I recently had an interesting experience while waking up in the morning that I think it would be valuable to share. Sometimes, when I first open my eyes after sleeping, I get the sense that I don’t remember who I am. In that instant, I feel like I have no memory of what I’ve accomplished in my life, what setbacks I’ve faced, which people I’ve loved, and so forth.
In the past, I’ve experienced this memory-free state as unsettling. Consciously or otherwise, I’ve believed that my memories are the source of my identity. If I don’t have memories, I thought, I’m really just a piece of flesh and bone with nothing to make me unique or special.
Thus, when I wake up, I usually start immediately searching my mind for memories to give me a sense of who I am. Even memories of embarrassing or painful past events, I’ve felt, are better than an empty mind. The prospect of having nothing on my mind at all, for me, usually evokes an anxiety much like the fear of death or nonexistence.
This time, however, I decided to try an experiment. I decided not to scour my mind for memories, and to simply lie there in a memoryless state for a while. I expected this to be a scary experience. I thought I’d get the frightening sensation that I was nobody, gone, or disintegrated.
In fact, however, I felt a sense of peace I hadn’t known in a long time. Not only could I tolerate temporarily existing without an identity built on memories—I actually felt more alive and aware without one. I also noticed how much clearer my perception of the world became—I spotted small details in objects, like the wrinkles in my sheets and the tiny cracks in the ceiling, that had escaped my attention before.
When I eventually got up and started going through my daily routine, my memories slowly started to return. Some of these memories were of obstacles facing me in my life, or of difficult events from my past. The funny thing was, however, that these memories didn’t seem to provoke the physical reactions I was accustomed to. Before, when a memory of a challenge facing me in the present, or a setback from the past, would arise in my mind, I’d feel an unwelcome tension and heat in my body. But after I’d experienced a memory-free state for a little while, my memories didn’t seem to affect me the way they used to.
After reflecting on my experience for a while, I arrived at the reason my memories no longer seemed so troublesome. By surrendering to the memoryless state I was in when I woke up, allowing myself to exist for a short while without remembering, I’d reminded myself that I am not my memories. At the moment of my birth, I was the person I am today—before I’d accumulated any memories—and I would continue to be that person even if my memories disappeared. In short, my memories aren’t part of me, and I don’t need them to exist. Because I no longer identified myself with what I remembered, painful events from the past no longer cut so deeply.
As one example, an intimate relationship I was in ended recently. In my usual state of consciousness, I would have treated the memory of the breakup as if it were part of my identity. In other words, I would have based the way I perceived and felt about myself on the memory, likely seeing myself as inadequate, unattractive or unlovable. As I write this, however, I still feel that sense of peaceful detachment from my memories, and I’m not judging myself harshly based on the failed relationship. I’m still fully aware of my memories, but they don’t define my self-image.
The way I see my memories in my present state is similar to how I perceive objects in the outside world. Take the flowers in my garden, for instance. I think the flowers are beautiful, and I appreciate their existence. However, I’m not identified with them—I don’t treat them as if they’re part of me.
When certain flowers wilt and die, as flowers inevitably do, I don’t think of their decay as if it were happening to me. If a flower wilts, I don’t react as if my own body is withering, and if one dies, I don’t suffer as if I’m doing the same. Similarly, the mere fact that I have an embarrassing or painful memory doesn’t cause me to see myself as a “bad person.”
I’m not the first, of course, to experience this sense of blissful separation from my memories. Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have been trying to help us achieve this state. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, one of the great sages of India, eloquently described the power of nonattachment to memory in his book I Am That:
Freedom from self-identification with a set of memories and habits, the state of wonder at the infinite reaches of the being, its inexhaustible creativity and total transcendence, the absolute fearlessness born from the realization of the illusoriness and transiency of every mode of consciousness—flow from a deep and inexhaustible source. To know the source as source and appearance as appearance, and oneself as the source only is self-realization.
I don’t claim to have reached enlightenment, as Maharaj and other spiritual gurus are believed to have done. But I do think I’ve had a taste of the peace he and others are pointing us toward, and I’m sharing this experience in the hope that others can feel the same sense of tranquility and liberation.
The next time you get up in the morning, I invite you to try the same exercise I did. In the moment after you awaken, you may notice a sense that you don’t know or can’t remember who you are. In the past, your normal urge in this situation may have been to rummage through your mind for memories to regain your sense of self. You may have held the belief that you’d be “nothing” without your memories, and seen the prospect of an empty mind as worrisome or threatening.
This time, instead of grasping for memories, simply allow that state of mental emptiness to persist. Give yourself permission to be conscious for a while without thinking or remembering. Once you’ve been in this state for a short while, your memories will probably begin to creep back into your awareness. However, you’ll likely start to feel yourself developing a different relationship with them. As you become more aware of your separation from your memories—that they don’t define who you are—I suspect you’ll feel a sense of peace and freedom you may not have experienced before.