything else. It’s certainly not the weather that keeps me here. No, Massachusetts is home because it was the only state to vote for Senator McGovern back in 1972.

Senator McGovern, RIP. Thank you for helping me find my new home.

Gradually, then suddenly

The title of this post comes from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” One character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

I learned of the quote from this article about how a prominent US retailer is slowly bleeding itself to death. Strategic failures can take a long time to be noticed and by the time you notice them, it is too late.

The opposite is also true: strategic successes take a long time to bear fruit but suddenly, there they are.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.