Conscious Aging, Memory and Longing

Tex and Barb at Medicine Bow  Lodge & Guest Ranch

Tex and Barb at Medicine Bow Lodge & Guest Ranch

The theme of this post is about remembering and forgetting, for a number of reasons I suppose.  I didn’t forget to publish a post last week, but was absent, away from my everyday for several days, remembering how to ride a horse (hence the picture of me and my trusty mount Tex, a slightly cantankerous nine-year-old gelding who loved to snack on the abundant flowers).  Forgetting often overtakes us on many different levels.

Plato’s fascination with theory was an early way out of the direct experience of being human. Thinking about our human experience is a well-recognized way of distancing ourselves from that experience (even if we don’t think about it in those terms) and is itself a form of forgetting.   Recent works in neuroscience continue to wrestle with the theory of what it is to be conscious.  A recent favorite of mine is Phi: A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul (2012), by professor of psychiatry Giulio Tononi.  His work is well-written and artfully illustrated and I liked especially his chapter 17 entitled “Galileo and the Bat: In which it is feared that the quality of experience cannot be derived from matter.”    In the nine page chapter, Tononi tells the story of the cave (hey, doesn’t that sound like Plato?) and the demise of the bat who was one of its inhabitants.  It is a beautiful illustration that questions how science can describe consciousness – either as a measure or a quality. And further – what can determine it (consciousness) when we humans share the same basic infrastructure or what would seem to be the physical architecture of awareness but that gives rise to so much variation.  Where I part ways with this is in the search for the piece of the brain that contains consciousness, the idea that the quality of consciousness is still determined by some quantity or configuration.  I think this has been previously attempted . . . !

So, if I might suggest an antidote to all these measurable, reducible, objectified search tools, try The Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times, by Rene Guenon.  I don’t pretend to understand or agree with much of what he had to say, but I do think his point that the immeasurable quality of space is the real space (not the quantifiable space) is refreshing to read and offers much hope for finding a way out of our collective forgetting that plagues so many of us on an individual and collective level.

Another type of forgetting is dis-integration.  This is the reverse of what memory has been described as by Daniel Siegel in Mindsight: Memory is a layering of our experiences which have been processed and encoded, and the integration he describes occurs at a horizontal (left and right brain), vertical (from the lower limbic region up to the cortex), and more subjective integration that includes our personal story, present state of mind, time and the interpersonal element of integration.  The last part – interpersonal integration – Siegel describes as “the ‘we’ of well-being.”  Mindsight, passim at 71-76.

What do we remember and what do we forget? So I return again to the New Yorker article “This Old Man.” In that article, nonagenarian Roger Angell writes beautifully from the heart about being surprised by getting to such an old age, but notes his biggest surprise (#1) is the unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.  Based on my reading of his article, I would say the secret to his happiness is longing.  Longing is searching.  As Ravi Ravindra wrote in Pilgrim Without Boundaries:

In being alive to the search, we are alive.

I think this longing, this search is a form of remembering, a remembering of something that is elusive, a connection and not really a memory at all, by the measurement of neuroscience.  Where does it come from?

Another scientist has a different take on why we search and strive to bond with others, particularly in intimate relationships.  In Our Drive to Bond, Bruce Lipton writes about the “fundamental biological imperative that propels you and every organism on this planet to be in a community, to be in relationship with other organisms.”  This type of remembrance is undoubtedly awareness, but obviously on a broad scale indeed, even if it is felt in an acutely personal way.

There are so many ways to address this longing, this remembrance of connection that drives us forward and toward it.  I will close this post with an excerpt from a poem, about our life – looked at as experience that is the long forgetting: This is from William Blake’s Ode (Number 563, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, ll. 59-65);

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come . . .

You can read the entire Ode here. I’m sure I’ll be back to writing about more practical topics soon, but as the summer blossoms fade and the harvest arrives, I couldn’t pass up this contemplative topic!

