Memory

I was interested to catch, on BBC Sounds recently, a programme made by William Miller about his father Jonathan.  (Radio 4, Archive on 4: Lost Memories).  Jonathan Miller was fascinated by the human brain and in particular the workings of memory.  It was a cruel irony that in the end his own brain was destroyed by Alzheimer’s.  Making the programme was clearly cathartic for his son, who was trying to come to a better understanding of his father’s life work.  And it was, of course, of particular interest to me as I watch my partner struggle with the same disease.

While listening to a talk on the Throssel website, I wrote down the following quote by Reverend Jishin. (These may not be her precise words). “We are inextricable from all that’s gone before. Our sense of being as an individual is based on that.  (…) There is no separated off and permanent me.”

And in the programme, William Miller says that ‘Memory is what makes us who we are.  Our memory of our lives is what ties us together.’  (I think he meant into a coherent personality.)

I think, until watching someone else struggle, I had not fully understood the enormity of this; that ‘There is then nothing more than this.’  Hearing quotes from a string of academics, I learned that memories do not in fact exist per se; that memory is a suite of different systems which our brain organises into recognisable recollections.  Memories themselves are processes or actions and have no separate existence in the brain.  The brain is constantly editing memory and this edited version becomes the story of our lives. And, of course, we have all experienced instances when even shared events will be remembered differently by different individuals, leaving us to ponder whether there can be such a thing as verifiable ‘reality.’

And so, with the loss of the sense of our own past, what is left?  The answer of course must be ‘nothing.’  The body will persist, maybe for quite a while, but that which made the recognisable person is no more.  What I think we do is to project onto that body our own memories of how the person used to be.  It is so hard really to comprehend and to accept that the person has ‘checked out’.

William Miller asked his mother, in an interview before his father died, whether she felt that she still had a relationship with him.  Her answer was that they did have a relationship. ‘He is able still to recognise me as someone who is different (from the carers).  But it is not a proper relationship.  It is not a meeting of minds in any way.’

That’s a good description.  Slowly the person, this unique collection of memories, recedes.  My partner remembers almost nothing of anything we have done over the five years that we have been together.  He still remembers a lot about life well before that and is therefore able to establish some sort of conversation with his family that he cannot do with me.  But what he does say, and this fits with what William Miller’s mother said, is that he remembers love and happiness, in the abstract, even if he can’t remember anything about the things we have done, places we have been, trips we have had.

And so I often remind myself of the famous Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb’ whose much quoted last line ‘What will survive of us is love,’ offers some modicum of comfort.  Perhaps that awareness of love, however it is formed, is one of the last parts of the brain to disappear.

Live in the present – but it’s so hard

Living, as I do, with a partner whose brain is deteriorating is fruitful territory for reflections about life, training and relationships.  My husband and I got together six years ago but he has, now, no memory of anything much of that whole time.  

On a minor level, his condition makes daily living challenging.  He can’t actually change what he does, since to change your behaviour means that you have to remember what it is that you wanted to do different.  So he goes on making the same ‘mistakes’ in small things, like for example where to put things away.  But on a more important level (or it seems more important to me), he actually doesn’t retain much information about me either and regularly asks me things about my past life that I have told him a lot of times. This makes me feel ‘not known’.  And yet he is certain (and I do accept this as a truth) that he knows me very well.  Which raises the question – what or whom is it that he knows?  It’s certainly not the sum of my history, not my ‘stories’, and he seems to have a ‘knowing’ that is separate from my stories.  Which is a surprise to me as I would normally say that, without our stories, we are not the people we believe ourselves to be. 

So J doesn’t know any of my ‘stories’, but, more than that, of course he doesn’t know any of ‘our stories’ either.  He knows this is a loss for him and he feels sad about it.  And it is a loss for me, as I realise more and more what comfort and pleasure there is in looking back at good times and re-living shared moments.  Thus a walk with J very often starts with the words ‘I have never been here before in my life’.  It all becomes a new source of pleasure for him.  But for me, walking beside him, it is also a palimpsest of all the other times we have done that walk together, and inevitably that includes the sadness of remembering how different it was, maybe two or three years ago.  

