Memory Reconsolidation and Buddhism – Thich Nhat Hanh

Memory Reconsolidation and The ICE Method- the more I experience it the more I sense connections with the spiritual traditions of the ages.

Being in the Present Moment:

Memory Reconsolidation helps us understand the Buddhist process of Meditation leading to Awareness

Memory Reconsolidation and Buddhism

“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes…”  I am rereading “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh after some twenty years away from this book.  I picked it up again because all these years I have remembered this story about washing the dishes.

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”  What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.  If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either…”  (P. 3-5)

In terms of The ICE Method,  being present to whatever we are doing has similarities to being in the Calm space.  When we become aware of the calm space we have freed ourselves from attention to past thoughts or future worries – we are present.  For those who have experienced the calm space of The ICE Method, you know there’s a subtle but distinct physical feeling that arises as you become aware of the Calm space in your life, for some it is a tingling in the skin, a lowering of the shoulders, a release of a knotted stomach, or like for me, a lowering sensation through my heart and chest.

Thich Nhat Hanh shares this dishwashing story very near the start of “The Miracle of Mindfulness.”  Learning to be present is fundamental to the Mindful life.  He writes of the process of learning to be mindful, to be present, at all times, all during daily life.  For me, this is what I want with The ICE Method, for it to become our default state.  And as I’ve said many times to many people, as long as there is no real tiger or hurtling bus threatening to physically harm us in this instant, we can return to Calm and carry our day forward in calm.

The ICE Method can help us live life from the Present Moment.  Further, it seems similar to the process of growing awareness that Thich Nhat Hanh and many other spiritual masters describe.

Memory Reconsolidation speeds Awareness.

If we are present to washing our dishes, then we are calm, or as Hanh state, “in a relaxed state.”

While relaxation is the necessary point of departure, once on has realized relaxation, it is possible to realize a tranquil heart and clear mind.  To realize a tranquil heart and clear mind is to have gone far along the path of meditation. (p. 37)

If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way, to observe and recognize everything about it. (p. 37)

(In meditation) when a feeling or thought arises, your intention should not be to chase it away…Simply acknowledge their presence…for example…”a feeling of sadness has just arisen in me.” (p. 38)

ICE Method – Personal Reflection on Buddhist Awareness

According to Hahn, as Buddhists move toward awareness, they are observing their mind and paying attention to it.  Ultimately, over time, I think they are reconsolidating memories so the past experiences and future concerns no longer hold an emotional charge over their life. But their reconsolidation process seems to me to happen more by chance than under their control.  There doesn’t seem to be an explicit EXCHANGE step in most meditative approaches.  Again, this is just my sense, and I haven’t studied Buddhism as much as many have, but it seems to me that Buddhist meditation does the first two steps of the ICE Method consciously and leaves the third step, the Exchange, to chance. Let me compare what Hahn writes with the three steps of The ICE Method: Identify,  Calm, and Exchange.

  1. Identify: We recognize whatever has come to mind, “a feeling of sadness has just arisen in me.”  This seems the same, whether we’re using a meditative practice, or a psychological approach, or The ICE Method.
  2. Calm: Thich Naht Hahn teaches a method of following breath to return to a state of Awareness.  In the Calm step of ICE, we return to present moment using an awareness of a space between two points, a space that has nothing in it.When we become aware of Calm we give the signal to our body and mind that there is nothing which requires a mental or physical reaction.  We return to awareness.  Other methods can help us return to awareness. Psychological approaches generally focus on having insights rather than awareness, cognitive action rather than calm.
  3. Exchange:
  • In The ICE Method, the exchange of emotional peptides is an explicit process that brings permanent calm to past memories and future concerns.  (The process is based in the scientific understanding of Memory Reconsolidation and is explained fully both at this website and in the book FIBROMYALGIA RELIEF.)
  • In a meditation practice, memory reconsolidation may or may not take place – it will depend on whether a concerning memory gets activated, whether a person enters an alternative emotional state (state of awareness), and whether a person then intentionally observes back on the memory that caused concern.  This observation back is explicit in the Exchange step of The ICE Method.  In most meditative practices there is not an awareness of the brain chemistry of memory reconsolidation.  So most meditative practices don’t pay specific attention to this step of literally exchaning emotional peptides.  Most meditative practices aren’t aware of the four-hour window during which activated memories become labile.  Most meditative practices aren’t aware of the brain chemistry difference between reconsolidating an old memory versus creating a new extinction trace in the mind.
  • The awareness of memory reconsolidation allows for a person to consciously calm and reconsolidate experiences from the past that otherwise draw us into agitated states.  If a person uses The ICE Method as a way of life, then whatever arises in agitation is open to a process of calming.  Understanding the biology of Memory Reconsolidation may increase a person’s experience of growing in conscious awareness.

Many approaches in many traditions, including the Vietnamese Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh, can help a person on the path to conscious awareness, and what some call enlightenment.  Understanding the process of Memory Reconsolidation does not negate these approaches or these traditions.  Understanding the process of Memory Reconsolidation gives us a window into understanding these processes, and, I tend to believe, even increasing their effectiveness.  Understanding the process of Memory Reconsolidation provides one more bridge between the understanding of Science and Spirit.