What is memory?

I have been unusually exhausted the last few days (after travels), and yesterday forgot to bring a book to return to the library. I had a vivid image of putting the book in my mochila (bag) so it was surprising to not see it there.

I realized that my apparent memory was actually an image I had created when intending to put the book in my bag. It wasn’t an image created from actually placing the book in the bag.

And that says something about what our memory is. It’s a set of thoughts (mental images and words) often associated with bodily sensations.

Just because we have an apparent memory doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate.

These images, which our thoughts call memory, are created and recreated in numerous ways.

In my case, they were created from having the intention to put the book in the bag. My mind created an image to support that intention and later took it as a memory.

Even when something actually happens, our memory is always a story. It’s an interpretation. It reflects our psychology as much or more than the actual event. It reflects our biases, viewpoints, access to and lack of information, hangups, issues, traumas, and much more.

And they are always recreated here and now. Just like with Chinese whispers (the telephone game), the story as it is now may be quite different from the original story.

Memories are stories. Sometimes, they reflect something that happened in a conventional sense, and sometimes they don’t. And when they do, they are always recreations and colored by our psychology.

That’s why healing often includes healing our stories about the past. Healing comes from finding a more accurate, kind, honest, and peaceful story about what happened.

And no matter what, it can be fascinating to explore our memories. What do they consist of? What mental images are there? What words? What sensations in the body are they associated with? How do these sensations influence how I perceive the images and words? (They tend to give them a charge and sense of reality and even truth.) How do my images and words influence the sensations? (They tend to give them a sense of meaning.)

Examining the stories we call memories allow us hold them more lightly, and that gives us more peace of mind and more receptivity, curiosity, and kindness in how we relate to ourselves and the world.

Some side-effects of the awakening: poor memory, dreamlike quality, etc.

The awakening process tends to have several side effects. Some of these happen during certain phases of the process. Not all are experienced in all cases. And some seem more or less unavoidable and inherent in the awakening itself. 

I’ll mention a few here that I am familiar with from my own experience and that seem relatively common based on what I hear from others.


It’s quite common to experience poor memory at some point in the awakening process. Our memories used to feel solid and real, and now they feel ephemeral and difficult to grasp.

We may also have a more general sense of cognitive dysfunction. It seems that our mind doesn’t work very well, and may be surprised when we actually are able to function and do what we need to do. It’s as if the abilities miraculously come online when they are needed.


The world may have a dreamlike quality to us. It’s as if we can put our hand through it. It feels ephemeral.

The world and this human self – and any content of experience – feel like a dream to us.

This can feel disconcerting, although here too, we may find that we can still function fine in daily life.


Another common side effect is that this human self lives its own life.

Anything connected with this human self – thoughts, feelings, words, actions – happen on their own. 

It’s always this way. And noticing it is now more unavoidable.


All of this can be disconcerting to our mind at first.

And all of it is normal and we get used to it.

We may develop strategies for remembering certain things. (I write anything down that I may need to remember in the future.)

We trust that we will function OK in the world even if it appears like a dream to us.

And we also develop a trust in this human self being able to take care of itself, even if it is living its own life and anything connected with it is happening on its own.


There is a reason why we may have these experiences, and it’s inherent in the awakening dynamic itself. 

Poor memory

In an unawake state, we tend to hold many of our thoughts – mental images and words – as inherently true. That gives them a charge for us, and it makes them seem real and substantial. This also applies to the mental representations we call memories, and the charge and sense of solidity make it easier to bring them up. It’s easier for us to remember things because these memories mean something to us.  

In an awakening, we tend to recognize all mental representations as just that. They are representations aimed at helping us orient and function in the world. They may be more or less accurate in an ordinary sense, and they are unable to hold any full, final, or absolute truth. For this reason, they tend to lose charge for us and they generally seem less substantial and solid. And that can make it more difficult for our mind to bring up memories. They don’t have as much charge for us, they are more ephemeral and less solid, and we recognize them as a mental creation happening here and now. 

Dreamlike quality

The world takes on a dreamlike quality because it always is like a dream to us. Dreams also happen within and as consciousness. And the world to us – this human self, the wider world, any content of experience – happens within and as consciousness. To us, it all happens within and as what we are, which a thought may imperfectly call consciousness, and it’s always that way. It’s just that we didn’t notice and now we do. 