For me these days, much of life is a return to familiar and loved places, and for him it is a host of new experiences.  Except that it’s not as easy as that, as he is aware of all that is lost in terms of memories.  As well as being sad, it also makes me reflect, and raises for me the question of why we do things at all.  Big events – our wedding, his 80th birthday party, holidays, trips, visits – have all gone.  I guess they were pleasurable for him at the time, but they have now simply disappeared for him.  And it so often comes to me to recognise how much of our everyday conversation refers back to a past event.  I trip and stumble, trying to start a perfectly innocuous exchange, to talk about something and then suddenly I am asked ‘Do I know her?’ ‘Who is that?”  Even trying to make future plans runs into the same challenges. ‘Have we been there?’ ‘Did we do that before?”

And so I try to sit still, breath slowly, think ‘This is the moment.  This is all we have.’  And who can deny this?  Except that as humans, in our minds at least, we do have memories of the past and they do inform our future.  And life without memory of that past is a challenge to all of us.

Increasing not decreasing not?

Veil nebula-Hubble Space Telescope
Veil Nebula – Courtecy Hubble Space Telescope

I very much enjoy listening to a BBC Radio 3 progamme called ‘Private Passions’ presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. It’s a sort of upmarket Desert Island Discs which you can find via the wonderful BBC Sounds App.  A few weeks ago, it featured Patricia Wiltshire, who turned out to be a rather engaging forensic ecologist.  I was struck by what she had to say about her beliefs, which were emphatically not religious.  

“The only life after death is what you leave behind, which becomes incorporated into life. So you are decomposed, you break down into your constituent little bits.  The energy all drains away because it dissipates.  You can’t do much about that. But the bits of you that are left, and all the molecules that make up your body are dissipated and then they are recycled.  So you will be recycled.  So that’s the only life after death that I can imagine.  I don’t have any spiritual feelings.  (…) This is the natural cycle and of course there is only so much matter, so if it weren’t recycled we couldn’t have birth at all.”

It was the throwaway phrase ‘There’s only so much matter,’ which set me wondering, as it seemed to resonate with the words in ‘The Scripture of Great Wisdom’.  The matter which makes up this planet must indeed be ‘Increasing not, decreasing not’.  And all things (being pure or empty) ‘are neither born nor do they wholly die.’ 

And so we talk of finite resources; we say that our planet is a ‘closed system.’.  And, I wondered, with the ever increasing numbers of human beings (matter) does this inevitably mean fewer of other beings (also matter.)  Thus as we watch animals, plants, birds, insects disappearing from the earth, is it because there isn’t enough matter left for them to be born and sustained?  And as we convert resources into non-recyclable materials like plastics and burn fossil fuels and convert them into damaging gases, are we gradually and not so gradually reducing the amount of matter that can sustain life and putting it into forms which are effectively dead? Such that in the end there can be no birth?

Perhaps this is all obvious, but that little phrase somehow gave me a different sort of insight into what is happening.  It didn’t really cheer me up.

More mending

Mending

My favourite summer walking jacket, many years old, soft and beloved. Another one ripped by the dog as he tried to get treats out of the pocket as the coat hung on the hook. I have mended previous damage with iron-on tape, effective but unsightly. So this time I have tried my hand at an amateur imitation of Japanese ‘sashiko’ mending – where the mend itself becomes a treasured part of the garment.

I have had to let go any idea of perfection, and accept that my first attempts are a touch on the rough and ready side. But what joy it has brought me! First of all it was a pleasure to do it, secondly it has given more life to an irreplaceable garment, thirdly it gives me joy to see this mend each time I put the jacket on. My own little contribution of crafting to the world, something special for my jacket. I can even be grateful to the dog for providing the opportunity to do the repair.

Mending

I sit and I sew

I’ve just finished reading a very soothing book called ‘Craftfulness’ by Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin which, as you might surmise from the title, recommends various forms of crafting as a useful adjunct to mindfulness and meditation. I needed no convincing. I am a fairly regular crochet and knit person. But one thing caught my attention. The idea of decorative mending, referring to the Japanese art of Sashiko stitching.

Cut to another day and another time. My dog has ripped out the pockets and/or the linings of several of my coats in search of the treats in the pockets. I’ve cured this now, no long keep treats in my pockets, and had mended or arranged to be mended, two out of the three damaged items. The third seemed to be beyond my ability to repair, so I decided to charity shop it. But first I washed it, as I didn’t think I could send to the charity shop a coat all covered in dog slime and dried biscuits.

