Readings for a Meditation on Memory

A meditation on Memory, August 24, 2014

Prelude

Unforgettable, sung by Hilary LockHart. Two candidate versions:

  1. Nina Simone.
  2. Aretha Franklin.

Opening Words

As soon as you hear it you know
it’s a melody, and that’s what you want.
Moreover, you don’t have to understand
anything to like it, nothing about scales
or keys, nothing about history

or the difficult life of the composer,
the women or men he loved or couldn’t love,
how much money he didn’t have, how cold
it would get when he tried to compose,
how he died. Those are some of the things

you don’t have to know because the melody
is like a small bird, maybe a yellow canary,
that wings its way into your mind
— no, into your heart —
where there’s a perch already

set up for it, a little trapeze
to swing back and forth on as it sings
and sings, since a good melody
stays with you, sometimes much longer
than you’d like, the reason being

the relatively small number of notes.
And these can repeat and repeat until you
have to replace them with another melody,
shoo that bird away, so to speak, invite
a different one in. Or else go to sleep.

— The Reason Being, Lawrence Raab: The History of Forgetting, 2009

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

In a separate blog post.

Closing Words

When Adam and Eve lived in the garden
they hadn’t yet learned how to forget.
For them every day was the same day.
Flowers opened, then closed.
They went where the light told them to go.
They slept when it left, and did not dream.

It was the snake, of course, who knew
about the past — that such a place could exist.
He understood how people would yearn
for whatever the’d lost, and so to survive
they’d need to forget. Soon
the garden will be gone, the snake
thought, and in time God himself.

— title poem, Lawrence Raab: The History of Forgetting, 2009

Postlude

Hilary LockHart.

Talk Back

A Meditation on Memory

A meditation on Memory

August 24, 2014

Synopsis (not for reading aloud at the service):

We are — our identity is — shaped by our memory and our habits. If we want renewal of who we are, be born again, we have only to start laying out new memories to supersede the old. If we don’t control our memories and our habits, they will control us!

Introduction

Steve Jobs shows up at the Pearly Gates and discovers that St. Peter is no longer using his Book of Life — like almost everyone else, he has upgraded to an iPad to look up folks at the gate.

What? He’s using an iPad? And it’s connected to an iCloud? Doesn’t he know the NSA has its paws all over that? Doesn’t he know all those records could be hacked? And the wrong people would get into heaven? Oh wait, they already have!

Why does God’s gatekeeper at the Heavenly Kingdom need an iAnything? And why did he need the Book of Life in hard copy before the iPad came along? Why couldn’t he just remember? It’s just one bit of information for every person, good/not-good, it can’t be that hard, can it?

We all know the answer: remembering is hard, memory is often wrong, and it’s very subjective anyway. Mine has been going downhill ever since the teenage years. The trend shows no signs of slowing, let alone reversing.

To give us all a little break, there has been some recent research activity suggesting that our gradually-slowing-brains may just be slowing because they are too full, it takes more effort to locate things and more effort to retrieve things even after they’ve been located. Every time we go into the attic looking for something, we see other things up there, and take many trips down memory lane before actually coming back with what we went looking for. And sometimes we just forget what we came for and return empty-handed.

So next time you wonder why you get distracted, why the stove got left on, why you never returned the call you should have returned, maybe your brain isn’t declining, maybe it’s just stuffed with stuff, maybe it just needs a little clearing? OK, a lot of clearing!

Related to the same, there is some speculation that the forgetfulness associated with ADHD may be due to an extraordinary memory (how contradictory is that?).

And yet, memory is the glue that binds our inner mental life together and provides a sense of continuity in our lives. We are who we are because of what we learn and remember. It keeps assorted facts together and keeps them organized. It is also the keeper of habits, of everything we do without thinking deeply about it. Our memory is everything and without it we are nothing.

Our memory extends to form a collective memory. Back in 1915, the Ottomans began what is referred to as the first-ever genocide: the systematic annihilation of over a million Armenians. It had started with the murder of “just” 250 people. To this day, the Turks and the Armenians remember the arc of that genocide differently and with extreme bitterness toward the other.

Some have traced modern terrorism to the bitterness resulting from the fall of the Ottoman empire and the desire to re-establish the Caliphate. Such is the nature of memory! It’s an amazingly powerful force and it drives our emotions. It can get us to do things we wouldn’t do in our “saner moments”.

We get ourselves stuck in individual memories, in collective memories, in national memories, and there is no way out. A sharp sound can trigger it, or a smell, or a certain gesture. We forget that we’re not in Iraq any more, that someone reaching into his pocket isn’t necessarily reaching for a grenade. We lock our car when in Dorchester, even when passing in front of a church.

In other words, memory is a force that controls so much of our lives. This talk is my attempt at trying to understand the many ways we can be aware of its doings, and how we can compensate for its shortcomings.

About this talk

This talk is about getting unstuck from the trappings of memory and habits. But I’m skipping past a related topic — dementia. Therein lies proof that memory = identity, but that topic deserves its own talk, probably by someone who has been touched by it more than I have.

The title of the talk came from the song at the end — Memory — sung by Elaine Page, Barbra Streisand and countless others. I had been reflecting on it at Denny Donaldson’s memorial service. She used to sing it so well. One time, she was doing a summer service and at the end, in the talk-back period, I asked if she could sing it. She did, and the memory of her singing it has been etched in my memory ever since. This song brings me to tears every time I hear it, it’s a complex of emotions.

When you hear it again at the end of the service, I’d like you to notice the melancholy note it begins with and the bleak landscape it paints. I won’t try and sing it and as soon as you hear me recite a verse, you’ll know why.

Midnight, the darkest hour

Midnight
Not a sound from the pavement
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone
In the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet
And the wind begins to moan

Talk about bleak! And then she looks fondly back at how things were. It’s a celebration of that time but it’s also a trap, of course. More on that in a moment.

