Practicing letting go is the most important art of yoga and vipassana. How do you take the practice of nowness to the next level so as to see ultimate reality clearly? The answer is: by letting go of conventional knowledge temporarily, which includes letting go of memory. Not only memories from childhood, or yesterday, or one minute ago; not only the memory of our last breath.
In order to gain ultimate knowledge you have to give up, for a time, the labels and concepts of conventional knowledge. Some call this “beginner’s mind.” That means that in order to reach a high level of vipassana insight you must temporarily let go of the names for things, because naming is actually a very subtle form of remembering, a tiny reflex back to the past. But you don’t have to worry that anything will be lost— the memories and names will return as soon as you need them or as soon as you stop the period of intensive practice.
What does it mean to “let go of names”? In order to understand this, let’s take a look at the process of perception as described in Buddhist philosophy. The perceptual process has two parts. Say that you’re looking at a piano. At first you see an unidentified colored shape (this is the initial moment of contact with the object, to which we referred earlier). A split-second later the mind recognizes the name of the object, “piano.” Those two moments occur one right after the other, so quickly that in daily life they’re indistinguishable. But with strong mindfulness and insight it is possible to perceive the initial moment of bare seeing before memory comes up with the name.
The same stages of perception occur whenever you experience a sound, smell, taste or touch. Pure sound-waves are cognized first; in the next moment you recognize the sound. A fragrance is sensed before it is named. The same is true of touches, tastes, and mental phenomena.
The truth is, although you may have general mindfulness, whenever you recognize a sight, sound, etc., you cannot be said to be staying exactly in the present moment, to the highest degree possible. “If we could focus precisely on the present moment,” Achan Sobin wrote, “â€¦ the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception. Sound, which merely has the function of entering the eardrum and causing it to vibrate, would not be concretized as speech or music, etc. In fact, it is possible to focus on the split-second between hearing sound and recognizing it in the conventional manner.” (Wayfaring: A Manual for Insight Meditation).
Although it may seem impossible to be clearly aware of a form before recognizing it, this event happens naturally during vipassana practice when mindfulness and insight are very strong. With experience in meditation you will not have to believe or disbelieve, because you will know this firsthand. To know a phenomenon with mindfulness before it is overlaid with concepts is to experience reality as it actually is, in its pristine state.
That does not mean that in daily life you will go around bumping into objects you don’t recognize. Again, conventional perception, along with all the names and concepts necessary for everyday functioning, will be there as soon as you need it. It can be accessed anytime.
But in regard to memory, someone might think, “I cherish my happy memories. Why should I give them up?” Again, your memories will not be permanently erased. You’ll be able to recall a certain event whenever you want to. But the more you train the mind to stay in the present moment, the more you’ll see that clinging to the past and living in the future actually cause suffering. Attachment to pleasant memories makes us long for something that is gone, and this longing is in itself painful. What disappears in vipassana practice are not the memories themselves, but the distress that comes from attaching to them.