The Buddha in Disguise

1360 Relax and Succeed - It's amazing how much more can be accomplished

My 94 year old Dad was in the hospital for a low heartbeat that ended up being only a half-beat. It was causing him to lose blood flow and pass out. It was the falls that were doing the damage. People on blood thinners are extremely hard to bandage, particularly when they have almost no sense of touch, nor the awareness to fully cooperate.

Many people misunderstand dementia. For many it’s a disease that takes a very long time to take hold. Its progression can most easily be understood as a regression back towards babyhood, with the final stages being that helpless being everyone imagines. But the progression still has the potential for joy and full experiences.

Due to it’s slow progression in many, unless you knew my Dad well and saw him often, most people wouldn’t even have noticed the first decade of it. And even after that, the progression was still slow. Being a person obsessed with studying the brain, I realized that I needed some objective way of determining where he was at in his decline.

I am very science-minded in how I approach life, I use a lot of Socratic Method and some firm principles to make most of my decisions, so I’m a bit like Spock with a big heart, (except when I’m hangry, then I’m a Klingon). I looked at Dad’s life for instances where his mind had to do various levels of complex tasks and I realized that two of his favourite things were the perfect devices for assessing his capabilities.

Dad loves puzzles (those ones you’re supposed to take forever to take apart and yet always does them quickly), and he loves playing cards. I have a brain that naturally notices detailed patterns in behaviour, and so I can watch him and see what parts of his brain are active and which he’s lost. This is a good combo. His diseases ebbs and flows, and it goes in phases. It really is quite interesting.

If you want a metaphor for the common effect, dementia for many is a condition that you can think of as lowering the power supply to your brain. This means that thinking about more than one aspect of an idea at once (like comparing two potential hands in cards), gets hard without enough electricity to load up a new potential hand while still holding the first possibility in our memory.

It’s like he’s picking fruit to build the two potential hands of cards, but he can never hold enough fruit for two full hands. But the amazing thing about the brain is, it’s clever. Life always tries to find a way. Just because it doesn’t have the capacity to load all of those possible neural links at once doesn’t mean the mind doesn’t know that the info is in there.

When this happens, totally by nature you’ll see Dad coursing through his thoughts one at a time. It’s like walking every line on a spider web rather than grabbing the whole web at once. You can literally see his eyes following a chain of thoughts.

For those of us who know him well and can catch the look in his eye, we can often see him moving through this process when he is. But there are days where you can ask him a question, and think he’s lost it but it’s not important enough to re-ask. Then suddenly, five minutes later, Dad will be done his mapping of the spider web and out of seemingly nowhere he’ll say, “He was from Aberdeen,” in answer to your question in the previous conversation.

Dad with parrot at Fulton Eldercare

Where this can be frustrating for many is when he repeats questions (which is why he really likes parrots). When he’s tired but very fixated on something he can ask the same thing every two minutes for hours, (many caregivers note that fixated behaviour is another common reaction to dementia). While he was in hospital, a visitor seeing another patient asked me how I could stand it –that just hearing the same question five times in eight minutes drove him crazy.

I explained that I used to live in Sydney Australia in an apartment on a very busy road. When I first moved in I could hear every time the light a block and a half away turned green due to the change in the noise. Within a month people would visit and ask if the noise bothered us and my girlfriend and I would ask “What noise?” So, A) we get used to things.

B) is that it’s really quite easy to handle his repetition when we live in the Now because the concept of repetition demands we think both a past and a future into being. When Dad does bother me it’s when I’m living in the past by recalling the last time he asked me. I can’t blame that on him, that’s me. I don’t have to have my brain still talking to me about what happened 3 minutes ago.

When I don’t –when I’m present– I just turn and answer him originally every single time, and it sounds pretty much the same the 80th time as the first. Because I’m not dragging him through the other 79 times before I react. Each time is new, in that moment, for both of us.

We can’t expect to exhibit our best behaviour all of the time, so when I’m tired and hangry I want to be clear that I too can get impatient with Dad. There is no question there are high odds of frustration with dementia. But for the most part it’s rare with him and I because, in the present, there is no history to repeat or deny.

When spending time with Dad, rather than look back and wish I could go forward faster, I just plod along at his slower pace and keep my mind from racing ahead. It’s actually good for me.

Care-giving is an extremely taxing role even if we have a lot of skills around how we use our consciousness. But if we do have those skills, we can make that experience very rewarding, and the cost of the experiences pays off in terms of our own development.

