MEMORY AND IMPERMANENCE

In INSIGHTS by James Corrigan6 Comments

How does the fact of impermanence arise? Is it based on a memory of what was, something which is no longer, being used to compute a difference? Some people say that is the case because how else could we notice that something has changed? They point to memory as proof that some things do endure, arguing that memory undermines the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence.

But this assertion is misleading, if taken seriously, on two counts: the Buddha spoke about his direct experience of the fact of impermanence, not a conceptual idea he thought up to create a doctrine, and although impermanence, as a Buddhist doctrine, is taught and discussed by others, the purpose of such teaching is to clarify a common meditation experience, the fact of impermanence, in order to show the logical impossibility of permanence. This logical impossibility is an insight that is gained through contemplation of the direct meditational experiences. In this way, we students don’t have to spend our lives assuring ourselves that each and every thing in the Universe is, in fact, impermanent.

Secondly, the idea that memories endure is not a truly valid statement even in the world of science. Scientists studying memories have found that memories are a most creative affair, morphing over time and with each recalling, until they bear little resemblance to an actual event. Like everything else, memories are impermanent, making the very idea of them a bit self-oxymoronic. They are just a different kind of conditioned experience that arises as we recall them.

But perhaps it is worthwhile to examine this idea that we must compare each moment of experience to a memory of the past in order to notice change, ignoring what was just said. Wouldn’t that mean that we experience an event only through the memory of what is no longer the case, and not the fact of the event itself as it happens? Would there even be a fact at all? How would a memory of this current event be created, if it can only be experienced in terms of what it replaced? Doesn’t that mean our conscious experiences, dependent as they would be on comparison to a memory in order for us to know that something changed, could never begin? Where would we inherit the necessary starting memory from to get the ball rolling? A magical encoding of DNA? Some backstory breathed into us by God? A random image created by our personal chemistries? Are any of these ideas coherent enough to justify the validity of this most unsupportable of hypotheses? And perhaps most importantly, if it were true, freedom would always already be undone by the tyranny of that primordial event. Or, our conscious experience would just be a logical impossibility in its absence.

Let’s consider this: How do we experience music? Is it, again, in the remembrance of the previous note only that a new note is known? This would make music, not a flowing composition, but more like a repetitive stutter, unable to scale so much as echo incessantly.

When a piece of music is played, as when an event occurs, it is not the memory of what was replaced that gives rise to an experience that is sensed. It is in the experience of the new arriving, and not the old passing away, that the fact of the event is known. Known the way we recognize an old friend coming around a corner. Sure, sometimes we’re wrong, but the fact of the arrival of someone coming around the corner is instantly noted.

How could a memory return during this performance, if our attention is focused on the new event? We could elicit the replay of a remembered moment—a prior note—but not until the new event was already over, or ignored. What then would we be comparing the remembered event to? Whatever was there is already gone. And where would the memory of the new event obtain its content, if the event is past, having been unattended to while we fumbled around in the dark looking for old memories? We only have one focus of attention, even when we are multitasking it (a truly misleading modern expression—being distracted is so much more accurate).

A musical note arises, not as a fait accompli, but as a quickening, a stirring, a reverberation gathering force, rising harmonics interplaying. We sense motion, activity, and change, directly, and not the stillness of static states. Change is not due to the freezing of actions and comparing them statically over time. We sense impermanence directly, not through a mentally constructed zoetropic succession of vivisected things or states into which we must compute the motion of change—that is what a machine must do, laboriously churning through its code, or mechanical motions—not us. A scientist attentively slices life into segments hoping to see how they go together, blind to the fact of life itself, and to the incompatibility of time-slices to harbor it.

How do we sense this flowing impermanence? We sense the rising edge of the event, which is always happening, never a happened, and happening always already—an unending gathering of force, a slipping into view, into earshot, rising unceasingly into that liminal threshold of awareness that we call now, which is timelessly present, beyond the notions of permanence and impermanence, and serving as the base counterfactual of both.

Everything is in motion, even our memories of events that we believe are true records of what was, hardly noticing the sneaky way memories themselves are in motion, forever moving away from what may have happened. This is because we don’t do compares of static things, we experience impermanence directly. It’s what we do. It’s not a doctrine of impermanence, it’s the fact of impermanence, and that is what we need to see for ourselves.

But this has all been an argument proceeding from the fundamental mistake of a dualistic perspective, which is an understanding that experience somehow encompasses an interior witnessing of external events. Thus the difficulty arises: how does this happen? And false explanations, in all their diversity, arise. Even the best, is incorrect when it asserts a structure of insides and outsides encompassing experience of things in motion. Reality is a inside without any outside, totally simple—the liminal threshold of awareness is an expression formulated out of abstractions, necessitated by our insistence on the truth of dualistic perspectives.

These dualistic perspectives, that we all develop, are like horizons demarcating boundaries and borders that exist in our intellect as understandings, but aren’t truly the separations we make them out to be. These horizons are hiding the unfounded assumptions that give rise to our dualistic perspectives, leaving the boundaries between things seemingly self-supporting in our exasperated dismissals of calls to question them. But liberation is not some far-off state, it is simply the clearing out of these unfounded understandings so that we can clearly see what is real and what is imagined.

Our most fundamental failure is to not recognize the true nature of all manifested experience, and that failure occurs first and foremost when we fail to see how conscious experiences—of the senses as well as the intellect—arise. We do not experience sensed external phenomena, nor do we think thoughts. Sound, color, tastes, smells, touches, and cognition are living interior experiences, not of something exterior to us—sound exists solely in the mind, for example, conditioned and mediated by our body, which may be said to be separate from everything else around it in the spacial realm, but that is one of our false horizons.

