I start with one of Joan Mitchell’s paintings. According to her biographer, Patricia Alber, in her early years as an artist she was inspired by Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ to start each painting from a memory of a past feeling. Her painting was rooted in her past, like Proust’s work on memory, such as his well-known description of the taste of a madeleine taking him back to his visits to his aunt as a small boy.
I have been thinking about memory, especially of deep emotional experiences, since reading Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ – only published in the UK last year. In this small book she blends reflection on certain events in her life with exploration of the colour blue; her passion for it, its history, and what others have written about it, among other things. I just couldn’t put it down.
Alber summarises Proust’s lengthy work as follows:
the only way to grasp and make meaningful the past, which is all that truly belongs to us, he realizes, is through art made from one’s resurrected past.
Now that is intriguing isn’t it – this notion that our past is all that we possess?
For many years now I have been endeavoring to keep my personal focus on the present so that I can build up a more stable level of mental health.
In Buddhist thought, which I have been reading as part of this, there is strong teaching of the ‘now’ as the significant moment, the only space in which we can act. Here are some examples of this teaching:
The path is the goal.
This path has one very distinct characteristic: it is not prefabricated. It doesn’t already exist. The path that we’re talking about is the moment-by-moment evolution of our experience, the moment-by-moment evolution of the world of phenomena, the moment-by-moment evolution of our thoughts and emotions.
Moreover you use your mind to create time, history for yourself in which you can bathe in nostalgia for the past and swim in glorious anticipation of the future, so neglecting now, which is the only moment in which you can live and act.
There are, then, two ways of understanding an experience. The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it. This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past. The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not stop to think, “I am happy”.
This teaching strives to get us to become conscious of the present moment, and to use it to step away from all the thoughts and emotional clutter we carry around with us. The aim is be open to where we are right now, with a clear perception of all that is around us.
Ancient techniques, such as meditation, are part of building this clear awareness of the current moment, and I have found this practice very helpful to help me bring my mind back from its wanderings in the realms of time. Many of these teachings have been incorporated into the more recent category of ‘mindfulness’. Perhaps a new name takes away a potential barrier to their history as religious practices?
This teaching does not necessarily throw away the past as irrelevant. After all, it is through past experience that we acquire the ‘habits of our minds’, which Chodron refers to. But we can see from the quotations above that a focus on the present can lead to a more negative representation of past experience as ‘prefabricated’ ‘nostalgia’, ‘dead’.
Bhaskar, being a social theorist, does give our pasts much more space and thought elsewhere, saying we need to shed some of the identities we have mis-acquired through past experience (see also Post election reflections: shedding the ego). This kind of therapeutic work with our pasts, he argues, is essential to get to recognise and deal with emotional blocks that prevent us from being freely able to be aware of and act in the present.
All kinds of creative work, like Proust’s and Nelson’s, as well as historians, philosophers and therapists, can serve to remind us of the value of acknowledging and understanding our personal and collective pasts, alongside those who help us to become open to the importance of our moment to moment present.
As I write this people are currently working to understand and act on the terrible fire in Grenfell tower, London, where 72 people lost their lives. Memories of these lost ones, with which the inquiry began, are an essential part of understanding the individual and collective loss that this fire caused, – as well as detailed investigations of all the past actions that led to it. ‘Resurrecting’ this painful past is the only way we can make it meaningful, and see how to act differently in the new present.
Pema Chodron: ‘When Things Fall Apart’.
Roy Bhaskar: ‘Meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom’.
Alan Watts: ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’