Thursday, November 17, 2011


I was listening to one of Ajahn Geoff's always-inspiring dharma talks yesterday morning, as an introduction to my daily sit, when I found myself having one of those "yes, but..." moments. The subject was our need to strengthen the mind in preparation for that time when that strength would be put to the test by aging or illness, perhaps in the isolation of some nursing home where we might well expect to be left to our own inner resources. And I found myself jolted by one of those "yes, but..." thoughts that jump at me and hold me hostage for a while.

This time it was yes, but... what happens if I lose my mind? All very well to have a good, strong mind as a bulwark against the suffering of age. I see that, and of course I see the value in doing all I can to get it ready for that moment. But people do lose their minds. I have seen it happen. I think, for example, of Ellie's stepmother, a fine, strong woman who took great pride in the power of her mind, only to lose it toward the end. She watched it going, with increasing anger, bitterness and despair. She just could not hold on to it. Had she been of sound mind, in my judgment, she would have suffered a great deal less. It was heart-breaking to see.

Is there a difference, I wonder, between the loss of intellectual brain-power and the loss of the mind? I know that my own brain capacity is much reduced from its sharper years. Memory is but one aspect of the loss--though an important and particularly salient one. Reactions slow down, too. I see it in my driving habits, for example, and make adjustments in the way I handle the car to allow for that slowing-down. But, watching it in the course of a meditation, say, I believe that my mind is still strong as it observes the breath energy coursing through the body. I can still be, at my best, quite fully aware. It's rather the opposite, in my experience: the mind seems to be growing stronger--which would be the desired result of practice.

But what happens if I lose it? Not for want of effort on my part, but simply due to physiological changes, the onset of senility or Alzheimer's disease? I heard just yesterday from the brother of a man I have known for many years, in response to a mass email I sent out to update my contact list. He told me that "an accident" had left my friend "mentally incompetent," and that he was now in process of "rapid change." This is a man of substantial wealth thanks to a long song-writing career, whose work has seen a sudden, late-life renaissance, and who seemed just a year ago to be enjoying the best of approaching age. From what I understand, he has "lost his mind," and is incapacitated.

I understand that a strong mind can overcome the ravages of physical incapacity, even pain. But what if that mind is simply no longer working? What if it has shut down? The thought is a disturbing one. Or perhaps, I wonder, does the mind indeed continue to function behind the curtain of non-communication? Could my friend be observing others taking care of him, lacking only the ability to share his understanding? I suppose it's possible.

Does anyone have any thoughts or insights on this question? I'd love to hear whether others struggle with it, or what their experience might be.


kara rane said...

hi Peter,
All of us have seen age take us in different ways. This reminds me of a friend whose extremely stern-business minded-highly money successful father
'lost his mind'. He told me it was the best thing that ever happened to his dad, because for the first time in his life he saw him laugh. His father never laughed, never smiled, and now his mind has returned him to child-like wonder, playing and being happy.

eva said...

I think most of us over seventy have that fear. My grandmother, who died before I was born had dementia and both my sister and I have terrible fear of getting it too. Even though there is no sign yet, I talked to my therapist about it and he sent me to a neurologist for testing. I was terrified of how will I do, but it went easier then I thought and I got a clean slate for my mind.
So, for a time I should have less worries in this field. There is more then enough worry about what direction mankind is going.

Dale said...

I think that Buddhist thought gives us unique tools for approaching this fear.

Because what we're afraid of, really, is two things, and neither of them is real. One is that our eternal, essential self will vanish. But of course in Buddhist practice we spend a lot of time learning to see that our eternal essential self isn't there in the first place. We don't stand to lose anything anyway.

The other thing we're afraid of is that our eternal, essential self will still *be* there, but trapped somehow, unable to speak or fully know what's happened. But that's not real either. What we'll be plagued with is a sense that we ought to know more and remember more and have a better handle on things -- and there's nothing new about that. We're already plagued with that, and it's as bogus now as it will be then.

None of which makes me all that less scared of it, of course :-) But it helps me see that it's not really a special case, and nothing that I don't already cope with.