Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Aliveby Larry Rosenberg, David Guy
This book presents the Buddhist approach to facing the inevitable facts of growing older, getting sick, and dying. These tough realities are not given much attention by many people until midlife, when they become harder to avoid. Using a Buddhist text known as the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, Larry Rosenberg shows how intimacy with the realities of
This book presents the Buddhist approach to facing the inevitable facts of growing older, getting sick, and dying. These tough realities are not given much attention by many people until midlife, when they become harder to avoid. Using a Buddhist text known as the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, Larry Rosenberg shows how intimacy with the realities of aging can actually be used as a means to liberation. When we become intimate with these inevitable aspects of life, he writes, we also become intimate with ourselves, with others, with the world—indeed with all things.
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Read an Excerpt
THE FIRST MESSENGER
Aging Is Unavoidable
"Not wanting things to change." If we think like this, we must suffer. When we think that the body is ourselves or belongs to us, we are afraid when we see it change.
I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
JUST TO SPEND some time with this contemplation every day would be instructive, to see it and really penetrate it. People often get impatient when you tell them something like that. I know I'm aging, they say. And we do know it, intellectually, in the abstract. Then again we don't. We don't know it in our hearts. We don't know it in our bones. And we don't live it. The slightest sign of aging comes up and we do everything we can to avoid it.
I'm not talking just about face-lifts, hair dye, hairpieces, adopting the fashions of young people. (And I'm not necessarily opposed to such things.) I am talking about being aware of what your body is going through. I'm talking about knowing that you like everyone and everything else are subject to the law of impermanence, and that that law includes not just eventual death but gradual changes along the way. I'm talking about forgetting the image you project, and knowing what is happening to you.
I'm also talking about experiences that happen to perfectly ordinary people, all the time. One happened to me not long ago that really knocked some wisdom into me and has given my students many a laugh as I have recounted it. I ama person who takes very good care of himself. I do yoga most mornings; I take long vigorous walks; I meditate a great deal; and I am careful about food supplements and the food that I eat.
About three years ago, when I was sixty-three, I was on the subway in Boston, coming back from a trip to the dentist. I comfort myself with the thought that I may have looked a little peaked from my dental work. I was standing there holding on to the metal rail when a young woman seated in front of me smiled and stood up and gave me her seat. I didn't realize at first quite what was happening. I thought she was getting off at the next stop. But that stop went by, and the next, and I started to realize: Wait a minute. A young woman just gave me her seat on the subway.
My mind started racing. I wanted to say to her: You've got it all wrong. I get up and give my seat to you. I've been giving up subway seats all my life. But apparently, from her standpoint, this looked appropriate. She was a young, vigorous, healthy woman. And I, it seems, looked like a man who needed to sit down. All my years of doing yoga, eating good food, and taking long walks were wasted. I looked my age anyway. Next time it would be, "Hey, Grandpa. How'd you like a seat?" Or, "Slow down, old-timer. Let me help you with those packages." My self-image as a youthful, bouncy "older man" an image I didn't even know I had had been smashed to pieces.
This was not a bad experience. It was actually good. A young woman made a courteous gesture, and I got to take a load off my feet. It was what I did with it before my awareness returned and I had a good laugh at myself that mattered. It was a modern-day rite of passage, an initiatory moment that let me know I was in a new category. It shattered my self-image.
Self-images are a problem. They are designed to help us feel adequate and secure but also often cause a great deal of suffering. We all have them, and most of us aren't aware we do. We spend enormous time and energy and even money creating and protecting them, trying to keep them intact while our daily experience is chipping away at them. Then when someone sees us in a different way, we are shattered. They mention a senior-citizen discount, and suddenly we see ourselves in Bermuda shorts and canvas shoes, wearing a funny little straw hat. That isn't the image we want to present at all. The pictures we have in our own head are way out of date.
What we normally do is create a new image: Yes, I may strictly speaking be eligible for the senior-citizen discount, but I don't look it (unless I've just been to the dentist). I'm quite spry for my age. I have the strength of a man twenty years younger. You can keep your seat on the subway (though I will take the lower fare).
