Memories are there to be embraced, even the bad ones

March 27, 2017

We all know the feeling of wanting to forget something – a conversation or an incident; a moment of embarrassing failure or foolishness that might have been avoided. How hard it can be to stop the gyrations of the mind in such circumstances. Albert Schweitzer memorably said: “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

Perhaps this desire to override our consciousness will one day be medically possible. Scientists from the University of Toronto believe they have found a small number of neurons which are responsible for establishing those feelings of fear and dread. These brain cells, they speculate, could be identified and treated to wipe out traumatic memories.

It raises profound ethical implications. Dr Sheena Josselyn, who presented the Toronto work to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, said: “If we erase the memory of our mistakes, what is to keep us from repeating them?”

This scary prospect plays out beautifully in the wonderful relationship movie Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet try to erase each other from their memories, but find they are drawn to each other all over again.

Memory really is a curious thing. We all know that our minds can play tricks when we try to think backwards. In Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, the play is based around the memories of Tom, the narrator who is desperate to escape his past. Tom says right at the beginning that the action is drawn from his memory, warning the audience that what they see could be dramatic, sentimental, emotional, but not necessarily realistic.

His memories soon pile up in the play, currently on at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London; we are asked by Williams over again to evaluate and embrace past moments, recalled unreliably and often causing us pain and regret. There is a strong autobiographical element: Laura, Tom’s sister, is based on Rose, Tennessee Williams’s sister. We may not always enjoy our memories, but surely we wouldn’t choose to lose some, not without risking losing it all?

The Glass Menagerie teaches us that we are the sum of our pasts, our experiences and lives lived. It’s a powerful reflection, not to be forgotten. But how do we embrace rather than become enslaved by our pasts?

One of the most important Buddhist teachings is acceptance. While we have a natural instinct to run away from memories that give us pain, it is not the memories that cause suffering but our inability to accept the past. Acceptance brings forgiveness to ourselves and to others; acceptance helps us to reclaim the energy trapped in the past so we can create our future from the present.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation