Unmasking the memory terrorist
Many of the new clients I work with who have been in long-term psychological treatment are weary and discouraged. No matter how often and how long they have brought memories to mind, fought them, re-considered them, analyzed them, belittled them, re-enacted them, deconstructed them, reframed them, journaled them — the memories are still there. So they feel as though they are doomed to a life struggle against traumatic events from their past. They can’t change them, and they can’t defeat them, so they are stuck in an exhausting standoff, locked in perpetual battle against an enemy that can barely be held at bay.
When I was a young girl, I remember one time asking my father, a lawyer, what was the most important thing a lawyer needed to know. He answered, “The best lawyers know their opponents’ cases as well as they do their own. They fully understand both sides of the issue.” That has stuck with me through my life as really good advice for every situation. If something matters to you, you should fully understand the obstacles to your success. This keeps occurring to me when I talk to my clients about memories.
There is ultimately nothing that matters more to us in life than fostering our own peace and happiness, living in well-being. At the core, the one thing everyone in the world longs for is peace of mind. The primary obstacles to our peace of mind are troubling memories. That is why people go to battle against their memories, as though they were masked terrorists assaulting with unrelenting ferocity. We have been taught to do that. Be strong. Fight them. Don’t give in to them. But most people have no idea what a memory is, or how memories invade their minds. They can’t win , but they don’t know what else to do but keep fighting an enemy they do not understand and cannot root out at the source.
I’m here to insist that everything we think we know about memories is wrong. We can’t win with the battle plans we have because we are not engaged with a “real” enemy; we are innocently, innocently, innocently at war with ourselves, in a perpetual loop of frustration.
In my role as a mental health educator, I do not have any need to draw up new strategies against the memory terrorists with my clients. My job is to teach them to see memories for what they really are, to help them understand why memories appear so daunting, to rip the mask off the memories so they can truly see how powerless they are, and how they shrivel and fade in the face of recognition.
What is a memory? A memory is a thought about the past that we bring to mind in the present. When it is a happy thought and we find ourselves dwelling on it, we call it nostalgia, or reminiscing, or daydreaming. When it is a terrifying thought and we find ourselves dwelling on it, we call it ruminating, or depression, or Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). The reason we have different names for the experience of bringing memories to mind and holding them there is that each kind of memory carries with it a different feeling state, from the benign, to the horrifying. But in and of themselves, thoughts are thoughts, information we pull into the foreground of our minds. The feelings carry the power. But only if we let them.
All the strategies we use now force us to keep bringing old memories to mind to “do” something with or about them. But none of them point out to us that WE are the ones with the power to bring them to mind, or not. None of them point out to us that when they do come to mind, WE have the power to hang onto them, or let them pass, like any other thought. None of them point out to us that WE can choose how to hold and use our memories, and we can use the feeling states they carry to choose when to leave them alone and let them pass. None of them explain that WE are the thinkers; our memories do not think us, we think them. None of them point out to us that holding bad memories in place to fight them or manipulate them holds bad feelings in place, too, and WE have the power to change direction and leave those feelings aside, in any given moment.
When I explain this to my clients, I don’t need to ask for any details about their past. It’s better if they stay away from it, and just stay with me in the present moment, considering something new. I find that clients are relieved when I ask them instead to tell me what they’re interested in now, and what their hopes and dreams are from seeking mental health education. They’re tired of clinging to a box of tissues while they re-hash the worst things about their lives. They like the hope that arises in the present moment.
I tell them that life is the spiritual experience of occupying a body and moving through time and space for a while in that form. I explain that the energy behind all life powers all of our abilities to do that, including the ability to think. I explain to them that we are designed to have a psychological experience of life, to bring thoughts to mind and then, while they are on our minds, to experience them, to be conscious of them, as though they are our reality. But only as long as they are on our minds. When we bring memories to mind, we re-experience old realities in the present. When we allow memories to pass through our minds, we return to present-moment thinking, new thoughts to guide us through life. We’re navigating that journey the whole way, and we are in charge of how and where we travel with our thoughts. We may not control the first thought — whatever pops into our head bad or good — but we definitely control the thought after that first thought. We can recognize thoughts we don’t like and leave them alone to move through our minds like an unwanted commercial on TV. Or we can grasp them and start thinking more about them.
Most often, what I hear is a sigh of relief. And most frequently, people say, “Why didn’t anybody tell me this before? That explains everything.”
More and more, people are telling their clients this. We call them Three Principles practitioners, and they are increasing in number and scope all over the world. They make all the things we have done to try to help people with memories in the past seem barbaric. But that’s the whole story of how things change. New discoveries take us to new understanding and we open our eyes to a whole new way of seeing life.
Welcome to the era of mental health education. It will, ultimately, replace therapy as we know it now.