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Memory and the Self

October 7, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Yesterday, our family took a trip to Sonoma, a town in the Northern California Wine Country, where I had lived twenty years ago.  Although I hadn’t been there recently I recognized many of the natural sites—the hills, the cattle pastures, and the long lines of Eucalyptus trees— as well as shops and restaurants.  As we walked through the town square, my mind filled with memories of what seemed like another lifetime.  Some of the memories brought back feelings of nostalgia, but most of them had very little effect on me. Reflecting on not only my memories of a past life, but on memory itself, I began to look at myself in a new way.  Or maybe I should say that I began to look at my old life without a sense of me.  I became interested in the relationship of memory and sense of personal identity.

Here I should add that a philosophical argument, championed by such luminaries as John Locke and David Hume, states that memory gives rise to our sense of personal identity through time. John Locke said, as far as consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far it reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then. And Hume said, As a memory alone acquaints us with the continuance and extent of this succession of perceptions, ‘tis to be considered, upon that account chiefly, as the source of personal identity.  

Yesterday, as I was trying to look at my memories, I was able to see what Hume was saying without attaching any sense of personal identity to them.  Yes, I knew these had happened, but I had no sense that they happened to me. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I couldn’t find a self in my memories.  In my Zen practice I had grown used to studying the illusory sense of self as it appears in the present moment, largely as a result of emotional attachments. I have seen that when I am able to be in the present moment before forming attachments there is no sense of “substantiality” anywhere. Yesterday, I experienced what happens when I do not form attachments to things that already happened. In a sense, I was able to relive a past experience before forming an emotional attachment to it and when I did this, there was very little sense of “this happened to me.  Without emotional reactions and attachment, I felt that there was no there, there.

As the afternoon wore on, I noticed, again and again, how insubstantial and illusory these memories felt to me. Yes, I knew I wasn’t making things up—I had lived there for several years—but these memories did not feel real to me.  In fact, they seemed less “real” than the dreams I had the night before. And the self that had lived in Sonoma for five years seemed as made up as a character in the novel that I was reading. I saw how dependent my sense of self was on not only the memories of things I had done, but also my emotional reactions to them.  Without those two elements—the memory and the reaction to it—there was no sense of self!

By the end of the day, I felt surprisingly alive and free to enjoy the beautiful weather and countryside.   In a sense, I was the warm breeze and the blue sky—I felt intimately connected to everything around me.  There was no I—no middle man—to get in the way. 

And today, looking back on those experiences, I find myself even more interested than ever in Dogen’s statement in the Genjo Koan, To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. And I feel that “something” remains from yesterday’s experiences.  When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to make a great article… but what can I say… I
    put things off a lot and don’t manage to get nearly anything done.

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