Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Teaching of Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon
Prakriya 4 - Memory

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Q: I have been wondering about memory. As one looks at the events in one's life, one is aware that 'something' has always been there, the same, aware of the event. What I can't understand is how the event is 'recorded', although it clearly is.

'Illumined', in the present moment, I can understand, but how recorded? Somehow it seems as if the concept of time enters into this, and my understanding is that knowing is not time-bound.

I don't know if my question makes sense....

A: The question makes sense alright, to me at least. It's a very penetrating question; but correspondingly tough as well. It can be considered at different levels. If you want an attempt at a simple answer that concentrates on the level of knowing, just read the next paragraph and then go on to the last three paragraphs of this message. If you want a more detailed intellectual attempt, going more through levels of the mind, you can read the passage in between.

At the level of knowing, as you point out, there is no time. So there can't be any memory or recording. There is no past, nor future, nor any present that's opposed to them. There's only pure illumination, by itself. That's where your question points, but the question and its ideas must dissolve completely on the way, before the timeless knowing that it targets can be reached.

At the level of time-bound ideas, there is the paradox that you describe. A changeless witness quietly illuminates what happens, with its ever present light; but how can it make any record which persists through time, except through some changing action that impresses past events upon an objective record -- like writing things down upon a piece of paper?

Actually, if one looks carefully at any objective records, like writing symbols on paper or making coded configurations in an electronic computer or in a more sophisticated brain, such records cannot solve the problem of memory. For the record has to be interpreted by mind, so as to make a past perception, thought or feeling present. And for that interpretation, a continuing witness is implied, shared in common by the past experience and its present recall.

For words on paper or configurations in the brain to recall a memory I had in the past, the same 'I' that is here now must also have been there in the past -- witnessing what happened then and what is now recalled. There'd be no meaning in the word 'recall' if it were not a calling back to the one same witness. Where someone else's perception, thought or feeling is called into mind, that isn't direct memory, but a more indirect communication which is more dubious to interpret. If two different witnesses are involved, that is not properly 'recall' or 'calling back', but rather 'calling out' or 'calling onward' from one witness to another.

So we are back with the same problem. How can any changing record be made by a witness that is not at all involved in any changing act, but only stays the same? The answer is that the witness does not make the record. It only enables the record to be made, by its mere presence that continues through experience.

The witness does not know from any shifting standpoint in changing mind, but rather from the changeless background underneath. It's from there that mind's and world's appearances arise. They arise as feelings, thoughts and perceptions -- each of which expresses consciousness, through previously conditioned understanding and memory accumulated from the past.

But then, as soon as an appearance is expressed, it gets interpreted and taken in -- reflecting back through its perception, thought and feeling into underlying consciousness. Its apparent form and purpose is perceived by sense, its meaning and significance interpreted by thought, its quality and value judged by feeling -- as it gets understood and taken back into quiet consciousness, where it is utterly dissolved.

From that same quiet consciousness, further feelings, thoughts, perceptions rise, expressed through a new state of understanding and memory -- which now incorporates the recent appearance that has just been expressed from consciousness and reflected back there again. This cycle of expression and reflection keeps repeating every moment, producing the impression of a mind with continued memory and understanding that enables its perceptions, thoughts and feelings to accumulate a growing knowledge of the world.

But, in fact, the impression is quite false. At every moment, the world is completely recreated from a consciousness in which there truly are no perceptions, thoughts or feelings nor any memory or habituation or conditioning. In that consciousness, there is never any time, for any perceptions to form, nor any memory to continue.

At each seeming moment, there is an instantaneous creation of the world, with one partial object appearing at the limited focus of the mind's attention and the rest of the world imagined to be understood in the background of experience. And at this very moment (or if you prefer immediately after), as the appearance is interpreted and taken in, there is also an instantaneous and complete destruction of both seeming object and its containing world.

So there's no real memory, no real continuity, in the noisy flashes of appearance that seem to keep on rising up from consciousness and falling back again. The only continuity is timeless and changeless, in the quiet background where the witness always knows. That is the only connection between different moments. And it is a connection that completely destroys all difference, so that there's nothing to connect.

In the end, there's only one proper direction for advaita reasoning. It must always be from appearances to truth. It cannot rightly be the other way around. True reason can't derive the compromised appearances of mind and world from truth.

Your question about memory was simply asked and is best simply answered that there is no real memory, but only a misleading appearance of mental recording and recall. Where there is true recording, it is not mental. Instead, it is a taking back of what's perceived into the heart. That's literally what is meant by the word 'record'. 'Re-' means 'back' and '-cord' means 'heart' (related to the English 'core' and to the Latin 'cor' or 'cordis').

So to record truly means to take what is expressed back into the depth of heart, where all expression is dissolved in pure knowing that stays unaffected through all seeming time. That is the true recording of the silent witness.


In the purusha-prakriti distinction, the witness is the actionless consciousness of purusha. And the appearances that come and go are the work of prakriti or nature.

Though the witness does not act, all actions are inspired by its knowing presence. They rise from it, spontaneously and naturally, expressing it in the appearances of mind and world. That arising of expression shows appearances, which are seen by reflecting the illumination of the witness.

As the illumination is reflected back, each physical and mental appearance is interpreted and taken back into consciousness. That taking in is the recording of nature's actions. For every happening or action that appears, its recording takes it all the way back down, into the depth of heart -- to consciousness itself, in which all seeming action must dissolve.

prakriyA-s in this Section:
Atmananda Krishna Menon home page.
1.  Universal and Individual - the 'cosmological' and 'direct' paths.
2.  The three states - enquiry from everyday experience.
3.  'I am consciousness' ('Prajnyanam asmi') - reflection back into the 'I'.
4.  Witness of thoughts - change and the changeless.
     -- Consciousness and Enlightenment
     -- Memory
     -- Higher and Lower Reason
     -- Knowing
     -- Further Comments on Deep Sleep
5.  All objects point to consciousness - 'Existence has the chair.'
6.  Happiness - not in objects or the mind, but coming from the real 'I'.
     -- Love and Devotion
7.  The background - where all experiences arise, abide and subside.
8.  Merging back - 'Sleep in consciousness.'
     -- Some Questions
Ananda has provided an updated version of these essays May 2007 and this may be downloaded as a PDF file (251k); it has a linked Table of Contents and a glossary (unlinked).
"Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda" now available for download - see 'modern books'.
Selected discourses from Shri Atmananda
Page last updated: 07-Jul-2012