This entry was also posted on my Alzheimer's blog as it includes both general writing and Dementia/ Alzheimer's thoughts.
I have been reading Dropping Ashes On The Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Through questions, dialogues, stories, interviews, and Darma speeches, he shares his knowledge of Buddhism.
In many of the writings, it is suggested that one meditate on "What am I?" as a way to finding the Buddha. While that sounds a little self serving, I did want to write about my thoughts on "what I am" in relation to what I have learned through my studies of Buddhism.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was born Jewish and have studied many religions but have never found as much "Peace of Mind" in any of them as I recently have found in my studies of Buddhism.
In my current situation with Gregory and our path with his Dementia/Alzheiemer's I desperately needed, and have gratefully found some Peace of Mind.
So here are some of my current thoughts on "What am I?"
What I Am?
I was me before I was named Michael by my parents.
I was me before I was born into a Jewish family, raised with Jewish traditions and beliefs, had my Bar-Mitzvah.
I was me before I went through the usual sequence of schooling: Primary, Secondary, College, Post Graduate Work, Workshops, Seminars, Training Sessions, Textual Readings.
I was me before I was told what and how to think by my parents, relatives, neighbors, friends, teachers, religious leaders, books, newspapers, films, TV, and the general world around me.
For that matter I was me before I learned anything; while I lie in my diapers, wet or otherwise, suckled my mother's tit and then the rubber nipple, slowly ate pureed foods and then moved on to solids.
I was me before I realized I had a civilization, a culture, and a full background of experiences on which to base my thoughts, understandings, feelings, emotions, etc.
I was me before I had language to label, classify, and categorize things and definitely before I had likes and dislikes, rights and wrongs, happys and sads, successes and failures.
I was me before I realized the difference between male and female, before realizing I was a male, a gay male at that who had deep feelings for other men; comradely feelings, sexual feelings, love feelings.
I was me before I considered myself an educator, a poet, a writer, a photographer, a bookbinder, an actor, an artist, and more.
So if I am not able to use any of this information to tell you "Who I am" then who am I? Lets use the concept of "emptiness." If I am just who I am without using any of the "baggage" I have come to accept about myself; through what I have heard, through what I have been told, through what I have experienced, through what I have learned; then I am just who I am.
I can be empty, without any judgement of myself and my life. I can create how and with what I want to fill myself, as long as I hold on to the idea that "in the beginning" there was this baby born into this world, and he was pure, and his was truth, and he was in touch with all he needed to know. That is who I am!
Let me move to the next level of my thinking.
I sit here and I see. It is as if I live in this body and my eyes are the window to my world. It is as if I sit at a console with a screen in front of me which is attached to a camera and I monitor the world in front of me, and around me as I rotate the camera.
I see a green coffee mug with steaming, delicious liquid in front of me and I raise it to my lips, take a careful not to burn my tongue sip, and place it gingerly back down on its coaster so as not to leave a ring on the console.
But if I take myself back to my pre-labeling, classifying, and categorizing self where am I? What am I doing? How do I describe it? How do I think about it? Do I assign good or bad to it, happy or sad to it, right or wrong to it?
Or is it just what it is? I see what I see. I see.
Each night I read a little more of Dropping Ashes On The Buddha. Perhaps it is slowly affecting my thinking. As I was drifting off to sleep, my kitty at my side, I was stroking her fur thinking how soft she is. I realized I had labeled her "kitty" and her "fur" and described the feeling as "soft."
So then I tried to just feel her without adding any descriptors, with keeping my mind empty, and I seemed to experience her in a totally new, and different way than I ever had. With no words to get in the way, although I use them now, "softness" seemed a whole new experience for me. I was amazed.
Let me move to some changes I have been able to make in my thinking based on my new awareness of who I am.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about Gregory and his situation. While Lieberman does a pretty wonderful job of taking care of the residents on Gregory's unit, there is so much more they could be doing.
Much of the "strum und drang" of the unit could be alleviated by what to me, seem simple, easy to accomplish measures. In short, my erroneous belief that I could run the place better than the mass of trained professionals that currently do run it, it getting in my way!
"Storm and Stress" is the English translation of Strum und Drang, a German literary movement that emphasized the volatile emotional life of the individual. And at times life on the Special Memory Care Unit at Lieberman does reflect the volatile emotional life of all of the individuals involved: residents, staff, administration, and family.
So I have been lying awake at night, going over what I think and what I would say to make change at Lieberman. No need to say I have been loosing precious hours of sleep and working myself into a tizzy.
Then I think of Gregory in particular. He is content, happy, well taken care of. Besides the excellent parts of life and staff at Lieberman, he has Manny and Halina to care for him from 11:30-5:30.
He has me to visit almost every day with love overflowing as well as flowers, chocolate, and other treats.
He has his Midwest Palliative Hospice Care nurse, social worker, Rabbi, music therapist, massage therapist to keep an extra eye on him.
I think that in some ways, my thoughts about making Gregory's life at Lieberman (as well as helping the other residents on the unit) are more about trying to bring back the pre-Dementia/ Alzheimer's Gregory and making all the changes and difficulties of being on that path go away. But that is fantasy, isn't it?
So here comes my growth through Buddhism: Perhaps I should back off from feeling that I can make major changes in the life at Lieberman's Memory Care Unit.
If I feel sad about his situation, it is sad. If I am worried, it is worrisome. If I allow the "down side" to make me unhappy, I am unhappy. If I focus on what is bad, that is all I see and I loose the joy of what is good. If I see it as suffering, I suffer.
But If I am grateful and happy, that is how I feel. If I look closely and realize that for the most part Gregory is doing well in his environment, then I feel good also.
It turns out that my unhappiness is of no use to Gregory. My unhappiness does not make Gregory any happier. In some ways he probably can detect that I am unhappy and that has a negative effect on him. If I am happy he can feel that.
A lesson here is that Gregory just is ... and in some ways that is more in touch with reality than I am.
Notice your innermost feelings when you think of a very sad situation and then switch to a very happy situation and put a smile on your face. It feels different doesn't it? It is very hard to feel unhappy if you put a smile on your face and feel happy. At least I find it works for me.
I guess you could put a smile on your face and at the same time tell yourself you are feeling sad and unhappy but why cancel out the good effect of a smile when you don't have to!
I guess this is when people talk about choosing to be happy or sad under any conditions, no matter how difficult. I think that if you look hard enough you can find a little ray of sunshine even behind the darkest clouds. Trite saying but true!
So back to What Am I? If I am able to not label things in my life as good or bad, happy or sad. If I see them just as things without positive or negative value, if I can avoid labeling, if I can avoid judging, then suffering can be defused. It can cease to exist. And what does exist is just existence.
Life is what it is. I am what I am. There is an emptiness involved when you do not have to fill up your life, your person; with descriptors, with qualifiers, with judgments, with labels, with rights and wrongs, with goods and bad.
It is what it is. It is how you choose to live it.