Dementia: Tragedy or Transcendence?

By: Win Hampton

February 15th, 2018

Dementia: Tragedy or Transcendence?

 

Three years ago, at my Mom’s invitation, I moved back in with my Mom and Dad to take care of them. At that time my Dad was 86 years old. I moved into the guesthouse and started a daily routine of cooking breakfast and dinner for them, doing the dishes and taking over chores like grocery shopping and maintenance of their three acre property.

I think my Dad is an extraordinary man. As a geologist, he worked for a major oil company in his first career. Later in this career he and Mom lived overseas in Africa, Japan, and Indonesia. He has always been a great people-person and made many friends all over the world. While in Indonesia he spent time with the stone-age Dani tribe in Irian Jaya where he was eventually adopted by the tribe. He retired at 55 and then spent all his time traveling around the world and living with and studying the Dani tribe. In his 60s he earned a PhD in Anthropology and began his second career. He became very intellectual and scholarly in his later years. He fell even more in love with learning and was interested in everything.

My whole life has been focused on awakening to spiritual experience. At the young, but wise, age of 13 I was absolutely driven to discover answers to life’s perennial questions: “Who am I? What am I doing here? Who are we? What is the purpose of life?” Like a bird dog focused on playing ball, I held a one-pointed focus. At the age of 15 the veil parted and I got to see the clockworks behind the doors of not knowing and wanting to know.

One day about a year ago, my Dad said to me “Do you think there’s something wrong with me? I can’t seem to remember much anymore and I often don’t really know what’s going on, or what I’m up to.” If you know someone with advanced dementia you know that’s a pretty amazing awareness right there. I said “Dad, lets put a little different perspective on this. In many spiritual traditions people spend years working to transcend their memories, they spend years trying to get past their mind and thoughts to a place where they are living present, here and now. Consider that what you are experiencing is a spiritual experience. You are experiencing transcendental awareness.” He said “Really! I like that!!”

My first steps into altered consciousness were sudden, like a flock of birds all turning at once. My thoughts were like little floating clouds. They would precipitate and then I would watch them float away. The sky opened like a sunrise and I found myself traveling through a vortex of mandalas. They opened and opened. My ego shed like an old suit coat. Mystical transcendence can be a bubbling stream making its way to the ocean. It can also be a tempest, blowing away all that can be moved.

As I settled in and reconnected with my Dad, I began to get to know him better than I had for many years. Three years ago Dad was still getting up out of bed by himself in the morning, he was still driving occasionally and was still going into his study in the back of the house to pursue his scholarly love for learning.

In my mid-teens I studied Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and esoteric Christianity. By the time I was 23, I had tried out many different practices in my exploration of Self and Being. I settled and committed to a daily practice of the ancient Science of Soul Awareness, known as Shabd Yoga in the East, and Soul Transcendence in the West. Those who do this practice experience the gradual movement of awareness from ego-centered to Soul-centered. Heightened mystical and transcendental states of awareness become ordinary for those who commit to this practice.

Early in my experience of Spirit, which is the essential energy of who we are, our Authentic Self, I quickly discerned the gulf of difference between the activities of my mind and the presence of my essential nature. The Buddhists especially, talk about transcending the mind to enter an awareness of Being rather than thinking. The mind is seen as a part of us, a faculty to utilize, overcome and transcend.

Some years back, I observed my Dad moving more and more into his mind as he got older. He was probably in his 50’s at the time. He simply fell in love with his mind. His activities more and more became centered around book learning. He loved to absorb and memorize information from his books. He developed a very “scholarly” approach to life.

Spiritual practice is experiential learning. Book study of transcendence is an attempt to go on a long journey simply by studying the map. Transcendence is direct experience of our essential nature. We awake to mystical experience in our awareness as direct experience.

My Dad’s workspace in the back is set up as a studio and laboratory of a classical scholar. There are meteorites, fossils, skeletons, skulls, minerals, dried fungus, dried plants, pottery, stone tools, etc. spread on the top of every flat surface. Dad collected a world-class library on Icons, early man, shamanism, creativity…. Too many subjects to name. The walls are covered with art and sculpture collected from all over the world.

In the Eastern religions they talk about a false self vs a true self or a spiritual self. Here in the West, psychology talks about the ego (false self) but does not really identify a more Authentic Self. I have been aware for most of my life of the difference between my deeper essential nature or Authentic Self and my ego. Many spiritual practices are designed to move the locus or center of our awareness from being ego-centered to Spirit/Soul-centered.

