In her late 50’s, Gail had straight black hair, angular hips, large feet, and uneven teeth. Both of us sporadically attended Vipassana meditation class on Sunday evenings. One autumn evening we drove together to class. After “hellos” and comments about the rainy weather, Gail turned to face me.
“I’ve been writing,” she said earnestly. “My autobiography.”
“That’s great!” I said. I’m always enthusiastic about someone’s creative endeavors.
“Well, it’s not so great. I realized today it was all fiction.”
I stifled a laugh. Her face communicated that she was dead serious.
“How do you mean?” I asked. “Why is it fiction?”
“Oh, like my relationship with my mother. I realized I had made up a lot of – well, stuff. Like what she thought about me, and why she said and did the things she did. And none of it’s true.”
Later in the evening, during the open comment and question time, Gail recounted her revelation to the class. Over a hundred meditators burst into gales of laughter. The hilarity, though, was not so much mocking as stunned revelation. How accurately have I recounted my own life, even to myself? How many stories have I fabricated about other people’s thoughts and actions, which in turn have shaped my own worldview?
Recently a patient offered another profound angle on personal history.
“I don’t have a past,” she said simply. “Not really. I have memories of my past, and memories and having those memories. But I really don’t have those experiences, here and now.”
Her revelation caught me off guard – how disturbing and simultaneously freeing to be orphaned from my past. I realized how comforting those recollections were, even the “bad” or “negative” ones. I can dust and fondle them, like keepsakes on a mantle.
Who would I be if I collected them all and left them on the doorstep of a thrift store? What if I had no mental heirlooms to dust?
In clinical hypnosis training, I experienced how the subconscious mind makes a perfect record of all past events, complete with sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. In deep hypnosis, a form of directed deep relaxation, I have access to that pristine recording of past events.
I believe that record must also lie within our neural tissues. I remember years ago watching a movie of an open-brain surgery, with the neural surgeon touching different parts of the brain to elicit vivid memories from the conscious patient.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “I haven’t heard that song since I was in high school!” She sang along with the memory, perfectly recalling every word.
This imprint lies within the physical, neural tissue, the “hardware” of the body. The conscious mind, though, seems to filter these memories, bending them according to its current conditioning.
When I awaken, will that memory-bending prism become a clear, flat glass? Or better yet, will perception enter my awareness with no filtration at all?
For now, I am left only with the present moment – the sound of wind chimes in the restless October winds; the dull ache in my upper neck. Light filtering through the surging branches, and leaf shadows dancing on the carpeted floor. Now silence, as the wind dies. Crickets thrumming – the last who have survived the hard September frost.
Memory creeps into presence. Crickets dying in the first hard frost – that is recollection. I am gathering the tatters of the past. In present moment, crickets sing – nothing more, nothing less.
The past shapes my present. My history grinds the lens through which I perceive the present moment, and my perceptions in this moment focus my future.
Here, now, in this moment, I have the opportunity, if I can seize it, to polish the lens, perhaps even remove that filter, for a moment of pure seeing.
“If he could teach me to see,” says Annie Dillard, “I would stumble across a thousand deserts after any lunatic at all.”
Filters transform memory into fiction. Removing those prisms allows me to see reality, to enter the realm of non-fiction. So this art of seeing purely is more about shedding, releasing, discarding – not adding to the picture, but rather meeting it unedited.
Here, now is the meeting of past and future. This tenuous intersection is the only moment I truly have. Let me hold it with curiosity, with wonder, with generous attentiveness. Without wakeful presence, I will make a fiction of my life.