“My mind is mostly quiet these days,” he says. “I don’t have much to say.” We are sitting on the front porch, sipping tea, while a Stellar Jay cackles at us from a sugar pine a few feet above our heads. Swallows prance and fidget around our feet, deftly and nervously avoiding Mimsy, the cat, who is distracted from hunting by this pony-tailed stranger. Seven miles away Mount Shasta silently appears across an open expanse of spruce and pine, spilling glaciers from its craggy 14,000 foot head, mysterious and fearsome.
My friend built his house thirty years ago by hand on this windswept rise with the goal of keeping Shasta in view. A small Buddha sits in the garden twenty feet away, reflecting the achievement of Nirvana and two thousand years of meditation. Beyond lies the mountain, which he says gives him a sense of permanence.
He has achieved what we all strive for, peace. He is content to sit – just sit, as the Zen Buddhists teach – and gaze out the window, for hours at a time.
When I first met him he was a lanky fifty-year-old Brit on a pilgrimage of self-discovery. A talented and multifaceted artist, he had left England and his career of restoring houses to explore the American and Mexican southwest. With weatherbeaten skin and sandy hair, he was at home in the desert. Leaving his van with us he took off with only a satchel, returning months later with tales of living with peasants in a spare adobe hut, wandering the high empty plateaus in search of Self.
His art ranges from small whimsical drawings of birds and cats and dogs who smile at you with uncanny sentience, to deep unsettling portraits that show the weight of human suffering, to vibrant abstract expressions bursting with a riot of color. I asked him once for a few drawings and he sent me dozens of sheets with several hundred drawings, a fountain of laugh-out-loud creativity.
He quit painting a couple of years ago. “Must be something to do with age. There comes a time when you don’t feel like it…” His voice trails off as he shakes his head.
Yesterday I asked him what it was like to have such a quiet mind. Was it joyful? He sat for a minute, and then said “I don’t know… there isn’t anything there. It’s okay.” A quizzical expression passes over his face, but then simple quietness returns.
We talk about his children. They’re dispersed like dandelion seeds across the globe. He’s not sure where they are at this point.
Listening to him has given me a more inner, spiritual sense of dementia. It can be a comforting quiet, a settled peace. He doesn’t miss the activities that kept him busy for the last eight decades. He sits for hours gazing at the mountain, or at nothing, with a silent mind
This loss of mind, de-mentia, is widely feared. It is defined by loss: of memory, history, family, connections, self. A strange and unfamiliar land. Step across the boundary, and all that you have learned, a lifetime of skills, recede into the indeterminate distance.
Yet there is more to a person – and dementia – than the mind. Personality continues, what my father-in-law calls character. The habits of a lifetime. The core of a person built up through experience, work, relationships.
Every person would like a quiet mind and a permanent sense of peace. A vast transcendent consciousness free of social chirpings, the aches of sorrow, the minute-by-minute pinpricks of worry, the endless list of planning for the future. In search of peace, monks and yogis have sought refuge away from society, solitary windswept places, where they sit for hours, days, decades.
For some of us a type of peace and quiet will be visited upon us without the discipline of years in sitting meditation. Will it be what we were striving for? Will the joy and light of the spirit finally shine through once the glass of awareness is wiped clean?
Science and medicine talk of tangled proteins, cell death, the executive function, spatio-temporal awareness. Something is missing in these explanations and descriptions. Something out of reach, behind the veil, standing there in the mist at the edge of sight. The person.
Dementia is a double mystery for those who believe in consciousness, soul, or spirit. Cultivate a beginner’s mind, it has been taught, free of preconception. Go beyond categories. Journey within to the soul, touch the divine spark. Develop a quiet mind, a silent mind. Fine. But what of the quiet mind that is visited upon a person through dementia?
The Bhagavad Gita says that the mind of a yogi is still, like a lamp in a windless room. In the quietude of dementia, is the flame steady, or is it dimming? Who do we ask?
In decades past a brave group of people took the teachings of India to heart and deliberately sat with the dying, facing the ultimate boundary. They have listened to cries of suffering and grief, patiently held hands, practiced the art of being present at the time of crossing over.
Now there is a greater challenge: facing the loss of self while a person is still living. This requires a deeper understanding, insight into personhood, even the rare ability to touch another’s soul.
We sit and look at the house he has built, with its hand-carved railings, arched windows, a self-portrait at the foot of the stairs showing him with brush raised, a fierce challenge to the petty bourgeois world. On his lap sits Mimsy, purring and musing, while he strokes her gently. Gentleness is one of his deep character traits. “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul” writes Jean Cocteau.
To fill the emptiness with words, I say “Anara has been doing readings from her book.”
“Really?” he replies, “How interesting.” As if readings were discovered yesterday, an idea dreamed up while he was sleeping. The beginner’s mind, the child’s mind. These doors of perception have been cleansed, and through them lies… a region beyond words, and thought, and tasks. “I used to be involved in all that,” he says. “It has all fallen away from me. Blankness comes with age, I guess.”
My friend is one of only two or three of my acquaintance who have read Sri Aurobindo’s 1,070-page outline of the world, The Life Divine, as well as his 725-page epic poem which journeys through the same landscape, Savitri. The inner life is real to him, not taken lightly. Both books sit at his bedside still. “The house was quiet and the world was calm. The reader became the book.”
His children are grown, married, with extensive histories. Their names elude me; we have only spoken of them in passing over the years. What were his experiences raising them? Did he sit up at night fretting over a fever? The details are lost to memory now, the thoughts and explorations. A universal event over the generations. “In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library that burns.”
The novel Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon begins with the problem. “We were always hurrying from one little urgent task to another, but the upshot was insubstantial.” And yet “were we not spinning together an authentic expression of our own nature? Did not our life issue daily as more or less firm threads of active living, and mesh itself into the growing web, the intricate, ever-proliferating pattern of mankind?
What thoughts arise – or remain – after thirty years of gazing at the massive silence of Mount Shasta?
The house was quiet. We sat, as the glaciers of Shasta melted into nothingness in the evening light. After the stars came out, the mountain had disappeared from view, but held the space with its massive void.