How to remember what’s important
Using memory palaces for meditation
How do you remember what’s important to you?
This is a question I’ve wrestled with for years. I constantly find valuable things that I want to remember: I spend time reading wonderful books, I find amazing quotes, I see beautiful places... They are things I want to retain but they’ve usually faded like smoke: notes and pictures get tucked away unopened and unseen for years and often forever. Over the last decade, however, I’ve found a way to hold onto at least a few of the pieces that matter most.
It all started in 2011 after I discovered how to make memory palaces from the book Moonwalking with Einstein. Discovering this technique allowed me to remember an endless number of things. It was so thrilling and I still love it, however, I will admit that the majority of what I’ve memorized has been pointless: I’ve memorized (and forgotten) countless things over these years but in almost every single case isn’t not actually been helpful. There are very few areas where I’ve found long-term value from memorization and one of them is mindfulness.
In “How I meditate”, I mention that as part of my sitting meditation each morning I spend 5 minutes running through “my memory palace”. This entails remembering about fifty things I think are important. It’s actually pretty easy to do once you learn the technique and I find it extremely powerful…
Below I’ll explain all the details. If you meditate, if you’re religious or if you have things you want to remember every day, then I hope this will be valuable to you.
One quick caveat: I wrote about memory a few times when I started this newsletter (1, 2) and I recognize that it’s a niche interest. There’s a small group of people that love it, but for most others it’s really not that interesting…. Those that fall in love with memory often go very deep, often to the point of fruitless obsession (e.g., Mark Twain loved memory palaces and had a whole episode of his life where he tried, and failed, to get people interested). I will try my best to avoid this…
If you already know how to make a memory palace, you can jump skip this next section. For those of you that don’t know about memory palaces, I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.
A quick intro to memory palaces
Think about your childhood home… Could you draw a rough map of it showing where each room is?
The answer is yes. Every single one of you can do this even though probably not one of you ever set out to explicitly “memorize” your childhood home. Think of how odd this is - you can remember something from many years ago with such accuracy while struggling to remember something more recent. It’s not unique to your childhood home either - if you think of your friends’ homes or your elementary school, you could probably also draw various layouts pretty well.
The reason for this is twofold:
Humans evolved to remember locations - this is the hunter and the gatherer in our DNA. We remember places effortlessly. Our minds are made for it…
We also remember images much more easily than anything abstract - in other words, most of us will remember a face or a striking image much more readily than a number or an idea. This is also thanks to our millions and millions of years of evolution.
Memory palaces take advantage of these two parts of our brains. A “memory palace” entails (1) taking a location (e.g., a house, a room) and then (2) putting images in these locations. So for instance, if you want to make a memory palace to help you remember to buy five things in the supermarket, you (1) choose five locations (e.g., five parts of the room you’re in reading this) and then (2) put those five things in those locations.
Not everything is visually as simple as things you buy in a grocery store, so if want to remember an abstract concept, the key is to make images that are encodings and remind you of the ideas or concepts you want to remember. For example, if you want to remember a great movie, you could put a the movie’s actor as a reminder. The more striking/memorable the image you put in your memory palace, the more you’ll remember it. Experts in memorization code their images with sounds, smells, gore, sexuality, touch, interactions, and more, to make them super memorable.
If you want to learn more about memory palaces, the internet is your friend. However, as I mentioned earlier, most use cases of this technique are just parlor tricks… The only area I’ve found really helpful day-to-day is applying memory palaces for mindfulness. It turns out, this goes pretty far back…
Some historical examples of memorization + mindfulness
In How to Build a Memory Palace, Anthony Metivier describes how memory palaces were used in a few religious practices going back over a thousand years. First, here is St. Augustine in his Confessions describing how he uses a memory palace (using that exact term in 400 A.D.):
And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory (praetoria memoriae), where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses.
Metivier goes on to describe how they’re used in various other religions as well:
The contemporary Buddhist instructor Michael Roach has spoken in great detail about how various meditations were remembered by the monks by placing imagery in different parts of the temple.
For example, in a meditation, which asks us to remember that death is always behind us, monks were advised to place a black dog at a particular part of the temple to remind them of this principle. Every time the practitioner mentally journeys across this section of the Memory Palace, the image of this dog “triggers” the teaching and helps maintain enlightenment.
Later religious traditions like Catholicism would take such ritualistic reminders out of the imagination and externalize them in the form of reliefs or paintings on the walls of their churches in the form of the Stations of the Cross.
Variations on using memory palaces for religious practice have been around for thousands of years. There’s something going on here so how does it work?
Using a memory palace for meditation
The main idea is simple: make a memory palace with things you want to remember and then "walk through it" where this entails sitting down in a similar way as you would meditate, only that instead of focusing only on your breath, you also focus on the images/locations in your palace. With each breath you "look at" another part of the palace.
If you are short on time, you can go faster than one breath per location. If you have a lot of time and really want to reflect on an area, you can spend more breaths there.
The way to make your own memory palace for meditation is to:
Choose a spot you want to use as your palace - this could be somewhere important to you (e.g., a beautiful park you know) or just a place you know well (e.g., your bedroom).
Find things that are important to you and place them in the palace’s locations.
In terms of what types of ideas to include in your palace, here are the categories of the topics I include:
Quotes I want to remember (e.g., prayers I find inspiring)
Important people and places from my life (e.g., my family, places that I’ve found meaningful)
Important concepts that I find centering (e.g., I have a part of my palace where I walk through some of the most important ideas from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, from How To Fly a Horse, and from The Sixth Extinction)
As new ideas come into my life I continue to add them to my palace. For instance recently I’ve found a lot of value in Christopher Alexander’s ideas. To remember them I created a few special rooms for this (e.g., I have a room with the 15 fundamental properties).
Why go through all this trouble?
In my post “On morning routines, habit cues & remembering” I mentioned that as part of my morning routine, I walk through my “morning prayer”:
My motivation for having a morning prayer [i.e., my memory palace] is to remember. When I wake in the morning, I have dreams hanging over me like spiderwebs. I almost never remember what is most important unless I deliberately do so. It is only by focusing and repeating what I’ve learned to be true over time that I can hold onto it during the day.
For example, when I wake up, I don’t remember that there is such a thing as the universe or that I’m living in but a fraction of total geologic time. It’s not until I actually reflect on these facts during my morning prayer that I remember. The prayer grounds me in samsara.
One other benefit from this process is that there is something psychologically powerful about memory palaces. As I mentioned at the outset, memory palaces rely heavily on the spacial and visual parts of the brain. By focusing on each part of the palace and moving along with the breath, I find my visual cortex is much more focused than it would be with breathing meditation alone. Similar to how a mantra helps one focus, by using images/locations, I find it easier for my mind to concentrate.
The impact of just walking through a memory palace mindfully is so strong that I can even walk through images that have no special meaning. For example, I have memory palaces just with images from the Major System (a specific type of memorization encoding system that encodes the number 00-99 as images). Walking through these 100 images in order takes about 20+ minutes when focusing on one image per breath. By just focusing on these images I can calm my mind; I think the effect is similar to the what I would get from using a rosary or prayer beads only with less distractions.
Hopefully this is interesting to some of you. For those of you that want to start this practice, my advice is to start small: find a few things you want to remember and make a small memory palace. Walk through it every so often to keep the palace “fresh.”
A lot of what I laid out here is what I’ve found through trial and error. If you have more examples or insights around how memory palaces are used for meditation, please do let me know!
Happy (mental) travels!
PS - I started a YouTube Channel for this newsletter. It’s early days since I’m really more of a writer than a video editor, but if you spend time on YouTube check it out! Here is the video where I walk through this post.