The souls that throng the flood
Are those to whom, by fate, are other bodies ow’d:
In Lethe’s lake they long oblivion taste,
Of future life secure, forgetful of the past.
–Virgil, The Aeneid (Book VI)
All spirituality is forgetfulness. From Buddhism and Hinduism in the East to Stoicism, Christianity, and Judaism in the West, all great spiritual traditions are united in their aim of obliterating memory. The hidden nature of their objective can even be thought of as evidence (though not proof) of this goal. Why would one wish to remember the aim, after all, if the aim was to forget? But I am getting ahead of myself.
Given the amount of literature devoted to the improvement of memory, it is worth dwelling on why we might want to forget in the first place.
Our sense of identity is based upon there being a coherence and a correspondence between the stories we hold about ourselves and the external evidence of the truth of this story. In other words, the narrative and reality must be mutually supportive, predictive, and not contradictory. Without a story of who we are and what we are for, we lose any reason to act in the world.
The problem with this is that in anyone’s life, we all make mistakes. We all, at some point, experience events which contradict the story of who we are. For instance, we may believe that we are attractive, but remember an incident in which we were rejected by someone we asked out on a date. This event contradicts our view of ourselves. If this one event is drowned out by dozens of other incidents of being invited on dates, then it may very well overcome the single instance that defies the story.
However, when looked at holistically, every life will be still be incoherent. We will be incoherent. Directionless, lacking the necessary motivation to act. Perhaps even to be.
And what about the pain of certain kinds of memories? The suffering of a failed romance, or the loss of a loved one, or of being betrayed, humiliated, defeated, or even bored; all of these can leave us enervated and defeated.
Ultimately, “spirituality” has to do with spiritedness, with thumos, with the will to hold on when you have nothing left. Where does this quality come from? Part of it is likely genetic, but the fact that systems of spirituality (religions) are human universals indicates that at least some degree of spirituality is within our control… or rather, is not predetermined by genetics.
All spiritual systems have this in common: they re-orient the worldview of the practitioner to something greater than themselves, something transcendent. The greater the vision, the more effective the spiritual system — so long as it remains comprehensible enough to be compelling.
What is the effect of this reorientation?
Memory is the product of attention and intention. It is a tool for goal-setting, and painful memories are reminders of thwarted goals, leading not merely to a distrust in the thwarted goal, but over time, to goals as such. When our worldview is reoriented around something greater, something over which we have no control, and before which, our own personal goals are of no significance, we are able to forget.
Hinduism holds that death is not the end, that we reincarnate. Perhaps endlessly.
Paganism speaks of the afterlife, and the value of life in honor and action, rather than slights or vindicated expectations.
Judaism revolves around an all-powerful God, and further distracts its practitioners with long and complicated oral traditions that draw the mind away from personal dissatisfaction.
Buddhism takes a more direct version of the Jewish approach, actively — almost scientifically — hunting down and destroying the sorts of attachment that might make memories painful… or worth remembering.
Islam adds a physical component, making the actions (daily prayer, fasting, haj pilgrimage) of its adherents revolve around God, rather than their own goals.
And of course, Christianity contains elements of all of these, with a special emphasis on the importance of being “born again,” of finding a new identity in Christ, and in the words of Thomas Aquinas, of “finding the place where you are, here and now, being created in the image of God.”
In paradoxical agreement with these religious traditions is, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche:
Forgetfulness is not just a vis inertiae, as superficial people believe, but is rather an active ability to suppress, positive in the strongest sense of the word, to which we owe the fact that what we simply live through, experience, take in, no more enters our consciousness during digestion (one could call it spiritual ingestion) than does the thousand-fold process which takes place with our physical consumption of food, our so-called ingestion. To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while; not to be bothered by the noise and battle which our underworld of serviceable organs work with and against each other;a little peace, a little tabula rasa of consciousness to make room for something new, above all for the nobler functions and functionaries, for ruling, predicting, predetermining (our organism runs along oligarchic lines, you see) – that, as I said, is the benefit of active forgetfulness, like a doorkeeper or guardian of mental order, rest and etiquette: from which can immediately see how there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
The creation and maintenance of a noble spirit — of a spirited spirit — requires, above all else, forgetfulness. To this spiritual end, memory of one’s God, nation, and family are not the purpose, but a means for inducing forgetfulness of lesser problems that otherwise break us, making us bitter, resentful, despairing, and hopeless — all problems from an excessive and pathological memory.