The Remembered “Me”: Why Presence Implies “Your” Absence

By Adam J. Pearson

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“You” Are Remembered


We sometimes talk about how we can “be more present.” We read books on The Power of Now, listen to talks or go to meet-up groups about being in the moment, and attempt to put what we learn into practice. The implicit idea behind all of this activity is that if I learn how to do it just right, then I can be truly present in the unfolding moment.


When we closely observe the workings of the mind, however, what we surprisingly find is this:

“I” can never be present, not as “me.” I can only experience the memory of “me” now and mistake the memory for a present experience. The sense of self, of being a long-lasting, independent, separate entity is never directly or presently experienced; it is only remembered. 


This may come as a shock, but let’s explore together how this strange idea could possibly be the case…

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To begin, I invite you to consider this very basic fact of experience:


When you have a sense of your presence as “you,” then “I,” “me,” and “mine” arise in the mind.What are these things?

Words.

What do you need to do in order to speak a word?

You need to summon up the memory of the word from the brain’s long-term storage.

You need to remember it.

What is the logical conclusion, then?


“I,” “me,” and “mine” can only be thought or spoken if they are remembered. If there is a sense of “me” present, then the mind is remembering it, not experiencing it as a present fact.


Therefore, when “I” seem to be present as “me,” if the thought “I” or “me” is there too, then I’m not actually experiencing that sense of self as present fact; I’m actually  remembering it into the space of the present moment.

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Gaps in the Sense of “Me”


Having remembered that “I” am present, the mind then assumes that there is a continuity between the last time I remembered my sense of self and my present remembering of it. In reality, the situation is not as seamless that; there are gaps between thoughts, which therefore, also means that there are gaps in the sense of “me,” the remembered sense of being a long-lasting, independent, separate entity!

In reality, then, we don’t actually experience a continuous sense of self; we only experience discontinuous rememberings with gaps in between them. The sense of “I,” “me” and “mine,” therefore, is not constant, but sporadic. 

From what we have seen already, it follows that if there is a sense of “me” present, I am not actually experiencing that as a present fact, but remembering it into the present and experiencing the memory.

By definition, a memory cannot be truly present because memories are of the past. Remembering as a mental process can happen now, but the content of memories is a representation of the past. Since all thinking relies on remembered words and represented content stored in the mind during past experience, it follows that all thinking is in effect, an act of remembering. If all thinking involves remembering, then all thinking is of the past, even when it seems to about the present!

Kayaking around Norway

PhotographyTomasz Furmanek, Norway


Remembering “Yourself” Into the Past, Present, and Future


What happens when we remember the sense of “I,” “me,” and “mine”? The result is a fact of daily experience; the mind either orients itself towards the past, to the future, or the interpretation of the present.


Remembering Into the Past


If the mind orients itself towards the past, then we remember stories of the past, of how we were, of how we could have been, of how we should have been, of how we weren’t, and so on.

Some of these seeming rememberings of “how things were” are in actual fact “imaginings” into the past. This happens when, for example, we don’t remember what actually happened but what we think could have happened if only something had been different. This is not a genuine memory at all; it is an act of speculative imagining projected into the past and misexperienced as a memory when in reality, it never happened. How complex!

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Remembering Into the Future


If the mind directs itself to the future, then we project the memory of how we were forward in time from now and use that memory to imagine how we predict we will be, how we might be, how we had better not be, how we should be, how we shouldn’t be, and so on. Thus, when we imagine the future through the story of me, we’re not somehow tapping into the future as it will transpire; we’re actually only remembering forwards in time!

Remembering Into the Present


Moreover, if we seem to be thinking about our present state, we are, in fact, only remembering how things were and experiencing the memory filtering our present experience. We’re representing our remembered sense of self from the past in the present and using it to draw conclusions about ongoing events that are unfolding now.

The surprising truth, then is this: at this moment, the thought may arise that “I am present,” but all three words in that sentence are themselves remembered!
Therefore, the thought “I am present” is in reality, a memory that is assumed to describe a present state. When we think “I am present,” we use words we learned in the past to project our remembered sense of self from the past into the present. We then experience the memory of being a long-lasting, independent, separate-entity now and confuse this remembered sense of self with a present fact.

Here’s the shocking part that flows out of all we have seen so far: In reality, I only ever remember “my” sense of being a separate ‘self’ in the present; I never presently experience it. To have a sense of “myself,” I have to first remember who “I was” in the past so that I can remember it in the present. Ironically, however, after we remember our sense of self in the present, we tend to forget we are remembering and confuse the memory with a present experience!

