The Importance of Memory in Mental Training

There is little direct commentary on the function of memory in the Buddha’s teaching; it is taken for granted that our existence is accumulative: nothing is really forgotten, and our present state is continually filtered through the effects of the past. The Buddha explains memory’s dual importance. First, we have consistently seen the importance that the Buddha attributed to habituation and schemata in the operation of the cognitive apparatus which creates our reality. Without memory, we cannot establish a habit. Also, memory is essential in learning new habits and pursuing the Buddha’s teachings. For example, there are two aspects of Right mindfulness (alternative wordings are “right memory”, “right monitoring” and “right attention”): the aspect of mindfulness of awareness and the aspect of mindfulness of remembering the instructions in following the Eightfold Path teachings. The Buddha laid out an extensive change program on how to reach the goal of Nibbana. Since memorizing and reciting the texts were, and still are, a method of instruction and teachings, an effective memory was essential. A wise meditator must remember the instructions and act on them with diligence or “Right Effort.” These two aspects of mindfulness, remembering and monitoring the knowledge and application of the instruction, are essential in the direct application of the Buddha’s teachings. For meditators to practice mindfulness means that, while monitoring their thoughts, they become aware of an unwholesome mental state, the skillful application of a learned intervention to cease the defilement is applied, but if the unwholesomeness begins to continue to take hold, a stronger method is used to evict and replace it since unwholesome states rob us of our peace, wisdom and happiness. In fact, teachings need not only to be recalled but also monitored and given full awareness related to the application of the teachings. This process creates an imprint or a new memory and later a habit in our mind. The more we do this the more a teaching becomes easier to remember and the new wholesome mental states are established. So, we see that the Buddha’s psychology recognized memory as an essential learning function. Also, science now confirms that memory is a powerful influence on our perception of the world and ourselves. Our memories are not ‘objective’ or unbiased but instead, they are easily influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice. As Damasio states, “Our memories are prejudiced, in the full sense of the term, by our past history and beliefs. Perfectly faithful memory is a myth, applicable only to trivial objects. The notion that the brain ever holds anything like an isolated ‘memory of the object’ seems untenable. The brain holds a memory of what went on during an interaction, and the interaction importantly includes our own past,[…]”1 Our past, as memory, constantly influences us, persistently filters and guides our feelings and thoughts, and we often follow them seemingly blindly.

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