Groundhog Day


The past is made of memory, the future of imagination. Neither have any existence outside the thought that thinks them. ~Rupert Spira

Here, back in the wilds of Africa, I am struck by the immense sense of peace and wholeness that seems to permeate the very air. It is as if, in the midst of vibrant, fecund, ever changing, birth, living, and dying, that can be violent, sudden, and shocking, there exists only peace. The answer is, of course, because animals do not have sophisticated capacity for memory states like humans. When an animal is threatened, instinctual fear mobilizes them, but once the threat has passed and they have physiologically processed through the hormonal and chemical reactions and emotional fear, they return to their normal peaceful state. They do not rehearse the incident repeatedly for the rest of their lives in memory. They do not imagine the same thing happening in the future. They do not create a narrative about what it means about them. They return to the present moment. And the present moment is eternal.

The ability to re-member, means the capacity to re-activate the same emotional and physiological states experienced in the past, over and over again even though there is no current threat. Animals live in the present moment, which is eternity, and this is why I can feel the eternal in these rare and amazing places of wilderness. It is as if, away from the endless triggers of humans and modern stress, I myself am free to feel the joy, peace and love of paradise right now, even in the midst of natural life and death. I do not see any herds of impala suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, reliving close calls with death in compulsive and reactionary ways. I do not see predators like lions having sleepless nights about where the next meal will come from. I do not have to watch family members drink themselves into states of oblivion as they are haunted by Christmas’s past – or desperately attempting to re-create the Christmas they had when they still lived in a magical state of consciousness of four years of age.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he exhorted us to live like the lilies in the fields – which is all very good and well, and describes the end result of a very long process, but he didn’t exactly give the instruction manual for how to achieve this state of living in the present moment. And just telling oneself to do it is to attempt to undo a hundred thousand years of evolution, that has resulted in the capacity to remember and anticipate instead of living in the present moment like an animal. People can space out, dissociate and pretend in manifold ways that they are happily living in the present, which is a severe spiritual by-pass of the actual work needed to achieve this in lived experience.

Moving from a stage and state in which you are constantly worrying that a past experience might happen in the future – in other words living in a present state of continuous fear from the past and projecting it into the future, - to just being present to the current experience, takes a great deal of inner work, inner awareness and hard work. It is far easier to just secretly worry and agonize and defend against memory states. The defense might provide temporary relief, but the emotional memories will return with the slightest provocation.

For me, it has been important to actually understand memory. Alan Watts has been helpful and instructive. He says,

“But what about memories? Surely by remembering I can also know what is past? Very well, remember something. Remember the incident of seeing a friend walking down the street. What are you aware of? You are not actually watching the veritable event of your friend walking the street. You can’t go up and shake hands with him, or get an answer to a question you forgot to ask him at the past time you are remembering. In other words, you are not looking at the real past at all. You are looking at a present trace of the past … From memories you infer that there have been past events. But you are not aware of any past events. You know the past only in the present and as part of the present.”

In other words, you are never aware of the past at all – only dim images of the past and those images exist only as present experience. We build stories around the past experiences. Stories that mean something at every stage of development. If you have a painful experience at a young age, the story you create around the experience is that, “I am bad, it is my fault it happened, I should ….” The story turns into a defensive way of living - attempting to be good, careful, perfect so that the past does not repeat itself in the future. The more defense in the presence, the greater the impact the past is having on the present and future.

I have never seen an animal in the wild live a defensive lifestyle. I have never seen a zebra, hiding in a cave for the rest of its life, because it once nearly got caught by a lion. I do not see it getting depressed by the thought process that it is bad, to blame, and worthless because a lion once nearly caught it when it was just two years old. I do not see zebras creating stories, like, “we are such good victims and lions are such bad predators, “ around what happens in the bush. Animals just experiences, processes and move on.

Future imaginings are also only based on past experience, but can actually only be experienced in the present moment. If you can realize this in your awareness, then time becomes illusory – it does not exist, in that, all experience is only in the present moment. The past and the future can only ever be NOW. Time in this sense is an illusory construct and all experience exists in the present moment which is eternity – the whole of one’s experience is only in the present moment. Eternity IS timelessness and IS what you are experiencing every illusory moment. Eternity can be realized by recognizing that you are only ever living in the present moment, which is not possible as long as one is haunted by and trying to avoid the past, or grasping for a better experience in the future. If all your attention is rooted in and captured by the past and geared towards securing an illusory future, you are not living your life in the moment. So, as long as one is caught in linearity, time, past and future, you are not living the eternal present, but caught in a web of illusion that is understood to be reality. Once you realize and can witness yourself caught in past remembering and future anticipating, then you can start examining the fears and needs that are still stuck in your physiological and emotional body and that keep reasserting themselves and impinging in the present moment. The first step is the co-consciousness of a Self that is able to recognize what is memory and be present to past experience with compassion and wisdom instead of judgment and self-hatred.