Sound also arises in the mind in the absence of external conditions, nakedly exposing the true nature of mind in all it’s glory. The exterior world has only the quick changes in pressure that condition the arousal of an intimate experience of sound via their impacting the  body. To confuse the two is to denature our lived experience—sound—while elevating quantitative abstractions—sound waves—to the stature of being truly experienced.

It doesn’t matter whether someone is there in a forest when a tree falls, or not, a tree falling makes no sound. The idea that it does conflates the realm of experience with the activity of an eviscerated realm of dead abstractions.

And my earlier use of the expression, arising in the liminal threshold of awareness, is a bespoke failure to notice that nothing truly manifests, that there is no thing to be called awareness, and the liminal threshold is simply a way to poetically describe the active epistemological moment of absolute freedom and clarity which we call “now,” and which are the hallmarks of complete and total wisdom, which we fail to grasp because grasping it is the mechanism that leads us astray. Recognition is not grasping, it’s clarity, and that compassionate, loving glance of recognition is all that is happening. Memory is just more of the same, impermanent and without any self-existence, not the basis of anything.

About the Author

James Corrigan

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James is a writer, philosopher, contemplative practitioner and theorist, living in the Dordogne region of France, where he runs a Bed & Breakfast. He was formerly a software engineer in New York, as well as a university professor of philosophy where he taught Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Nature, and meditation. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Photo by Vasilijus Bortnikas, Lithuania

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Comments

  1. Indeed very good perspective expressed in a logical/scientific way. Absolutely true that nothing is static in the existence. Existence is not a noun but verb. Only thing permanent is impermanence. Change is the eternal law of existence. But what is your understanding if I ask whether memory exists as such ? And are the so called we or for that matter all the life form more than a bio-computer ? Are not everything (we think we are doing) happening through so called us (psychosomatic instruments) just as reactions to the outer stimuli ?

    1. Author

      Thank you, Raman. I have a great deal of experience with computers, software, and practical implementation of artificial intelligence (not theoretical), and I find the term “bio-computer” to be a great error.

      In short, there are many people today who, seeing the ability of computer software engineers to create programming that mimics particular traits of humans, feel that they can impose a computational model upon biological processes, but they are overlooking some important differences:

      1) Computers are digital, biological processes are “analog.”
      2) While computers can be made to mimic living processes through creative programming, that programming only works because computers are engineered by humans with an “instruction set”—a basic repertoire of discrete digital operations that can be combined into long processual strings called programs—but biological organisms do not have such a set of engineered instructions, meaning they are neither programmed, nor programmable, nor can their “operations” be combined in arbitrary manners—Frankenstein was fiction.
      3) All activity in the natural word—and in the constructed human world of artifacts—is stochastic in nature. This means that it is, within a range of possibility, totally spontaneous. For example, astute human engineers, knowing the physical characteristics of various materials and combinations of materials structured in certain ways, can design a device that strings various stochastic (i.e. spontaneously creative—but conditioned) activity into practical service of humanity. The reason a computer needs a “clock” is to assure that the stochastic behavior of componentry in the computer chips are given enough time to react spontaneously. It’s very much like the hortator on an ancient galley ship, pounding a kettle drum to synchronize the otherwise chaotic rowing of the slaves.

      In regards to your question about the existence of memory “as such,” I find it impossible to answer without going into a great deal of discussion about my worldview. But in short, no, memory as it is normally understood is a fiction. I know there is activity in the human brain that is related to remembering events, but like the “bio-computers” misunderstanding, the idea that memories are “encoded” in the brain is unfounded and unexplainable. Yes, the activity in the brain that is related to remembering something is evidence of activity, but like the smoke of a fire, the smoke is not the fire. It’s ok to say the smoke is evidence of fire, but in the case of memories, science doesn’t have anything to contribute as to what the “fire” truly is, so that is not an explanation, nor proof, of anything.

        1. Author

          Hello Erik! It’s actually an interesting failure in that all scientific knowledge is based upon repeatable observations under experimental conditions, but what an “observation” is remains vague at best, given the still undetermined nature of “consciousness” within science.

          The basis of truth in science, founded as it is upon repeatable observations, relies on equally unvalidated assumptions of: time, space, qualities, relations, and identities–in other words, a world of separation and physical casualty. All of which are based solely upon the “obviousness” that this is how reality is structured. But in Buddhism, those assumptions and that view are not obvious, they are seen to be erroneous, as you know well.

          And yet, even in the realm of science, cutting-edge physics has undercut the validity of time and space, F.H. Bradley, a philosopher, pointed out in exquisite detail during the 19th century that qualities and relations are meaningless because they are totally arbitrary and cannot be shown to have any reality at all (it’s a complicated analysis that has been so much easier to ignore than understand), and no one has ever been able to point to what makes a thing “itself.”

          And yet, I don’t see that as a failure imposed by thought, as much as it is a failure to think well. One of the benefits of mind training is that it enables us to become aware of our process of thinking, so that we can notice the ways we let some things slide through without properly ensuring that we’re not just making them up, or as you put it so well, “turning to fiction.”

          A good scientist should never think to use a tool without calibrating its operation, and yet so few see the need to train their minds in order to calibrate their operation. That seems like a gross oversight on the part of scientists.

          1. Erik Pema Kunsang

            Thank you very much, James. Very lucid.

            It amuses me sometimes that it is the scientist’s mind that cannot find a mind.

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