Oliver Sacks, the pioneer of the unlikely literary genre of modern neuropathology case studies, has a new article in the New Yorker on the most profound case of amnesia ever recorded ("The Abyss," September 24, 2007.) Clive Wearing, an English musician and musicologist, lost nearly all his memories and his ability to create new memories as a result of a severe encephalitis. Just as in the movie Memento, Wearing's entire universe reboots the moment he loses his concentration. Left in an unfamiliar situation, with no cues to guide his current train of thought and no memory to guide him, he continually experiences life as a series of "waking up" moments. Sachs describes the absolute horror of Wearing's existence, as documented by his heroically devoted wife in her memoir and in several documentary films. The uncanny thing about Wearing's case is that his ability to perform music, and even conduct a group of musicians, is almost completely unaffected by his condition.
Wearing's case is full of philosophical implications. For many years Augie Turak would play excerpts from a documentary on Wearing to his classes, and then ask them: "Does his life have any meaning?" Most students would immediately conclude that it did not. Eventually, however, someone would point out that our own lives were not that much different from Wearing's. We have no memories before our birth; our deaths, presumably, snuff out all memory of what came before. How, then, do we presume to create meaning in the time in between our beginning and our end?
I come away from the story with a different koans, now. I find it remarkable that so much of our capacity to do -- either simple things like making coffee, or complex things like conduct a symphony -- has almost nothing to do with our "episodic" memory of life's events, and that narratives we weave to give those episodes continuity and significance. We can act, respond, create, and enjoy without having a past, or a future. Evidently Andrew Cohen and Eckhart Tolle were correct in saying that "freedom has no history," and that the past and the future were merely mental constructions that were often completely unnecessary. And yet, Wearing's situation is not the "timeless awareness of the present" that so many gurus have praised as the height of spiritual awakening. Wisdom is not merely the obliteration of certain mental facilities.
But perhaps the most profound conclusion is the most disturbing -- the inescapable realization that we don't really think the way we think we think. We like to presume we haveÂ singular identity, and that our faculties for remembering, planning, deciding, and acting are all springing from some singular source that is me. It might seem like that, ordinarily . . . but cases like Wearing show that our mental life is constant interweaving of independent and inter-dependent threads. One part might be remembering and deciding, another doing, and yet another still watching it all unfold. And which part of all that is really me? When Wearing dies and finds himself in whatever afterlife you might expect, will his memories return to him? If you don't immediately succumb to a reductionistic materialism, such questions will stretch your notion of soul in unexpected ways.
But then again, that's exactly what the spiritual teachers want you to do. "Just keep asking the question, 'Who am I?' " says Ramana Maharshi. Wearing's awful example leads back, again and again, to the same question, and our own inquiry becomes like Wearing's own life, a repetition upon repetition, stretching yearningly into the inexplicable.
The other night, as I was walking Chester, I thought about the world that he lives in. In many ways, it is Eckart Tolle paradise. He reacts in the moment, deals with whatever is in front of him, and then moves on and forgets about it. He learns from the past and uses those lessons moving into the future...he doesn't try to cross the electric fence, he knows where his water dish is, and so on...but he does not dwell on past misfortunes or might-have-beens, hold a grudge, or fret about the future. Tolle himself discusses animals quite often as a model of right living.
And I knew, very clearly in that moment, that I do not want to be a dog. Assuming that a dog's life is at all what I think it is, a dog is not a man "plus"; it is a man "minus." Minus the ability to think, to dream, to make moral choices, minus all the things that matter most to me.
I haven't stopped believing in the Eckart Tolle ideal: not at all. But the "leap of faith" I have to make is to believe that living eternally in the Now, aware of what I'm doing and what I'm thinking and doing it all consciously instead of unconsciously, doesn't strip away anything but the bullshit. That somehow it is the "infinite space" that Tolle always talks about, rather than the very small space of a dog.