Impermanence in Action

It may sound ridiculous to describe impermanence as some form of action; however, I’m of the opinion that, in fact, impermanence is an action in our lives.  Something like: I am constantly impermanencing…sure a ridiculous word AND I think it suits my purpose of conversation today.

My uncle, Henry, no longer has a mind that is locked into the linear appearance of time and so his thoughts wander from past to present; in reality, he no longer recognizes past and present in his thought patterns….the fact is his mind moves between thoughts without reference to time.  So, for example, his mother who died in 1995 is still alive, his father, who died in 1953, is living in a house in his hometown, or he is going to school or work, or will start a paper route tomorrow on his new bike.  Simply put, his thoughts have lost the temporal map that is in all of us.

As I sat with Henry and we talked about all kinds of things, the one thing clearly impermanent in his experience was time.  I think of time as a permanent stretch of existence moving in a straight line toward the future….but that understanding is based entirely on my thoughts and how they are remembered.  Once the mind train goes off the rails and dementia sets in, no longer do we have a fixed sense of what comes next or, for that matter, what came before.

Impermanence, as stated by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (DKR), can be described in these terms, “Our lives are fragile and impermanent, and because death and its causes are uncertain, we may succumb at any moment.” (Enlightened Courage 16)  Even the things we think ARE permanent, like time, are clearly just constructs of our mind.  Once our mind can no longer hold that construct intact, time becomes just another impermanent piece of our existence.

Too, as DKR said, we don’t really have a lot of time to get our minds together.  At any moment we face the challenging questions of our existence: sickness, old age, and death. Stabilizing our minds, establishing a practice that allows our own awareness to reveal itself is key.

I wonder if such a stabile practice can help us work through those aspects of age and mental degradation?  Are we capable of creating a mental space for awareness to shine regardless of the disease process of dementia?  I tend to believe that our mental state is, like our lives, impermanent.  Maybe, then, we have to work hard to reach awareness before the mental deficits kick in and we have reach a point of practical enlightenment for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.

Finally, as I said earlier, we are constantly impermanencing….aging, loosing memory, muscle strength, and on and on.  That process is key to understanding our own awareness and bringing that awareness to others.  At that point in our practice, we reach a state of compassionate knowing.  We understand that, among all human beings, we all face that same ultimate fate of decline and death in various ways.  So, I reach out to all fellow humans on this path, offering my compassion, my love, to those facing these difficult challenges ahead.  Maybe if we all can recognize that we face the same basic difficulties that we can understand each other and, ultimately, change the way we interact as individuals in this vast sea of humanity.  At least, that is my hope.

Chorten, Haa Valley
Along the path in Haa.

So What About Buddhanature, Mind, and Dementia?

And, the thing is, there seem to be no rhyme or reason for the thoughts or notions.  My uncle Henry is a perfect example: recently I talked to him for a couple of days this past summer.  He lives with the family of his former wife and they care for him in their home.  A nurse comes to the house daily to take care of his needs.  He is able in that he can walk, talk, and feed himself (if food is placed before him).

As we spoke, he made the same kinds of comments over and over again: the time when his caregivers had a house moved onto their land, or how bad Obama was as president, or thoughts about the sorry state of education.  Those three topics came up over and over again.  When I changed the topic, asked him about the distant past, he remembered, vaguely, events and people.  In a couple of cases when we talked about the past, he did not remember his father died when Henry was 14.  When asked where his father lived, he commented, “oh somewhere in Athens” (Henry’s hometown).

Henry, Talking About The Weather

I noticed that time no longer locked him into the present.  He was young, old, planning to go to school or work, any number of events that formerly existed on a timeline, a sequence of events.  Now, the timeline was gone.  No sequencing of things from beginning to end; all ideas were tossed together in a whirl of concepts and memories that he touched on given the right trigger.

My experience with Henry, my great uncle Raymond, his sisters, and many other folks have really brought into stark relief what mind is (or is not).  Fundamentally, we organize events in our experience in a somewhat sequential reference.  Mind then is the great ordering mechanism of our lives.  It creates order out of the chaotic mess of human existence.

And…and I have to ask the question: IS IT mind that creates the order?  Or could it be that our ego-mind defines the experiences we have and orders them based on their relation to how we feel, think, or respond to those events.  For example, some events hold prominence in our minds…getting a puppy or watching a traumatic event or experiencing a sense of wonder and awe.  Those moments take on increased meaning in our lives.

Does an event take on that increased meaning because of the emotional connection?  What if we say, for a moment, that the emotional connection doesn’t matter…so can we imagine a place in which that traumatic event does not take on the strength of meaning it otherwise would?  Can we extract a completely different meaning from an event that appears in our mind meaningless?  Similarly, can we imagine a place in which an experience has no meaning beyond that it happened?  No significance whatsoever; just something that happened as a result of cause and effect.  A thing happened because we were in the right or wrong place in time.  That’s it.

If we see those events as just events in our lives, with no attachment to their supposed significance, then how might we be completely different?  Would our thoughts be different as a result?