Since my return three years ago I have observed in my Dad the progression of what we call dementia. It used to be called senility and now when it advances far enough, medical authorities may call it an “altered state.” I have become aware that, for my Dad, his dementia actually started some years ago. I am now aware that he did his darnedest to hide his failing mind from family and friends and he succeeded quite well for a long time.

After my arrival back with my parents, my Dad and I would sit together, especially at breakfast and talk and share. Over the past few years I have observed the cognitive functioning of his mind decline and erode. Anyone who has been around someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s observes this. I also notice that when I share my observation of this with others they typically go to a point of view that is tragic, terrible and sad. I find this very interesting. That’s not my experience at all. I have been observing a change, a transformation if you will, that I find quite beautiful.

When a tree in the forest begins to die, turns brown and eventually falls down and decays, is this a tragedy? I am a dedicated lover of nature and noticed at a young age that in nature there is a constant cycling of death and regeneration. The decaying plants provide nutrients for new life. Everything on this planet is born and dies. I experience this natural movement of life as a deeply spiritual movement.

One aspect of dementia that I have found so fascinating is that while my Dad’s cognitive ability has declined to the point where he can barely wrap his mind around much of anything, he is completely unaware that he has dementia. That is so interesting! I began to observe this more closely.

When I was in my teens and twenties, some of the mystical experiences I had were closely entwined with nature. One hallmark of a transcendental experience is often the beatific awareness that – All Is One. This is not a mental belief. This is entirely experiential and fully transcends the mind. It is an altered state of awareness. I experienced the clouds, the sky, the blowing of the wind, the trees and plants as One Being, one movement, and this Being is a loving Being. In my personal world of spiritual awareness, I am aware of a deep perfection that is present in reality.

In my awareness of this perfection, I am also aware of this perfection in human affairs. This awareness is vastly different than the beliefs and judgments we normally have about human affairs. We decide what is good or what is tragic. We place a value judgment on it. The beatific awareness of perfection being present in all things transcends our mind’s approach to reality. There is an essential perfection that becomes apparent.

As time went by I observed and pondered Dad’s dementia. My awareness of life leads me to look for the blessings that are present in all things. Death is a natural part of life. Dementia is a natural part of this cycle, which means it has a purpose when seen from a higher perspective. I realized that Dad’s complete lack of awareness that he had dementia was designed that way. Part of the function that dementia serves is that the person undergoing it also loses the cognitive awareness of their failing mind. This is a blessing in disguise.

Early in his dementia my Dad went through some very angry phases. He was really pissed off that he was losing his memory. That drove him crazy. The older he got, the more he relied on filling his waking moments with memory. His functioning in the world was decreasing rapidly. He could no longer physically go adventuring and exploring out in the world. His memory was quickly becoming a crutch to lean on, yet he found he couldn’t remember the names of good friends, places he’d been, things he had done. Have you noticed that many elderly, with dementia or not, often rely on their memory to give them something to do, to give them a sense of purpose?

Many spiritual teachings prescribe living in the present as a means to spiritual awakening. Zen Buddhism highly demonstrates this. Spiritual awareness is a Now awareness. Psychology also promotes living in the here and now. Anxiety can be caused by “trying to live in the future” via expectation, anticipation, and worry. Depression, PTSD, panic attacks and other psychopathologies are closely linked to past events; memories of experiences that get stuck and recycle over and over through our consciousness. A great deal of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Education has the goal of bringing ourselves present, to stop future tripping and to let go of the past.

“Fascinating”, I thought. So many elderly folks in this modern age are experiencing dementia, and Alzheimer’s is practically epidemic. What is going on here?

I observed that his angry phases were clearly his angst over the big changes he was going through. The biggest of the changes, of course, was simply that he was aging, that he was becoming elderly and this is a passage that declares our clear movement toward an ending. There was more than that too. I observed his denial. If he could just deny it vehemently enough then it might go away. Anger and denial are a stage for many things as we move along the way to acceptance.

Bringing judgment or the “shoulds” has a powerful effect on the negative side of the coin. He “shouldn’t” lose his mind. He “should” be able to stay like he was. If only he didn’t have dementia his life would be so much better. It’s such a tragedy.

When I showed up on the scene, I brought the qualities of lightness and humor. That’s just part of my personality these days. But the most profound thing I am aware that I brought was a lack of judgment about his conditions, a lack of denial on my part. My acceptance of him was unconditional. Over time I observed the persuasive power of acceptance on him and in the family dynamic with my Mom, my Dad and I. He began to relax. He began to accept himself just as he is more and more. His period of denial was passing.