In the state that he is in now, Dad slows everyone down and engenders patience. He has us all reconsidering our actions, and he very naturally brings out the best in others. This makes his current role in life into one much like a Buddha. And in Asia they say it’s lucky to rub the Buddha’s belly. So today when we’re playing cards, I may have the advantage of faster memory, but he can always just rub his own belly.

peace. s

Playing Your Cards Right

251 Relax and Succeed - What would you do
People routinely say that they want to start over. They want a new life. They don’t want all the garbage that’s piled up from their past. They say that, but if you suddenly made them a baby they wouldn’t think you’d given them what they were asking for, because what they really want is an adult life. The trick is, they want it with all of the wisdom gained by having lived a lot of years and by having a lot of different kinds of experiences. They just don’t want the actual painful experiences.

Of course, the experiences are what creates the garbage, the baggage, the hassles—and the wisdom. We feel those things have misdirected us away from where we should have gone, when in reality we couldn’t even see a path until we climbed this long and this high. So we weren’t lost before. We weren’t wrong. We were finding our way to Now. To today. To who we are. To being the person who has the wisdom to see where the other roads may have lead. The point isn’t to find some way to magically erase all of the experiences that taught those important lessons, the point is to ignore the past and simply apply the lessons to today, to Now.

Imagine that I parachuted you into someone else’s life who was about the same age as you. And imagine that they had made some of the choices you wish you would have made (started playing an instrument, stayed in school, took that degree instead of this degree, dated that person instead of this person, worked for that firm instead of this firm etc. etc. etc.). Meaning the other you would have the boss or job or title or salary that you wanted, and because they lived where you wanted, and because they drive what you wanted, and because they are married to someone that you admire and that doesn’t do that annoying thing your partner does.

251 Relax and Succeed - Know yourself be yourself

Of course you perceive that life as betterthe first while of being the other person would seem awesome. You would be appreciating those things you wanted so much. That person’s life would feel fantastic while you appreciated like that. But of course, if we interviewed that person prior to you taking over their life, they would have—just like you—been able to list a host of deficiencies. They could tell you all the things that were wrong.

Yes their wife is beautiful and even sweet, but somehow the guy is still in love with his high school sweetheart. He knows that he put something on the books at work that he shouldn’t have and he knows an audit is coming. And that loan for the lake lot is burying him because his commissions aren’t as high as he expected. He feels his kids disrespect him, and he feels that’s because he truly wasn’t a good enough father. He spent too much time being successful at work.

But wait a minute, what happened to that guy’s awesome, enviable life? Well, life isn’t where you are or who you’re with or what you’re doing, life is what you’re thinking. So when you first got his life and you were focused on everything you liked, then of course it felt good. But once you start noticing he’s got similar hassles to the ones you had, you’ll start thinking you picked the wrong life again, when really it’s that you’ve misunderstood that there is no such choice. There is no easy, good, simple life. You must surrender that idea. Peace is waiting for you if you do. Hassles create wisdom–if we’re paying attention.

251 Relax and Succeed - Travel light live lightYou’re not supposed to have a trouble-free life. You’re not supposed to avoid heartache or loss or betrayal or wickedness. That’s in every life. That’s why everyone is built essentially the same. We all process the same emotions. We don’t say, “Oh there’s Pat, Pat never feels sadness or Pat never feels anger, or Pat never feels frustration.”  Everyone’s operating with the same basic neurochemistry—everyone experiences the sensations of life in very similar ways. The difference is, how we analyze those sensations within our consciousness, and then how we have been taught to enact them as behaviour.

If we reject what’s happening, we get the suffering feelings of resistance. If we accept that what is happening is only a page in a larger book, then we get feelings of flow. We don’t stop to re-read pages hoping to change their outcome. We just keep reading. So the point isn’t to pick or get the right life, the point is to make conscious choices about how you process the events in the life you’re living.

As Nehru said, “Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.” Every life gets its share of shit to deal with. All of us at one time or another will react negatively to the delivery of a bad hand of cards. But as much as possible, we should shift our attentions away from the cards we wanted and we should instead invest ourselves in the best possible plays with the cards that life has actually dealt us. Because that’s how you play a good game. That’s how you win at life. You don’t have better cards, you play the cards you have, in wiser ways.

This is what it is to live in reality. We must not argue with what life has delivered. So stop carrying around your past like luggage. Each moment is new. You don’t need a new life. You need to view the life you already have in a new way. Because surely I could literally find billions of people who would trade lives with you in a second. It might do you some good to really give some thought as to why.

Enjoy your day.

peace. s

Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.