Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.11

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Memory is the unmodified recollection of words and experiences [Iyengar]

Recollection or memory is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources.

Memory is the retained impression of experienced objects.

When I first read this, I thought I’m not sure I agree that memory is “unmodified”, after all aren’t all of our thoughts modified by our past experience, our upbringing, our world view? Aren’t all of our memories similarly filtered through our previous experiences? I’m not sure I believe that there is such a thing as a ‘pure’ memory for something like seeing a dog in the street, one which has not been affected by our past experiences with dogs; I’m not sure we have the capacity to remember without our unconscious mind making associations and connections, that we may not even be aware of.

It is interesting here that BKS Iyengar uses the word “unmodified” and the second interpretation uses “mental modification…without adding any other characteristics from other sources”.  I think that memory can only be modifed by our unconscious mind and previous experiences, whether we mean to add those or not, that’s just the way the human mind works and processes our experiences. If I was once bitten by a dog as a small child, and I now see a dog in the street, my mind might create the dog I now have before me as a scary entity, something to be feared. But if you see the same dog without having had the negative prior experience, you might just think ‘what a cute dog over there’.

I suppose our memory for facts and knowledge could be said to be ‘pure’ memory, in the sense that I can remember that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. There are no additions here, my unconscious mind has not added anything from my previous experience, I have simply remembered a  true fact. Perhaps it is this type of memory which Patanjali is referring to here.This type of memory (E.g. for facts) is not so disturbing to our consciousness, when compared with the other memories which produce unconscious associations from our past experience. These ‘memories’ can often be fantasy, in the sense that we have mentally reconstructed the memory. Using the dog example, my mind has recreated the image of the dog using my past negative experience, so that when I think back to seeing a dog in the street in the future, I may remember it inducing fear. This is one of the fluctuations in consciousness that Patanjali talked about in 1.6, and something we need to be aware of.

Modern psychoanalysis (and other psychotherapeutic models) aim to do just that, to make us more aware of the associations our mind produces, so that we may see the present as it really is. And there is something quite Zen about that. Therapy is not the only way to achieve this, but sometimes there are so many layers of previous experience in our unconscious mind, we may not be able to chip through them. Meditation and psychotherapy can work hand in hand to help with this awareness.

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3 responses »

  1. We could color the memory for facts, if, for instance, we hated memorizing facts. And so the fact that the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 could be colored by the drudgery of having to remember the fact, way back when. Perhaps we even get to preconsciously considering the battle to have been boring itself because the context in which we learned of the battle was boring to us.

    Just a thought.

    Perhaps Patanjali meant specifically that we would have to strip away all the emotional colorings and outside characteristics to arrive at the “core memory” which is itself somehow still directly related to the original object as it related to our senses originally. If the memory is Pramana, then there was some (accurate) connection to an object and that connection is maintained through the memory.

    Check out: http://jeromeyers.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/yoga-sutras-1-7/

    I just wrote that up. I’m slowly going through the Sutras with my own commentary on I.K.Taimni’s commentary (The Science of Yoga) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

    • Thanks for your reply. It’s true that our memory for facts could be coloured by the circumstances under which we learn . I’m not sure that those circumstances would interfere with recall of the fact itself though, perhaps with our ability to recall it at all but not the fact itself. This is a tricky one to unpick.

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