I remember visiting my 86-year-old aunt in the hospital. Our conversation went something like this:
She: "What's your name?"
She: "Who's your father?"
Me: "Your brother George."
She: "Oh, yes, yes." (long pause) "Are you and I the same age?"
She: "Am I older than you?"
Me: "Yes, you're 30 years older than I am."
She: "Thirty years older? But you're all gray!"
Me: "So are you!"
She: (long pause) "What did you say your name was?"
And around we'd go again. My aunt was just floating out there, with little connection to time or personal relationships. Most often, I just held her hand, and we looked into each other's eyes. It didn't matter that she couldn't remember me; she didn't seem particularly anxious about it. We were just two beings meeting in soul time together, and once I'd released my attachment to speaking to her on the ego level, both of us enjoyed our visits immensely.
Because we are so identified with our thoughts and feelings, and so sure that they and only they tell us who we really are, it's very hard for us not to panic when our minds slip. And yet there are cases in which what we call senility is, in fact, a process that need not be so frightening. As Frances, a resident in a nursing home, said, "Lack of physical strength keeps me inactive and often silent. They call me senile, but senility is just a convenient peg on which to hang nonconformity. A new set of faculties seems to be coming into operation. More than at any other time of my life, I seem to be aware of the beauties of our spinning planet and the sky above. Old age is sharpening my awareness." In other words, what appears to be loss may in fact be transformation, if we allow the mind to change without fear.
There is an award-winning film, "Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter," that I love for its honesty. The writer-director chronicles the advancing stages of Alzheimer's syndrome in her mother, at the same time recording her own reactions to this illness. The disease progresses until at last the mother no longer recognizes her daughter at all. Finally, when it becomes too dangerous for the mother to remain in her own apartment, the daughter moves her to a nursing home.
During the admissions process, the head of the nursing home tells the daughter not to leave anything from the past with her mother--not even her clothes. This seems harsh at the time, but the daughter does as she's asked. When she returns the next day, she finds her mother wearing a man's sweat suit and carrying a pocketbook with one penny in it. The daughter suddenly realizes that her mother is quite happy now that there's no one around to remind her of what she's forgotten. The daughter realizes that her loving attachment to the mother she's known has only prolonged her mother's suffering. In time, she learns to relax her attachment and to dance with her mother's consciousness wherever it might flow. In the last scene, the mother is walking down the corridor, swinging her pocketbook, and singing, "I'm freeee. I'm freeee!"
When we begin to examine the contents of our minds, we discover a cluster of common demons--what I call The Usual Suspects--that cause us trouble as we grow older. The first of these is senility--or the fear of losing our mental faculties.
I once received a greeting card from an elderly friend that took a lighter look a losing our minds:
Just a line to say I'm living
That I'm not among the dead,
Though I'm getting more forgetful
And more mixed up in the head.
For sometimes I can't remember,
When I stand at the foot of the stair,
If I must go up for something,
Or if I've just come down from there.
And before the fridge so often,
My poor mind is full of doubt:
Have I just put food away,
Or have I come to take some out?
And there are times when it is dark out,
When my nightcap's on my head,
When I don't know if I'm retiring
Or just getting out of bed.
So if it's my turn to write you,
There's no need for getting sore--
I may think that I have written
And don't want to be a bore.
Remember, I do love you,
And I wish that you were here
But now it's nearly mail-time
So I must say good-bye, my dear.
There I stood beside the mailbox
With my face so very red.
Instead of mailing you my letter
I have opened it instead.
I like my new bifocals,
My dentures fit me fine,
My hearing aid is perfect,
But Lord, I miss my mind!
Most of us understand this experience, and though we chuckle at the humorous notion of turning into absent-minded old folks, I have found that may old people fear the loss of their minds almost more than anything else. Nothing, save physical incapacitation, is more daunting than the prospect of senility. Before I had my stroke, losing my mental acuity was certainly at the top of my own list. And today, in spite of many years' mindfulness practice, and my ability to rest in soul awareness, the thought that I might lose this sunlight of awareness and fall back into a darkness from which I could not free myself, is extremely unappealing.
Of course, the loss of one's mind isn't always so simple. For may people, as the structures of ego-mind dissolve, a lot of ill-digested psychological stuff surfaces that may involve tremendous agitation, anger-filled delusions, or even violence.
A very conscious woman who had been caring for her husband for 54 years through the progression of his Alzheimer's syndrome, and doing it with grace, wrote to tell me that her husband was not in a group home. She told me that her husband had become lost in frightening sexual delusions. He thought that he was in a whorehouse, and that she was a madam who was forcing him to have sex with two dozen girls at once; to escape, he tried to climb out through the window of their high-rise apartment. The wife went to him save him, but he saw her as the madam and struck her when she attempted to hold him back. The previous week he had pushed her out of bed, saying it was improper for a man to sleep with his sister. Much as she wanted to continue to be with him, his state of mind, and the actions it generated, were too much for her to handle.
For most of us, however, the fear of losing our minds--rather than brain-related disease--will be our primary challenge. Like all difficult mind-states, however, this fear contains the seeds of its own healing.
Mindfulness practice reveals that what we call "fear" is not an insurmountable obstacle but rather a thought--or series of thoughts--accompanied by physical sensation. Fearful thoughts arise most commonly because of our tendency to dwell in the past or invent the future.
"If this bad thing that happened a year ago happens again, what will I do?" we worry. With the future always unknown, the fearful mind is free to create a horror-show of catastrophes, each leading to the next in a snowball of ever-growing panic. There is no end to unchecked fear; as we get older and feel more vulnerable in the world, fear in its myriad forms can become a chronic companion that renders old age a living hell.
If, however, we choose a path of the soul, we discover a capacity to work with these fears rather than become their victims. When I speak of "working," I don't mean willing the ego into resistance but of remaining alert to the signs of fear's presence in the mind. When we become aware that fear is present, we bring whatever clarity, quiet, and attention we can to the thought(s) that may be prompting the fear--a rise in the cost of food, for example, or some new physical challenge--and notice where our mind is attached.
It is the mental tendency to cling that creates anxiety, suffering, and fear, and once we're able to identify what we are attached to--a certain standard of living, say, or a body that does not change--we are able to take the first steps toward freeing ourselves, regardless of the particular difficulty.
Reprinted from "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying" by Ram Dass. Copyright 2000 by Ram Dass. Permission granted by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. All rights reserved.
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