Have you ever wished for a poor memory? We usually think of a good memory as a helpful trait. It is useful to remember important dates and appointments. It's good to be able to remember facts and things you planned to do. It's nice to be able to recall where you've been or where you've seen someone before. On the other hand, sometimes memory can be a curse. One of the angriest and unhappiest men we've met had the ability to give the precise dates of numerous bad things that had happened to him and the dates of his many relapses to alcohol and drug use. Each misfortune and failing was readily available for his instant and constant recall. His habitual focus on the negative was unfortunately potentiated by his remarkable memory. He truly lived in a hell of his own making. By his habitual thought patterns he recreated his misery moment to moment.
People who suffer from anxiety often have intense memories of bad things that have happened to them. That memory is projected onto the unknown future, where the misfortune might happen again-- or they imagine that something even worse might happen. The anxious person's body responds to anticipation as if the feared event was actually occurring. This can be very unpleasant, and in serious cases professional help may be needed.
When we remember bad things that have happened, we experience emotions related to the past event. We may feel anxiety, or we may feel sadness. Sometimes it is necessary to recall the unhappy event to deal with the emotion associated with it. A good cry can be quite therapeutic. The problem arises when we repetitively relive our worst memories and stay trapped in their emotions.
One of the benefits of mindfulness practice is that it keeps us in the present where we experience life as it is now. When we are aware of the present moment, we are not caught in the regrets of the past or the fears of tomorrow.
Living in the present does not preclude remembering what it is useful to remember or planning constructively for the future. It may actually improve our memory, because we are aware of what is happening in life and not being distracted by recollections and fantasies.
Use your memory to remind you to live in the present. As you go through your day, remember to notice where your thoughts go. Notice when you are remembering the past. Notice when you are anticipating the future. Notice when you are in the present.
When you feel an unpleasant emotion, especially anxiety or sadness, notice what you are thinking about. Are you dredging up old unpleasant memories? Are you projecting negative fantasies on the future? Remind yourself that these memories and fantasies are not what is happening now. At the same time, increase your awareness of the present. Take a deep breath and refocus. Experience yourself in this moment. Feel your body. Notice your surroundings. Become more aware of whatever you are doing. Take another breath. Keep coming back to the present. Take the moment and enjoy it.
"Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind."
"To realize pure mind in your delusion is practice. If you try to expel the delusion it will only persist the more. Just say, 'Oh, this is just delusion.' And do not be bothered by it."
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
© 1997-2003 Tom Barrett