Many many years ago, I spent a week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was still young and wild, and it was my first trip out of the country. I went with a hard-partying girlfriend and we had a rollicking good time, the details of which I will spare you as they are not relevant to the point (and for the sake of my own embarrassment, and because I can’t remember all that many of them). One thing I will share, though, that was new and wonderful for a Midwestern girl, is that I spent as much time as I could manage on the beach. Oh, that beach was magical, with the diamond sparkling waves going on forever and the hypnotic, eternal rush of water at the golden sand. It may have been my first, very primitive, experience with meditation. I couldn’t get enough of it. I lay next to the water all day, and walked the beach at night, sometimes sober, usually not, but it didn’t matter. The ocean grabbed hold of me and it has never let go.
On my last day, before we had to leave for the airport, I went down to the beach alone, settled in a chair, and stayed for as long as I could. I wanted to remember everything I could about that beach, as vividly as I could, so I sat in the chair and soaked in as much as possible, making a conscious effort to file it all away in a prominent place in my memory. I turned my face to the sun and felt its radiant yellow warmth on my face, my arms, my bare feet. I breathed in the salty breeze lifting at my hair and blowing through my cotton shirt. I listened to the roar of the ocean ebbing to a trickle as it rushed toward me, darkening the sand over and over and over, sometimes foamy white, sometimes just fingers of wet, depending on the strength of the wave. Then I squinted off to the horizon, where the water and sky met, separated by their distinct shades and textures of blue, each magnificent in its own right, each perfect and essential and seemingly eternal in my mind. And the manic flashing waves themselves, glinting with white sparkles too bright to watch directly for more than a few seconds, seeming so vital they could fool you into thinking they were alive. I also remembered the gritty feeling of the sand, the pull of the undertow, the floating on the waves that I’d done all week, the perfectness of the days, the mystery of the nights. I sat there until I felt sure I’d be able to recall any of it at a moment’s notice for the rest of my life, and you know what? To this day—almost 20 years later—I can. While I’ve forgotten many of the activities I’d done down there, the physical sensations of that beach are still fresh like it was just yesterday. Fresh and magnificent. I can close my eyes and remember what it was like leaning back in that chair on that beach, feeling totally and magnificently and consciously present for the first time in my life.
Sure, this brings up all sorts of questions about memory, about how what I remember today is different than what I remembered five or ten years ago, which in turn are different from the actual event, because I am a different person at all these times and memory is something that happens in the present. And while I understand that and know it to be the case, this isn’t really what I’m talking about. This sort of memory is more applicable to facts and events. The memory I’m talking about is the memory of sensations and feelings. For example, maybe you had a nightmare as a child that has stayed with you. But it isn’t really the details of the dream that have stayed with you (although you may remember a few of them), it’s the terror, and that can still be as real as if you’d experienced it yesterday.
So I figured something out that day on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. I call it “meta-noticing,” but it’s probably some age-old Buddhist mindfulness technique that I think I’ve discovered but am actually just recycling. Anyway, here’s what I do when I want to remember something vividly. First, I commit to the process by putting everything else on hold and allowing myself as much time as I’ll need (not usually more than twenty minutes, but I allow myself to go as long as I want to). I get comfortable. I close my eyes, and just soak in the sounds and the smells and the feelings until they become a part of me. Then I open my eyes and scan from the horizon to the space around me until I can see it with my eyes closed. Then I change positions so I can see another part of the horizon and other space around me. Then I just stay there for as long as I want to or as long as I can and enjoy all the sensations to the best of my ability, trying to keep my mind empty of everything but the sight, sound, and smell of my surroundings.
I did this on the chilly gray shore of Lake Superior. I did it on a dock in northern Minnesota on a night so dazzling with stars you could barely find the Big Dipper. I did it on a mountaintop in the Bighorn Mountains, with snow above me and spring flowers below me. I did it at the Grand Canyon. I did it the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean, peeking over cliffs from brambles at the side of the road into a blueness so deep it looked like a painting, its roaring muted by the distance. I did it the day I graduated from college (although I was distracted by a lot, making a full-body memory less than perfect). I did it for just a few moments at my mother’s funeral, catching a quick glimpse of the true nature of everybody there, feeling a sense of oneness and compassion that I had never before or since experienced with quite so much clarity. And I’ve had numerous such experiences with my partner Jim, most so mundane you’d laugh if I shared them (and so would he, probably), but each one a golden moment of time that I will hold precious for as long as I live.
I suppose this also brings up questions about what memories are more important: facts and events, or emotions and sensations. My simple answer is that both are important, but that our minds are not well-suited to remembering facts and events very well, and that’s one reason we have language: so we can make records of them. Our mind is, however, amazingly capable of remembering feelings and sensations accurately, and this being the case, we can learn to use this memory to our advantage if we so wish.
I don’t really have an opinion about whether meta-noticing is critical to one’s happiness or sense of well-being. I’m not going to say it’s a habit that one ought to cultivate in order to find serenity or become a more whole person. I really don’t know if any of that’s true. I do, however, think it’s true that the more present we can be in each moment of our lives, the more full our lives will be, and that goes for the bad as well as the good. Remembering the bad fully makes the good that much sweeter, and remembering the good fully makes the bad that much more tolerable. Taken to its logical conclusion—you figure out what that means—the fullness of memory might make the difference between happiness and misery when memory is one of the few things we have left to bring us joy.
Categorised as: Mindfulness