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Longevity Planning – Planning for Long Life and Likely Disability

 

denver elder law

Lucina’s Spring Blossom

As you have undoubtedly noticed, Americans are living longer than ever before.  One of the side effects of this longevity is a fairly strong likelihood that an incident or period of incapacity or disability will accompany that long life.  Yes, we baby boomers seem to think that if we just continue to exercise and eat right, somehow we will get a ticket to longevity that ensures our vital longevity.  After all, we boomers practically grew up with Jack LaLanne!  Long before Hans und Franz of SNL fame, there was the blue-jumpsuited “Godfather of Fitness” (I learned of this moniker this only as I did a bit of web research).  LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96, with nary a gray hair on his head!

So what about this longevity issue – I am thinking of it in the context of the death denial and youth glorification convergence . . .?  I’ve written about it before.  Death strikes fear in people’s minds, and even in our hearts.  For many it is a major anxiety producing thing to consider, let alone contemplate.  Ernest Becker wrote about this in The Denial of Death.  A favorite book of mine stands in contrast to this well-recognized fear, in Who Dies, authors Stephen and Ondrea Levine take a completely different approach to this fear and address it in the context of conscious living and conscious dying.

So how we view this life and death experience, in terms of what we fear and what we embrace, what we can know and what remains mystery, this is far from a “standard” human response.  I might be getting off-topic here, but let’s face it, with this kind of a topic it’s hard to know where things will lead!  I don’t think we’ve always lived like this – with such “faith” in medical science as something that will somehow protect us from the ravages of illness, old age and eventual death.  I am pretty certain that our scientific progress in understanding more of how our bodies function, age and eventually die, has brought about a thinking that we can somehow “manage” death.

And so we hold death at bay, we call it the enemy and we make our lives a struggle against the inevitable.  Well, if that is the sum of a life’s purpose . . .  I would say “that ain’t much!”  When many of us are ill and eventually die, we often employ that language of warfare.  Example: John Doe fought bravely in his struggle against metastatic prostate cancer.   On this topic of battlefield euphemisms, my friend Liz sent this excellent article to me from “The New Old Age.”  Bottom line is, the militaristic language, the fighting words we see so often and hear in conversation do nothing to empower our lives and our sense of purpose in our lives.  I would argue that this language and its approach rob us of our purpose, disempowering us by making us random and senseless victims of our lives in our death.  Remember the announcement of the war on cancer by President Nixon?  Most recently we have the war on Alzheimer’s announced by President Obama.

So back to the longevity planning theme and the fear of illness, frailty, disability . . . .  life on its own uncertain terms.  The fear of disability is more troubling in many respects than the fear of death.  Much of it springs from youth glorification, an extension of that anxiety around death which often includes processes, occurrences and diseases that often precede death.  Is the glorification of youth simply an extension of the denial of death?  I am not asserting that the American cultural obsession with the denial of death is a recent occurrence or produced by the baby boomer generation.  No, it goes back further than that.

I have written previously about the fear many of us have of getting Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia.  I think there is also plenty of evidence that people fear incapacity at least or perhaps more than the fear of dementia.  Of course, dementia is only one form of incapacity, so the questions may blur the distinctions. There are of course a myriad of other fears which surround aging.  Many of them don’t have to do with losing capacity so much as retaining it in our old age.  I enjoyed reading Roger Angell’s article “This Old Man” in The New Yorker.  It is a story about all those human needs and desires we carry with us into whatever age we find ourselves.  There is no handbook on how to behave when you find out that your 85 year old mother, who has been widowed for less than two years, has started dating on the internet.  And what about physical intimacy in the assisted living or nursing home?  I’ll write more about our cultural fear of aging soon.

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Conscious Living and Dying: Death and Depth – part 2

Japanese Garden at DBG

The first part of this post was about death and depth, depth as in “deep end” of something (yes, I likened it to the familiar swimming pool, with those rope float dividers) that is distant from us, unfamiliar, unknown and just plain scary.  So now I will continue the analogy with a different topography, but along the same theme of that invisible mystery which spooks many of us. . . 

