Where is our memory stored? The materialist’s answer is in the hippocampus of the brain for long-term memories and the neocortex of the brain for what I had for dinner yesterday. A more subtle answer that takes the spiritual dimension for real (not just as an accident of the brain) would say that all memory is stored in the deeper level of consciousness. As our Buddhist dialogue partner in the recent inter-contemplative dialogues, Alan Wallace, said we don’t think that the memory of a computer is stored in the keyboard. Why should we think the brain makes us conscious?
An old aunt of mine suffered Alzheimers for ten years and could not communicate at all. Her daughters decided they would tell her that her husband, their father, had died although they knew she would be unaware and unresponsive. She continued to jabber meaninglessly as they told her, but then, tears rolled down her cheeks. That may not prove anything scientific about memory; but it suggests something about consciousness surviving the atrophy of the brain just as it has been shown to survive the clinical death of patients under medical care.
To see someone whom we have lived with and loved for a lifetime lose their memory and drift away from us is dying while alive. We pass through deaths at many levels of intensity in a lifetime, but this must be one of the worst. And yet, in this too, there is a substratum of consciousness that connects us, even when all the signals we exchange to show that we recognise and care for one another have flickered out.
The persistence of deep memory – and love is a kind of memory continuously remembered and renewed – does not negate death. In a way it makes death all the more final and terrible. Yet it transcends death and shows life as the great constant. Life is inextinguishable. Consciousness itself is life and memory shows love to be stronger than death.
Personal relationships teach us this. So do great spiritual traditions which are a transmission in a stream of consciousness of a living memory that connects us to our source while it carries us forward on our individual journey. For all of us today our individual journeys in life are connected by the threat and fear of the coronavirus. For some of us it has already meant the death of loved ones. For all it triggers the awareness of our mortality and the uncertainties of change we cannot control.
In such dark times, however, a collective memory, suppressed by hyper-distraction, becomes conscious again: the memory of life experienced as a spiritual journey beginning and ending in mystery, full of inexplicable pain and joy but full of wonder. It is wonder in the end that frees us from fear. We are first exposed to our real predicament: of not having a spiritual path in times like this, lacking a source of meaning, not seeing the spark of life hidden in the darkness of our deaths. All these are symptoms of another virus rampant in our materialism and delusion. To remember this is to beat the fear of death and dying.