Having washed it, I then thought I couldn’t send the coat to the shop with the lining hanging in rags. It was actually torn into strips, reasonably clean rips, so I tacked the edges together with matching thread so it was at least tidied up. But I was attached to the coat, and it sat in the bag, waiting to go, but not being taken.

And then I read this article. And I began to wonder. Could I embroider along the joins and make them obvious, but beautiful? And yes, I could! I used a mixture of herring bone stitch and running stitch (the true Sashiko stitch) in pale pink embroidery silk. This created a different effect on either side of the join, as the herringbone on the back gives two rows of running stitch, which are very strong. Where the fabric was too thick for the needle, I used running stitch on its own.

And here is the result. I am so pleased with it! I almost prefer the mend to the coat!

A bench and a mat

Last week I went out to join in with a local ‘mixed’ meditation group.  It being late when I got home, I left my meditation bench and zabuton in the back of my car.

The following day, having to transport some passengers unexpectedly, I took the equipment out and left it temporarily on the roof of my husband’s car which stands next to mine in the garage. And forgot all about it.

My husband rarely goes anywhere in the car, but, unusually, was taking his grandson to the train station that morning.  By sheer chance, I looked out of the bedroom window to watch them drive off and was horrified to see my meditation equipment still on the roof of his car!  I yelled out of the window but of course he couldn’t possibly have heard me.  So I rushed downstairs and jumped into my car in pursuit, (Follow that car!), thinking it would certainly have fallen off at one of the series of bends on our country lane.

Not a bit of it.  I reached the main road and, about 100 yards from the junction, there were my bench and zabuton lying in the middle of the road.  I stopped, put on my hazard lights and retrieved them. What a relief.  But the whole episode prompted some interesting thoughts.

I have had this bench and mat for nearly thirty years, having bought them in the days when Throsssel Hole Buddhist Abbey still made and sold such things.  Although mostly these days I sit on a chair, (old age, disease and death), they are still very precious to me.  And I treat them, as we treat, for instance, our kesas and our altar equipment, with respect and love.  So to see them lying in the middle of the highway was truly shocking.

Of course, my mind ran on, as it does, and I imagined how it would have been if they’d been run over by traffic, which had in fact clearly avoided them.  But one big truck would have wrecked them, smashed the bench and ground the mat into the mud.  How unbelievably fortunate that I happened to look out of my window, sentimentally really, to wave goodbye.  Because if I hadn’t, I might never have realised what had happened, and even been baffled and distressed by their apparent ‘disappearance’.  And would I ever have seen the mangled wreck on the road, or even identified it?

The whole episode reminded me of a trip we made years ago to Disney, and one of the rides which took us through various ‘scenarios’ (before plunging us over a precipice to certain, well almost certain… death).  One of these was some sort of desert scene, with sand and a smashed buddha statue.  Landscape, cinema, but I remember being shocked and actually offended at the time, that something that represented important beliefs for me was lying broken and used as part of a tourist experience.  

We invest objects with importance beyond their value.  And we need of course sometimes to be aware of that. Bells, gongs, incense, water have no magical properties; but how fortunate we are to have human brains which allow us to value things in different ways and to use objects and association to bring us back to what really matters to us.  A smashed bench would not, in the order of things, have been a huge tragedy, but the pain for me, because of all that I have associated with it, would have been very hard to bear.  

Returning to Buddha

Charlie Holles

When I attended Jukai nearly 30 years ago, I naively thought that I had ‘arrived’. I had become a Buddhist, after a lifetime of spiritual exploration. This was going to heal me. I would move steadily (not necessarily quickly) but smoothly on this new path. What challenges awaited!

As I believe is the case for many trainees, there was a strong element of grasping in my early training. That is fine. It is just the way we are. We transfer our human tendency to grasp from things material and transitory to the spiritual path. Very slowly I have come to a much calmer state from which I try to approach this precious gift the Buddha gave us. Something that helped me was a period of some years during which I drifted away from formal practice, though something inside me hung on just enough. I learnt much during that time. I recall returning to Throssel after a gap of some years and I was greeted as if I had never been away.

The following Tanka poem reflects my experience of that drifting away.

