Human memory is never a simple, complete, or objective record of past experience; we infuse meaning into our memories through the nature, character, and habits of our own mind. Some of our memories are more highly charged and have significant influence in our course of life. When we bring mindfulness into the realm of memory we begin an exploration into the ways our own assumptions and interpretations of the past can be beneficial or harmful, benevolent or unkind, as well as compassionate or unfeeling. Of course, we cannot change the past, however, through mindfulness, we may begin to cultivate a deeper and more charitable relationship with the past.
Mindfulness is commonly described as a contemplative practice that helps us to increase our capacity for awareness, attention, observation, discernment, and focus. With aging comes the accumulation of memories and therefore the opportunity to work creatively with the past. The benefit of mindfulness is healing chronic distraction, rumination, and distress by training the mind to relax and become centered in the present moment. The capacities of mind cultivated through mindfulness help to stabilize the foundation of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and therefore helps to preserve the underlying ground of our wellbeing.
It seems strange to intersect mindfulness with memory; mindfulness centers on the present moment while memory retrieves the past. A remembrance is a recollection of the past, that is to say, of a former present moment that now inhabits the past. However, the past and the present are not mutually exclusive and separate from one another; we always remember the past in the midst of the present moment.
The meaning we have instilled in a memory can influence the feeling present moment just as the feelings that charge the present moment can influence our interpretation of a past event.
A moment is a child of time; the present moment exists in a state of constant motion. No one knows how long a moment is. We cannot isolate a particular moment in time and hold on to it. The essential character of every moment of our life is its evanescence. The present moment relentlessly passes us by before it can be grasped; that is to say, “now” is always on the move. Inside every present moment we experience is the wild, untamed conflux of change, transition, and transformation. To feel the fleeting nature of the present moment is to touch the unavoidable truth of our own impermanence.
There is music inside mindfulness; mindfulness has a powerful aural dimension, that is to say, it is a way of improvising rhythms of perception that help to orient our sense of being to the evanescence of our experience. Even stillness is imbued with a sense of tempo and rhythm. The aural dimension of mindfulness reminds us that our sense of the past, present, and future exist in a state of constant resonance.
Like the confluence of two rivers merging into one, the border between the present moment and a recent memory is permeable. Each moment we experience is relentlessly flowing into to the past while the future relentlessly seeks us out from an invisible and mysterious space. The present moment is a liminal frontier between our memories of the past and our hopes for the future. Without memory, we would have no identity at all and would become strangers to ourselves in the here and now.
To become mindful of our memories is a way of learning to accept and relax into the transient and impermanent nature of our experience. In a certain sense, to be mindful is to embrace an artistry of time, that is, to inhabit the fragile and uncertain time of our own lives in ways that inspire us to feel more alive, authentic, happy, positive, and integral.
To bring mindfulness to our memories is to embrace the possibility of infusing our memories with the charity and benevolence of gratitude, self-compassion, and heartfelt kindness. This does not mean that we no longer feel the pain of the past, but we consciously decide to not allow our painful memories to become the demons of our own conjuring. Nor do we try to isolate ourselves in fond memories, but we do consciously choose to celebrate the positive resonance they bring into the here and now.
Ironically, being mindful of the present moment is the same thing as embracing memory as a source of comfort, clarity, and resilience. Of course, human memory will always retain its feral nature; it will remain a source of imaginative wildness that defies our attempts to tame it and bring it completely under our control. One important purpose of developing mindful memories is to allow ourselves to relax into the more uncertain and wild elements of our memory so that can better serve us in navigating the confluence of our everyday lives.
Our memory is a constant reminder that there is a vast untamed wilderness inside of each one of us. Though we cannot hope to completely tame the beast, we can bring the artistry of mindfulness to our memories in order to live more fully and completely inside that mercurial and uncertain habitat we call the present moment.