Sunday, September 25, 2011

Living without Memory

Defining Freedom and Enlightenment

The Persistence of Memory.  Salvador Dali, 1931.Many people considered the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould very well read. Part of his genius lay in identifying the intellectual roots of a given idea or field, analogizing from previously unrelated concepts, and launching innovative ideas off the "shoulders of giants". When asked about his erudition, however, he said that he was no more well-read than an average scientist... he just remembered more of what he had read. Even as we have so much information instantly available, memory is still a very practical and sought-after characteristic. And a historian like the late Howard Zinn would argue "if you don't don't know important things about history, then it's as if you were born yesterday."

So why on earth would anyone want to live without memory?

I had a long car ride back from camping a few weeks ago with a curious engineer with a great memory. He remembered courses I had taken in my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from a conversation we had months before. He also remembered something that confused him -- that someone with an engineering background like me would be interested in sociology. So, with a beautiful open heart, he asked, again and again, "Why?" At the end of his questions, I had unraveled myself.

I compared sociology to systems engineering -- likening society to a large, dynamic, multidimensional machine with a variety of cultural and historical influences. If sociologists were right, I claimed, the history of our backgrounds and influences could explain the actual words and conversations we could have in this car, what kind of products our company could make, and whether our country was capable of paying its debt back. As a method of argument, I advanced the bold claim that all of our actions (nay thoughts) were defined by the various influences of our backgrounds. My leadership professor had likewise asked us to consider (for argument's sake) that even the morals and ideals we desperately fight for (and identify with) are actually veiled emotional loyalties to actual people that we have known, whether living or dead (consider it for a few minutes, it's pretty trippy.)

Very naturally, he asked, "Does that mean we aren't free?"

I believe that consciousness of your influences makes you free of them. You don't necessarily need to reject your influences, or dissolve them. But instead of them using you, you can use them. It gives you a choice to be what the moment is calling for, or to be what your identity is calling for. Although I'm Tennessean, I often choose whether to use "y'all" or "you". I might be of Indian heritage, but I can choose, in a given moment, to identify as an American, an Indian, a minority, or none of the above. But there are so many influences we carry with us, is it really possible to unravel them all?

Then he asked me, "So are YOU free?" I answered, in jest, "Maybe when I become the Buddha!" "What does it mean to be free?" I stand on the shoulders of other giants when I answered simply, "Being Present."

Unraveling this one concept can be shocking and revolutionary -- it's tantamount to unraveling yourself. A friend asked me a few days ago to define what I meant by "meditation" since I was using "meditation" so vaguely and imprecisely to describe various common activities from playing music to sitting silently to making love to dancing. Backtracking, I finally said, "Losing yourself." In that moment you lost yourself last week, I'm guessing you did not remember the square-root of 169, the city of your mother's birth, the central dogma of biology, or who won the Peloponnesian war. If you really lost yourself, I bet you didn't even remember your name. There was definitely some freedom there, you have to allow.

Now, the logical question is, What if you could string a life together of those kinds of instances, repeated, one after the other? Would you be eternally free? If so, would it be a worthwhile existence? What would you have to sacrifice? What about all of those degrees and analytical thinking skills painfully acquired? My engineer asked, "What would your life amount to if you lived with no goals or plan?" (I'll attempt to answer that later, Jobs did in his commencement speech :) What about the baggage from three relationships ago, knotting up our backs? What if you forget that TPS report your boss needs by tomorrow? Can you take joy in forgetting?

Now you have glimpsed enlightenment. Well, how does it sound? Attractive? Scary? Practical? Impractical?


zoe lunch said...

i know i'm not free + i've accepted this. freedom is a word that is godlike in this country, but i don't think freedom is a prerequisite for happiness. i'm bound to ppl's expectations (for me to be happy + productive) + my job + my responsibilities as a partner, daughter, woman of color. i don't like these bonds but i think it'd be selfish to ignore them.

Diane said...

I feel that I am free because I take responsibility for my choices and live with no regret. I always look forward, not backward. Even though I am bound to a husband, son, and two jobs, these are chains that I embrace and relish in.

However, you might ask about stress about handling so much. I have worked hard identifying what causes me suffering and learning to release the part of me that is causing my suffering. I try to cultivate a "It is what it is" attitude. So, if I have a tough deadline at work, I try to release my desire to try to cram everything in a certain amount of time. If my husband does not wake up when the baby cries, I release my thought that I am the only person who must attend to my child by kicking him in the butt.

I guess this is a round about way of saying that I don't agree with the "losing yourself" theory. I believe that people naturally love, and love binds you to other things/people. Therefore, it's impossible to lose yourself without losing love. Without love, I believe you would have lost everything.

aarti said...

speaking about memory and experience reminds me of this TED talk:

for me, "losing myself" does not necessarily indicate meditation, which i see as being present. we might be saying the same thing, but i find something unsatisfying about that term.

for example, while running i can "lose myself" in the sense that i lose the experience of time and no longer sense the feeling of running -- i.e. i am not registering the cadence of my feet or my breath, but rather my mind is elsewhere (perhaps imagining, perhaps worrying, perhaps thinking of nothing) -- either way, the time flies by (with no real memory afterwards of what happened) and i have a feeling of having "lost myself".

there is another losing oneself while running where i am extremely present and feel every sensation - my arms pounding, my feet rolling against the pavement, air entering my lungs, leaves rustling, etc.. in this moment, i don't lose the experience of running or even time; rather, i experience both even more fully because i am aware. in that moment, if someone were to ask me the city of my mother's birth, i would be able to answer because the sound of that question hitting my eardrum is crisp and true and just as much a part of the present moment. my attention has now shifted into a new realm, since i don't think we can truly focus on two things at once, however it is just as present and, ironically, "lost in the moment".

so i guess that i am arguing that when truly present, it is not that we forget all else, but that we are able to access all, as it pertains to the present moment.

eudae said...

@zoe lunch - i agree, freedom is over-used here, and i don't think it's even correlated with happiness :) it is VERY selfish to ignore the bonds we've created, and something i struggle with quite a bit. sometimes i think, if i can be free, it must have a beneficial effect on the people i interact with. i do think it's really hard to live in the world and be free, as i've defined it, but i think it's possible.

@diane - i love that phrase "it is what it is." :) i think at heart, our natural being is simply love. when i say "self", i mean everything else - the identities, the names, the habits, the expectations - those are the "self" to lose.

@aarti - i love that kahneman research - it brings up super interesting ethical questions on pain/compliance as well as the stuff about the experiencing vs. remembering self. i understand your distinction, and i agree that you are describing two different experiences, but i see them both in the same way. I guess I'm asserting (maybe a bit dangerously) that when you think/interpret, you are leaving the moment. For example, there are meditations where you try to hear each music note as if it was totally unconnected to others in the same song, or the sounds, but not meanings, of words.

Also, I heard a talk by Mingyur Rinpoche ( where he had us do two meditations: (1) Do not think. (2) Watch your thoughts. Then he asked us. "How many of you had thoughts during the first meditation?" Many hands raised. "How many of you could not have a single thought during the second meditation?" Many hands raised. Kind of an interesting non-duality for me to intuit, but maybe not exactly parallel to your observation.