Lives its own life

This human self appears to live its own life because that’s how it always is. Its thoughts, feelings, words, and actions are always happening on its own. All of it is living its own life. It’s just that in an unawake state, we added a sense of an “I” or “me” doing it (a human self, an observer, a doer, etc.), and now we recognize that as a mental add-on. 


As mentioned earlier, there are many possible and typical side-effects of awakening. One is that thoughts quiet down. They appear when needed, and otherwise, it’s mostly quiet. There is just perception and a general absence of noticeable thought. And it’s not always this way. For instance, Byron Katie, rapports a great flow of thoughts, and that’s perhaps why she was moved to formalize her approach to inquiry. (The Work of Byron Katie.)

Read More

The value in a memory of awakening

A memory of noticing what we are can be a helpful reminder and pointer.

We notice what we are. We find ourselves as capacity for the world and what our experiences happen within and as.

Later, we may not notice it directly but we have this memory. And that memory reminds us that it’s possible and it can serve as a pointer for again noticing here and now.

Memories of awakening sometimes get bad press. If a memory is all there is, and we take the memory as valuable in itself, then we can get stuck there and it’s not so helpful in the long run. But if we take the memory as a reminder and pointer, and notice what we are here and now, the memory is of immense value.

I have mentioned this briefly in other articles and thought I would make it into a brief article on its own since it’s an important topic.

A wrinkle: fascination with the side effects of awakening

One wrinkle in this is the possible side effects of awakening.

An initial awakening may come with bells and whistles (bliss and so on), and our mind may naturally get fascinated by this and overlook the real value in the awakening which is noticing what we are.

This means that our memory may be of the side effects more than the apparent dullness of noticing what we are, which, in turn, means that the memory – and how we take it – can lead us to try to recreate the bells and whistles.

This is a natural, ordinary, and ultimately innocent mistake. If it happens it becomes part of our process and hopefully something we learn from. And we may – eventually – realize what it’s really about and the value in it. We realize that all states and experiences come and go, and what this is really about – our true nature – is always here. It’s the no-thing that’s here through and independent of all these shifting states and experiences.

I never remember anything

I never remember anything. I have images and tell myself they are from the past and call them memories.

Memories are created here and now.

When I see this, I hold them lighter and more as questions.

I have images, tell myself they reflect something from the past, and I am aware they are images and different from what actually happened. Someone else may and will have different images about the same situations. I may adjust and change these images if I explore them further, and if I am reminded of something through what others say, photos, written notes, or something else.

If I am not aware of this, I may tell myself that my images about a past situation are the real thing. They accurately reflect what happened. They are like a kind of camera faithfully recording the past situation. (Not that cameras record something accurately in its entirety.) I may get upset by any suggestion that my memories are not accurate.

I imagine the past, as I imagine the future.

When I look, I also find I imagine the present. I imagine a world beyond what’s here in my immediate sense perception, and I also put an overlay of mental images and stories on top of what’s here in my sight, hearing, sensations, smell, taste, and so on.


When I look at my own memories, here is what I find…..

They are mental representations of the senses – sight (images), sound, taste, smell, touch.

They are mentally inserted on a mental representation of a timeline, and among other mental representations taken as memories.

A thought says they are true, or not. It really happened, or not.

This is why memories are notoriously unreliable. Since they are mental representations they are, quite literally, imagined. And it’s very easy (read: inevitable) for them to change over time, for pure imagination to be inserted into the timeline and be taken as true, and even for “accurate” representations to be taken as something that didn’t happen. It’s also very easy for these mental representations, these imaginations, to be influenced by what we hear and see, or even the questions someone is asking us. (Questions will inevitably reflect the assumptions of the person asking the questions, and this influences the form the mental representations takes of the one asked the questions).

And that’s why memories “recovered” through hypnosis are unreliable at best, created at worst, and can also be (unnecessarily) distressing to the client.


I saw this when it first came out and thought it was very good.

What sticks with me now – and perhaps the main reminder from this movie – is that we have memories and tend to take them as true, or at least mostly or close to true. While in reality, they are just memories. They are images appearing here now, triggering emotions, and with stories about them saying they reflect the past, and that’s it. I cannot know for certain they actually reflect the past. And the past itself, the idea of a past is an image, as is any ideas of what happened in that past.

There is a big difference in knowing this abstractly, as an interesting thought, and knowing it through and through – with body and mind – about specific instances and memories. I can inquiry into one memory at a time, and gradually there is a shift in how I relate to stories about the past. I see – through specific, concrete and genuine examples – how my images of the past are just that, images, alive here now.