I am not, I repeat, opposed to looking after one's health and appearance, I believe in taking care of the body, and that includes dressing well and being clean and well groomed. Doing so is just a matter of expressing one's human dignity and doesn't mean we are self-centered.
But the practice is about moving beyond all images, being intimate with the raw, naked experience of your body, its moment-by-moment experience. The Buddha spoke in several of his sutras of the body within the body. What he meant was the body as it really is. Not the image we have of it but the body as it is right now, the sensations evident to us as we sit reading this book.
The great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige had a much more down-to-earth way of putting it, but he was saying the same thing. When he was in his prime as a pitcher, African-American players were confined to what were then called the Negro leagues, and by the time he finally got to the majors he was quite old for a ballplayer. Reporters naturally asked him about his age, and he said, "Age isn't a problem. It's a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
How Mind-States Happen
Let's have a look at a concrete example, one that is less whimsical. At the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, where I teach, I regularly give interviews at which students can come in and talk to me about their formal sitting practice or their daily lives. On one recent morning, a student told me she'd been experiencing a great deal of sadness and fear about aging. I asked her to be more specific, and she said that that morning she had awakened with some stiffness in her back and knees. Perhaps she pictured a grandmother or some other elderly relative who was stiff in the morning, and suddenly this relatively young woman she was just in her mid-forties thought, "This is it. Old age is here."
Within seconds she was picturing a really stiff body, one that could never straighten out; white hair, wrinkled skin, the loss of all attractiveness; a cane, then a walker, finally a wheelchair; she saw her body deteriorating, her mind starting to go, her final years full of illness and pain. Furthermore, she hadn't put enough away for retirement, so she imagined destitution as well, an old woman who needed special care but couldn't afford it. She saw herself on the street, wrapped in a ragged overcoat and shivering, asking passersby for money.
In reality, she was an attractive professional woman in her forties, living in a perfectly comfortable house. But as far as her suffering went, she might as well have been out on the street already. Such is the power of the mind. It can take a simple unpleasant sensation and turn it into a powerful sense of self.
We have all experienced such flights of fancy, sudden feelings of terror. And I would be the first to admit that they conceal a certain wisdom. Old age, sickness, and death are the fate of most of us death, for all of us so in that way she was seeing something real. Furthermore, the need to provide for your old age is a real one that needs to be attended to. Sometimes you experience exaggerated anxiety because there is some real task that you need to do.
At the same time, this was an almost classic case of a process that the Buddha talked about quite eloquently, the way that the mind turns physical sensations into suffering. It is an excellent example for us to work with. So I would like to spend some time on it.
Of the various phenomena that can arise in the body and mind, one that the Buddha spoke about specifically is designated by the Pali word vedana, which is often translated as "feelings." Vedana doesn't actually refer to what we think of in our culture as feelings but just to sensations, anything that might come through the six sense doors (in Buddhism, the mind is considered a sense).
The Buddha said there are three kinds of vedana, to which we have three characteristic reactions. A sensation might be pleasant, in which case we tend to hold on to it or want to repeat it. It might be unpleasant, so we are inclined to push it away. And it might be neutral. In the case of neutral sensations, we tend to get bored or fill in the emptiness with fantasy. Either way, we're not present with the sensation.
For my student, the feeling was unpleasant but just mildly so; a little morning stiffness is not exactly a heart attack. But the act of pushing it away was quite elaborate. It also traded a minor physical discomfort for a severe mental one. It took a mild physical pain and turned it into torment.
Another phenomenon that might turn up as we watch the body and mind is what the Buddha called mind-states. These are more complicated than sensations; they typically combine a racing mind, piling-up thoughts (like the ones about aging that we've just seen), with noticeable sensations in the body. There are various mind-states, but three that the Buddha emphasized repeatedly in his teachings he called the kilesas, or three mental poisons. They are greed, hatred, and delusion, sometimes rendered as passion, aversion, and confusion.
