Long-time readers of this blog know that I like to kick things off with a bit of nostalgia from time to time: my mother’s herb garden, my first Phish concert, or any number of memorable playa experiences at Burning Man. Your memories may be built around entirely different monuments: time spent in the military, watching one’s kids grow up, or seeing the first man on the moon are all experiences I have missed out on, but they all serve the same purposes for strengthening our identities in the face of constant change. So this time around, we’re going to go a little bit meta, because as I’ve been learning recently, these sorts of experiences are actually quite important to our mental health. There’s an entire school of therapy devoted to it called reminiscence therapy. It’s particularly helpful for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, as it gives them agency. But it can be quite helpful if it’s approached with the proper mindfulness.
A few centuries ago, nostalgia, which is derived from the longing (“algia”) for home (“nostos”) was seen as a mental disease, and people were encouraged to avoid indulging in it. And indeed, you can go down a bad road with it, for sure, towards greater depression. The difference between the good nostalgia and the bad nostalgia is an awareness sharpened by good mindfulness routines and rituals. Here’s how you can develop those.
The Structure of memory
No matter how photographic anyone thinks their memory is, it’s practically never batting 1000. In particular, most of our memories of the past are almost always positive. No matter whether our memories make us sad that we’re no longer living in that moment or happy for our trip down memory lane, the memory we have of this past is generally a place we long to revisit again. Whether it existed in the first place or not is immaterial.
And of course, the things we’re nostalgic for do change over time. They change as our perceptions of ourselves change. Depending on how we change, a formerly cherished memory – say, a long-term relationship – may slide into the rear-view, and it may have to be nudged by a note or letter to remind you that, hey, that used to be a pretty big deal to me. In nostalgia therapy, the main focus is on memories that are formed between the ages of 10 to 30, so it’s a pretty finite group of memories we’re talking about. However, it’s usually the ones we revisit over and over again that say the most about who we are NOW and what we’re trying to achieve or regain in our lives.
Where it gets bad, especially for those of us in recovery, is attempting to get back to a place in time that is truly hazardous for our health. In season five of The Wire, the redeemed drug addict Bubbles discusses such a time during a 12-step meeting, where he’s in the park, and he’s thinking back to a time in his youth enjoying such a moment while high. These nostalgia triggers can force a drug dependent or alcoholic into relapse.
So, how do we steer ourselves towards working with nostalgia in positive ways while avoiding the bad? Here are a few ideas we have on doing so. And just so you know, no matter what generation you are, anyone can avail themselves to themselves.
FIVE WAYS TO WORK IN A MEMORY SESSION
- CURATE YOUR TRIGGERS: You may have heard of Proust’s famous madeleine, a cake which stimulates a specific reverie for the writer in Remembrance of Things Past. They can be quite powerful for individuals, and we don’t always have control over where they take us. For the purposes of a memory session, however, you want to carefully curate where you go. Oftentimes, we’re going down an Internet-inspired rabbit hole based on something our mind throws up. There’s certainly room for improv, but in this case, you’re consciously avoiding a downwards spiral to depression or self-destructive behavior.
- CULTIVATE AWARENESS: These memories may trigger powerful emotions or thoughts in you, but if you’re making the most out of them, one can meet them with an even more powerful awareness. Understanding how malleable these memories are is a powerful discovery made towards learning all of the different facets of who one is. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a meditation advocate who I had the privilege of learning mindfulness from, and he says of awareness, “We are so seduced by thinking and emotion and we don’t realize that awareness is at least as powerful of a function. It can hold any emotion, no matter how destructive, any thought, no matter how gigantic.”
- SEEK GUIDANCE: It is always preferable, in any new endeavor, to find mentorship. As they say, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Revisioning one’s past is akin to transforming one’s present and future, so it’s always best to have another pair of eyes on it.
- REMEMBER ANEW: Digging up old friends or acquaintances – or even writing about a moment from the past and seeing what emerges – are particularly valuable to find out new things about the past that you for some reason forgot. In this case, you’re acting as your own historian, re-discovering things that an imperfect nostalgia glosses over.
- INTEGRATE: Once that’s all done, it’s time to re-integrate what all of those memories have done, and with awareness, determine how it helps or hinders you now. Whatever successes or failures we have in the past show us what we can aspire to. Whatever scars or strengths we developed along the way shows us how much we can endure.
All of this is helped, of course, by proper sleep (when most of our daily memories are consolidated, FYI), nutrition and sustainable energy throughout the day. To wit, our 1CaB Healing Suite of Botanical Formulations. The better we are treating ourselves in mind, body and spirit, the more we can create – and revision – better memories for ourselves.