The other night my wife and kids threw me a 60th birthday party where, after the usual social stuff, folks started dancing to 60’s music. Great songs from the Beatle’s White Album segued into the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, and Van Morrison, for a deliciously long time, with Jose Feliciano’s Light My Fire as an afterhour’s sonic nightcap.
At one point an old friend said while we were both dancing “this brings up so many memories.” It was an incredibly sweet and fulfilling moment.
The following day, while meditating, I found myself struggling, somewhat philosophically, with the pull of nostalgic feelings leftover from the ambrosial moments I remembered while dancing to songs like Back In The USSR, Here Comes your 19th Nervous Breakdown, Astral Weeks, and, of course, the Grateful Dead’s Truckin’.
What was I “supposed” to do in meditation? Note them as “nostalgic feelings” while calmly observing them moment by moment, or allow them in to flood my being with the warmth and joy with which they came, uninvited, but happily and intuitively welcomed like old friends I haven’t seen in decades?
Is feeling authentically warmed and heartened by nostalgia a giving in to samsara?
The answers you would get would greatly vary depending on who you ask.
This is not an email purporting to have an answer. But I will share my own experiences from that night and the following days.
I cleverly (egoic-ly) reminded myself that the Buddhist term translated into English as “mindfulness” originates in the Pali term “sati” and in its Sanskrit counterpart smṛti.
Smṛti originally meant “to remember”, “to recollect”, “to bear in mind”, as in the Vedic tradition of remembering sacred texts. The Pali term “sati” also means “to remember” — in the Satipațțhāna-sutta the term “sati” means to remember the dharmas as a springboard to the deep deconstruction of reality culminating in liberation.
So remembering and savoring the sweet dharmas from my playlist it must be cool, right?
The next day, before sitting, while doing dishes, I decided to put on some of my favorite 60’s bands, and savored the songs like exquisite pasta while soapy hands did their thing in the sink.
But here’s the rub, in the pleasant rush of my newly discovered secret tryst with the past, I found myself wanting more. I can’t remember how many times I interrupted the dishes routine, dried my hands, so as to safely choose special, individual albums on Spotify on my phone, and re-engage in the in the dishes, mumbling to myself, gee, this album isn’t as good as I remembered.
I felt like an addict trying to milk a fix for all it had.
I took a breath and could see the wanting, comparing mind propelling me on a mission to find the perfect nostalgic high, which would Not Fade Away (by Buddy Holly, The Stones, but by my favorite, by The Grateful Dead).
Basic Four Noble Truths stuff here — wanting leads to clinging, which leads to disillusionment and stress, all in the blink of an eye sometimes.
My heartfelt takeaway: that there is a sweet spot with nostalgia, in the blessed middle between the arising of nostalgic ambrosia, its nourishing blossoming in the heart, and the arising of clinging and wanting more; and judging and comparing albums and versions of songs.
In meditation I sat immersed in nostalgic bliss and practiced watching the arising of clinging, and allowing it to pass, while still savoring the sweet feeling tones as body sensations.
I got curious and hit the search engines.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) defines “nostalgia” as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” But when the Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer first coined the term in 1688, nostalgia was seen as a neurological disease which was attributed to demonic causes. Symptoms of nostalgia were thought to include “bouts of weeping, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, anorexia, insomnia, and even smothering sensations.”
Sounds like extreme homesickness, not the sweet nostalgia I was feeling.
It was fascinating to discover, as I pursued this new joy via Google, that contemporary psychologists have come to view nostalgia in fundamentally positive ways.
Take for example these findings:
In the scientific paper entitled The Past Makes the Present Meaningful: Nostalgia as Existential Resource Juhl et al. (2010) argue that while nostalgia has the potential to increase positive mood, bolster self-concept, and strengthen social connectedness, it also serves an existential function.
The researchers found that nostalgia worked not only to buffer the threat of death anxiety, but also helped to boost perceptions of one’s life as meaningful.
They found that nostalgia is a positive emotional reflection that fulfills a wide range of psychological functions, and argue in this paper that it should be seen as a psychological strength rather than a liability or pathology.
I found this line by Loyola psychologist Dr. Fred Bryant in another paper from 2006 illuminating:
“Nostalgia can give one a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose–instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life.”
Sounds like our dear mindfulness meditation, right?
Maybe we are on to something here.
Maybe, as in the refrain from the 1971 Carly Simon song Anticipation:
“These are the good old days.”
Katina and I are here to support your meditation practice in any way we can, just contact us through the Contact Page on this site. Or if you live in Honolulu, or ever visit, feel free to drop by our free, weekly meditation evenings.