The Problem of State-Dependent Memory in Spiritual Practice


I am concerned about what I am unable to recall. You see, our state of consciousness varies according to the effect of moods, wakefulness, and substances. It is easier to remember something while drinking coffee that you learned while drinking coffee. This is a simple example of state-dependent memory.
The implications of this phenomenon are significant. Have you had this experience? I am dreaming along in a certain narrative. I wake up because my body moves or my dog disturbs me. Then I immediately return to sleeping and recover the thread of the dream's narrative. Finally, I awake and get out of bed. Soon, the memory of the dream fades into the air like the smoke of incense - the form is gone but the mood, like a scent, lingers throughout the day. 

While awake, you seem to remember most of the experiences you've had while awake. So in dreaming, can you remember all of the dream experiences you've ever had? Why are you unable to recall all experiences from all states? If you are the sum of your experiences, then who are you if you are unable to remember all of them? It is this final question that concerns me.

G.I. Gurdjieff expressed his doubt that the average person possessed a central individuality which encompassed all states. Instead, he proclaimed, that the mind flickers between several states of consciousness, each with their own motivation and memory. This is a problem because in one state you might begin a new diet and, moments later, you are indulging sugar cravings while in a different state. It is the ability to remember yourself between states that is lauded as the first significant achievement of his system.

The methods of psychotherapist Peter A. Levine included shifting the state of consciousness of their clients. One such method is hypnosis, in which the patient submits to a return of memory of trauma. The physiology and emotions return along with the memory. The heart rate increases, sweat is produced, and the emotions flood back with great intensity. In this state, the therapist guides the patient to come to a new relationship with the traumatic memory so that healing may be effected.

Please realize that every memory and its emotional charge continues to affect you subconsciously. It lives on in a parallel state that you are not currently occupying. It is difficult to deal with this emotion while outside of its domain. You cannot resolve the smell of your dirty dishes from your bedroom. You must enter the kitchen. This is the reason for introspection, also known as meditation and self-observation. It is by reflecting on my states and navigating them that I unify fragmentary states of consciousness. It is through self-observation that I craft self-remembering. This process is of central importance in a spiritual practice. If you strive to occupy positive states only, then your aversion to the negative states of anger, fear, and lust will not cease their manifestation. Even worse, they will express themselves all the same while you remain blind to them. The examples in the real world are easily found. The murderous cop. The hateful politician. The licentious guru.

It takes a strong will to look into the deep shadow and even into the bright light. State-dependent memory also applies to transcendent states. People experience this in meditation as well as psychoactive drugs. They acquire some insight, perceive some essential truth, but then lose the memory of it when they fall out of that state of consciousness. In a common example, I see students falling asleep during meditation practice. Beginner students are usually able to occupy only two general states - wakefulness and sleep. However, there are many variations of those two states, such as being hyper-aware of the senses and being awake while the body is asleep.

My central concern, again, is if I am the sum of your experiences, then who am I if I am unable to remember all of them? I must be a fragment of the totality of myself. My hope is that there is a multidimensional, integrated intelligence which has available all my states and their state-dependent memories. I believe this is what sages mean by “one’s true nature.” My spiritual practice is to seek to experience this intelligence... and remember it.