you bless us with memory—
that sacred ingathering of the past
into the present that allows us to
recognize faces, learn poems by
heart, find our way back when we
are lost, and bring forth old and
new from its nearly inexhaustible
store. . . .

—From 99 Blessings by
Brother David Steindl-Rast

Faye had advanced pancreatic cancer when I visited her in my role as a hospice chaplain. Our staff doctor said that her life expectancy was months, or maybe weeks. A sensitive, sophisticated woman in her early 70s, Faye was a very successful architect who had once caused a much-publicized local scandal when she and a significantly younger social worker—married to someone else and the mother of two small children—ran off and disappeared for a month together. When they returned, Faye went back to her job and the social worker went back to her family. The community never learned where they’d been.

When our paths crossed, Faye was dealing with frequent bouts of nausea and abdominal pain. Our visits took place when she was still well enough to sit in her armchair and share her stories. She’d begun to write a memoir and was taking a poetry class. She was interested in discussing spiritual paths. We didn’t speak of her death; we spoke of her life, of memories, secrets (including the tryst), and the knowledge she was eager to accumulate.

Then one afternoon she asked me about the other patients I’d seen that day. Carefully concealing his personal details, I told her about a young man I’d visited that morning whose cirrhosis was killing him. I used this opportunity to speak openly with Faye about dying for the first time. “It’s droll. Everyone assumes that it’s easier to let go when you’ve lived a full life, like I have, than when the promises of years to come are cut short,” she sighed. “I disagree. That young man hasn’t had time to gather so many memories, delights, or regrets. But I have. So many memories. What am I to do with the memories?”

Related: Who Are We Without Our Memories?

I cautiously brought up the idea of beginning to triage, and to let go of nonessential things such as certain keepsakes and memories, but Faye directed our conversation back to life review. And although her question had intrigued me, I willingly accompanied her wherever she wanted us to go.

When people age with memories more or less intact, remembering can be a dreadful burden, laden with fears and regrets, or a precious refuge to come home to. I’m ever so grateful for happy memories that I can revisit on demand. Memories like staying with my beloved grandmother in Florida, playing Scrabble together, and finding words like SEQUOIA. Memories of Gendun Rinpoche and the weight of his hands on my head as he prayed blessings into my heart-mind. Of nieces and nephews and the wonder of meeting them for the first time. Of an extraordinary unplanned pilgrimage in north India. Of riding a docile draft horse through a beech forest in a warm drizzle, no other humans around. Of loving and sometimes hilarious vignettes with family, friends, teachers, animals. So many memories.

What will happen to these memories when I die? Will they be a burden or a refuge? According to the later schools of Buddhist philosophy, everything we perceive leaves an emotional and possibly experiential trace in our mind’s ground consciousness, or alayavijnana. The accumulation of traces is likened to a field holding an incalculable number of seeds that sprout and make their way into instinct and consciousness when the proper karmic conditions are gathered. The mechanisms are complex. Different schools have different takes on precisely how the process takes place, but it’s easy to imagine that there are myriad memories stored in the mind—from this lifetime alone—like so many bubbles in a bottle of Perrier, just waiting for their moment to surface.

Think about what triggers unbidden memories—a whiff of aftershave, a tickle, a street corner, a long-forgotten song, the taste of a madeleine (as I write this, a bubble floats up and I suddenly remember the eggs I’ve put on to cook: they are now super hard-boiled)—and how difficult it is to corral them. Which of these memories will the approach of death bring to the surface of consciousness? The warm, comforting ones, or their dark kin manifesting in distressing shapes of longings for dreams unfulfilled, losses, anger, guilt, jealousy, pain, regrets, and fear?

Related: A Good Death

When teaching about death, Shamar Rinpoche sometimes told the story of a Tibetan man who came to the lamas, breathless and distraught, seeking help for his dying father. The old man, a butcher by trade, had been agonizing for days, crying out for help because he imagined he was being attacked and trampled by the yaks he had slaughtered.

What seeds have all of my memories sown? What can I do today to prepare the ground so that my dying thoughts are not of the harm I’ve done intentionally (will I be assailed by the ghosts of murdered woodworms, fleas, and ticks?) but of my teachers and my practice?

In meditation, we train in letting go of thoughts of the past and future as they arise, and in tuning in to full, immediate presence instead. In tandem with letting go and being present with what is, we can also train in nurturing positive seeds by making habits of such practices as purification, merit, and aspiration. Cultivating these seeds of goodness is called the “power of sowing white seeds.”

Hopefully, these white seeds—and not the dreaded weed seeds—will be the first to sprout, unfurl, and develop when our time comes. So many memories. May they help us “find our way back when we are lost.” May they become so many blessings that unfailingly guide us along our paths.

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