We rely on the past for a sense of security in a changing world. We become very attached to what we remember because it gives a sense of continuity to our lives. It’s as though, if we can remember something, it still somehow exists. Although we can’t actually go back in time, there is comfort in recalling the memory of it. Memories easily become a refuge from the uncertainty of impermanence.
But such a refuge is based on neither truth nor stability. We have to accept that nothing is permanent, that everything is constantly changing from one moment to the next, and therefore, we should not be deceived into thinking that our memories contain anything in which we can put our trust.
Instead of getting caught up in the content of our memories, we should examine the nature of the faculty of memory itself to understand how the process works. Memory is made up of an alphabet soup of images, concepts and symbols that compare incoming sense data with past experience in an attempt to “recognize” where it belongs in the inner world of known perceptions.
In other words, memory matches present perceptions to past experiences and labels them accordingly. We recognize a tree because we have the characteristics of a generic tree stored in our memory. This, in turn, is based on a commonly shared interpretation of what that particular form represents. But the designation “tree” is merely a symbolic substitute for reality, not the reality itself. We suppose that by naming it, we understand what it is.
But the reality is quite different from the name.
This reflection by Ajaan Paññāvaḍḍho is from the book, Uncommon Wisdom, (pdf) pp.204-205.