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Marigolds and Memory

I went to the flower district after class today and bought a huge bunch of marigolds. I felt drawn to them and thought their bright orange color captured the golden light of fall. I scooped them up into my arms and took a full inhale and suddenly memories of my mother’s garden came rushing in — she always planted marigolds. I felt the crisp air of Heathen Hill up in the Catskills and could hear Lisa King’s voice as she demonstrated how to soak calendula in coconut oil to make her Heal-All Salve. I saw the flash of magenta, teal, and emerald green silk saris worn by the women at the ashram who were plucking out the orange pedals, amassing what seemed like a thousand pounds of marigolds for their puja. There I was, standing in a wholesale flower shop on 28th and 6th, and it was as if I had been transported into a completely different time in my life.

In the first pada, or chapter, of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali includes memory as a vrtti, one of the five kinds of mental activity that distort the screen of consciousness (sutra 1.11). While memory, or smrtih (one of my all time favorite Sanskrit words), can be actively retrieved, it can also return unannounced. It can be a welcome or unwelcome guest, triggering either a benign or a painful pattern of thinking that may spark a corresponding and well-rehearsed emotional response.

Memory can be an obstacle to clarity because it’s not always a reliable source of truth. Our memories are captured through the lens of our experience, which is filtered through our beliefs, our preferences, and our habitual ways of seeing. We remember what we want to remember, picking through the scene to find evidence that supports our theories about life and our identity. Our memories may not accurately represent what actually happened. When we rely on memory to navigate the present moment, we may knowingly or unknowingly be reliving a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of the truth.


Of all the vrttis, I wrestle the most with memory. If I take a step back from my relationship to past experiences and try to look at them objectively, I can see how my memories construct so many of my beliefs about the present moment. I can see how they warp my understanding of what’s really happening. I cherrypick the data that fits best into my story, constructing a reality that supports my narrative.

Painful memories are the hardest. Even the most painful of memories can become like old friends. We may cling to them even if they continue to cause us suffering; however painful, they are worn in and comfortable, and so we slip them on carry them with us. We see them everywhere because they are with us always. In these moments, I take comfort in knowing that future suffering is avoidable (sutra 2.16). This instills faith and encourages me to take action.

Using memory to work with memory has helped me rewrite my story. I really believe that our obstacles are our greatest tools. Today, out of the blue, my memories came flooding back; I stood on 6th Avenue in my mother’s garden, and picked flowers at Heathen Hill, and felt a million marigold pedals under my feet. I placed a single marigold on my alter and meditated on the power of memory as I compassionately dug around its roots. How do you shift gears and cultivate steadiness of mind? What practices help you abide with what is? How do your memories both bind and liberate you? How do you live your yoga in order to see yourself more clearly?

When I feel trapped by my memories, I redirect my attention in a purposeful way. I recommit to the practice of stilling my mind by actively entertaining a different kind of thought. This practice is called pratipaksha bhavanam, and it can be an invaluable tool in working towards equanimity of mind. As my friend Jenny puts it, the practice helps us step off the train heading to Vrttiville. Patanjali’s immediate suggestion for stilling the vrttis of the mind is abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment), but I find I often turn to the practice of pratipaksha bhavanam as an intermediary step. Maybe that’s why Patanjali offers so many tools throughout his text — we need a lot of tricks in our bag just to stay focused on the essence of yoga, sutra 1.2: Yogas citta vrtti nirodaha — Yoga is the purposeful attention of the mind. In order to escape the clutches of deeply engrained patterns, we have to reboot the system.

Changing my focus and choosing to pay attention to something else — anything else — is often my ticket off the vrtti train. I always find solace in a creative project because it helps me shift the focus off of me by asking me to step out of the way — to become absorbed in something other than the dizzying churning of my mind. Writing, cleaning, baking, drawing, designing or arranging connects me to something much deeper inside of myself. I feel bigger than my thoughts and this brings me a sense of clarity and calm.

Lest we become too attached to one idea, Patanjali constantly challenges us by contradicting himself. (I love that he asks us to dig at the site of a paradox, and I learn so much when I abide in a space where opposing truths exist simultaneously.) Mere sutras after announcing that memory is an obstacle, Patanjali tells us that memory can also be used as a tool (sutra 1.20). I find this to be not only fascinating but also incredibly useful. When I sift through my memories and analyze all of the testimony I’ve collected, I can see where I may have jumped to conclusions, or where I may have filled in the blanks with my own assumptions. Memory, the practice, has guided me inward and brought me closer to my own truth. This practice takes courage, as it demands that we walk into the battle waging in our minds and choose to bear witness to the suffering it has caused.

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2 Responses to Marigolds and Memory

  1. In my list of yoga “stuff” I have a quote written from Dani Shapiro: it is a beautiful and strange thing that our lives shape our memories and our memories shape our lives”

    I found this so powerful when I read it several years ago and your post today brings to life the essence of what she is speaking about. Thanks as always for sharing your experience to help your readers and students reflect and learn and dig beyond the surface!

    • What a beautiful quote. Thank you for sharing it with me! I’m so touched that my experience inspires others to dig around.

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