Universal Brotherhood – December 1898


I have never spoken of it without raising a laugh and the assurance that, as one bright woman put it, "My forgettery is all right; it's my memory that needs training."

Ah, indeed? Is it truly so? Let us examine ourselves a moment carefully, honestly. Most of us will then be obliged to acknowledge that, difficult as we find it to remember when we wish, it is still more hard and often impossible for us to forget at will. As a usual thing we remember because we cannot forget and, vice versa, forget because we cannot remember. Rarely are remembrance and forgetting, as they should be, acts of direct volition on our part. This is most true of forgetting because, though we often wish, sometimes vaguely, sometimes bitterly, that the unpleasantness of the past might be wiped out, yet the actual need of it has not been pressed upon us, as has that of remembering, by the loud-voiced calls of physical existence. To remember is needed if we would get on in the world; to forget concerns, we think, but our heart's repose. So as usual the harsh insistence of the outer drowns the gentler pleading of the inner: and we struggle and strain in our efforts at a one-sided development, forgetting that all one-sided growth carries within it its own destruction.

We look wistfully at Mr. A., a splendid man of business with every detail of his vast undertakings at his fingers' ends, and we covet his marvelous control over his affairs, due we think to his Splendid memory. Control! Poor Mr. A.! He does not see any more than we do that he is the veriest slave on earth. Control his business? Not he! It is e business that controls him, and that like some evil genius haunts him day and night.. He may lock the door of his office; but his business walks home with him. It dines with him, and if after dinner he smokes a cigar, hoping to quiet himself, the scent of it recalls one smoked by Mr. B. when making a new business proposition, and away the tired brain goes, over and over details and figures. For hours, perhaps, after he has gone to bed he tosses, reckoning, planning, calculating, and when at last his eyes close the brain dreams on. Yet the next day he accepts at the office some envious compliment on his wonderful memory, feeling quite sure that he deserves it. Does he? Ask his family and they will tell you, if they are not. too loyal, that his wife has always to remind him of their social engagements, that it is never safe to give him a letter to post or to trust him with an errand: he will surely forget. In other words the man has no memory at all. What seems a memory of business matters is simply an inability to forget them; for they have possessed his whole nature. He is simply possessed by the spirit of business and what seems like a memory of business details is in truth, but an inability to forget them.

But a business life is so full of strain! Yes; but the same conditions belong to almost all men. Take Mr. C, a musician. We laugh at and excuse his absent-mindedness as only a proof of genius. "He has such a wonderful musical memory." He has nothing of the kind. He as much as the businessman is controlled; controlled by his music which will not leave him and which like the other's ledgers haunts him day and night. He does not remember his music; he simply cannot forget it. Try him. Ask him to put one little tune out of his head. That particular tune will ring in his ears all night.

And so it goes with all of us, whether business man, scientist, musician, or woman of fashion, we remember only those things which have taken possession of us. The brain-cells change and move, open and close, and like the biograph give forth over and over the scenes of the near or far past while we perforce sit still and watch; watch, in renewed agony at past woes or regretfully at past joys, but always watching. Yet are we machines that we should thus tamely submit to giving forth the impressions on any cylinder that may be shoved into us? No; we are human beings with the divine gift of free-will, and the holy mission of continuing our evolution by "self-devised and self-induced effort. "But evolution means betterment; and betterment means change; and so we find one who knew whereof he spoke saying:

"Memory is the great foe to occult development."

Not the true memory, the ability to remember; but the false memory, the inability to forget. Not memory in the sense of deliberate retrospection for a distinctive purpose; but the automatic and often unwished-for reviewing of the past. The former is usually helpful; for in it we retain our will and consciousness, and are able to learn from it; but in the second we lose our present self and become once more the toy of the emotions and passions of the past, retarding our growth. None of us would deliberately seek out the man or woman who, we knew, was going to do that which would anger or distress us. Yet we sit still and allow the denizens of our waking dream-world to arise again and again before us, stirring up each time, and with no fresh cause, the sorrow or anger that their originals had aroused in the past. We are so indignant at past wrongs (which we then deserved or they could not under the Great Law have come to its) that we continually re-inflict them upon ourselves; like a kitten that has bitten its own tail and bites it again in anger at the tail. Or it may be it is the happiness of the past that we dwell upon; and, because we surround that past with a glory that does not belong to it, the memory of it brings sorrow instead of joy, makes the present seem blank and mean, so that when perforce we arise from our dreamland we find ourselves enervated for the present.

And all because we have not mastered the Art of Forgetting; because, indeed we have not realized that there is such an art and that it is but the other half of the true Art of Memory which consists in an absolute control of our brain-cells, in compelling them to give forth at our bidding, and only at our bidding, the impressions made upon them. This is easily seen; for the man who cannot remember at will is usually the man who cannot forget; in other words the man who has not his brain in his own control. Nor is this materialism; for there is none possible in Theosophy. The control of the brain-cells, like that of the cells of our entire body, is possible only because, after all, they are not blind matter, but evolving entities with a consciousness and memory of their own and, because of that, capable of answering to our higher mind and consciousness and will. It is one of our duties on the great ladder of evolution to stretch down and help these lower intelligences to develop; and, so perfect is the law of compensation, so absolute the interdependence of all nature, that only thus can we develop ourselves.

The past, the whole past, both near and far, must be forgotten, as it can be, deliberately forgotten; else while we sorrow or rejoice over it the present too, becomes past and we have gained nothing from it.

 But shall we not in thus forgetting lose the lessons of the past? Lose? We can lose nothing that truly belongs to us. Forgetting does not mean wiping out the past, for that cannot be done; but only closing of our own will the doors of the cabinet that holds its records. No impression is ever wiped out as is shown by the visions of the dying and the dotage of old age prattling of that which belonged to childhood. As for the lessons of life; learning them does not consist in an intellectual recognition of them, but in assimilating them and making them part of our own nature. If this were not so the Law would not throw the veil of oblivion over our past lives and send us with clean tablets into each fresh incarnation. Let us of our own choice do for the little past of this one life what has been done for us with the ages that have gone by.

But besides helping us in our own growth, the Art of Forgetting serves us greatly in our dealings with others.

Does one come to us, and because of the influences of time, place, and his own temporarily weakened will, tell us that which we know in stronger mood he would not have revealed? Forget it. It can be done. If we do not, he too will remember and, if he be not of a generous nature, shame of himself will presently turn to dislike of us. Our own forgetting will help him to do likewise. Is it an act, weak or wrong or foolish, that we have witnessed? Forget it; and the actor will also. But if we remember, then will he too; with shame, then anger, and close himself against us so that we shall find it very difficult to help him.

Concerning our own actions too is the Art of Forgetting necessary in our dealings with others. As long as we remember our past, so will they. But if we have the strength and the courage to forget it, both the bad and the good, the failures and the successes and, resting neither on the thorns nor the laurels of the past, free ourselves from that past and live in the mighty present; then will our friends too forget that which has been and take us, as they should, either better or worse, as we now stand. For these human hearts that surround us are kindly in their depths and ready to agree that, as has been said:

"The Past! What is it? Nothing. Gone! Dismiss it. You are the past of yourself. Therefore it concerns you not as such. It only concerns you as you now are. In you, as now you exist, lies all the past.

Universal Brotherhood