By Geoffrey Geddes
Perception follows experience; they are neither equivalent nor simultaneous. The time between experience and perception might be less than a hummingbird’s wing flap. Yet, without that period of reflection no perception, and therefore no consciousness, is possible. If the experience perceived has occurred in a moment and that moment has passed (as each moment must), then only a memory – a stored facsimile of the original experience – can be reflected upon. Just as a photograph is not the image captured, a memory is not the moment remembered.
Consciousness, then, derives from memory. We can touch reality with our senses; but we can know reality only through our recollections. The more effectively a creature stores, retrieves, and applies its memories – in other words, the more conscious the creature – the better that creature can adapt to its environment and accommodate the various reflexive impulses and psychological drives that arise as part of its genetic construct and social conditioning. Among Earth’s creatures, humans possess the most sophisticated memory, which explains our gold medal in consciousness.
Our entire body remembers, from our brain to our bones. The process starts with our first cellular separation and ends with our last neural spark. C.G. Jung watched our genes remembering by way of myths and dreams and called it collective unconscious. Each experience not only creates a new memory, but also activates and modifies existing memories.
Quick: where were you when the planes hit the twin towers? Nearly half of you are mistaken. The equation M+T=F (memory plus time equals fiction) limits the memory-as-photograph analogy and reveals the second edge of the consciousness sword. Memory is a dynamic, creative process – a process more akin to storytelling than picture-taking. Memory does not capture a sensation for later inspection; it recreates an experience for later reflection.
Moreover, we do not always require a real-world experience on which to construct a memory. We often fashion memories based solely on expectations or desires. The man who daily bemoans his unrewarding job or miserable marriage is remembering a wish – a story he once composed of a career or a love that might or should have been. Memories based on wishes are the most insidious kind, and represent the most formidable obstacles to an authentic life.
If it is true that we continually create and recreate our phenomenological world, composing the tome of our lives until our mental stylus runs dry, then grasp your pen with firm volition. If you do not, ego will write your story to serve its well-intentioned but shortsighted ends. Ego embodies our primal imperative to persist. Ego will protect itself at all costs and without deliberation. Consequently, if we leave our pen of memory unattended, ego will snatch it up and begin scribbling furiously.
A mother spanks her daughter when the little girl steps off a curb. The girl’s ego begins composing a memory of subjugation and danger and harsh love. As the narrative undergoes perpetual rewrites, new experiences and imagined alternatives amend the story into one of avoidance and self-soothing. Soon, the well-rehearsed scenario automatically replays with each reminiscent encounter: the girl, now a woman, steps into a crowded elevator; her close proximity to strangers activates subliminal memories of danger, helplessness, and inadequacy; tension inexplicably cascades throughout her body, tightening her chest and tingling her fingers; her exit from the elevator feels more like escape than departure; she impulsively orders a pastry to accompany her latte.
Forget your desire to live in the moment. Moments are not dwellings in which we can reside; they are instances through which we exist. Our recollection of experienced moments implies an objective reality. Yet, our minds can never directly touch that reality. We can only know our unique, creative depiction of that reality, which we fashion based on our stored and recalled memories.
Experiences beget memories, which beget feelings, which beget thoughts, which beget actions and more memories, ad finis vitae. The process occurs so quickly that our consciousness must often settle for retrospection rather than mediation. Sometimes, however, we can glimpse the mnemonic proceedings as they proceed. With practice, we can learn not only how to willfully catch those glimpses, but also how to influence the process to our benefit.
Despite our inability to know a moment directly, we can nevertheless reduce the distance between our consciousness and our experiences to great advantage. Recall a time when you felt immersed in an activity, when reflection seemed to take a coffee break while you simply lived. Children experience this flow state through play. Artists also feel it: the violinist ardently bows her instrument until practice becomes creation; the dancer spins and reaches and leaps until choreography becomes a physical biography; the writer taps keys until the sun has set and his soul has manifested in words.
We needn’t be artists, however, to close the gap between experience and reflection; even untalented late bloomers can traverse the chasm to good effect. We simply must learn to calm our tendency toward fanciful elaboration and practice focusing on briefer, more proximate, more positively interpreted reflections. Complete forgetting – living every moment without reflection – is not the goal. That sort of ‘oneness’ might suit a sea slug; but it would entirely negate the benefit of human consciousness. Practicing proximate memory flow, however, can facilitate our acceptance of experiences as they actually happen, rather than as we would have them occur, and help to neutralize other obstacles to an effective, fulfilling life, including resistance, denial, regret, and worry.
We are what we remember. Remember your experiences with honesty, acceptance, and kindness. Write yourself a happy ending.