For those of us who have experienced earthquakes, we have a different sense of the relationship between what is the visible ground that appears to be solid and the deeper ground where stirrings can cause a shearing away of that surface, revealing new ground, new possibilities, even amidst massive destruction.

Of course there is a choice about how to react when the ground breaks open.  We can be careful to try and repair it, admiring the petrified crust and not wanting to upset any apparent order or appearances.  Or we can break through the crust, willing to fall hard and break through the known into the unknown.

Into the depth of a center.  Symbolically and mythologically speaking, there can be many places which can serve as a deep center, a mountain or a tree, which one could ascend or which can be reached only after a descent, the undoing of the apparent, exterior, the superficial.  Where is the center?  Well, that depends of course.  Often we simply fail to slow down and consider the obvious question because we are so accustomed to looking past it, well beyond where we are at the moment.  What is it that we know or we think that we know?  I’m thinking of a quote from the poet and essayist Wendell Berry here (this from his collection of essay Standing By Words at 50) about the shortcomings of language – “It is not knowledge that enforces this realization [that you cannot act in your own best interest unless you espouse or serve a higher interest] but the humbling awareness of the insufficiency of knowledge, of mystery.”

Perhaps that mystery is the center for which we long and the voyage to which we dread.  Again there is a choice – to do our won spiritual excavation to uncover truth, the meaning in our won life . . . .  or we can admire the relics of another’s questioning or their excavation, from the comfort of an armchair.  What does it take to move into uncertainty and “go with it?”  Sometimes we don’t have a choice.  This is the dying process.  I’ll include another quote, this one by Vladimir Maximov:

All is mere ashes and dust-

All except the Temple within us.

It is ours and with us forever.

(From Henry Corbin’s 1986 book Temple and Contemplation.)

So if that movement, that moving away from and toward something, is in terms of a center, it is a place where we may realize that we are no longer separate from it but rather identify it as part of a larger whole of existence.  In this way conscious living, along with conscious death, can be our final act of creation in this life.  If death is a transcendence, of words or being, the question follows “to where?”  I had the pleasure of reading “Creation and Recreation” by the late University of Toronto professor Northrop Frye, who observed: “Every unit is a whole to which various parts are subordinate, and every unit is in turn part of a larger whole.” [Creation and Recreation at 73.]

If death is a return, a remembering, a completion, then many of us may feel stranded by a sense of things undone, words left unspoken during a now-deceased dear one’s lifetime.  Guilt, resentment, helplessness, remorse are common feelings here.  These may arise from a denial of death, that we will indeed have time to finish our life to our own satisfaction.   I have seen this approach in more than a few people.  Many of us have never lived liked this before, so how can we be expected to change all this in preparation for a death that is most certainly not desired?  It is difficult to determine when the time of sickness transitions to the time of dying, but an inability to accept one’s life seems to ensure that it will be much more difficult to accept impending death.  Death is a final act, unknown and mysterious, yet it happens every day, all over the world.  It is a final act, an ending, that realization that someone is “over and done with,” but our experience of course tells us otherwise.  In one of the chapters of “Who Dies?” Stephen and Ondrea Levine look at how to finish business with someone who is no longer around?  They note that the answer is always the same – one need not see that person in order to send them love, in order to finish business the other person doesn’t even need to acknowledge your presence, much less the process you are sharing.  Like other types of forgiveness, this type of work is done for its own sake and is not dependent on any “results.”

To conclude this, I will loop back around to that idea of the deep center – which we can travel a path to in our lifetime if we choose, as part of our conscious living, or which we can travel to as part of the final destination in our physical body.  The Levines attribute the following quote from Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Levine at 183.  Just a gentle reminder that Einstein spent his life searching for a unified field. . .

Depending on how we look at it, we have been practicing dying all of our lives.  When we get stuck on or attached to particular outcomes based on our expectations or who we think we are  – we suffer.  Perhaps we can practice this living and dying mindfully, so we can look beyond those prison walls and lessen our suffering in this life.  At the very least, practicing it will make our dying and most likely the acceptance of our loved ones’ dying, much easier for us.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org