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How to Develop your Forgetory
by Stewart Blackburn

To forgive is wisdom, to forget is genius.
Joyce Cary

In this culture it is a virtue to remember as much as we can and forget as little as possible. We have systems to help us increase our memories, programs to follow, abundant theories to consider, and condolences and jokes when our memories are not what we think they should be. However, this point of view overlooks the very important role that forgetting plays, not only in everyday life, but also in how we craft lives of joy and pleasure.

We remember things according to their emotional apparel. Naked thoughts are hard to remember; but thoughts with brightly colored accessories come back to us quickly. If we try to remember the particulars of a party, for instance, we rarely remember the details in chronological order. We think of the things that had the most emotional impact on us first. Then we remember other details in descending order of flashiness or charge.

Events and experiences that were unpleasant in some fashion are remembered the same way. The ones that have the most visceral content are remembered most easily.

But not all memories are useful to us. For example, if I remember how you treated me some years ago, I may continue to feel resentment towards you. That resentment will probably (1) not feel good in the present moment, (2) prevent me from having any kind of loving connection with you, (3) influence by relations with others, and (4) affect my ability to enjoy what I'm doing now. Hanging on to that memory poisons my pleasure.

Another example might be about mistakes I feel I've made in my life. If I spend time remembering the things that I have done that didn't work out so well, I may well start sliding down into depression. That kind of feeling is certainly not useful to me. And if I let myself focus on the memories of my personal disappointments, I can get very sad, indeed.

Yet another example might be the memory of the lover who, after pledging undying love, left with my best friend. The feelings associated with that kind of memory are so toxic that there ought to be mandatory warnings signs.

There is no need or utility to remembering most resentments, disappointments, betrayals, mistakes, losses, missed opportunities, or broken dreams. If we are serious about choosing to be happy, then we need to be aware of the choices we make in each moment. And, optimally, we make choices that increase our level of pleasure at that time. The memories of the unpleasant things do just the opposite; they only increase the level of misery in our lives.

Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence.
Sholem Asch

You may be questioning the wisdom of intentionally forgetting "important" events in our life, even if they were unpleasant. Perhaps there are some things that we might want to remember in order to tell a story of our triumph over adversity. Or maybe there is some valuable lesson that needs to be reinforced. But for the most part, these memories only keep us out of our joy.

So how do we let go of these memories?

To answer this question, let's first look at the nature of importance. Things are important to us because we have strong feelings about them or because of them. My parents are important to me because my feelings of love for them are very powerful. My career is important to me because I feel passionate about the work I do. My garden is important to me because of the enormous joy I get just walking through it.

Memories are important to us because of the feelings involved with them. Strong feelings equate with increased importance. If my feelings of jealousy regarding my departed lover are powerful, that situation obviously is important to me. But importance works like a radio. Not only do we need to tune into the situation, but we also have a volume control. We can turn down the level of importance.

The easiest way to turn down importance is to change the focus. That might be sliding the dial a little off the situation, as in thinking of other things. Or we can change the perspective, much like simply moving away from our radio. In the case of the runaway lover, I might pull back from my intense focus on the hurt she has "caused" me, and recognize that it's silly to think that there is only one person who can love me the way I want to be loved. There must be hundreds, if not more, wonderful candidates for that job. The importance of that abandonment is diminished each time I pull back a little further and see things from a wider perspective. There are lots more important things for me to be putting my attention on. If I don't start feeling better fairly quickly then I can see that the issue isn't about her at all, it's about my own level of self-esteem. That's a very different issue.

So, if we want to let go of a memory, then the way to most easily do that is to take away the emotional content of that issue: reduce or remove its importance. Once a memory is no longer important it fades behind those things that are important.

This kind of forgetting does not erase memory, it lays the emotion surrounding the memory to rest.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes

For centuries Hawaiians have had a marvelous conflict resolution system in their culture called Ho'oponopono. In it every member of the community gets a chance to say what their observation of a problem is, what their own part in the problem is, and what they think is needed to bring the issue to resolution. After it has been decided what will resolve the issue, anyone who cannot forgive another is banished by the community until such time as they can forgive. Anger and resentment cannot be allowed to linger if the community is to prosper and be happy. Another aspect of this is that each person was enjoined to never bring this issue up again. That is, everyone was expected to totally forget about it now.

Another important factor is that memories, by their very nature of "pastness," take our focus out of the present moment. We can only experience pleasure in the present moment; remembering pleasant memories is a present time experience. Having our focus on what is happening now feels good in and of itself. But memories of events and experiences with feelings that lower our energy not only take our consciousness out of the present, they block the good feelings of the present. In order to enjoy life to it's fullest, we need to live in the present moment as much as possible. Even good memories that keep us focused on the past inhibit this joy of the present moment.

Without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Forgetting, even forgetting the things we have enjoyed, is a critical part of crafting a magnificent life. When everything is fresh and new we see the beauty more clearly. When our minds are not clouded by judgments, good or bad, we discover the people and things that we surround ourselves with anew. Life is an even greater adventure to those who know how to forget and learn in new ways.

So the next time you forget someone's name at a party, introduce yourself as if for the first time. It is, in fact, a new moment and the pleasure of making a new friend can be delightful or even exquisite.

I forget what comes next. But that's the joy of the adventure!

Our sense of worth, of well-being, even our sanity depends upon our remembering. But, alas, our sense of worth, our well-being, our sanity also depend upon our forgetting.
Joyce Appleby
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