Memories – The Shaky Sense of the Separate-I

Sundar Kadayam - USA Articles, English 6 Comments


One of the most cherished aspects of our lives are our memories. Whether they are “pleasant memories” of great events like marriage or childbirth or birthdays, or “unpleasant memories” of traumatic events like death or parting or abuse, we hold dearly to these memories. To some extent, our memories define who we are now and what we do in this moment.

Most of us believe that our memories are infallible. That they are this perfect high definition recording of our life events, that are perfectly stored in our brains for perfect recall. Like contemporary DVRs (digital video recorders) automatically record live cable or tv broadcasts for install recall or future playback, we believe that our memories are a perfect high resolution storage of all that we perceive and encounter in the outside world.

But this is not true.

As I age, and as memories fade, I often note with humility that my memory is not what it once used to be. But this is not even just a function of aging memory loss. Memories can be impacted by inaccuracies, biases in our judgments or inferences about a certain event, or combining details of one event with those of another, not to mention the fact that our sense perceptions which feed our memory aren’t perfect in the first place. Our beliefs have a direct effect on our memories too.

The unreliability of memory has been proven through research studies.

Elizabeth Loftus, seen as one of the top 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century, is a pioneer who devoted her career to prove that memories don’t just fade, they can also change. In one experiment conducted by Loftus, she found that people responded differently based just on the change of one verb in a question. “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” versus “How fast were the cars going when they smashed together?”. Those who read “smashed together” estimated that the cars were going 5-10 miles faster than those who read “hit each other”. [Source: How the Truth Gets Twisted].

Memories, as I see them, are low resolution, low fidelity, distorted snapshots of vivid, high definition, high resolution real time reality we once encountered! If you don’t believe this, imagine that you are seeing a most breathtaking landscape in front of you, and take a moment and soak it in. Now, walk away from this scene, and try to see what is captured in your memory of this breathtaking landscape. Is the imagery as rich and as deep and as vivid and as complete as what you just saw in living reality? Hint: An honest answer would be, ‘probably not’ 🙂

Despite personal experiential evidence and strong research studies that conclusively prove the unreliability of memory, most of us cannot help clinging to our memories because they are such a core element of our identity.

Our sense of “I” is in large part supported by our memories. Our memories and our beliefs together drive our judgments. This is what makes us get angry at someone, or perhaps at ourselves. This is what makes us hold grudges and resentments.

If our memories are unreliable, then what is the value of the judgments we hold, and the anger we display towards people or events or even ourselves?

To experience this for yourself, consider the following. Let us say that you have a neighbor whom you’ve judged based on past events to be an obnoxious and horrible person. You have unpleasant memories of this person, and one sight of him is all it takes to set you off into a rage. Now imagine for a moment, that your memory is wiped out, clean, gone. You encounter your neighbor again. What is your reaction to him, now that you have no memory of him? Likely nothing, right? Because you have no basis, without your memory, for judging him, far less trigger an anger reaction inside you!

So, with our unreliable memory driving in part, our sense of “I”, consider what we are doing going around the world, judging each and every event and person, acting in turn out of anger, or fear or hatred!

The separate “I” that we think we are, is built on a shaky foundation of unreliable memory. Given this, can you really trust your own story of being a separate-I?

In the traditional precepts, Usui san says “Do not anger, Anger is illusion”. An “illusion” is something that only appears to be real, but is, in fact not real. Can you see how unreliable / unreal memories can fuel our sense of being a separate “I” and in turn, drive us to judgments, anger, fear and hatred?

Look at this whole situation rationally. If a key element, memory, in the foundation of the separate “I” is unreliable and illusory, then how real can the separate “I” be?

When the seers and sages and awakened masters tell us that the world is an illusion, we form grandiose ideas and concepts about that in our mind. But, a simple reality that they are pointing out is that, the one that you think you are, the separate-I, is an illusion, as it is in turn made of stuff that is unreliable and unreal like memories.

You already are that which you seek. This sense of the separate-I and your identification with that, is an illusion that is befuddling you from seeing, knowing and embracing that which you already are, your true nature, Reiki!

Comments 6

  1. Avatar of Russell McNair

    Hi Sundar, your article reminds me of a comment I heard Deepak Chopra make once: “The individual’s perception of an event is the event.” In other words, our memories are nothing more than a biased view of an event or scene. And, as it is biased, is not true anyway. The real self knows what is true. The ego based self only knows their opinion of it.

  2. Avatar of Susan Andrews
  3. Avatar of Sundar

    Russell, Thanks for sharing that quote from Deepak Chopra. You are right. The ego based self, or the separate-I that we think we are, is unable to see what is as is and what is not as is not. Whatever is then captured through this lens is stored in memory as “truth”. Unreliable at best, unreal at worst.

    Susan, Thanks for those kind words.

  4. Avatar of seema

    Hi Sundar,

    Yes we are already what we are seeking.
    we do hold onto memories in form of our past, our judgements.They do fade as our own views of life, people and so forth changes.
    infact, our judgemets about people , ourselves or situations changes as we move on.

    It is especially true for us ” seekers”.We suddenly see ” ourselves” in a different mold and than everything else changes aa well. We change , everything else change .

    As now we are seeing everything from different filters than before. And every.experience also show us these ” new changes or faded memories”.

    It gets even more intersting when these memories involve our near and dear..because fading/ changing affects . Because we live in this physical world .

    Not easy , not always.

    I read some where we can use our suffering to brighten ourselves , more suffering more brightness :-). 

    Practice helps but it cannot be means to an end.

  5. Avatar of Sundar

    Seema, you are right about the idea of ‘more suffering more brightness’ – indeed, it is in times of adversity that most people think of God.  I’ve heard a saying attributed to the Queen Kunti (from the Indian epic, Mahabharata) – she is said to have prayed to God asking him to continually give her some adversity, because that way, she can never forget God!  Kind of extreme form of prayer if I might say 🙂  Still that makes the point that all situations are opportunities to surrender the sense of the separate-I and know that our true nature is indeed the great bright light that is beyond all suffering.

  6. Avatar of seema

    Hi Sundar,
    Yes I have also heard of similar tale about Queen Kunti .  We have all these teaching stories that we can read and inspire but doing in action , in life is whole different story :-).

    The more we learn to adapt to the uncontrollable elements of what life presents, the less we suffer the torment of fighting the inevitable.

    We filter our life through own tinted glasses, if only we can see the sky beyond.

    I am no where there ,  “I” gets so prominent sometimes at most ” unusual ” times and sometimes I am so oblivious to the reality and power of the inner world and true heart within.

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