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Can you remember what you had for breakfast? What did you do yesterday, last week, last year? Memory can get fuzzy quickly, even when you’re just talking about your time on earth. In the afterlife, you’ll have a whole lot more to remember—but what does that look like?
In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests explore eighteenth-century scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg’s writings about the spiritual component of our memory and how it affects both this life and the next.
What Is Memory?
You might think you have a sense of what memory is, but Swedenborg has a different perspective.
Hardly anyone realizes yet that we each have two kinds of memory, one outer and one inner. Our outer memory belongs to our body, but our inner memory, to our spirit. (Secrets of Heaven §2469)
Reverend Andrew Dibb digs into this statement to look at the interaction between mind and memory. For example, when we first learn to read, we focus on identifying letters and how they sound. That knowledge gets stored in our memory and forms the foundation for the next level of learning, when we form words and sentences.
The same way we use letters as a foundation for words, we use earthly ideas as a foundation to learn spiritual ideas. In this way, our physical life experiences help us understand spiritual reality.
So, in the spirit of building up our earthly understanding of memory as a foundation for the spiritual, Dr. Soni Werner provides the psychological perspective on how memory works in the brain. Two important points to remember for later are that we are most likely to remember things if (1) we care about them and (2) we use them.
External and Internal
Swedenborg says the two kinds of memory are very distinct, but how do we know which is which? In a nutshell, our outer memory contains information useful to us while we’re living in the world, and our inner memory contains information useful to our spiritual lives.
The case with our outer memory is that it contains everything about us in whole and in part; but after we die we are not allowed to use this memory, only our inner memory. There are many reasons. The first . . . is that in the next life our inner memory enables us to talk and mix with anyone anywhere. The second is that this memory belongs to our spirit and is suited to the spirit-state we then find ourselves in. (Secrets of Heaven §2476)
Andrew talks about Swedenborg’s description of brain function and how it parallels our modern understanding. Our outer memory contains information that’s valuable on earth, but this memory is flawed enough that we don’t need it in the afterlife.
According to Dr. Soni Werner, modern science confirms that our outer memory can be deeply flawed, containing false information. Swedenborg wrote about his own experience of flawed memories in the afterlife: bad spirits might influence a person’s perception to make false information seem true; a person might experience a spirit’s memories as their own; spirits might use our memories of our own past mistakes to attack us, or they might encourage us to dwell on past grievances from others, thus blocking feelings of love and forgiveness. All of these types of memories can persist into the afterlife and cause harm unless we discard them after death.
Impressions of others, whether they be hatred, or contempt, or any others whatever that people had received in the life of the body and that had become rooted in their mind, cannot in the other life be dispersed, except after they come into heaven and bodily and material elements are washed away by the Lord. (Spiritual Experiences §2780)
If we rid ourselves of the external memory, what happens to the good stuff inside it? Most of it actually moves into the internal memory. Swedenborg writes that in the internal memory, everything that we’ve learned about a subject becomes a single thought, so that the details become part of a larger, richer whole.
Swedenborg’s description of the detail and richness of inner memory bears a close similarity to what people have recalled about near-death experiences (NDEs): the ability to relive every second of your life and experience not only your memory but the memories of the people around you, including thoughts and emotions. This can happen so quickly that you seem to experience a lifetime in an instant.
It needs to be realized that anything good we have thought about or done from the time we were babies right up to the last hour of our life stays with us. So does everything bad; in fact not even the smallest particle of it entirely disappears. All of it remains written on our book of life. In other words, it remains written on both kinds of memory and on our nature—that is, on our mental and emotional character. This is the material from which we have formed a life and a soul (so to speak) for ourselves, and it remains the same after death. . . . When we come into the next life, if we have lived a life of loving, charitable goodness, the Lord filters out the evil and uses the good in us to lift us up to heaven. . . . What is filtered out is merely detached, though; it is never removed completely. (Secrets of Heaven §2256:2)
Andrew explains how our internal and external memories work together: everything from our outer memory that’s connected to what we love becomes part of our inner memory. The details that we don’t need are still there, but, like the foundation of a house, we don’t see them. The essence of those experiences is what we take with us into the afterlife.
To help explain, we get a quick view into the world of spirits, as a spirit expresses dismay at the thought that the knowledge accumulated during his life won’t be useful in heaven.
Where’s All This Headed?
So far we’ve been focused on the positive role of memory in our lives, but some people have had experiences they wish they can forget. If certain memories are painful or traumatic, we can treat them both in this life and in the afterlife. Soni talks about how psychologists treat trauma.
In the afterlife, angels are kept from negative thoughts or memories by focusing on God. It’s not that they forget; it’s that painful memories can be removed or re-contextualized to bring loving thoughts to the fore. Often, the reality of a painful event can reveal the way providence worked through it.
Andrew discusses the way our choices can influence our memory and experience in the next world. We can start building a foundation even now; Soni describes just how the skills and knowledge we use are the ones we keep.
So if we keep love alive inside us and constantly try to find ways to do more good things for others, then that’s what will stay with us—both in this world and in the next. Isn’t that a goal worth remembering?
- Is memory restored after illness such as dementia?
- If your spouse is in the spiritual world, will they still remember everything about your marriage and your love for each other?
- Does Swedenborg say anything about learning in heaven? Like do we know everything in a matter of seconds or do we learn it slowly over time?
- How are dreams remembered? Sometimes we remember a lot of details, sometimes nothing. But yet isn’t it all in our memory—what is the purpose of that?
- Does Swedenborg note any risk in losing interest in the outer memory?
- Do disagreements still exist in heaven?
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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