Greed is the feeling of wanting something we don't have. Hatred is the feeling of wanting something to be gone that we do have. And delusion is when we don't know what we want or don't see clearly what is present. There is a fog over the mind.
The kilesas in general are rooted in delusion, or ignorance. Ignorance is the real basis of all our craving and aversion. So you could say that the source of my student's problem was delusion, concretely manifesting itself as aversion. Something was present that she didn't want to be there. She began to struggle with it. And her mind-states proliferated.
The Buddha was once asked how such a situation differed for someone who is enlightened, as opposed to someone who isn't. And he said the unenlightened person is like a warrior who is hit with two arrows. In my student's case, the first arrow was the stiffness. The second was the emotional turmoil that she made out of it. The first arrow is unavoidable. There are pains and difficulties that are simply a part of being human (and many of them are linked with our larger subjects, aging, sickness, and death). The Buddha never claimed we could avoid them.
But we can avoid the second arrow. We don't need to take physical suffering and make it into torment. We can feel the stiffness and let it be stiffness. What's the problem? It is an impermanent phenomenon like any other.
So a person with some degree of awakening would feel the stiffness. She might feel it as unpleasant. But it would end right there.
That's easy to say, of course. That kind of liberation is the result of long hard practice (though it is also available right now. In this moment you can feel a sensation and let it be what it is. You don't need to turn it into torment. Early in the practice, this includes some willfulness. An awakened person no longer has to will it). In the case of the woman who came to the interview, she found herself rapidly transported in a matter of seconds into the complex mind-state known as fear. There were probably, unpleasant feelings in the body and thoughts piling up one after another. If she was like most of us, the thoughts were more vivid. At the time, they seemed to represent reality. She was going to wind up destitute and die a long, slow, painful death full of suffering.
There are several ways to work with such a mind-state. In the interview, we fell back on reflection. We looked at the thoughts that arose and saw which were totally fanciful and which had some basis in reality. But our encounter was taking place after the mind-state had largely passed. At the actual moment when it was happening, she was quite overwhelmed by fear, and probably the best tactic would have been to bring her attention to the breathing. That wouldn't have been repression: she would have been acknowledging her fear but acknowledging also that it was too much for her, that she needed to give her attention to something else for a while, to calm down and then perhaps be able to examine fear directly.
But once her mindfulness had developed to a greater extent, she could work with her fear in an even more valuable way. She could observe it just as it is, without adding to or subtracting from it in anyway. She would see it arise out of the uncomfortable sensation of stiffness, see it proliferate as feelings in the body and thoughts in the mind, and see it eventually pass away, like any other phenomenon. She would see that fear itself is impermanent; though it seems to be solid and overwhelming when it is present, it actually lacks any essential core and is empty of self. Once she had deeply seen that, fear would be much less of a problem for her.
We can learn to turn our attention to the energy we call fear and sustain that state of observation. With practice our reflexes grow quicker and the practice becomes easier; we remember to observe rather than to avoid. We needn't be held captive by a lifetime of unexamined fear. Our situation isn't hopeless.
One way to work with aging is to take up such a contemplation intentionally, to take some time every day to reflect on the fact: I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable. We might allow the significance of these thoughts to sink in, or imagine what it would be like to be old and infirm, to move slowly, to have limited physical powers, to be dependent on others. Many people are in this state right now, and we see them with a blind arrogance, the arrogance of (comparative) youth and health. But we are all subject to the same law. We are brothers and sisters in our liability to sickness, aging, and death.
Whatever feelings come up around this contemplation, you work with them as I've suggested, let them be and just observe them. Over time you will flush out a great deal of previously unfelt fear.
Another way to work with aging might be called naturalistic observation, using the kinds of examples I've brought up, the small things that happen every day in our lives. Often we suppress these things and try not to notice them, or at the other extreme grow depressed and panicky, lost in our identification with the aging condition of the body. But in practicing with these incidents, and with the mind-states that arise, we do something very valuable. We liberate ourselves from the mind-states and from aging itself. That doesn't mean we don't age. It means that the mind doesn't suffer from the body's aging.