I didn’t think he should be any different than just the way he was at any given moment. I didn’t think he should be like he “used to be”. I didn’t have any expectations of him. I simply meet him where he is and share time with him in whatever way we can share it. Unconditional acceptance is so powerful!!

I didn’t tell anyone what I was seeing, what I was observing taking place. As I said before, I was seeing a change that was quite beautiful. I was watching him lose his mind. His mind was just naturally going away. His dependence on all of that stored up information was dissolving. I observed his life force, his essential nature, his beingness coming forward more and more into his awareness.

In my own spiritual practice, being able to move my awareness out of my mind, past my mind, was a goal I’d had for many years. Like so many people, I experienced just being pestered like crazy by a mind that just wouldn’t shut up. My mind was insidious. It just went on and on. I have done active spiritual practices for almost 40 years now. In the first 20 years or so my mind was a constant burr, a constant interruption. Then it began to quiet as I progressed and began to clearly see the difference between my essential nature and my mind. Plus I learned to discipline my mind, I began to be in charge of it, rather than the other way around.

Oh, I transcended my mind regularly and traveled in the spirit realms. That is the practice of going inside. As the bible says “…. The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” I am always looking for greater sustainability of my awareness of Spirit in my day to day life. Many religions have practices that are designed to help in transcending the mind. These are practices that promote our experiencing ourselves as living Spirit, an experience beyond the mind’s limited ability.

As time went by with my Dad, I observed how he was learning to live in the present. I have watched him get very simple with his awareness of being present. I have been watching his ego dissolve. Remember, the ego is made up of, primarily the mind and the emotions with the physical body as the reference point for reality. I don’t see the dissolution of his ego as a bad thing. I have come to see dementia as nature’s way of preparing some of us for the death of the physical body, preparation for awarenesses that transcend the mind, emotions, and body.

In the Hindu tradition life has four stages: student, householder, retiree and then ascetic or devotee to spiritual practice. Here in the West, where our lives are very much focused on the material things of the world, we have neglected to remember to prepare ourselves spiritually for life after the death of our body. Isn’t it interesting how life has instituted a natural way for the elderly to transition out of their minds at the end of their lives? With dementia we are left no room for speculation. Speculation is a mental activity. Dementia simply takes place and we go with it, like it or not. As a natural process, for those with dementia there is no choice.

As Dad accepted his condition, I began to see a different kind of light in his eyes. I realized that who we are in Spirit totally transcends all the information we have stored up in our minds. All those years my Dad avidly studied things, read his books and became an expert on many various things. All that is gone. All that memory and mental knowledge is gone. This is what happens to all of us at end of life.

The knowledge is gone but now I see more wisdom. The wisdom is simply present in his eyes, in his ability to respond to the world and to others even though the knowledge is gone. The passing away of mental knowledge is not the death of my Dad. It is simply the death of his ego. He is more present now as his Authentic Self. I know how to relate to his essential nature. It’s a here and now relationship. Not through my mind. The relationship is now through the heart.

When we sit and talk now it is extremely simple. The discussion of politics, worldly affairs or any of his past studies no longer works. We sit together in the moment. We look out the window at the birds flying by, the beauty of the trees, the blue of the sky. This is enough. We sit quietly together. Our essential nature meets in the moment and all is well. There is more humor and joy present.

We live in a time when there is a huge focus on worldly affairs. Many people do not get the opportunity to experience awareness that transcends their bodies, minds and emotions. As I have sat with my Dad over the past 3 years, this has been my process, my awareness in observing him and his dementia, that dementia is not a tragedy. It is preparation. Those of you who have decided that natural death is a tragedy and that dementia is a tragedy I am suggesting you do a reframe. Reframe it for yourself and your own wellbeing and reframe it for any loved one or friend you know who experiences dementia.

Look a little deeper. Notice that all the information that gets stored up in our minds will all be left behind. Our reasons and strategies get left behind. Our beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad get left behind. It is clearly released for those who have dementia. Look to see who they are (who we are) beyond their failing mind. Look with the eyes of love and then notice what you see. Use this as an opportunity to get to know the essential nature beyond the mind, to get to know your own essential nature. If you are like me, you will find that which is truly precious still remains. My Dad and I often sit and laugh together now. More than we used to.

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