A couple of weeks ago I recalled a thought from long ago, and with it the feelings. I was able to access, with some degree of fidelity, the state of my mind and body at a point in the past. Nothing unusual; something I’m sure we all do a lot. But this ability, which seemed ordinary until that moment, suddenly struck me as extraordinary, with far-reaching implications.
One idea led to another as I followed the train of thoughts about what it means that a human being can recall their previous thoughts and emotions.
It means that past states of being are somehow encoded within my present state. It means that present-me contains at least a small part of every past-me. It’s a little reminiscent of “track changes” in a document, except that the old versions of me are probably not fully retained.
To extend the analogy to a computer program, computation usually does not retain previous states of computation as it progresses. A computer that adds 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8 together keeps only a running sum, not the history. If you ask it “what is your state,” it will answer 19. If you ask where that came from, it has forgotten that it would previously have answered 11 and 6 and 3 and 1. This is why the human ability to recall previous thoughts and feelings is so remarkable to me.
There’s more. Future-me is present here, now.
This is not an original thought. It’s an expression of several concepts in Buddhist schools of thought, as well as various philosophies and theologies. I’d just never seen so clearly before how it applies to my concepts of self and passage of time.
Here’s how Thich Nhat Hanh articulates these thoughts, from The Art Of Living:
The present moment contains both the past and the future.
Can you see how you are continued in your parents, in your brothers and sisters, in your teachers and friends?
This article seems to fall far short of expressing my thoughts. The words I can find are inadequate to the words I’m reaching for but not finding. Still, hopefully there is something in you, dear reader, that responds and completes the sentences I cannot.
I am not a singular self. There are many parts of me at each moment in time, all of which are present in all moments. Not only “I am we,” but we are we.