Mastering The Memory

Self-Mastery, Self-Discipline

“Kill in thyself all memory of past experiences. Look not behind or thou art lost.”

These words are found in the first fragment of “The Voice of the Silence” (p. 18, Theosophy Company edition) and contain a great truth, namely that in one of its aspects the memory is a hindrance and a foe, a veritable obstacle in the way of true progress along the Occult Path, and one which we must master if we do not wish to be mastered by it.

In the pamphlet “Subjects for Discussion” – which consists of “condensed paragraphs on various subjects considered useful for discussion and study by individuals and Branches of the Society” – there is a section headed “MEMORY,” under which William Q. Judge states, amongst other things, that memory is “a cause of rebirth” and “fatal to concentration or living in the present.” He adds that the “Teaching of all sages [is] summed up in “look not behind or thou art lost.”” and describes memory as “one great cause of the sorrows of the world.” “Students should practice to prevent the mind turning over and over again the past,” he says, since “Memory may be defined as a getting into the old astral currents.”

Of course, this is not saying anything at all against the faculty of human memory in itself. This is a necessity of conscious existence and it helps rather than harms us to retain the memory of where we live, where we work, knowledge of our family and loved ones, how to perform the things we need to do, and any other information which enables us to be of use to ourselves or others.

The point made in the teachings of Theosophy – which was dubbed by H. P. Blavatsky “the science of life, the art of living” – is that we remember many things which we really ought to prevent ourselves from remembering. We keep in our minds things which are better off forgotten. We allow to return to our sphere of thought recollections of both pleasure and pain, which then often influence and impact us in a negative way, whether in the form of re-energised desire, longing, and passion, or a reawakened sorrow, sadness, frustration, and anger.

It is because of such effects of memory that the latter truly becomes “a cause of rebirth,” since we are thereby shaping and colouring our skandhas in a way that is guaranteed to attract us back to this Earth, to face and experience the Karmic consequences of such unwise emotional and mental indulgence.

How is memory “one great cause of the sorrows of the world”?

If something happens to us and causes us sorrow, that is one thing. But if we return to that occurrence or related aspects of it, in our memory, that is another. The former is generally Karma, an effect of past causes set in motion. The latter is the creation of further Karma and an adding to that which could otherwise be consigned to the past.

Maybe someone hurt us in the past. Why do we need to remember that? We have the choice and the ability to just let it go. Perhaps someone close to us passed away in tragic and upsetting circumstances. There is nothing preventing us from discarding the sad memories and mental images of their suffering and keeping only the positive and happy memories of our time and relationship with that person. We might possibly have once had an intense romantic encounter, memory of which brings back longing and desire.

The past obviously cannot be undone but we can decide to completely forget about it. Otherwise, is it not true that we are “getting into the old astral currents” and hindered from really “living in the present”?

In “Mental Discipline,” the Sage, probably representing HPB, tells the Student, “Now as we are constantly looking at and hearing of new things, the natural restlessness of the mind becomes prominent when we set about pinning it down. Then memory of many objects, things, subjects, duties, persons, circumstances, and affairs brings up before it the various pictures and thoughts belonging to them. After these the mind at once tries to go, and we find ourselves wandering from the point. It must hence follow that the storing of a multiplicity of useless and surely-recurring thoughts is an obstacle to the acquirement of truth. And this obstacle is the very one peculiar to our present style of life.” (“William Q. Judge Theosophical Articles” Vol. 1, p. 435-436, also in WQJ Pamphlet #10 “Conversations on Occultism II”)

So memory of minor as well as major things can often be detrimental. There are people who read a news article about something and are affected by it for days, weeks, or even months afterwards. We’ve all heard people say things such as, “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind” or “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Thankfully one can get things out of one’s mind and can stop thinking about those things that are not suitable or advisable for mental revivification. It is possible to live in such a way that we keep in our memory only the good and truly necessary things, allowing us to be freer in ourselves and more helpful and effective in our work for others and service of humanity, which is the primary goal and aim of the Theosophist.

It simply comes down to decision and effort.

The ancient Indian sage Patanjali advises: “In order to exclude from the mind questionable things, the mental calling up of those things that are opposite is efficacious for their removal.” (The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, II:33, interpretation by William Q. Judge, p. 29)

The mind can have no attachment for what it refuses to think about. Attachment to things comes by thinking about them. “Thought is the real plane of action” is a maxim often repeated in ULT Theosophical circles. It truly is, for the Esoteric Philosophy teaches regarding the reincarnating human soul that –

“In its very essence it is THOUGHT, and is, therefore, called in its plurality Manasa putra, “the Sons of the (Universal) mind.” This individualised “Thought” is what we Theosophists call the real human EGO, the thinking Entity imprisoned in a case of flesh and bones. This is surely a Spiritual Entity, not Matter, and such Entities are the incarnating EGOS that inform the bundle of animal matter called mankind, and whose names are Manasa or “Minds.” But once imprisoned, or incarnate, their essence becomes dual: that is to say, the rays of the eternal divine Mind, considered as individual entities, assume a two-fold attribute which is (a) their essential inherent characteristic, heaven-aspiring mind (higher Manas), and (b) the human quality of thinking, or animal cogitation, rationalised owing to the superiority of the human brain, the Kama-tending or lower Manas.” (H. P. Blavatsky, “The Key to Theosophy” p. 184)

When a desire, an impulse, an inclination, an imagination, a memory, etc. is no longer fed with any new thought upon it, it begins to fade out and lose its power over the thinker. This is the best way in which addictions and habits are broken and overcome and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the returning to unwanted memories is in itself a form of mental addiction, particularly if frequent. It is “normal” behaviour for the personality, the lower and transient ego, but not for the Individuality, the higher, permanent, and immortal Ego, our real Inner Being.

On p. 116-117 of the book “Forum Answers” the question is posed: “What mental obstructions are in the way of meditation and most frequently present?”

To this Mr Judge replies: “The greatest foe and that most frequently present is memory, or recollection. This was at one time called phantasy. The moment the mind is restrained in concentration for the purpose of meditation, that moment the images, the impressions, the sensations of the past begin to troop through the brain and tend to instantly and constantly disturb the concentration. Hence the need for less selfishness, less personality, less dwelling on objects and desiring them, – or sensation. If the mind be full of impressions, there is also a self-reproductive power in it which takes hold of these seeds of thought and enlivens them. Recollection is the collecting together of impressions, and so it constitutes the first and the greatest obstruction to meditation.”

“I’ll forgive but I can’t forget,” some people say, thus showing that they haven’t really forgiven at all. You can forget, if you want to, and if you don’t want to you ought to sincerely examine yourself and try to discover why you wish to hold on to such memories.

One of the shortest verses in the Bible is Luke 17:32, in which Jesus is presented as saying, “Remember Lot’s wife.”

She was one who left an awful place and situation behind her but turned back to look at it again and was promptly turned into a pillar of salt. Unlike many Christians, Theosophists do not take the poor woman’s salification literally but see in it a jewel of wisdom nonetheless. “The Voice of the Silence,” which HPB translated from the Book of the Golden Precepts “for the daily use” of chelas, disciples, and those who would become such, repeats the age-old message and warning:

“Kill in thyself all memory of past experiences. Look not behind or thou art lost.”

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