Monday, 23 December 2013

Death And Forgetting

The dead drink the water of Lethe which makes them forget.

In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comic book series, Hob Gadling, the immortal Englishman, advises anyone who asks him that the way to avoid death is simply not to die. Of course, we cannot physically do this and Hob would not have been able to do it either if Death and Dream, walking the waking world, had not overheard and intervened.

In the chronologically last episode of the entire series, Hob's new black girlfriend, Gwen, unwittingly parodies Hob's advice. When, apologizing for the slave trade, in which he had in fact participated, Hob adds, "...you can't just forget about it...", Gwen replies, "Sure you can, Robbie. You know how? You just forget about it." (The Wake, New York, 1997, p. 99)

Gwen's advice sounds easier to follow than Hob's/Robbie's. However, most of us cannot just switch off unwelcome memories by an act of will, especially not when the memories are associated with overwhelming guilt. In fact, is this mental act of just forgetting really any easier than that impossible physical act of just not dying?

In Zen meditation, we cannot prevent the memory of wrong actions from arising but we can:

make reparation, if possible;
but, otherwise, practice non-attachment to the memory;
i.e., neither suppress it nor think about it but accept that it arises and passes. 

Zen connects with certain of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:

Yoga is control of thoughts.
Then, man abides in his real nature.
Otherwise, he remains identified with thoughts.
They are controlled by practice and non-attachment.

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