“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. ” - Prof. Stephen Hawking
Do you have a least favorite month that is connected to a memory? Perhaps you lost a loved one during that month or there was a series of events that left an emotional scar.
My least favorite month is March. The first event that occurred during this month was the passing of my mother on March 4, 1969, from metastatic breast cancer. She died at home.
I was 14 years old.
This created a vivid and very sad memory. As time passed, the anniversary of her death continued to bring sadness and tears. The sadness created a dark gray cloud that lingered through much of the month. The cloud changed form and color throughout each March but predictably made its presence noticeable.
Overall, the reaction and feeling to the month were that of glumness. Then at the age of 49, during the same month, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My diagnosis date and my mother’s death were only days apart. I could have used my anniversary date as a means to shift the memory and my attitude. I could have celebrated that I was alive another year but I didn’t do that. I chose to stay attached to the memory of loss. My mother died too young. What would it take to change or lose that memory?
A Remarkable Shift
During this March, I noticed an unexpected shift in my attitude with the passing of Professor Stephen Hawking, the famed theoretical physicist, on March 14. Why I ask myself, did it take Hawking’s death to have such a huge impact?
The memory of my mother’s death in great detail was reactivated by Hawking’s death, but this time I believe part of my unconscious mind along with the hippocampus were triggered by this new piece of information (Hawking’s passing). This part of the brain belongs to the limbic system and plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory.
I was greatly inspired by Hawking’s long, full and impactful life. His never-ending search for understanding of the how the universe was created and how it operated led to brilliant contributions to science. His contributions to the world of science and the future of the universe were known for his many prizes and awards. I was enamored with his brilliance along with the balance he kept in his personal life. Despite 50 years of living with a slow but continuously chronic and debilitating disease (ALS) - he married, had children, a full circle of friends and a great sense of humor. He beat all odds of living past a few years from his diagnosis. He made up this mind that his life would be impeded as little as possible by ALS.
By 1986, in order to communicate, Hawking used a computer system attached to his wheelchair. He used a switch to select words printed on a screen, and as he formed sentences they were sent to a speech synthesizer. He did not allow anything to stop him from living life to its fullest.
In his 2013 memoir, he described how he felt when first diagnosed with a motor neurone disease. –
"I felt it was very unfair - why should this happen to me," he wrote. "At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realize the potential I felt I had. But now, 50 years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life."
These humble words make me pause and reflect deeper. Hawking's legacy will live on, and I for one will think of him as an example of someone who gave 100% of himself to living beyond his circumstances. This is what I would call living larger than life.
To sum up in one sentence what allowed me to make my shift and change in memory:
Hawking's passing provided a huge resource state for me to connect to, then collapse the memory I had been attached to, and create a new and inspiring memory.
The sadness attached to the memory of my mother’s death shifted naturally to feelings of compassion and true understanding that “death has its own clock.” I would also think of my mom knowing how much she too would appreciate and be inspired by Stephen Hawking's life.
I spent time reading about Hawking and from the date of his death started a new memory based on an inspiring life that would have a positive impact on my life especially during the month of March. I would pay tribute to Hawking in some small way. I will remember March 14 because 14 is the number day of my birthday. I would also think of my mom knowing how much she too would appreciate and be inspired.
Memory Reconsolidation – You can do this too!
There is a process that I use with clients to help them work with memories and allow them to create new outcomes; ones that better serve them. It is called memory reconsolidation.
Memory reconsolidation is the brain’s natural, neural process that can produce transformational change. It is a fairly new process of unlocking, recoding and reorganizing the information in a memory, which allows the mind to form a healthier version of the memory. So instead of trying to control your depression or carefully avoid the memories, you can undergo memory reconsolidation to be relieved from the emotional domination altogether.
Here is a basic understanding of how it works. Memories start as short term. Then they consolidate as long-term memories stored in the hippocampus. If you recall a memory several years later, it becomes reactivated. This means that this memory has the capacity for adaptive change. It is capable of being altered or controlled by other influences. A memory then can be changed; updated or erased. The uses for such a process can have a positive effect on PTSD, addiction or phobia.
This is what the process looks like in more thorough steps then what I went through.
Step 1: Activate the memories. Verbalize the feelings, bringing them to the surface of your mind. A memory can't be recoded until it's no longer buried in your subconscious. Once you see the 'monster' for what it is, then you're in a position to work on it.
Step 2: Introduce a different emotional model that contradicts the brain's original assumptions. Since the codes attached to the trauma don't really make sense in normal life, you can begin to realize that the emotions don't fit and aren't helpful. Your mind starts the sorting process, consciously deciding not to retain the hidden emotional codes.
Step 3: Create experiences that erase or revise the original emotional picture, producing a more effective memory model. As you embrace the new model, the emotional effects of the old memory pattern begin to disappear, leaving you free of the previous burden.
This is something you can do on your own or with the help of a coach or therapist. I welcome any questions or comments you may have.
Factfile: Stephen Hawking
Born 8 January 1942 in Oxford, England
Earned place at Oxford University to read natural science in 1959, before studying for his PhD at Cambridge
By 1963, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given two years to live
Outlined his theory that black holes emit "Hawking radiation" in 1974
In 1979, he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge - a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton
Published his book A Brief History of Time in 1988, which has sold more than 10 million copies
In the late 1990s, he was reportedly offered a knighthood, but 10 years later revealed he had turned it down over issues with the government's funding for science
"Life would be tragic if it weren't funny." Stephen Hawking