Memory’s Silent Film

Ever had a dispute with a partner or friend over something that was said in the past that you just remembered differently, or had different takes on how an incident transpired?

What we remember of an event, and even what we remember we remember aren’t always the same thing. Moreover, they don’t necessarily reflect the reality of what occurred. Memories, created by the mind, are filled with projection, subjective takes, misrememberances. The mind, as a tool for recreating reality, is highly fallible.

As an exercise in observation with my writing students (and observation is crucial in writing fiction and narrative non-fiction) I ask them to watch a portion of a silent movie — usually Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton — and then write down what they observed of the film, as though it were a crime scene they observed. Rarely does a class agree on the course of events. Everybody comes up with a slightly different variation of the film in their mind.

As an exercise, watch the embedded portion of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus. Once it’s finished, run the film again in your mind, then write down what you observed, from the chain of events to characters’ attitudes. Once you’ve got the scene on paper, watch the video again and see how your memory differs from what you saw.

The mind should be questioned, memories and thoughts interrogated, and space left for the possibility that memories may be ‘real but not true’. In spiritual leader Tara Brach’s words, “Thoughts and beliefs are navigational maps that are not inherently true. Rather, some serve us and others cause feelings of separation, self-aversion and/or blame of others. We can free ourselves from harmful beliefs by investigating them with a dedicated, mindful and courageous presence.”

For more mindfulness exercises and strategies, look here.

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