The knowledge we possess has everything to do with memory. Even the sense of our own personal identities represents collections of individual thoughts that we remember from moment to moment. This implies that much of what we know will be lost to us eventually, to be replaced with new knowledge, new memories. These in turn will also be replaced: an endless cycle of forgetting and remembering.
The permanent anchor that provides us with continuity manifests as our sense of individuality, the feeling of "I am," that hasn't changed since we were children and will not change even on our last day in this life. Called atman in Hinduism, it is the part of us that cannot be replaced with a new memory, the part which knows and understands and is made of stuff which cannot be destroyed. Theosophically speaking, this sense of self, together with spiritual consciousness and mind, forms a trinity which is the permanent or "real" human being. We all possess different knowledge — memories of places, people, circumstances, and objects — because we have all done different things. But the sense of individuality, of self-existence, is the same for you as it is for me, and indeed for every person who has ever lived. It is a universal awareness, and according to the testimony of mankind's greatest minds, what we are feeling is a minute part of the consciousness of the infinite universe. Sometimes we feel close to it, and then we are peaceful and content. When we feel under stress or want respite from our toils, this is where we seek refuge to restore our energy. It has no substitute.
Much of what we think we know is what others tell us. I have never floated in space to observe Venus as Earth's closest planet. But astronomers say that it is, and it is up to me to believe them or not. How much of our worldview is made up of what others tell us, and how much is based on what we have observed and learned for ourselves? More importantly, which of these options do we allow to influence most strongly what we think, say, and do? I have heard many people refer to reincarnation and karma as actualities and go on to explain how they work. I have done it myself. But do we really know what we are talking about? Karma can be seen in operation and demonstrated very easily, but what about reincarnation? Who of us have replayed consciously in the mind the vast panorama of lives lived and the time spent between lives? Would we have the mental and emotional capacity to withstand the joys and pains experienced to emerge from this process unscathed, saying we now know the truth about reincarnation?
Yet the human constitution is finely and perfectly balanced so that each part can feel the vibration of the others. Our eternal aspects never go to sleep, but are constantly active and aware, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, life after life — comprising a cell or unit of awareness that has always shone and always will. This is the source that gives strength to our convictions of spiritual truths.
When an experience is intense, it burns into us and often we feel it as pain. What we then find out for ourselves about nature and about how we work is more important than the trivia we pick up day to day because the fruit of the pain becomes a part of us and stays with us from life to life. "Where there is no struggle, there is no merit," wrote H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine. Merit is a Buddhist concept, meaning roughly that which we have garnered for ourselves through devoted service, suffering, or self-sacrifice that will stand us in good stead in this or future lives. Merit is a mundane reward and benefits us only "on the outside." However, for inner, spiritual value it can be transmuted into "virtue" by dedicating it to others. The real merit of any experience will be known only to our inner nature, and its fruit will often manifest only subtly in the form of an impression, insight, inspiration, or intuitive urge. These impressions or urges are the fruit of virtues stored up within us from lifetimes of experience in the physical realms. We don't remember in detail every person we've met, but we do recall impressions people leave on us. Likewise, we do not consciously remember the details of the events lifetimes ago which helped create our spiritual virtues (and we all have them), but we do feel their power impressing memories upon us when we are about to enter into a similar situation, whether as an intuitional inspiration or as a message from the voice of conscience, with the promise of a glimpse of truth if we carefully listen and then act accordingly.
In The Key To Theosophy, Blavatsky elaborates on some Platonic ideas about memory: recollection, she says, is conscious remembering which is sometimes easy, sometimes brought about by "pain and endeavour"; remembrance is an unconscious remembering with an object recurring (seemingly) spontaneously within the mind; reminiscence, however, is the "memory of the soul," our perception that we have lived before and will live again, that some experiences are familiar, that there is more to life beyond the material world. Everything we experience in life is recorded in our inner nature, in our spiritual memory, which is available to us from life to life.
In contrast, all the memories and knowledge we have of our current life will disappear from our brain-minds when we die. What happens then? Some would argue that memories of the life just lived are not forgotten by the person just deceased. Mediums pass on information believed by them and bereaved relatives to come directly from the deceased. While the facts imparted about people, places, circumstances, or objects may indeed be true, there are other understandings of what takes place. The deceased pass through many states after death, shedding layers of consciousness until only the immortal aspects remain to experience a blissful rest between lives, reliving and embellishing the spiritual aspirations of the life just lived. The lower layers of consciousness, the substance of earthly thoughts and memories, linger close to the physical plane until they dissipate naturally or are reanimated into life by someone who comes into contact with them. They are as illusory and deceptive in death as they are in life.
It would seem, then, that despite our intimate association with the thoughts we carry around with us, they do not belong to us — we only use and remember them for a time. What lasts and is a part of us is the experience we had while those thoughts impressed themselves upon us. The very living of life itself, immersing ourselves faithfully in the duties that unfold in the daily karmic script, is enough to steer us away from deceptive distractions. To pursue truth — the what, why, and how of existence — is an infinite journey. Given time, truth and lasting knowledge will come unannounced.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)