Memory of Joys Past

Memory
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
I remember
The time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again

We’re pretty sure it wasn’t all roses back then but that’s what we get from the song. I tie it to the Daniel Kahneman notion of the remembering self vs. the experiencing self. He talks about an example where you go to a concert and hear an absolutely sublime piano sonata for 20 minutes. And just as it’s coming to an end, somewhere in the concert hall, a cell phone rings.

If we are asked about the sonata, the thing we remember is that cell phone. Those last 5 seconds seem to have been the ones that formed your memory; the 20 minutes of sublime music, all the enjoyment we felt without knowing about the cell phone call that was yet to come, was experienced by our experiencing self but not transferred to the remembering self.

Remember the old joke, “other than the incident at the end, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

All that is a way of saying: what we remember isn’t the whole thing, it’s often not the most pleasant thing either, so best not to dwell on it too much. Memory has a way of accentuating the negative, except at funerals, of course.

We have all met people who are so stuck, reliving events of the past over and over again, that they fail to imagine the future. We just want to say: get over it, move on, build yourself a future!

But it’s not like one can will oneself to forget. I offer as an example a very touching song called

Forget Ya, by Cee Lo Green. Anyone remember the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? In both of those cases, and in countless others, the protagonist tries to forget a past love but concludes in the end that he can’t. So are we really trapped by our memories forever?

I want to say no. I want to say we’re not condemned to this fate of ever-accumulating attics of the brain and ever-slower performance of our random access memories.

But first…

A fatalistic warning

Every street lamp
Seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning

Sounds really scary, doesn’t it? There’s a sense of foreboding, not knowing what’s to come.

Daniel Gilbert of Harvard has been doing some very interesting work. He asked people about the changes they had seen in their lives over the previous ten years and also about the next ten years of their lives. You’d think the expected change over the next 10 years would be, statistically speaking, similar to the change over the previous 10 years. Not so, he found out. He calls it a failure of imagination. I’m not quite sure. Maybe it fear of the future, this sense of foreboding? The past is so concrete, so easy to stick to — inaccuracies and all. The future? That’s a scary place! Better to let it happen to us rather than think about it.

Germany after the war found itself stuck in memories. On the one hand, the descendants of Nazis couldn’t just walk away from the horrors of WW-II. On the other hand how could they be held to blame for the past? How could they move on from that low point and still remain relevant on the world stage?

It seems that today’s generation of Germans does not feel personally guilty for the Nazi era, but yet they realize they cannot divorce themselves from it. This generation of Germans realize each new birth continues the story of their people, but it is the same story. that is carried on from generation to generation.

I know of no better symbol for this than the rebuilding of post-war Germany’s buildings, often with the same stones that stood as rubble for many years. The present is but a continuation of the past, even if in a totally different mode and direction. The past remains part of the scene, but you move on. You invest, you build. And maybe one day you win the Soccer World Cup in addition to winning the World Economy cup!

Daylight
I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in
When the dawn comes
Tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin

I must think of a new life. And thus begins the transformation. At first it is just an act of imagination and will, a determination to not let our memories control us, a determination to move on. Nothing else. But soon it becomes more, a lot more.

I quote from Nelson Mandela on National Reconciliation Day, 16 December 1995.

There are few countries which dedicate a national public holiday to reconciliation. But then there are few nations with our history of enforced division, oppression and sustained conflict. And fewer still, which have undergone such a remarkable transition to reclaim their humanity.

We, the people of South Africa, have made a decisive and irreversible break with the past. We have, in real life, declared our shared allegiance to justice, non-racialism and democracy; our yearning for a peaceful and harmonious nation of equals.

[skipped...]

But we do know that healing the wounds of the past and freeing ourselves of its burden will be a long and demanding task. This Day of Reconciliation celebrates the progress we have made; it reaffirms our commitment; and it measures the challenges.

Reconciliation however, does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict.

[skipped...]

The Truth and National Reconciliation Commission which will soon begin its work, is one important institution created by our democratic Constitution and Parliament in order to help us manage the more difficult aspects of healing the nation`s wounds. Thus we shall free ourselves from the burden of yester-year; not to return there; but to move forward with the confidence of free men and women, committed to attain the best for ourselves and future generations.

This, to me, is the essence of getting unstuck — to move on without really forgetting, to reconcile with the past but stop dwelling on it. The reconciliation didn’t happen overnight.

You might say South Africa’s reconciliation is a work in progress, just as our own reconciliation around our own history with past wrongs is a work in progress.

The first glimmers of change

Burnt out ends of smoky days
The stale cold smell of morning
A street lamp dies, another night is over
Another day is dawning

The first glimmers of change, of awakening and noticing, perhaps, that the darkness won’t be forever.

A plea for reconciliation

Touch me
It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with my memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me
You’ll understand what happiness is
Look a new day has begun

I see it as a plea for reconciliation, for understanding, for compassion. I see it as a plea for helping her layer new memories on top of the old ones. That she will be helped by it is unquestionable. What is surprising about this stanza is the promise she lays out for you: You’ll understand what happiness is.

Reminds me of something Ralph Donaldson, Denny’s late husband, used to say about A Course in Miracles: Every loving thought is true, Everything else is a plea for help.

I’d like to conclude with a long-ish reading about forgiveness. It’s a pretty dominant theme in Christianity and an essential ingredient of what I think is necessary for us to move on. This one is from a Corrie TenBloom; who she was and the context of the reading will become clear during the reading.

A word about this reading. I haven’t yet been able to read it without choking up and I’ve asked Carolyn, our Worship Host, to complete it in case I can not. After the reading, please observe a 20-second silence and we’ll go to the closing words after that.

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.

“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.

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.