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Attention and Memory

After a light all-night rain, the clouds cleared and the sun made a welcome appearance in the early afternoon. People got outside and into the parkland in droves, including me. Meditation was just igniting through undivided, undirected observation when a rollicking group of boys descended on my sitting place.

creek fishing 1They all wore the same orange striped shirt, and none of them saw me sitting on the other side of a tree as they ran down the bank. Their father (he seemed rather old to be their father but one of the four called him Dad) looked down from above. “There’s a man fishin,” he said. ‘Not fishin’, I replied. “Wishin’ then,” he retorted. Not that either, I thought.

One of the boys came around the tree and stood next to me. He was about seven, and had a wide-eyed, innocent face. ‘Why are you all wearing the same shirt?’ I asked. He smiled, as if he’d been asked this question many times, and just said something about “looking for oak balls.”

‘Oh I know what you mean,’ I replied, and it occurred to me that they could well be quadruplets, since they all looked the same age. The boys had apparently thrown the fungal spores (which grow in large numbers on the plentiful oaks in the park) into the creek upstream, and had run downstream to watch them float by.

In a meditative state, there was no distance between the boy and oneself, and indeed, it seemed almost as though I was looking at myself as a boy of his age. It wasn’t just that he reminded me of myself as a boy, but in a deep sense, there was no separation at all.

Without attention, the pathways of conditioning in childhood become well-worn ruts as we age. Children under creek fishingseven or so don’t have the barriers and barricades of fixed identity. They could be shown how to observe in a way that keeps their brains young and insights flowing even into old age. Instead, memory is overvalued and given primacy, as it is by Nobel Laureate neuroscientist Eric Kandel in his book, “In Search of Memory.”

Kandel says that he would “like to develop a reductionist approach to the problem of attention.” He reflexively, and quite obtusely links his question, “what is the nature of the spotlight of attention?” with “the encoding of memory throughout the neural circuitry.” For Kandel, “selective attention is one of the royal roads to consciousness” because it encodes and seals memory.

To my mind, that is false and wrongheaded. Kandel is really talking about concentration when he speaks of “selective attention.”Concentration does indeed “encode memory,” whereas attention deletes memory. Inclusive and undirected attention is essential to awakening meditation and higher states of consciousness. And erasing memory is far more important than encoding it.

Why? Because most memories are not just unneeded, they are harmful to a healthy brain.

The brain automatically records and accumulates experience as memory, perhaps nearly all experience–though of course not all memory is consciously available. That is the heart of the problem; most people act out of a vast unseen reservoir of mental and emotional memory, the residue from family, culture, race, class, and personal conditioning. A human being, on the other hand, is essentially free from conditioning, or at least doesn’t act out of it as a rule. And to be free from conditioning, one must be able to delete divisive and useless memories.

Seeing which memories to delete and which to keep is not an act of conscious choice, but of the intelligence of memoryawareness. Observing the movement of the mind and emotion, the spurious barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind dissolves, and the entire movement of thought and emotion reveals itself.

When a non-exclusive and intense attention ignites and sustains itself in the brain, the mind/brain effortlessly falls quiet, and lets go of unnecessary memories, at least for a bit. Tellingly, meditative states are always accompanied by feelings of peace and joy, even bliss.

Meditative states can be so powerful that the process renders familiar places and people temporarily unrecognizable. But there’s no risk to the brain, only to social embarrassment.

Paradoxically, the ‘amnesia’ produced by inclusive, undirected and intense attention in meditation sharpens the faculties of thought, including memory. That’s because with deep silence of the content and cessation of the mechanisms of thought, the brain is renewed. Rather than the synapses tunneling in the same old ruts, one is liberated, if only for short timeless periods, from deepening grooves of memory and habits of thought and emotion.

In letting go of psychological memory, the mind has the space and energy to see and create anew. Why is that the exception rather than the rule, even with people who regularly awaken meditative states?

Martin LeFevre

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