Reflections on our reflections

Facebook has a ‘feature’ where you can see previous year’s ‘posts’, if any, on the current date, i.e. today I saw August 28 posts made in past years . I thought I would use this feature, if at it, to delete old posts.

However, as I go through the process of ‘cleaning’ out my material life – books, clothes, household items, papers, etc., and reflect on the reasons I have kept things, I also notice, thanks to Facebook, how attached I can be to the memory of previous events, concerns and interests in my life. This is human nature, we like to remember our ‘stories’, even ones not particularly pleasant. Depending on your perspective, this propensity for re-hashing through remembering and, even more so, through story telling of past events, may be unhealthy or healthy. It depends on what you do with these story memories.

the beginnng of book sorting. About 200 books went elsewhere.

the beginning of book sorting. About 200 books went elsewhere.

A member of the ‘be here now’, ‘live in the moment’ generation, the same generation now concerned because we are ‘losing’ our memories, I ponder this topic frequently. It seems pervasive in conversations. Though some people seem to only ‘live in the past’, having little interest in their present life experiences, most of us hold on to past events more subtly, aware of them when triggered by something in the present…..or a book, an article of clothing, a photography, a household item.  Sadly, some of us will lose stories of our past to various forms of memory-stealing dementia. I witnessed this with my Mom.

In his book The Divided Mind, the Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, Dr. John Sarno claims ‘negative’ emotions of past experiences are stored in a sort of ‘reservoir’ in the unconscious mind. The unconscious, not wanting us to consciously experience these emotions, will manifest physical conditions and disease to distract us from these painful feelings. He observed, in his years working with patient’s at the Rusk Institute at New York University Medical School, that people do not have to experience these stored feelings, but by recognizing them, even just knowing they are there, we can reverse or avoid the physical conditions caused by the unconscious mind in trying to protect us from them. (This is a grossly abbreviated explanation of Sarno’s work. If interested I recommend the book.)

'stuff' ready to go.

‘stuff’ ready to go.

The process of ‘cleaning out’ has been insightful. I frequently go through ‘stuff’ and rid myself of books, clothes, etc. but this go around I decided to try a method that might be more productive. I listened to the audio version of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Japanese Art of De-clutteirng and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. While the book is hands-on practical, and Kondo’s life-long passion for tidiness borders on humorous obsession, it contains, amidst practical methods and advice, profundities about letting go and the reasons we hold on to ‘stuff’. One message throughout the book is: it is not necessary to hold on to things because the value was in the experience at the time.  Examples she gives are:  we are never going to re-read most books, or training materials, etc. from workshops and conferences. Even if we cannot recall specific information, the parts of a book or a workshop, etc. that meant something to us became a part of who we are. Its value was in the experience at the time.


An empty drawer after a clothing ‘purge’. Kondo recommends you purge by category, not by room, putting everything in one category in a pile then sort, looking at each item. Does it spark joy?

It is worth repeating that theme because it can be helpful in letting go not only of ‘stuff’, but memories/stories we like to tell over and over, whether that letting go is voluntary, or we begin to lose our stories through aging brain changes.

The value is in the experience. We may gain knowledge, experience joy, learn a life lesson through our experiences.  Our experiences become a part of who we are whether we remember them or not.  It is not important we remember the details, nor is it important we ‘hold on’ to an item because of what it represents. For example, Kondo points out the value of a gift was in the experience of giving and receiving it, not in holding on to something we may not like or use.

So why do we hold on to memories and stories and worry so much about forgetting, and fill our homes (and computers) with things we don’t need to help us remember? Do you need 500 photos to remember the experience of a trip? Would a few be adequate? Do you need to keep every wedding gift, even if half are stored in the attic, in order to remember your wedding day? Does a book you read 30 years ago, or even last year, have to be kept for you to have benefitted from the experience of reading it? Can you let go of the Spanish language tapes you never listened to and appreciate that they taught you that you really didn’t have the time or passion for learning a language?

Kondo says as we let go of ‘stuff’, to thank each item for fulfilling its purpose in our life. She also says as you sort and eliminate items, ask yourself before deciding to keep something, “does this spark joy in me?”  (she acknowledges certain things, like important documents, etc. aren’t going to spark joy, but must be kept!)

Maybe we also need to thank our stories, our memories, for the lessons they taught us and be ok with letting them go.

Sarno says he does not know why the ‘mere’ knowledge that our repressed emotions can cause pain and disease can reverse people’s pain and illnesses.  He encourages more research into what he has observed in thousands of patients.  Maybe by acknowledging it is so, we let go of the power the emotions have, without having to express or re-experience them.

As I witnessed mom’s memories fading, I was acutely aware she remembered the ‘good times’ with more acuity, and held on to them longer, than the painful ones.  Perhaps because they ‘sparked joy’ in her! Maybe our brains not only try to ‘protect us’ from negative feelings, as Sarno suggests, by causing physical ailments (an unconscious decision most of us would consciously trade for the memory), but as Kondo recommends we do when ‘tidying up’ our material lives, the brain eliminates from the conscious mind that which does not bring joy!

Something to ponder as you try to remember what you needed to do this weekend, and what you really want to do!  If you are going shopping, before buying something ask: Does it spark joy?

(Abby has been very bored with my purging activities, they do not spark joy in her!)