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The Reference of a Remembered Past


In short, then, all thinking is remembering. It always involves either a representation of the remembered past in the present, an attempt to analyze the ongoing present by means of the remembered past, or an envisioning of a possible future based on a remembered past. In each case, it’s a form of remembering grounded, not in now, but in the remembered past that is the reference point from which we think about the past, present, and future.


Recognizing the Past In the Present

Moreover, all thinking involves recognition and all recognition presupposes memory; recognition is re-cognition. Cognition uses stored representations that formed in the past to generate thinking now. To recognize something, I need to already have a concept of what I’m recognizing; I need to have seen, heard, or otherwise experienced it before. Thus, I need to match a stored representation of it from the past to a present instance of it arising in present experience.


What does this have to do with “me”?


When we observe the workings of the mind, we quickly discover that the mind’s storytelling about “me” involves perpetually recognizing things. The mind observes something in the world and recognizes the phenomenon it sees as “what I like,” “what I don’t like,” an event that “means or implies something about me,” and so on. If there’s recognition, then there are stored representations of what we recognize already present in the brain. If there are stored representations that are helping us recognize something, then we are remembering.

Recognition and remembering form the fabric of the stories that the mind weaves about “me.” And both are of the past. Thus, any present experience “I” seem to have as “me” is really only a remembering. “I,” “me,” and “mine” exist nowhere but in memory, in stored representations of the past, that are presently remembered in the mental activity called thinking.


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Photography by Timur Zhansultanov


Conclusion: True Presence Implies “Your” Absence 


Thus, all we see when we observe the operations of the mind is various kinds of remembering. The mind has to remember the sense of being an independent long-lasting separate entity because such a sense is never our present experience; if there is a sense of “me,” “my” and “mine” arising right now, then that sense is being generated by remembering based on “how I was” in the past.

Therefore, if I have a sense of “my” presence as a “me,” then I am really remembering the past and misinterpreting that as an experience of the present. In this sense, the only present reality is the absence of “me,” because for “me” to have a sense of being here as a “me,” I must be remembering.

Presence implies “my” absence. When we are truly present, it is not as a separate self, but as the forgetting of the sense of self we reaped from the fields of the past. What we truly are is not a dead idea of a former state; we are the living, vibrancy of this moment. And it is a moment that, prior to remembering, is empty of “me” as an apparently separate being and full of an unspeakable sense of nondual unity.

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Forgetting “Myself” Reveals True Presence


The shocking conclusion to our adventure through time through remembering then is this:

Only when I forget “myself” can I be truly present, not as “me,” but as that which is prior to the arising of a sense of “me” through remembering.

What I truly am is not the sense of self I sporadically remember into the present, but the ever-present reality that remains in the silence between the rememberings of “me.” Our true nature is not sporadically remembered, but prior to the creation of the very memories that enable us to remember the imaginary sense of self we take ourselves to be out of the habit of constant remembering.

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Soto Zen Master Dogen


What we truly are cannot be remembered; it can only be presently experienced.


Moreover, the greatest apparent paradox of all is that what we truly are can only be presently experienced when we are forgetting the sense of self we take ourselves to be.

When we remember stories about “me,” we are swept up in the activity of mind. Our true nature is prior to all of the activities of mind, prior even to the “story of me,” and the remembered sense of being a separate entity. It is not a story or an experience generated by a memory; it is that in which all memories, stories, imaginings, and appearances arise.

In closing, as the great Zen master Dogen once said,

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

Remembering “myself” produces the experience of what I’m not; forgetting “myself” enables the experience of what I am.

What remains when I forget to remember the story of “me”? Life free from the bondage of being “my life,” the vast expanse of awareness filled to the brim with the ever-unfolding diversity of a universe liberated from self-centered interpretations.

In thought, this all sounds very complicated, but the good news is that in experience, it is the simplest of all things. What could be simpler than simply being without having to remember anything at all, even your very sense of “yourself“?

***


Part of a series of Nonduality:

Everything You Experience “Now” is Remembered: Neuroscience and Nonduality

Emptiness and Radical Negation: Shifts in and Beyond the Story of “Me”

We Were Never Broken: Beyond the Sense of Lack, Incompleteness, and Deficiency

The Welcomeness Of Now

Beyond “I Am”

Remember To Be Unhappy!: The Unnecessary Root of Human Misery

The Vibrancy of Life and the Deadness of the “Story of Me”

The Futility of Sandcastling

Is the Body Limited or Unlimited? : A Dance Through Science, Philosophy, and Nonduality

The Difference Between Seeing A Thought or Emotion and Looking From It

Emptiness in Emptiness

The Ultimate Surrender

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