May 6, 2013 § 4 Comments
We tell ourselves stories every day. This is a story. A story of how we take the events of our lives and turn them into memories. And of how we can remake those memories by telling new stories to change our lives.
Every story is built on themes and although there can be an infinite number of stories there are a limited number of themes. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what our lives are about are just so. We can be the hero, antagonist or victim. Our lives can be heroic or tragic, fulfilling or empty, happy or sad. It all depends on the story we write and the stage on which we perform.
Just as a stage contains props to support a play, so do we select from life’s myriad events the bits and pieces of evidence we use to support our life stories. If ours’ is a story of popularity, we remember only what supports that story. Conversely, if our story is that of rejection we’ll only remember the looks, remarks and behavior that make us feel rejected. We store these as memories and replay them whenever we want to relive or convince ourselves that the story is true.
Most of the time we don’t even realize how our life story determines what we’ll remember. Or how we force the events in our life to conform to that story. Once I was walking along an urban street when I came across three tigers. They were part of a show and seeing them I was quite surprised and delighted but by the time I got back home I had forgotten all about them. I had forgotten because in my life story tigers aren’t found on city streets. They’re found in zoos or jungles, but not in my neighborhood. So, like all other things that don’t conform to my story, I put them out of mind.
Memory researcher Dr. Eric Kandel from Columbia University tells us that every time we recall a memory it becomes sensitive to disruption allowing new information to be brought into it. When I eventually recalled the tigers I made that memory recoverable (i.e., disrupted it) by realizing my expectations of not seeing them was important information to my life story. In effect, I tagged the memory for later recall or, as Dr. Kandel may say, added new information to it.
The hope of Dr. Kandel’s research is that it will one day lead to ways to ease the pain of past trauma and alter destructive habits like OCD and addictions. But while Dr. Kandel is seeking a drug to do this, others believe that we can change our memories simply by telling a different story when the memory’s images and feelings arise.
Our memories are amendable and adjustable to the stories we tell ourselves. When we recall a memory we can subtly alter and update it to our story so that when the brain stores it again, it is no longer the memory it once was. That means if our memories are painful or unpleasant we can alter them simply by telling a different story when they arise. It also means that if we don’t like the story we’ve been telling, we cannot only change it but the memories that support it as well.
Memories are not just images that we replay in our minds but the emotions we bring forth as well. So if we can alter our memories we can also change our feelings. The technique as suggested by memory research is simple, just relabel the painful memory-emotions as they arise. Do this by first identifying a word that generally describes or is associated with the feeling, then choose a different word to tag or identify the emotion. For instance, if the story you’ve been telling is that of rejection, the feelings this story brings is relabeled as acceptance. Or, if you suffer PTSD and the story you tell is that the world is a dangerous place, the new label to use is “safety”. By choosing a word that is the opposite of the painful feeling the hope is to subtly alter your memory so that each time you start to tell yourself that painful story, it’s memories and emotions will be weakened.
By itself, repeated use of this method will not cure your afflictions. Ultimately, freedom from suffering requires a deeper realization of the basic unreality of thought. Consider the mind instructions of Khenpo Gangshar wherein he tells us,
Thus all the thoughts that move before the mind,
The afflictions, the five poisons, whatever occurs,
Don’t need to be anticipated, analyzed, or altered.
By letting their motion alone, you are freed into the Dharmakaya.
These words tell us undistracted awareness isn’t just a lead-in to liberation but is, in itself, liberation. But suffering and affliction do too often distract us from the path making it necessary, at times, to find ways to quiet the mind. Techniques such as breathing exercises, music, and relabeling emotions and altering memories can serve to quiet the mind. But in the end these must be left behind lest they, too, become poisons that afflict and distract you from the simple awareness that liberates self.