The lesson of nostalgia

For a long time I have been suspicious about the feeling of nostalgia. I think the reason is the following: nostalgia eventually permeates all memories, even the saddest and most negative. Teenage depressions, moments of boredom in childhood, loneliness — wait long enough and you’ll grow fond of even the most depressing experience, just because it’s gone.

In light of this fact, can we really trust nostalgia? Shouldn’t we simply ignore and get over it, if all nostalgia has to tell us is “the past was a better place than the present”? That’s indeed what I have tried to do for a long time: treating it as a symptom of chronic dissatisfaction, a door leading only to melancholy and depression.

But I have recently changed my mind about it. Now I think nostalgia is an invaluable guide that can teach us how to live better. I’ve come to this conclusion slowly, through a process where personal experiences, readings and practices played a role. I would like to explain here this process and what nostalgia represents to me now.

It all begins with sleeping.

The elegant trick of dreaming

Why do we sleep? It was long thought that dreams don’t have any biological/evolutionary function. Under this view, dreams were only “side effects” of REM sleep. However, in the last few years a number of studies have unveiled a much more complex reality. As neuroscientist Matthew Walker explains in “Why we sleep”, dreaming is something very similar to an overnight therapy. When we dream we live again (although in a patchy way) the most emotionally charged experiences we had in our daily life, but in a brain free of stress chemicals. That’s the way Nature found to help us absorb emotionally strong memories without leaving us traumatised.

“Through its therapeutic work at night, REM sleep performed the elegant trick of divorcing the bitter emotional rind from the information-rich fruit”

It’s no coincidence that one of the causes of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) is the lack of REM sleep, which prevents people from separating the emotion from the trauma memory.

Nostalgia, byproduct of dreams

What has this to do with nostalgia? Walker doesn’t talk about it, but I think there is a clear connection here: nostalgia is one of the byproducts of this therapeutic process applied to our memories¹. Once the memory goes through this “soothing balm”, it is freed from its negative emotional connotations. What’s left are the “positive” emotional aspects, those that didn’t have any stress or problematic colour when we originally lived them (the warmth of the sun on the skin, the unconditioned trust in our parents when we were children, the sense of complicity and understanding). We suddenly like the sad memory, we feel nostalgic, because everything that made it bad is now gone.

So the therapeutic interpretation of dreams can explain where nostalgia comes from. To explain why this makes it a great tool in our lives I first have to introduce another clue to the puzzle. I should explain why I value so much the idea of a “soothing balm” for experiences. I should talk about meditation.

Mindfulness: the greatest pain is self-inflicted

Mindfulness and its buddhist roots are a huge topic that I can’t even try to summarise here. There is one concept that I want to describe though, as it is the key for my argument about nostalgia. This concept is the buddhist idea of “Emptiness”².

Everything in our subject experience is emotionally charged, and we often don’t realise it. Not only our thoughts, but our own mental categories and perceptions are loaded with emotions, both positive and negative, about people, objects and events we interact with. And with emotions come the stories that we tell ourselves about people, objects, events. The result of this endless process is a state of continuous distraction and dissatisfaction: because we never really live, we are always lost in thought. We can’t overcome our inner tension even when the emotions are positive — because they could go away soon, or they could be better…

Emptiness is just this: it’s the idea that what we call reality is mostly constructed in our mind, and what we call the “essence” of things is actually an emotional colour we assign to them. The final purpose of many meditative practices, including Mindfulness, is to detach from this emotional layer and start seeing reality as it is. What happens when this detachment is practised for long enough is — allegedly — something extraordinary: positive and negative feelings fade away and give space to a deep sense of calm and compassion.

From this higher state of mind — which is obviously an ideal reference, never fully or permanently accomplished — it is then possible to choose to go back and live the emotions. This time with more awareness and freedom, without distraction, choosing which one to keep a bit longer and which one to let go.

A window on a possible new life

Maybe now you understand where I am getting at. We unconsciously transform our memories every time we dream or remember, removing their emotionally problematic load. My theory is that the result of this purification is subjectively identical to the buddhist Emptiness. When we feel nostalgia for a memory we are retrospectively experiencing that state of peaceful awareness; it is a window on how we could have lived the past, if only we had been able to live fully the moment and recognise the emptiness of distractions. Hidden in the nostalgia there is a priceless teaching and the motivation to live more intensely.

If only I hadn’t been distracted by the thought of the train to take and that gift to buy, maybe I would have enjoyed a bit longer the sun on my face, that conversation with my brother, the familiar warmth of the day. But I was distracted, lost in thought as usual, and that day will never come back. It will come back in the shape of nostalgia though, which will show me how that day looked like, how sweet its juice was, if I had observed it closely enough. That day won’t come back but nostalgia will, and its teaching will be invaluable.

[1] The therapeutic process is not limited to dreams: I would bet that every time we remember an event we are applying a bit of “smoothing balm” to it.

[2] I am here using the interpretation of Emptiness given by Robert Wright in his excellent book “Why Buddhism is True”.

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