Live in the present – but it’s so hard

Living, as I do, with a partner whose brain is deteriorating is fruitful territory for reflections about life, training and relationships.  My husband and I got together six years ago but he has, now, no memory of anything much of that whole time.  

On a minor level, his condition makes daily living challenging.  He can’t actually change what he does, since to change your behaviour means that you have to remember what it is that you wanted to do different.  So he goes on making the same ‘mistakes’ in small things, like for example where to put things away.  But on a more important level (or it seems more important to me), he actually doesn’t retain much information about me either and regularly asks me things about my past life that I have told him a lot of times. This makes me feel ‘not known’.  And yet he is certain (and I do accept this as a truth) that he knows me very well.  Which raises the question – what or whom is it that he knows?  It’s certainly not the sum of my history, not my ‘stories’, and he seems to have a ‘knowing’ that is separate from my stories.  Which is a surprise to me as I would normally say that, without our stories, we are not the people we believe ourselves to be. 

So J doesn’t know any of my ‘stories’, but, more than that, of course he doesn’t know any of ‘our stories’ either.  He knows this is a loss for him and he feels sad about it.  And it is a loss for me, as I realise more and more what comfort and pleasure there is in looking back at good times and re-living shared moments.  Thus a walk with J very often starts with the words ‘I have never been here before in my life’.  It all becomes a new source of pleasure for him.  But for me, walking beside him, it is also a palimpsest of all the other times we have done that walk together, and inevitably that includes the sadness of remembering how different it was, maybe two or three years ago.  

For me these days, much of life is a return to familiar and loved places, and for him it is a host of new experiences.  Except that it’s not as easy as that, as he is aware of all that is lost in terms of memories.  As well as being sad, it also makes me reflect, and raises for me the question of why we do things at all.  Big events – our wedding, his 80th birthday party, holidays, trips, visits – have all gone.  I guess they were pleasurable for him at the time, but they have now simply disappeared for him.  And it so often comes to me to recognise how much of our everyday conversation refers back to a past event.  I trip and stumble, trying to start a perfectly innocuous exchange, to talk about something and then suddenly I am asked ‘Do I know her?’ ‘Who is that?”  Even trying to make future plans runs into the same challenges. ‘Have we been there?’ ‘Did we do that before?”

And so I try to sit still, breath slowly, think ‘This is the moment.  This is all we have.’  And who can deny this?  Except that as humans, in our minds at least, we do have memories of the past and they do inform our future.  And life without memory of that past is a challenge to all of us.

Rooted Stillness by Paul Taylor

“Rooted Stillness”, courtesy of Paul Taylor

The stillness of this scene surprises me. So much not in view. The clouds’ cover being blown, hide-and-seeking sun, me chasing shadows, and, roots. Here the bright field and dignified tree. And I wonder what part have walls to play.

The photograph was taken on a short walk not far from Lancaster, in the direction of the Yorkshire Dales – I was really struck by the tree’s rootedness, the fast-changing light,  the illumined and cloud-shaded field, all flowing with the wind, and a quality of stillness within it all.  I was fortunate the wind, clouds and  light were as they were. How to do it justice, if indeed possible?  How to catch the wind, as Donovan, a singer-songwriter when I was young, would say. 

Paul Taylor

What is Enlightenment?

By Charlie Holles

I was recently reading something by Great Master Dogen. I would like to quote it first and then share my feelings and the insights that seemed to arise. It is taken from ‘Being-Time’, A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji by Shinshu Roberts.
Dogen tells the story of a student’s progress in ‘Zuimonki’ (Record of Things Heard) prefaced with this simile:
An ancient has said, “Associating with a good person is like walking through the mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp. This means that if you become familiar with a good person, you will become good yourself without being aware of it.”
In the main story, a young man was a student of Master Gutei. This student didn’t seem to realise what he was learning or practicing. Dogen comments, “a boy who attended Master Gutei, without noticing when he was learning or when he was practicing, realised the Way because he served as a personal attendant to the master who had been practicing for a long time.” In the course of attending to Master Gutei, he attained realisation.
………the student was not aware he was being trained. He probably spent his time making the master’s bed and fetching tea. Yet these activities, in accord with Master Gutei’s instruction, created his passage from student to master.
I think we often over-intellectualise about enlightenment, realising the truth, however we put it. In my own case, as a hippie in the 70’s and a then devotee of an Indian guru, I developed all sorts of notions about what this state would be. Many were fanciful, although they were part of the journey that brought me to Buddhism. When I took Jukai, 30 years ago, I still carried a lot of these ideas and expectations about how my Buddhist practice would or should unfold. Gradually I have shed most of them as they caused me quite a lot of suffering.
Dogen emphasised that meditation is the foundation of our practice. But he also made it clear that we must manifest whatever that teaches us in our daily life; in our actions from moment to moment. We do that by living simply from one moment to the next, doing whatever is good to do in response to whatever presents itself to us. It is not enough to sit on our cushion and retreat from the world.
My life used to be full, hectic, some would say glamorous. I travelled all over the world. I went on Buddhist pilgrimage to India. I did exotic things and so on. Now being retired, my life is much simpler, in part because my health won’t let me live as before. I do some voluntary work in a primary school each week; I have many more still days, perhaps just reading or sitting quietly; I work in the garden at the social housing complex where I live; I have interaction with the other residents.
Slowly I am understanding that realisation can simply be wherever and whenever I am. There are fleeting moments when my ego and discriminatory mind are quiet; I am right with what I am doing and the person I am with and I have no intruding desires for something other. Maybe that is a moment of enlightenment – I don’t know.
What I do know is that slowly I am letting go of wanting the ‘flashing lights and rainbows in the sky’ that once might have been what I thought my goal should be! Perhaps illumination is akin to cleaning one’s spectacles. The view doesn’t radically change but everything is clearer and sharper around the edges. I try simply to be and to be content with that. As Dogen teaches, Buddha Nature is our essence therefore we are already ‘realised’. It is just that we allow our focus to be on the dualistic world so for most of the time we simply do not live in and from what we truly are.