We have emphasized in this discussion the tendency of the mind to attach to the physical signs of aging and make self out of them. Our youthful images are shattered and unflattering pictures of being old break in and bring us sorrow and even torment. But it isn't just a matter of image-making. Real changes take place. We can't run or think as fast. We have less strength and stamina. Our coordination, memory, and sexual powers may diminish. We may lose our job or be viewed in a marginal way after having been a central player.
Such losses are not just a matter of self-image. And though we might need to mourn them, it doesn't follow that our loss of capacity needs to be a source of torment. The reflections that we've discussed can help us face our losses and come to terms gracefully with the way things are.
One of the most vivid experiences of impermanence that I ever had took place when I was working on my Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Chicago. I was old-fashioned even in those days and saw myself as a student of human behavior; a notebook and ballpoint pen were sophisticated-enough tools for me. But I worked in a department that insisted on an extremely scientific meaning technological brand of research, and they had me working on a computer, one of the first that came out. It used FORTRAN; it took up a whole room, made a huge amount of noise, and spit out reams of paper.
I didn't want to work with such a monstrosity, but the chairperson of my thesis committee insisted, so I had to relate to this massive computer and the people operating it. I would take them my data and didn't really understand what they were doing with it. They had a complex technological language, which only they knew, and I had my work, which they didn't know or care about. Sometimes I would show up quite excited about what I'd found, and they would say, "Don't bother us with the content. Just give us the data. Give us the variables."
One day I walked in, and it looked as if they were staging a funeral. The whole team was there, more people than were usually around. Everyone seemed incredibly depressed. I said, "What's all the gloom and doom?" And they said, "A new program has been invented. It's drastically simpler and faster, and all of a sudden we're obsolete. We've spent ten years learning this, and we're a museum piece. In the meantime, there are all these young people who are familiar with the new system. They're taking off, and we're left behind."
It really struck me: Don't tie your life to anything subject to time, because sooner or later it will fail you. That goes for the latest computer system. It also goes for our life in human form. As the Buddha told us, we do not find ultimate fulfillment there.
Righting the Balance
There are other forms of practice that deal somewhat indirectly with the aging process. One of them is called asubha meditation, meditation on the unloveliness of the body. It revolves around a classification system in which the body is divided into thirty-two parts. You learn the parts as they are traditionally listed, take them up one by one, recite them inwardly, and reflect on them. You begin with the hair on the head, go on to the skin, the fingernails, the teeth, and so on.
After a while you start to unzip the body and look at what is inside. You find blood, urine, feces, all kinds of unsavory substances. If you've developed any kind of samadhi a concentrated, peaceful, collected state of mind before you begin, the practice becomes quite vivid. It once made me nauseous. It also wipes out any chance for feeling sexual attraction, and is thus used to help celibate monks diminish sexual feeling. It can also be of immense help in seeing the true nature of the body: there is this body, but it isn't me or mine.
The first time I was exposed to asubha meditation, I was doing a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. The Burmese teacher U Sulananda started to describe this practice during a dharma talk. I had been doing hatha yoga, valuing mindful breathing and good food, keeping myself in shape. I had a somewhat romantic view of things. All of a sudden this teacher started to talk about the foulness of the body. You could see people realize: This guy's really going into all this. They were immediately uncomfortable. Some actually left. I thought: This couldn't be what the Buddha had in mind. He was interested in enlightenment and awakening, the beauty of life. In those days, if a practice didn't fit our model of what was aesthetically or ethically agreeable, we just threw it out. No more asubha meditation for us.
