Mementos, Memories and Mindfulness

Shamor v'zachor–to guard, observe, be mindful of and faithful to in the spiritual sense, and to remember, always to remember. 

This phrase, shamor v'zachor, refers to the mitzvah (commandment) of keeping the Sabbath; it also a kavannah (intention) for daily living. 

Rabbi Sheila Weinberg explains this commandment as a mindfulness practice.  "To be mindful and remember – when we know we are not mindful, it is a moment of remembering." 

What does it actually mean to engage in the ongoing practice of remembering? What do holding on and letting go have to do with remembering? How and how much can we let go and still retain the essence of memory? 

There are some people who hold on so tightly (to "stuff," to resentment, to regret or disappointment) that the blessing at the core of the memory is suffocated.

I have a neighbor who hoards stuff, saves every envelope and paperclip and gift box she's ever received, files from her job twenty years ago, clothes she can no longer wear. Her house is packed floor to ceiling, so much so that she can hardly walk from one room to another. Her days are spent living in the past; living mindfully in the present is not easy for her. 

Freud talked about the "repetition compulsion," in which a person relives, re-enacts or repeats a traumatic event or issue over and over. Sometimes the repetition compulsion is an attempt to resolve something and move forward; other times it has a punitive or self-destructive quality. There is also the conventional expression that "insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."   

Retelling stories, remembering and guarding/being mindful are such essential practices in Judaism, both spiritually and culturally. Is there an invisible line where we cross over into compulsively reliving our traumas? How do we distinguish between the two? Is there a difference when we are remembering times of joy or liberation, as opposed to moments of loss or trauma?

When saying or writing the name of a deceased person, Jews often say (or whisper) zichrono livracha, (or z''l in writing), which means of blessed memory. Shamor v'zachor is not an endorsement of the repetition compulsion; it is a reminder to remember where we come from, and to be fully present with where we are. 

Photo courtesy of JLR

I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I musn't give in
When the dawn comes
Tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin 

Burnt out ends of smoky days
The stale cold smell of morning
The streetlamp dies, another night is over
Another day is dawning 

Touch me
It's so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me
You'll understand what happiness is 

A new day has begun

–Andrew Lloyd Webber (excerpt from "Memory," from the musical Cats)