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The Tinkered Mind
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May 23rd, 2020
While reading or listening to these words, how is it that we are able to make sense of each and every one? Memory. We have some sort of prior experience with each word. It may be that we’ve never come across this particular combination of words, but our memory of each one individually allows us to connect them in fluid ways.
In a very real sense, this sentence is reorganizing your current thoughts by means of plugging into your memory of each word and threading those memories together in a new way in order for you to have a novel experience in the present.
But this extends far beyond words.
We can identify a chair that we’ve never seen as a chair because we are referencing our memory of chairs. But beyond this, we are doing it with all categories at all times. In some sense, our experience of the present is a constant reorganization of past memories. We are constantly identifying the objects of the present in terms of previously formed categories.
It seems as though we are ineluctably tied to the past as a means of making sense of the present. Our utter dependency on memory to make sense of anything makes it natural and perhaps obvious that the past can be so difficult to let go of. Not only does it feel as though the past defines who we are, the past is how we define everything else. A subtle catch-22 seems to arise: how do you escape from the only life-raft you have?
How does one become present in the moment without making sense of it with aide from the past?
As with anything, with practice.
We can take a page from the way the body operates, and apply it to the mind to great effect. There is a long standing scientific consensus that fasting, that is, not eating, is very healthy for the body. In recent years a large amount of literature has emerged on the subject and seems to indicate that many of the body’s most incredible superpowers are unlocked by the absence of food. One example is autophagy. Given no food, the body starts trolling itself to find poorly made proteins and cells that aren’t doing their job. It then rips those defunct actors down to their most basic building blocks and then it rebuilds needed parts with a lot more care and attention. This is just one of the operations that turns on while fasting.
Now let’s take this and apply it as a loose analogy to the mind.
While meditating, at least in the vipassana tradition, one of the main exercises is to simply dwell in the present moment by focusing on what’s actually going on, the breath entering and exiting the body, the sounds that drift in, the feeling of temperature, and the body’s own weight. Inevitably this attention is disrupted by some memory of a thing you need to do. Or a fantasy and dream about the future butts in. Minutes pass until we snap back to the present and realize we’re far off track of the exercise.
But what happens in the total absence of this exercise and without any innate talent or drive to reside peacefully in the present? Our minds are a sea of memory and hope, swirling with anxieties and desire.
How useful are all these desires and worries?
A few of them are certainly worth some attention. But all of them? Many of the thoughts, memories and desires that plague our experience are like those broken cells and poorly made proteins, roaming the body, spewing toxins and causing trouble and bringing the whole operation down a little. Many of our thoughts, memories, desires, worries are just as useless, and worse, they bring the whole mind down a little.
Meditation is an attempt to have a memory fast. That is, to let go of the past, and the future alike, and to dwell squarely in the present. And without that perpetual aid and information of the past, the present moment can take on a surreal aspect, as though everything is again for the first time, and blazingly new.
Otherwise, we are essentially force-fed with memories of our ability or inability to make the best of the present.
Meditation is a past fast.