I believe that we would not have memory without painful or frightening events. They leave a trace, but the CAUSE of the trace is the organism experiencing the event, not the event itself. There is a decision of sorts to keep a recording of what happened.
Calling it a reasoning would be too kind, but there is some kind of computation or calculation going on. It takes the form of this insane syllogism:
- Something bad happened — a threat to survival.
- Information regarding survival and possible threats to it is valuable.
- Therefore what happened is valuable and must be held on to.
Hence: bad = good.
That level of "thinking" operates only in dichotomies: survival vs. death, good vs. bad, hold vs. let go. When it is used to strategize the future, its lack of sophistication quickly becomes apparent: bad = good.
This could be called cellular thinking, but when traumatic or life-threatening events occur, it can easily take over complex organisms such as human beings. L. Ron Hubbard, an often underrated author, describes it in detail in his theory of engrams and the reactive mind.
How does this relate to my life? This primordial irrational decision — holding on to the worst occurrences in my history as if they were my most precious treasures — is the foundation of ego. It is the grain of sand around which I build the pearl of my personality.
Borrowing from another vocabulary, it is also the Fall of Man. From it, I get the awareness of a moment that isn't Now. I get the possibility of something that isn't I. I get remembering the past, projecting into the future, fearing, hoping, strategizing, comparing, preferring this experience to that one, and all the infinitely seductive shades of fallenness.
The crazy core of it is: I MUST remember it BECAUSE it was terrifying or excruciating.
Collectively, this holding on to traumas aggregates into cultural traits: we are the people and they're not, this must never happen again (incest, murder, shitting where we drink, etc.), and so on.
Initiation of the young is a staged reenactment of those remembered threats to survival as a condition of membership in the community.
Propitiatory religion soon derives from those collective traits. Then we get cultures, traditions, mythologies. And none of it calls upon a more refined intelligence than that of a circuit breaker nor involves the ability to choose deliberately.
From noticing the absurdity of the "original sin" comes the possibility of expanding the notion of forgiveness beyond the context of interpersonal grudges. There could be a cellular forgiveness, so to speak. I could reverse the effects of recorded pain, both personal and genetically inherited. In a sense, it would be the first and original deliberate act, the only CHOICE worthy of that name, since all other human behaviors are tainted with reactiveness, whether I like it or not. It would be the act of un-making myself a machine.
Perhaps that is what the one they call Gautama the Buddha called waking up.
Perhaps that is what the one they call Jesus the Christ was attempting — undoing the conditioning, forgiving all of humankind for all of it, moment by moment by moment, until others begin doing the same and it spreads, and at one point historical time ceases to exist and there we are, back in Eden.
Collectively, we have reached a point in history where this level of understanding is no longer a luxury. The layers of pain and negative emotions that we unconsciously act out are now so thick as to threaten the continuation of the experiment. Waking up is not just for the spiritual elite any more. Communities like Reality Sandwich play an important role in this crisis/opportunity. They open up spaces in which possibility is given priority over what has happened in the past, "the way things always go" and what "everybody knows."
I find the idea of radical forgiveness useful as a mantra to carry along my day. It can be focused on situations that are more subtle than what we usually call grudges: impatience, resignation about "the way it is," assuming that the person on the other side of the counter is not interested in touching my soul, etc.
Here is the ending of a hymn from the Santo Daime religion:
Na batalha quem mas corta
È a espada do perdão.
In the [spiritual] battle, the sharpest weapon is the sword of forgiveness.
Image by visionshare, courtesy of Creative Commons license.