One may occasionally be struck with a particular type of difficult memory, what I’ll term a “Siren memory”. Normally it’s a moment of great pain or of great joy. These memories are not like an ordinary recollection that brings to mind the emotion of the situation in the vague distant sense that the term “memory” normally evokes. Instead, the emotions carried by these memories are experienced with a primal immediacy. They are experienced directly, with full emotional content right here now.
These experiences of intense remembered emotions are difficult in the first instance because one is caught, often unprepared, in an experience of great pain or regret, or of great hope, joy and prospect. The emotional jolt that comes from these memories often hit us in a time of stress or fatigue. They will often be inappropriate to the situation in which one finds oneself, or will impede a skillful handling of the situation at hand. One may be in a serious discussion with another person, trying to resolve a pressing issue and BANG seemingly out of nowhere a painful recollection intrudes and pushes one out of the moment, and divides the our attention and focus.
Through an exercise of mindfulness, a brief moment of centering, and simply the passage of a brief moment of time, the emotion fades, leaving only a trace… a memory of a memory. Fortunately, strong emotions such as these are normally unsustainable. Perhaps biologically our minds simply cannot stay there. Thus, we are able to return to the tasks at hand, and return to our normal day.
This fading quality however is not the dangerous part. Instead, the fading quality itself invites a deeper and more troubling problem. A problem that unaddressed can lead to greater suffering. Namely, these momentary emotional ghosts can themselves be addictive, calling to us like Homer’s Sirens and we chase them in much the way the addict chased the elusive through drugs or alcohol.
Using the example of a positive memory (though it applies equally to allegedly negative memories), one can be caught unaware and thrown into the memory of a joyful and exciting moment from one’s past. Perhaps it’s the first blush of love, when one’s emotions are pure and all is right with the world. Actually, even if all wasn’t right with the world even the obstacles were romantic and exciting, and experiencing and overcoming those obstacles was itself going to be a passionate demonstration of the validity of those emotions.
Once this recalled emotion state hits one can easily and unthinkingly surrender to it. Caught up in that joyful moment one can hardly be blamed for wanting to rest there for a time and re-experience a seemingly too rare feeling. “Just for a moment,” one thinks “I’ll recall what this is like.”
This is the beginning of attachment. This “just for this moment” urge takes us away from the present moment and draws us into the fantasy world. We are drawn into a fantasy world where joy is experienced as permanent and pure. That we wish it “just for this moment” is the first lie because one cannot truly invite a temporary feeling of permanence without accepting the loss of that apparent permanence. As in the misuse of intoxicants one lies to oneself and says I will indulge for a moment and then leave it behind.
Attached to this memory, indulging it and indulging in it, we deny not only reality, but instead attempt refuge in a mythical past that never disappoints, never fails, and always pleases. Like the Lotto player that spends all his time imagining the cornucopia of pleasures that will follow his win and end all his suffering, the person lost in the reverie of these siren memories spends his time engaged with all those pleasure that preceded his current sorry state.
But we quickly become ensnared, like the great party that we simply don’t want to leave. Faced with returning to the work-a-day world, rife with disappointments, we sneak back to that memory time and again. We begin the crave that world, and grow increasing dissatisfied with the present moment. Addiction has set in and moments of the fantasy past fill more and more of our time, more and more of our attention.
Memories of the past, always seemingly satisfying, call to us, but can never actually satisfy. Because they are the past they are like beautiful corpses. A companion we can never really talk with, never really embrace, never really engage. It is eventually that lack that becomes our obsession. It’s a sense that if we can just remember it a little clearer, imagine it a little more fully, and commit to it a little more completely, then this final lack will vanish. We will actually be in this perfect moment. But, alas, it is a memory and not the present, and will always evade us.
It is only when we appreciate the memory for what it is, an idealization of that past that not only never was, but never will be, that we can avoid it’s seductive call. We must recognize that it is a home that is foreclosed to us, and recognize that the present moment is the only moment that can be embraced and engaged. This is freedom from the addiction of memory.