There’s a funny one-liner that bemoans the effects of aging: “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” Thank goodness for humor. It softens the blow.
Uhh. . . Let’s see now. . . Where was I going with that? . . . Oh, yes. . . As some of us know already, seniors are forced to deal with a hitch that gets hitchier as years go by. Suddenly, at the darnedest times, our Random Access Memory begins to flash “Access Denied.”
Actually, though, the real problem lies in the other direction. Losing our mind is all too rare an event. Doggedly, it clings to us like a magnet made of chatter. As Eckhart Tolle has written in The Power of Now, the inability to stop thinking has become “a dreadful affliction,” but since almost everyone suffers from it, we take it as normal.
The truth is, nothing comes between us like our very own mental activity. Restlessly, it denies us the experience of oneness with all that is. From moment to moment, wherever we turn, our senses recognize this and that as unrelated to me. Thus, believing that separation exists, we have managed to turn this Garden of Eden into a kind of Marx Brothers asylum.
Because we’ve been given the blessed burden of five physical senses, almost all of our data is gathered from their reports. Analysis ensues. Likes and dislikes arise. And so we careen like pinballs between bumpers of pleasure and pain. For most of us the game goes on and on until we die.
But the greater trouble is deeper than even our sensory involvement. As we slalom through our days, supposedly using our minds to some intelligent purpose, we fail to see that, like double agents, they have been using us, relentlessly feeding us fears and desires that trigger more of the same. Without the means to quiet our barnstorming thoughts—namely through meditation and full engagement in the flow of now—we are fated to fidgety, fickle-brain commotion and the onset of moods.
There’s a poem by the Indian master Thayumanavar that puts the problem in perspective. Included are these lines: “You can ride a lion; You can play with the cobra; You can make vassals of the gods; You can walk on water and live in fire; But control of the mind is better and more difficult.”
The question naturally arises: Why can’t we train our minds to tame the distracting fears and aches that besiege us? The answer: because the mind is the problem! “Imagine a chief of police trying to find an arsonist,” says Tolle, “when the arsonist is the chief of police.”
We are dealing here with the ego, of course, a most unscrupulous opponent. As we become identified with our emotions and thoughts, the force of ego presides over all that we do. It uses the past to define us and the future to distract us.
The trick is to stay in the present, a trick that few can perform. It requires that we refuse to judge whatever the present brings. But as we are able to do this—to observe the moment without shading its character—a transformation takes place that makes it instantly friendlier.
Living in the present is a kind of constructive forgetting. By saying “Yes” to the moment, time and its accretions dissolve, especially those of self-concern. And surprisingly when this occurs, success in matters of worldly endeavor is achieved more easily also.
Forgetting is inevitable, and frankly, it is often a blessing. My father, until he was well into his eighties, had a memory that selected mainly the things that upset him, whether about himself or other people. But as his memory faded, submitting at last to Alzheimer’s disease, he found less and less to disturb his increasing quietude. I like to think that when he died, he had made a peace with himself that only forgetting could accomplish. Or perhaps, hoping for the best, I should say that what he finally remembered was the sweetness and serenity of his ego-obscured soul.