THE BLOG
06/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Power of Conscious Forgetting

In a previous post, Obsessions: When The Mind Has A Mind Of Its Own, we addressed the phenomenon of the mind and how it can work to our detriment. We looked at how the mind can lock on to a thought, memory or an idea and obsess over it, endlessly recycling the same material over and over until we manage to drive ourselves and others crazy.

Recently, I came across the following quote from the best selling book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, written by Jungian analyst, Dr. Clarissa Pinkoles Estes. Dr. Estes is talking about the phenomenon she calls, "Conscious Forgetting":

"To forget means to aver from memory, to refuse to dwell-in other words, to let go, to loosen one's hold, particularly on memory.

To forget does not mean to make yourself brain-dead. Conscious forgetting means letting go of the event, to not insist it stay in the foreground, but rather allow it to be relegated to the background or move off stage. We practice conscious forgetting by refusing to summon up the fiery material, we refuse to recollect. To forget is an active, not a passive, endeavor. It means to not haul up certain materials, or turn them over and over, to not work oneself up by repetitive thought, picture, or emotion. Conscious forgetting means willfully dropping the practice of obsessing, intentionally outdistancing and losing sight of it, not looking back, thereby living in a new landscape, creating new life and new experiences to think about instead of the old ones. This kind of forgetting does not erase memory, it lays the emotion surrounding the memory to rest."

Dr. Estes' "conscious forgetting" suggests that we not repress painful memories, but rather allow the emotion surrounding them to dissipate by "refusing to recollect the fiery material," the emotional impact, which is self-inflicted and divorced from the painful event itself.

The event does not "cause" the emotion. We bring the emotional response, or more accurately in most cases, reaction, to the event. This is an important distinction to remember, but admittedly, a difficult one to access in the heat of the experience.

By our very nature as humans, we are prone to give meaning to what happens in our lives. When we recall an event, we don't just recall the bare facts about it, we also recall the raw emotional impact that occurred for us at the time. We might not even remember the factual nature of what happened, who did what to whom, when, where, what time of day or night, etc. But we surely remember how we felt, and what we made of it. Our memories coalesce around the conclusions we make and the resulting decisions we forge out of what happens.

In other words, we live not out of what actually happens in our lives, the facts, but out of the stories, or interpretations, we tell ourselves about the facts. There is an enormous difference between the two and one is well served by being able to distinguish one from the other.

For example, Terry, a very accomplished and successful woman, though having left an abusive marriage years ago, still operates as if the next episode of abuse is just around the corner, waiting for her to display a character imperfection. Today, she has no freedom to be authentically who she is, out of a conditioned fear that others might judge her as lacking or missing the mark. Never mind that her record of accomplishments is a mile long, she is convinced that who she is, is flawed. Her emotional conditioning around the abuse is still so present in her memory, although the abuse ended years ago, in keeping that memory alive and activated, she has become the source of her own continued self-abuse.

Even though she is now in a loving relationship with a man who adores her, she is unable to fully open and trust that his love could be authentic. She is still waiting for the other shoe to drop, keeping others at bay, trapped behind a wall of her own making so as to protect that which she feels is vulnerable; namely, her own heart.

Meanwhile, the heart of this beautiful, gifted, talented, creative woman is aching to come out. She wants to connect and be close, but doesn't know how to get beyond her conditioned response to years of abuse.

Conscious Forgetting- switching channels

For Terry, shifting her focus from the emotional impact of the abuse, replaying the fear and sense of powerlessness, to recognizing and acknowledging the inner strength and courage she called upon to not only survive, but leave that abusive environment, empowers her to call upon those same qualities today, and end her pattern of self-abuse. Consciously forgetting means to "change channels", from abuse to empowerment.

With ADHD and a lifelong learning/testing challenge, Sarah graduated from law school, which was an accomplishment itself. With her dream to become a lawyer, she sat for the bar exam, but failed it. She took the exam again at the very next opportunity. Again she failed, although by a smaller margin than before. Still determined, she took and failed the exam four times, each time, inching in on the magic, passing score, but each time not quite hitting the mark. After the fourth failure, she was so traumatized by the experience she gave up.

But only momentarily. This woman was/is a warrior! For a warrior type, failure was not going to be an option. Whatever it was going to take to pass the bar, she was committed to going the distance. Sarah took time off, and cleared her mind. She did yoga, rode her bike, took long walks, and got her body fit and strong. Then she started over, blank slate, unencumbered by her experience of the past. She set aside her feelings of humiliation and embarrassment at having failed so publicly and completely and took on studying for the bar again. On the fifth attempt, she passed!

Sarah is one spectacular advocate as a lawyer and helped to establish new policy procedures around concessions for ADHD students' taking the bar exam in her state. Her own failures helped to pave the way and make it easier for others like her who followed. But only because she was willing to set aside her emotional baggage around failure and keep going. She had a dream and a clear vision for her life. Failure was not going to keep her from getting to her goal. She found a way to succeed.

"Conscious forgetting" is another way to look at the ability to re-frame one's experience and neutralize the emotional impact. It is not to deny or repress the reality that certain impacts exist, but rather it is the ability to "walk the razor's edge" of mental discipline, knowing that on either side of the edge are potential "alligators", outcomes that may be daunting, yet consciously choosing not to "go there".

Rather, one chooses, with full powers of consciousness, to stay above the fray. One chooses, not to empower the "alligators", to but keep one's sights on the very next step. Consciously "forgetting" is shifting your emphasis from the emotional impact of memories that closed possibilities in the past, to recalling what happened minus the "heat" of your interpretation, and choosing to empower yourself in the present.

Sarah was focused on passing the bar, not her four failures. Terry is now learning how to focus on opening her heart, instead of defending and protecting it. She no longer is willing to give her power to the past.

Conscious forgetting is not the plain, old, "garden variety" forgetting in which we unconsciously repress memories in an attempt to avoid dealing with them. In "conscious forgetting", we are clearly aware of the entire spectrum of possibilities around painful or challenging memories and choosing not to engage with the "fiery emotional material" which can derail us and keep us locked in a loop of reactivity and obsession.

Remaining aware that all potential outcomes are available, not deceiving yourself or pretending danger might not exist, the focus is on what you are moving towards, not away from. Or as Gangagi says: "Don't express it and don't repress it." A powerful edge to ride, a "tightrope" of awareness, requiring our full presence to navigate without falling off.

I am seriously walking the tightrope of awareness this week, as I consciously choose to keep my mind disciplined and focused only on the very next step. What this is about and how this is serving me will be the subject of my next post, two weeks from now. Please stay tuned and come back.

Meanwhile, on my personal blog and website, Rx For The Soul, I've posted a powerful letter from Clarissa Pinkoles Estes, written in 2003, Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times. It begins with....

My dear friends,
Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.

And ends with....

When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But ...that is not what great ships are built for.

Read more here......

What "conscious forgetting" is up for you? What is the next step you can take that will empower you? Please do leave a comment below and/or send me an email at judith@judithrich.com. I welcome your personal contact.

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Blessings on the path,
Judith