The glory of memory is that this capacity has enabled the human species to be highly successful in terms of survival. All invention, science and discovery leading to modern life and development are rooted in the need to survive and the fear of not surviving. And at the same time, it also trapped humanity in a web of neurosis and defensiveness. We might live much longer than our predecessors, but the inner quality of our lives is one of suffering.

Now it is time to have both the benefits of being able to remember and anticipate that lead to development, and live free of memory states of fear and need, distorted beliefs and defense. IF you are not witnessing your condition and recognizing it as a present experience of something that once happened, and so see it as a memory, you are literally living a hell of unprocessed needs and feelings, trapped in the very cells of your physical body. Hell is the opposite of living in the eternal now.

Memory states are:

 The stories you have created about yourself based on past experience – the story line is always a variation on “good/bad” as in, “I was a bad child and had wonderful parents and a really good upbringing,” or “It was my fault that my parents abused me, because there is something inherently wrong with me.” And on and on and on….

 The feelings that keep resurfacing as a result of past experience, when activated in the present moment, are primarily the feelings of fear, shame and rage. Eg. you were terrified by Santa as a little child and now you feel anxious when you see red Santa hats being sold on a street corner by a vendor 40 years later and have no idea why you are suddenly feeling anxious.

 Needs related to fears and shame – eg. I grew up poor and felt terrible shame and inferiority asa result of the stories I and my culture told myself about what this meant about me. My need for security and value were not met and so my life is dedicated to making sure I have wealth, safety and value (defense), driven by my feelings of shame and fear.

 Body symptoms and reactions to past experiences of fear and shame and the long- term effects of having lived in unprocessed states of physiological arousal for most of your life. When an animal in the wild experiences terror, it immediately processes through the physiological arousal through quivering and shaking, sweating, stomping, frothing, fighting, until it returns to its normal peaceful state. Not so with humans. This process is immediately socialized (controlled and punished) – no stomping, yelling, crying, talking back, shaking, frothing allowed! You will be punished if you do not control the natural process – which means that the experience remains unprocessed and easily re-activated under the slightest provocation.

 Defenses are what most people are living to protect themselves from the unresolved memory states of childhood and the variety and sophistication of these defenses, are accepted as normal and seen as “personality.” Have you ever heard of personality being described as “whole, peaceful, loving, present, joyful?’ No – these people are generally thought of as “outside the norm.” Because this condition of living in a memory state is so pervasive and “normal,” the examples are legion – virtually everything that humans are currently living is the hell of living defensive lives rooted in memory states. Who do you know that sits quietly, doing nothing but enjoying the sensate pleasures of being alive without some compulsion to get up and “do something,” without any awareness that they are conditioned to living out perpetual memory states?

And the conundrum and paradox is, that until all past experience, that is experienced as current experience and, mistaken as current experience, is processed through to it’s final conclusion in understanding, that it is indeed a shadow image of past experience (memory) and is not actually in the present moment, you will find yourself unable to live in the present moment.

What is required is awareness, a witness who can say, “Oh this feeling, need, thought, defense is a MEMORY state. It is not actually happening in this present moment. The shadow of it is existing in this present moment , but it is not happening. There is maybe something similar happening, or maybe even the same thing is happening now, (eg. Santa had a red hat when I was four and the street vendor is selling red hats) but I see the part that is memory and so I am free to CHOOSE, a different response. I am free to recognize the feeling and unmet need, and respond without defense, because I am no longer a child. This has already happened and I have already survived.” Awareness brings the freedom of choice, instead of the groundhog day replay of the conditioned past. Memory exists as an imprint in the cells of the body, in the emotions, in image and in thought. Sometimes memory is fragmented. You remember cognitively, but not emotionally. Or you remember emotion and cannot connect it to cognition (eg. generalized anxiety and depression) Your body remembers, but the experience of physical fear and shame are divorced from the image and cognitive memory (as in seemingly random panic attacks, for instance). The work is to create bridges, interconnections, see the whole, reconnect the feelings, needs, thoughts and defenses and recognize them as memory states.

If you co-consciously knew all the experiences in your life span – or in time, as existing in the present moment, then you would be having an eternal knowing. Eternity does not mean time everlasting, it means all time is only occurring NOW. Time is subsumed under Eternity. Even when you experienced the past, it was in the NOW and even when the imagined future occurs, it will be in the NOW. Be present to the memories with complete love, acceptance and truth telling and you will be free to live a fulfilled life in the present. Gradually the processing of what should have happened naturally as a child will occur as you engage the process and with practice, no painful memories will be created, only current processing will be happening, not what is occurring in your life.

©  2018 Lyndall Johnson