Memories are a central issue in therapeutic contexts as well as meditation. Both work to access memories that produce unconscious barriers in our lives, in order to let go of inner friction. In her book The Shaking Woman, the American novelist Siri Hustvedt refers to another book, by Joe Brainard, called I Remember. Every entry in Brainard’s book begins with the words “I remember”:
I remember that I never cried in front of other people.
I remember how embarrassed I was when other children cried.
And so on. While working with patients, Hustvedt observed how using the same technique automatically brings memories to the surface:
When the patients and I write our own “I remembers”, something remarkable happens. The very act of inscribing the words I remember generates memories, usually highly specific images or events from the past, often ones we hadn’t thought about for many years. … Usually I do not know how I will finish the sentence when I begin it, but once the word remember is on the page, some thought appears to me.
Strangely, exactly the same thing happened to me just as I was reading these lines by Hustvedt. Unexpectedly and without any obvious reason, a memory popped up in my mind. I remembered how as a little child I had tried to convince a neighbour woman that I never played. At the time, I did not understand why she looked troubled and uncomfortable by my statement instead of being impressed by what I proudly thought was my maturity.
Hustvedt adds that “one memory often leads to another”, and sure enough, I immediately came to think of a memory from some years later, when I was approaching puberty. It was summer and my family was spending the holidays at our cottage in the countryside. I was playing – yes, playing – “Indian and Cowboy” with the boys living next to our cottage. We were running around at the edge of the forest, chasing each other, pulling up toy guns to shoot each other – and having a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, but at some point it struck me that if somebody back home in town had seen me, they might have found me childish and laughable. It would have been awful! There were two versions of me, one taking enormous childlike pleasure in the game, the other being conscious that I wasn’t a child anymore. The two could not be allowed to inhabit the same mind.
The associative chain continued, and there were other memories, some of which I found quite embarrassing.
Such memories are vivid and powerful, and they all touch upon important and highly personal issues. As such, contemplating the images that come to mind, as well as the spoken or written versions formulated in words, may contribute to reflections on central themes in one’s life.
Meditation may also bring up long-forgotten memories. Acem retreats and other contexts where long meditations are followed by guidance provide opportunities to visit such unexpected impressions from a distant (but still powerful) past. Some of the things that come during meditation are so early that they can’t be couched in words, or even imagery. Our bodies carry memories that were never allowed to leave behind a mental trace. Only the silent practice of meditation can bring them to the surface and change the skewed direction they have set for our lives.