Ten years later I took up this practice for an intense six-week period with Ajaan Suwat of Thailand. I told him about the aversion and doubt that had cut short my first experience. He laughed heartily and let me know that the point of asubha meditation wasn't just to bring up aversion. It was to counteract our tremendous identification with and attachment to the body, our infatuation with it. With some practice you can get very good at running through the parts of the body. If you're drawn to a particular part, you can work with that a great deal. I, for instance, felt an affinity for the skeleton. I'd been intrigued with skeletons ever since I was a child. So I worked with that.
After I did this practice for a few weeks, my mind became very concentrated and I started seeing everyone as skeletons, seeing myself as one too. At other times internal bodily organs like the blood, stomach, and intestines appeared quite vividly to me. Once I even got nauseous when it came time to eat, because I pictured the food on its journey. When I really got skillful, the teacher changed the instructions. I had completely deconstructed the body, and now he said, "Now put it back together. Make it pretty again." Because that is also true. The body is a miracle. So I would do that, and then he'd have me deconstruct it again. I got very good at going back and forth.
The point is to develop a middle way. Not to worship the body, becoming attached to it; and also not to reject it, ignoring it altogether. That spiritual tradition exists also, total rejection of the body, seeing it as something that is in the way and that we need to overcome. The Buddha studied in that ascetic tradition for a while, but he eventually rejected it quite pointedly. He practiced moderation in taking care of the body in order to make proper use of it. But he also didn't get attached to it, because it is constantly changing and eventually gives out altogether.
So we're moving toward a balanced view. There is this body. No one denies it exists. It just doesn't have the existence we think it does. It is an impermanent changing phenomenon. Above all, we don't identify it as me or mine. At first when we say that, it is an ideology. But if we meditate long enough, we see it as a reality. The body is definitely here. (It also definitely ages.) But no one owns it.
We can also read the section on aging in the Dhammapada, an ancient crystallization of the Buddha's teaching into verse form, in the light of what we've said about asubha meditation. The first stanza makes reference to some women followers of the Buddha who were frivolous and lighthearted and would come to his talks in a festive mood after they had been drinking. He is speaking directly to them.
What laughter, why joy, when constantly aflame? Enveloped in darkness, don't you look for a lamp?
The flame referred to in the second line is that of desire, of craving, the same flame the Buddha spoke of in his famous fire sermon, where he declared that the whole world is on fire with greed, hatred, and delusion. The women are festive but don't see how enslaved they are to their craving. The darkness that envelops them is that of ignorance. They should be looking for a light.
The second stanza makes reference to a renowned courtesan who had recently died. It seems to see her simultaneously at various moments in her life, so that even her beautiful image apparently enhanced by cosmetics is concealing a grim future.
Look at the beautified image, a heap of festering wounds, shored up: ill, but the object of many resolves, where there is nothing lasting or sure.
The "many resolves" that the body is the "object" of are the desires of many men to sleep with her. This stanza seems to refer to the two views of the body we've mentioned, the beautified self-image and the body within the body, which is decaying all the time. It's as if the stanza says: If you could see what this body will eventually become, you would not be so attached to it.
The third stanza continues the same kind of imagery. It resembles asubha meditation itself, arousing fear and aversion as a corrective to the idealization of the body.
Worn out is this body, a nest of diseases, dissolving. This putrid conglomeration is bound to break up, for life is hemmed in with death.
The fourth refers to another kind of Buddhist meditation. Monks would visit the charnel grounds to contemplate bodies in various states of decomposition. They would contemplate skeletons, then the isolated bones that were left when the skeletons broke up. Over time the bones would decompose into dust, and the monks would contemplate that. Then the dust would blow away, and literally nothing would be left of what had once been a human being.
On seeing these bones discarded like gourds in the fall, pigeon-gray: what delight?
The story behind this stanza is that there was a group of young monks who believed they had achieved enlightenment, when really they had just attained a degree of concentration. The Buddha took them to the charnel grounds, to see what equanimity they could exhibit there. They realized they needed to continue practicing.
The fifth stanza makes reference to a beautiful queen who had little interest in the Buddha's teaching but was much enamored of her own form. The Buddha showed her an image of it, then caused it to age as she watched, just showing her a more rapid version of the inevitable change that was already happening.
