The Skill of Forgetting
We often think of forgetting as a problem, something that only happens by accident, something that we want to fight against. Our memories are vital to who we are and how we live; loss of memory is one of the most feared aspects of aging for some people. But memory isn’t always a good thing. The traumatic, intrusive memories of PTSD are just one example of memory run amok. Think about what your mind would feel like if you could never forget anything, even the most trivial details, like the thousands of license plates you see on the road in the course of your life. Having to sort through all of those to try to remember your own would be a nightmare. We would drown in the details, which is why forgetting can be a skill.
In investigating the effects of cannabis, science writer and nature lover Michael Pollan discovered that the plant makes compounds with structures similar to neurotransmitters involved in the extremely complex process of regulating remembering and forgetting. In his book The Botany of Desire, Pollan went on to speculate that part of the experience of being high might come from cannabis temporarily altering this system by impairing our memories, letting us experience the world as fresh and new rather than through the filter of our memories and expectation.
As he put it, “It is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours. And the wonder of that experience, perhaps more than any other, seems to be at the very heart of the human desire to change consciousness, whether by means of drugs or any other technique.” (162, emphasis original) This amazing mindfulness and presence in the present is one of the things that meditation makes available to us without the use of mind-altering substances.
I have suggested using a focus for meditation, such as a candle, object from nature, or a favorite image. But it’s easy for us to substitute our abstract conception of a thing for the thing itself. We can think of our internal imagination and memory of what a candle is or looks like rather than what is actually in front of us; we meditate on our idea of what a rose is or ought to be rather than on this particular, unique rose in the here and now. It’s almost as if we like to substitute some idealized Platonic representative of a whole class of objects for the immediate reality.
One way to get around that tendency is to treat an encounter with a focus object almost as a game to test your observation skills: what is this particular stone like? Can you visualize it clearly when you close your eyes? Could you pick it out of a group of similar rocks? What makes it unique or distinctive?
This seems like it would be an exercise of memory, but where forgetting is needed to help us lay aside our expectations and experiences so that we can perceive the particular object we’re focusing on more clearly. The gift of memory isn’t just the freshness and wonder of being absorbed in the world but also the ability to take in our experiences more accurately. Memory, especially in the form of expectations and assumptions, can give us blind spots where we simply can’t absorb information that is contrary to what we already know or think.
To practice the skill of forgetting, try using an object from the natural world that will change over time as your meditation focus. A leaf, a cut flower, a plant with a bud about to open, or anything that will show changes over a few days to a week will work. Try approaching it each day as an entirely new experience. Let go of how you saw this thing yesterday; don’t let that memory override your actual perception of the object today. Look at it as a whole, not just noticing the changes. When your mind brings up comparisons and changes over time, acknowledge the thought and then bring your attention back to the present moment and the current reality of your focus.
A similar challenge is to try to describe something in nature without using its name; an herb might be a plant, an annual, a member of a certain family, have flowers that butterflies or bees enjoy, home to a spider’s web, something that needs water and sun (but not too much of either), a producer of oxygen and consumer of carbon dioxide, a seasoning in your favorite dish, home to pests or resistant to them, and on and on. Describing the herb this way makes us more aware of the way it exists in a complex web of ecological interrelationships, instead of concentrating only on the way the herb exists in relationship to us. It’s almost a way to see the plant on its own terms rather than on ours.
This fresh perception and the wonder that it brings with it are the gifts of forgetting. Even for a little while, this kind of forgetting can be soothing and healing. Forgetting, used wisely, can be a valuable skill. Make meditation a time to practice it.