Sunday, July 15, 2012

What Is Worth Remembering . . . or Best Forgotten?

I am cursed with the gift of Total Recall. I call it a “curse” because there are many things I would like to forget, but can’t, and those things have haunted me for many years.
Writing memoir had me dredging up my past and re-living it, with all its pain and illness, complete with resurrected symptoms. It was still well worth doing, because it not only served many intended purposes but also, as a surprise benefit, softened my most painful memories and took away their sting. When they had been served, acknowledged, and were ready to be let go, I was ready to move forward unencumbered by the pain they had carried.
But not all my memories became easier to live with, only the ones that made their way into the book, which didn’t cover my whole life, by a long shot! More memories – some familiar, some newly emerged – lay in wait, ready to pounce. 
And pounce they did! I needed another means of silencing the stories from my past that still had the power to upset me. If only I could forget them! 
But my curse, my “Velcro memory,” doesn’t let me. I needed to take the matter in hand. If I can’t erase them from my memory, I decided, at least I can still choose what to do with them when they pop up.
I tried several mental and behavioral strategies and finally came up with my latest tool for peace of mind. I installed a mental image of a traffic light somewhere just above and in front of me. The green light is imprinted with the word “Remember.” The red light reads, “Don’t Remember.” To activate it, all I need to do is reach up and touch the light I want to turn on.
Now when an event from the past sneaks up on me, I check my private traffic signal and my emotions, and I make a choice. If the remembered event was one that made me happy at the time, and the feelings coming up are of pleasure and joy, I mentally reach up and activate the green light and allow myself to Remember. But if the memory is of a time I was unhappy, and the emerging feelings are the hurtful kind, I touch the red light instead, and read its message: “Don’t Remember.”
Admittedly, pressing the brake pedal at an actual traffic light when it’s red, and bring the car to a stop, is easier. In a car, I can sit there and wait for the light to change again to green, while I idly listen to the radio or watch the traffic. Applying the brake to my memory is not as simple, because my mind wants to gallop off in its chosen direction, not just sit there doing not much of anything. I need to distract myself, take my mind somewhere else, stop it from plunging ahead.
Fortunately, I was taught how to do this by a wonderful and wise man, a Buddhist teacher who gave me spiritual direction while I was still actively grieving and taught me how to bring my thoughts to a stop and take them in a new, positive direction. His method was by chanting, and so I learned to chant as a form of spiritual practice. It worked after only a few tries, and I found it very helpful when my mind needed to be directed away from pain, toward hope and belief.
While the chant he taught me was far-reaching (and happened to be in Chinese), my new chant for stopping the flow of unwelcome memories is simply, “Don’t remember.” That is my chant, from start to finish. It works because I mean it, and I know that I can redirect my mind. At first I needed to repeat it a few times, now once is enough. 
“Don’t remember,” I tell myself. And then, “Think of something else.” And I direct my mind to where I am now, and what is happening now (which is also a Buddhist practice).
 “Be here, now,” I tell myself. “Here. Now.”
My mental traffic turns a corner. I can move forward again.