A city made of bones, plastered over with flesh & blood, whose hidden treasures are: pride & contempt aging & death.
The sixth stanza lets us know that this law of impermanence is no respecter of wealth, that royal families are just as subject to it as anyone else. It also refers to a part of us that doesn't age.
Even royal chariots well-embellished get run down, and so does the body succumb to old age. But the Dhamma of the good doesn't succumb to old age: the good let the civilized know.
The "good" are the people in touch with this deep truth; the "civilized" are those readily available to be trained, people like ourselves directly penetrating aging on their way to that which is timeless.
The seventh stanza points to the situation of people without inner development, describing someone who matures physically but not spiritually.
This unlistening man matures like an ox. His muscles develop, his discernment not.
The eighth and ninth are two of the most famous in the Dhammapada and are known as the "Song of Victory."
Through the round of many births I roamed without reward, without rest, seeking the house-builder. Painful is birth again & again.
House-builder, you're seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the Unformed, the mind has come to the end of craving.
At first glance these stanzas seem to be a departure from the subject of aging and to take up death and rebirth. We in the West don't take rebirth for granted, and some don't believe in it at all. Here the speaker has achieved nirvana and will no longer be subject to the round of death and rebirth. Seen in another way, however, these stanzas are about the here and now. In this life the self is reborn every time we attach to something as being me or mine, to a mood, a sensation, a mind-state. This series of rebirths is quite literally exhausting; it is a full-time job to attend to the ego with its many desires and aversions, its various wounds.
This is the kind of rebirth that takes place when we feel stiffness and think, "I am an old person"; suddenly we are reborn in a new form, to a whole new world of suffering. Once we clearly see this process at work, we have the option of not participating in it. Then the "I" is not created; the house is not built. We can discover nirvana in the midst of everyday life.
The last two stanzas refer to people who are not able to choose between the life of the spirit and the life of the world. Just as it is possible to live in both at once, it is possible to live in neither, by not fully entering into life. Your days become stale and flat.
Neither living the chaste life nor gaining wealth in their youth, they waste away like old herons in a dried-up lake depleted offish.
Neither living the chaste life nor gaining wealth in their youth, they lie around, misfired from the bow, sighing over old times.
Whose Mind Do We Lose?
The "Song of Victory" makes reference to the Unborn, also known by many other names: the unconditioned, the deathless, buddha nature, nirvana, our true nature. Strictly speaking, this subject comes up later in the five contemplations of maranasati; it is more concerned with death itself.
But as I've just suggested, it also permeates everything we're discussing, all of Buddhist teaching, because it doesn't refer to a state in the future or in the past. It refers to a state we're living in right now. The Heart Sutra, a Mahayana teaching, tells us that form is emptiness, which we've already seen; all phenomena are impermanent and insubstantial. But it also says that emptiness is form. The empty state that we believe ourselves to be seeking is right here in the world of form. We should not look for it elsewhere.
I bring this up now because, in all of the classes and practice groups that I teach on the subject of aging and death, one kind of question comes up again and again. Though many of my students are middle-aged and beyond, I have students of all ages, and they tend to be addressing issues of aging and death. It might not be that they themselves are ill or near dying but that a parent or relative is. They come to the classes with their fears and concerns. We are trying not to sweep these matters under the rug anymore. We are facing them as part of our lives and our practice.
And though people do raise questions about physical illness and about death itself, the question that seems to come up most often is about aging, and a certain aspect of the mind. Students can understand how the practice will help them if they are facing a physical illness like cancer. They understand how if we can stay alert the practice will be a great help at the moment of death. But what, they want to know, if we become senile? What if our brain starts to go? What if the condition we're dealing with undermines our ability to practice at all?
We fear cancer; we fear AIDS and a number of other diseases. We fear the possibility that we will be reduced to a state of helpless dependency. But more than anything else, it seems, we fear Alzheimer's disease and other diseases of the brain. We fear that as we approach death we will not be in full possession of our mental faculties. What then?
