Memory and Digestion
By Robert Sardello, Ph.D. and Cheryl Sanders-Sardello, Ph.D.
Issue: Spring 2004, Digestion – Issue #35
Digestion refers to a process of taking in something from the world, where it undergoes complete transformation, and in this transformed activity, life is maintained. A similar process takes place with whatever we take in from the world. Digestion is not limited to food. We perceptually and cognitively take in events and they become experiences, and when they go deep enough they become soul experiences that nourish the life of imagination. A reflection on the life of memory shows the range of this process of psychic digestion very clearly, and where it can go wrong.
Obsessions, for example, are undigested memories. They keep coming back up in exactly the form in which the experience occurred. When we undergo events that are too strong, that overwhelm us, these experiences return as emotional, autonomous, automatic, fixed forms endlessly replayed, and we are haunted by what has happened. It is not so much undergoing trauma per se that makes for psychological difficulties, but the fact that such experiences often cannot be digested. In such instances it then becomes necessary to re-frame the experience in many different ways, usually with the help of a therapist, in order for the experience to dissolve. What happens in the therapeutic process is that the event gradually transforms into image. The event is told and re-told, in many different ways and forms. Gradually the event becomes story. The story deepens and opens to wider dimensions. Memory and imagination intertwine. The event, now imaged, has an inner light. The event is digested.
In the present world we are assailed with experiences that cannot be digested. There is too much and it is too fast and there is no context. If what we experience is far too abstract, it cannot be digested, for it is like taking in something that is dead and it just sits there. Mechanical explanations of essentially human activities, for example, are such abstractions. Or, when children are made to learn mechanically, without story or image, or rhythm, then that material taken in cannot be transformed into soul nourishment. Mechanical memory, memorizing that is all headwork, also cannot be turned into soul nourishment. Later in life, these undigested experiences will turn into bodily ailments. It is like having something foreign in the body, sitting there for years, rotting, putrefying. And, since this may take thirty or more years we do not connect our illness with undigested experiences.
And if undigested experiences do not turn into illnesses, later in life we are assailed by waves of memory from the past, waves of strange and peculiar images that are frightening and seem to have no known source. We see something in the world, maybe a child crying, and all of a sudden we feel immense waves of uncontrollable sorrow, but it is not sorrow for the child but sorrow for ourselves that won’t go away and leave us alone. This is associative memory, and we often see the elderly swept into this kind of difficult experience.
True memory is a very fluid and rhythmical process and is of a spiritual nature. Through active re-membering, we, from time to time, dip down into this flowing stream of memory and make part of that stream into a remembered event. It has all the liveliness of the original experience because it is the eternal essence of that experience, now experienced as a soul event. This kind of memory is so vivid because our spiritual being is at the center of the process. With this kind of remembering, we also feel the mysterious and unknown whole that is our life. The memory is not abstracted from the fullness of life. Active remembering is something more than a mental process. With logical memory we can fish up undigested pieces of the past and know them as facts. This kind of memory, while somewhat necessary, does not nourish the soul either. This kind of remembering yields half-digested memories, things remembered that might be functionally useful but do not connect with the living stream of our lives.
Memory, like healthy eating, relies on our giving complete and full attention to what we are doing. When we incompletely encounter someone or go through something with only half our attention, then the event remains with us as something like an independent inclusion within us. Habits are these kinds of memories resulting from absence of full attention mental, spiritual, soul, and body attention.
The digestion of experiences into the living stream of memory requires, above all, the presence of the heart in the act of attention. The memory of the heart constitutes true soul memory. If you wish to develop this capacity of memory, it is only a matter of quite consciously shifting your attention, placing your attention in the interior of the heart and practicing experiencing others and the world from that place. The head, thinking, is still involved, but secondarily. Experiencing through the heart is not emotional experience, reacting to others and the world, but a creative feeling-presence, full and active. Then, whatever we experience has depth, rhythm, motion, and, most of all, love. What one loves, one does not forget because the event is taken in and fully transformed into the eternal stream of love, to be retrieved at any time, full of life and feeling.
Robert Sardello, Ph.D. and Cheryl Sanders-Sardello, Ph.D. are co-directors of the School of Spiritual Psychology based in North Carolina. The School operates two websites: The School’s website is: www.spiritualschool.org. The online magazine, Sophia: Journal of the School of Spiritual Psychology is: www.sophiajournal.org.