The symbols we accumulate to structure the world around us are bound up with the faculty of memory. Memory is a database of all our previous experiences that runs like a continuous thread through the pattern of our mental activity. The data from memory comes in through the five senses; it’s the senses that tell us what to remember.
An enormous amount of our thinking is based on memory. When we see or hear something, we identify it by comparing it to remembered impressions. Our present experience may be associated with external sensations, but those sensations have to be identified and interpreted in the light of past sensations. Once we recognize a particular sensation, we think about it, which again relies on the faculty of memory. For that reason, memory is an essential part of all of our perceptions.
We can observe how some symbols in our minds tend to fade over time. They may be little used or outdated. But as soon as they start to disappear, up comes our self-identity, saying: I mustn’t let that one go. So we begin to think about it, in the process strengthening and reestablishing it in the mind. We refresh our memories by thinking. Quite a lot of our discursive thought is directed towards that aim.
We build up our view of the world from the internal sensations we experience. The impressions we receive are stored in memory. We’ve accumulated an enormous amount of data dating back to when we were children. As we grew up, we became very concerned about learning everything we could about our environment, mainly for the sake of our own security in the shifting landscape of life.
When we know something and can put a name to it, we find reassurance in that knowledge. If any changes occur in our world, we immediately recognize them and make note of them, because changes may signal imminent danger. We instinctively want to be on top of every deviation from the norm that takes place. In the process, we are constantly updating our memories with fresh information.
As new changes occur, old information immediately becomes part of the past. Memory references the past. Because of that, memory itself is the basis of our concept of time. The time that we know is the past. We don’t know the future; we predict that. We only predict the future on the basis of what’s happened in the past. And we can access the remembered past only by reflecting on it in the present. So we can say that memory is at the center of our views on time.
This reflection by Ajaan Paññāvaḍḍho is from the book, Uncommon Wisdom, (pdf) pp. 203-204.