I don't know, obviously. Ask me after I've lost my mind. It is like what one of my favorite Korean monks, Byok Jo Sunim, who absolutely radiated energy and joy, once said to me. He seemed to me a highly awakened person, so I asked him what happened after we died. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't died yet." In all the teachings on aging and death, there are some that seem speculative and others that are based on experience. I would like to stay as close as possible to concrete experience.
I have had some experiences that shed light on this matter. There was a great Indian teacher, for instance, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, who taught to a very old age, and when he was in his eighties someone asked him what it was like to be an old yogi. And he said, "Oh, I just watch senility come in. I see the memory decompose on an almost daily basis." And he roared with laughter.
Perhaps he is suggesting that there is something larger and deeper than the thinking mind, or the brain, something that can observe it all.
Many of us have had intimations of that larger mind. If you've ever had the experience of observing your thinking, you've realized that awareness is larger than the thinker. The further you get into meditation, the more you become this observer. It's as if you crawl out on a limb, observing more and more of who you are, until finally you saw the limb off. You are observation itself. Pure awareness. And that awareness is not itself affected by anything. It just is. Everything else is scenery.
Ajaan Chah, a revered and much-loved Thai forest master, had an unsuccessful operation that left him with something like water on the brain at the end of his life. I'm not really sure what his exact condition was, but for the last four or five years of his life he was unable to communicate.
We need to be careful, of course, about idolizing the teacher; there are often stories about the end of a teacher's life that may be largely romantic projection. But people say that even though Ajaan Chah couldn't talk, he was wonderful to be around. His very presence was a teaching. Which is to say that, though he couldn't talk, he was still present and clearly at peace. Many people said their visits to him were uplifting, not depressing at all.
In the Thai forest tradition, this awakened part of us is called buddho, which might be roughly translated as "that which knows" (this word is sometimes used in meditation practice as a silent object of concentration, coordinating the first syllable with the in-breath, the second with the out-breath, repeating it over and over like a mantra). We all are this absolute presence, but we haven't fully tapped into it; we do that as we meditate, and the more we practice the deeper we get. We learn to recognize awareness itself, and how to live and act from such silent clarity.
But the time to start practicing is now. You don't want to wait until you've had a stroke or are in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The more you've entered that state of deep awareness, the more available it is to you. In these situations we fear, where our mind has been affected, that place will be our refuge. As Suzuki Roshi said, "One purpose of our practice is to enjoy our old age. But we can't fool ourselves. Only sincere practice will work."
I have a friend who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He has been diagnosed and knows he has Alzheimer's, but he has also been practicing insight meditation for many years. He is definitely losing his memory, and I don't want to minimize that; when an instance of memory loss occurs, he can experience anything from disappointment to real terror. Sometimes he doesn't know who he is speaking to or why he is speaking. But he is able to see the terror.
At first his loss of memory in social situations was a nightmare. But his courage, help from his wife, and years of practicing meditation enabled him to remember to be mindful of his disorientation and his fears. He told me that when he awakens each morning, he has no idea of where he is or what he is supposed to do. He has learned to be mindful of such confusion and disorientation. He no longer panics. It passes, and he is able to get washed and ready for the day. So the episodes of memory loss became more and more manageable. He is now able to work with them as impermanent phenomena that come and go. He has the very real difficulty and sorrow of losing his memory, but it is no longer overwhelming.
I think the key question is: Can you live the life you have? Can you work with what you've got? One of my students used to care for the elderly, and she had some wonderful stories. One of her patients was ninety-three years old, was confined to a wheelchair, and had degenerative vision problems. My student took her Aldous Huxley's book The Art of Seeing, and when she came in to see her patient later the woman was doing the exercises in the book. She always had a sense of possibility; she would say, "I'm going to stand up and walk down this hallway," even though it wouldn't particularly change her condition; she just wanted to do it. She wanted to do what she could.
