As we age, memory chips start to fail. Cognition, strength and balance all tend to diminish. Often people are aware of this decline and are sad and discouraged by it (as they are by many things). It’s as if they believe this decline means that they are less than they once were. On one level this is true, of course – the physical body grows weak, mental acuity diminishes – but on another, nothing could be further from the truth. The body is weak. So what? You can’t remember something, even your phone number or, heaven forbid, your own name. So what? Those things – labels, memories – aren’t who you are.
Know this: the mind, the one you think of as ‘my mind’ isn’t, in fact, yours, and its preservation is far less significant than you – the mind that you think of as ‘mine’ – think it is. But the thinking mind is incapable of thinking it’s not very important, and so it goes on thinking that… until one day it might actually fall silent and allow a profound recognition that without all its interpretations and opinions about everything under the sun, life is actually very sweet – much sweeter than it was with a mind saying that “this is good” and “this is bad,” “it sucks to grow old,” or (the battle cry of all humanity) “this should not be!”
The following is a snippet from an article written by Roger Ebert’s wife, after his death:
“The one thing people might be surprised about—Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.”
This vastness Ebert described isn’t in some other place. It’s right here, right now, available to be recognized by anyone, anytime, in an instant. That we miss this vastness is because we live almost entirely in the confines of the thinking mind. (The thinking mind is useful, of course, but when it never shuts up, there is no opportunity to experience this vastness, the “peace that passeth all understanding.”)
In this day and age there are end-of-life considerations that weren’t required in the past – and still aren’t in some cultures. But in western culture, in our ‘modern civilization’, aging, illness, dying and death have become an industry. So much so that our medical institutions are capable of keeping old people alive long past what would be considered humane (were they a beloved pet). In this, we are displaying an incredible ignorance about what it really means to be alive.
So, in case someone reads this and isn’t aware of this little tidbit of information: Advance Directives are legal documents that determine (to some degree) what happens to your body when you are on your last legs, so to speak, and are no longer able to communicate your desires. You might have a Living Will and all the forms you think you’ll need to be properly cared for during your last days. But if you don’t have Advanced Directives, things may not go as you had hoped (or planned) for them to go. Advance Directives allow your loved ones to know just how you want to be cared for, and give them the ability to back up their requests (to do, or not do, certain things with you) with the medical authorities – who might otherwise, at great expense, plug you in, shove a feeding tube down your throat, poke needles into your veins and fill you with fluids until there is only a shell of a human body taking up space in a bed.
Last but not least I will add this wish for you: if you find yourself in that situation – or a loved one ends up sitting by the bed day after day as your blessed body fades to nothing – may you, and they, be able to surrender to the situation, to touch into that vastness and not be imprisoned by a mind at war with what is.