Returning to Buddha

Chasing my desire
I became lost in shadow
Then my heart called
I turned towards the light
Shining as bright as ever

I am a terrestrial

Chris Yeomans

Early morning and the sun makes streaks of golden light on the Common. September just around the corner. There is a heavy crop of plums and those we haven’t picked lie rotting on the ground under the tree, blue purple skins and yellow flesh.  A dozen red admiral butterflies flit from one to the other and through the branches of the tree glutting on the sweet juice. Under the heavy heat, the countryside is still and there is a faint mist hanging over the trees along the edge of the field. Leaves now are the dark green of late summer.  In the shallow pond, set among the flowers in the border for the birds to bathe and drink from, three frogs lurk, eyes and noses just above the water, watching me. We breathe the same air, we share in the same water.  We humans are, as Germaine Greer once put it, ‘terrestrials’ – of and from the earth. I am one with the frog and the muntjac deer that browses on the edge of the wood.

Recently there was a news item about a firm which is breeding insects as a source of food.  Dog and cat food can now be made from grubs and this provides sufficient of the right sort of protein for our pets to flourish.  This is heralded as good news, because it means fewer large mammals being slaughtered and, they said, vegetarians would be very pleased.  I am puzzled.  There is a photograph of wriggling grubs.  Whilst I understand that in one way to kill a grub is less emotionally difficult than it is to kill a cow, or, for dog meat, a horse, it is still killing and the taking of life.  And I can’t really see why this would be welcomed by vegetarians.  The grub becomes an insect of some sort. Both grub and insect are living beings.

It prompts me to ponder on what I mean by life.  Because of course plants are life and recent research indicates that trees communicate with each other in ways we hadn’t previously understood. And we fell trees routinely for wood. Human life could not exist without taking life from some things – plants, bacteria even.  I ponder a definition of life as something that is not rooted in earth, that can live freely and move about without having to be hard-wired to a food source.  And this includes grubs and insects.  Breeding insects as food stuff is surely the same as the wholesale breeding of prawns and shrimps, or even catching prawns and shrimps to eat.  Catching fish.  All these living creatures, however humanely reared, and many of them are not, certainly do not want to die.  

Once you start to think about it, there is so much of heartbreak in this world. I look at the countryside around me in its late summer heaviness and my heart breaks to think that all of this will eventually be lost.  And soon, in the evolutionary scale of things.  And I ponder the question of attachment.  I am so passionately attached to this English countryside with all its flora and fauna, its scenery, its lushness.  Where is the letting go, the cutting of ties?  I am part of this.  Inseparable.  I am a terrestrial, connected in every way possible to the raindrops on the sugar beet, the earth beneath my feet, the trees that provide such welcome shade in this hot weather.  We are all of a piece, this world and I.  I cannot but be attached.

Watery reflections

Chris Yeomans

I am brushing my teeth.  I reach across to turn off the tap, as advised by the water conservationists. In the field at the back of the house, the irrigators are chucking thousands of gallons of water onto the potato crop.  

We are told that sometime soon – in this century probably – the planet will run out of water.  How can this be, I wonder, when earth is a closed system?  Water circulates.  It evaporates and comes back as rain; it seeps down to the water table and comes back through our taps; it flows back into rivers from effluent plants.  How is is possible that it can run out?

I reflect that I don’t have enough understanding of physics, or even or geography.  Why is drought?  Boiled water becomes steam and condenses back into water.  If the water molecule is somehow split into hydrogen and oxygen, does that molecule of water disappear for ever?  And how might this happen?  I consult with my step-grandson, who tries to explain how, with global warming, water will remain suspended in the atmosphere and never fall again as rain. 

My human body is 60% water and, whilst it circulates, this amount effectively remains trapped.  If this body is cremated, is this water lost to the system?  If it is buried, is the water reclaimed? And does the amount of carbon released either way mitigate any gains? If the human and animal population of the world increases, does too much water get trapped in bodies, so that it is not available for the planet?  

If humans start to use de-salination plants extensively, will the oceans become too salty for marine life to survive?  When the icecaps melt and polar species are devastated, will this nevertheless mean more available water? Or will it mean that the planet heats up so much that life can’t survive anyway?

How fortunate we are to live in a time when streams still bubble down the hillsides and waterfalls plunge over rocks.  How fiercely we must appreciate a draught of clear, clean tap water with a cube of ice clinking against the glass and condensation gathering on the outside.  

How sweet the falling rain.