My colleague Christopher Titmuss, a fellow teacher at the Insight Meditation Society, told me an even more poignant story. He had a doctor friend at a hospital who wanted him to meet a particular patient, a woman who had had polio as a child and had been put in an iron lung. She had been confined that way for more than forty years. But when Christopher met her, she was smiling, just beaming. All the doctors and nurses loved to be around her; she was often happy and serene. Finally he asked, "How can you be so happy?" and she said, "Every now and then someone opens the window, and a breeze comes in."
So we work with what we have. We take what joy we can. We have all perceived a breeze like that. How many of us have taken joy in it?
Finally, I would like to talk about my father, because he is the example I know best. He had Alzheimer's for several years before he died. And he, alas, was not a meditator. Every ounce of energy in his body, for most of his lifetime, was dedicated precisely to not being religious. He was a devoted ex-Marxist who continued to think that religion was the opiate of the masses. Being opposed to religion was his religion. He hated rabbis, priests, nuns. He thought they were all parasites. He was the rebellious child of fourteen generations of rabbis, so he had plenty of history with this subject.
In spite of my father's views, I had seven years of orthodox Jewish training as a child. He would take me aside and whisper, "Do it for your mother and your grandparents, but it's all a lot of nonsense." This was my father talking, and I believed him. Then much later, when I had discovered meditation and left my position at the university, he was horrified. I would visit my parents at their house, and of course would do my daily sitting meditation.
"It's like davening," he said, using the Jewish word for prayer. "You've reinstituted the lineage of rabbis! With all your education, you've gone back to this. How could you be so stupid? You're just like those old Jews. Why don't they do something useful with their lives?"
When he had Alzheimer's he would go in and out of clear mind-states. Sometimes he would seem intelligent, alert, and rational, then suddenly he'd be confused, very confused. He would mix up something in the present with something from eighty years before. There was a logic to it, but his wires were all crossed.
We had to put him in a nursing home because my mother couldn't handle him anymore, and when he first got there he hated it. He especially hated the food. On four different occasions he tried to escape. This was a man who couldn't walk, but he would somehow manage in his wheelchair to get past everyone and out the door. He would get up and fall in the snow, and someone would find him later. And when we visited him and had to leave, he would be terribly disappointed, as if we were abandoning him forever. That was extremely difficult for me. But at the same time, I could tell he knew that his mind wasn't right, that his reactions were too extreme. I could see it in his eyes.
After about two and a half years, things started to change. He started not to complain so much. He actually began to like the food. "Would you care to join me?" he'd say, as if it were a four-star restaurant.
Sometimes he seemed to be in such a state of peace that it was startling. I didn't know if I could trust it. He seemed more at peace than I was. One time, I remember, I came to the rest home and was fussing all over him. I'd brought him his favorite food a bagel with cream cheese and lox and I kept rubbing his back and saying how much I loved him. He looked at me with deep calm and said, "You don't have to try so hard. I love you, and I know you love me. It's okay."
Another time my wife said to him, "Dad, you've always been so pro-life, so full of vitality and vigor. You're a lover of life, and that's great." He sat quietly for several minutes, then said, "That's not true. I just learned the value of life six months ago." That really bowled us over. He had learned the value of life while he had Alzheimer's and spent his days in a wheelchair. He had continued to learn even when he was old and ill.
One time toward the end of his life, a number of us from the family came to visit him, and as we approached his room we heard him speaking in Russian. He had left Russia when he was fourteen, and he was now ninety. But he was speaking in Russian, very respectfully, to God. "Look. I know I haven't believed in you all these years. I really think it's all a lot of nonsense. But I'm coming to the end now, and I'm open. I really am. I'm open. But show me something. Show me. I don't see shit."
That only confirms my hunch that there's hope for all of us. Whatever shape we're in, there is a deep part of us that is still aware. It is the part that is open and wants to see something. Our practice is to begin to tap into it now.
Meet the Author
Larry Rosenberg is founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
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