In his essay “Reading Oneself,” the writer and teacher Sven Birkerts describes the experience of encountering a long-forgotten page of his own prose. As Birkerts tells the story, he agreed to read the book manuscript of a student whom he had taught many years before. When his former student arrived at their meeting, she brought both her manuscript and Birkerts’ written evaluation of her work, which she had saved from her days in his course. Typed on the Selectric II he was using at the time, Birkerts’ prose seemed foreign to its author:
And suddenly there’s this feeling, I’ve had it before—more and more in recent years. I am reading something I’ve written and I not only don’t recognize the sentences—they’ve gone from me—I also don’t quite map to the mind that produced them. It’s very much like catching your shopwindow reflection for a split second before you realize it’s you. Almost always, the shock is negative. I look like that? With these sentences it’s the opposite. My eyes catch sight of what my hand did. Reading, I actually admire the images, the figures of speech, the confidence of the rhythm. Not the rhythm I would write in now. But I feel it as distinct.
For Birkerts this encounter with his younger self was comparable to contemplating an old photograph. “The looking,” he observes, “is mainly about taking in the differences.”*
Birkerts’ anecdote vividly illustrates what many people feel in later life: the long trajectory of one’s experience, the felt discontinuity between one’s earlier self and its present manifestation. But Birkerts’ story also illustrates a mental faculty that Henri Bergson, in his Matter and Memory (1896), defined as “contemplative memory.”** Contrasting this faculty with “motoric” memory, which a musician employs when playing a piece by heart, Bergson identified three distinguishing components of contemplative memory.
First, the process is spontaneous: memories arise unsummoned, often in the form of images. They are not the result of an act of will. Second, the remembered experience is clearly seen as having occurred at a time and a place in the past. It has a date, and it is unrepeatable. And last, what is most prominent in the remembered experience is the difference between then and now. Conditions were different then, and so were we, and in remembering the experience, we are not reliving it. Rather, we are viewing the past from the vantage point of the present. When we do so, and when the previous two elements are also present, we are exercising “contemplative” memory, which Bergson regarded as the purest form of memory.
As even a few minutes’ reflection will verify, few of our memories are so pure. In Sven Birkerts’ case, the presence of a tangible document—a datable, typewritten page—kept him, as it were, on the contemplative track. He had little choice but to view the object of memory as a thing of the past. But in everyday life, the process of remembering is likely to be far more capricious, selective, and faulty. If the remembered experience is emotionally charged, we are more likely to be engulfed by it than to contemplate it in a spirit of disinterested inquiry. If it is a painful memory, we may find ourselves engaging in what psychologists call “therapeutic forgetting.” And if the memory has a moral dimension, we may enlist it in the service of self-vindication, or self-glorification, or self-abasement. We may make it means to an end, serving the ego’s insatiable needs.
In Zen, as in other meditative practices, we train ourselves to do otherwise. By sitting still and following our breath, we also follow the flux of our experience. Almost certainly that experience will include passing thoughts, many of them memories or fragments thereof. Some of those memories may be fond. Others may be wrenching. But whatever they happen to be, we train ourselves to acknowledge them without dwelling on them, or analyzing them, or allowing ourselves to be swept away. In the language of the classic texts, we open ourselves to the “ten thousands joys” and the “ten thousand sorrows.” But even as we contemplate the past, we remain grounded in the present—in our upright, stable posture, our full awareness of breathing. In this way we cultivate an intimate but balanced relationship with what we remember. And over time, this way of relating to the past becomes a way of being, which we carry from the cushion into our everyday lives.
So it was with the poet and Zen practitioner Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who visited Kyoto, the former capital and cultural center of Japan, in 1690. Mindful of the city’s illustrious past, he wrote one of his most celebrated haiku:
Even in Kyoto
how I long for old Kyoto
when the cuckoo sings***
In this poignant haiku, Basho records a moment of awakening, prompted by the cuckoo’s two-note call. Acutely aware of what is present, Basho is also aware of his longing for what is not. What is present is the Kyoto of 1690; what is absent is the storied, glorious city of earlier centuries. Bringing contemplative awareness to bear upon his present state of mind, Basho acknowledges the arising of a universal human feeling. Bringing contemplative memory to bear upon an image from the past, he evokes the transitory nature of all conditioned things.
*Sven Birkerts, The Other Walk: Essays (Graywolf, 2011), 114-115.
**Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (Zone Books, 1988), Kindle edition, 201.
*** Matsuo Basho, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, edited and translated by Sam Hamill (Shambhala, 1998), 155. Kyo nite mo / Kyo natsukashi ya / hototogisu.