As a bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco, I always have the choice of whether or not to accept an assignment. Some, I immediately know are right for me, such as sitting with a man my age who was estranged from his family and desperately wanted to reconnect with them. With others, especially those with advanced Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, I occasionally question whether the assignment makes sense—but not anymore.

Joe was in this 80’s, his wife and son and died and the only relative was a grandson whose schedule rarely allowed for visits to the care facility where his grandfather lived. The first time I sat with Joe, I watched him eat Cream of Wheat for 30 minutes. Not once did you say a word or look at me. The next week, he talked about what he saw immediately out of his window: “I see five yellow cones going straight,” “Tree limbs are twisting in the wind,” and others that were observations on what was happening at that moment. As I watched him struggle to get a wrapper off a cup, I asked if I could help. He shrugged his shoulders as if anything other than what was happening in the moment was superfluous. Without answering, he went back to his cereal and took 20 minutes to scoop out the last three grains on to his spoon. Was it just a laborious attempt to coordinate a failing mind with fingers that were loosing motor control? Or was there an unintended lesson here for me?

I remembered a story that was told as early as the third century. A rich and powerful man in India realized he had everything he ever desired except knowing what was the meaning of life. He was told that a wise old master, who lived 150 days from his palace, could tell him. He immediately packed up his belonging and with 50 of his servants began the journey. When he arrived at the recluse’s cave, he found him deep in meditation. Not wishing to disturb him, the rich man sat next to him and waited to be acknowledged. After two hours of being ignored he decided to interrupt the master’s meditation.

“Wise master,’ he said in a loud voice, “Tell me the meaning of life.”

The recluse didn’t move. Then, without opening his eyes, he wrote with his finger attention on the dirt floor and resumed his meditation. The rich man was confused. After looking at the word for 15 minutes and unable to understand its meaning, he decided to interrupt the recluse again.

“Wise master, I’ve traveled for 150 days to see you, please, is that all there is to the meaning of life?”

The old man sighed heavily. Still deep in meditation, he smoothed out his dirt message pad and wrote attention attention.

Now the rich man was becoming angry. “Look, I am the wealthiest man in the region and I have traveled far to see you. I can buy anything I want and I have powerful friends. I know there is more to life than what you have written. Now, please, I will ask only one more time, what is the meaning of life?”

The recluse opened his eyes and stared at the rich man. He smoothed out his last message and slowly wrote deep into the dirt, Attention! Attention! Attention! Then he closed his eyes, resumed meditating, and never again acknowledged the man.

We often spend our time searching for the meaning of life. Some endlessly attend retreats, others read everything written on enlightenment, and many hop from guru to guru, believing enlightenment is possible if only the right words are heard or they can sit in the presence of a person who is renowned for his or her knowledge. Yet, if we accept the words of the wise recluse or just watch my dementia patient eat breakfast, the secret is life is revealed.  Attention! Attention! Attention!

9 Responses

  1. Steven Evans

    Far be it for me to refine the guru’s insight, but perhaps a modest commentary could be added. We might ask,”Did he mean ‘pay attention’?” Then pay attention to what? Perhaps tomorrow’s To Do list.. It may need attention. Perhaps to my 401K or my retirement account — the market next week may be wild. Perhaps none of these, we might suppose. There is the German word “Achtung.” Attention. This is stated not as a goal but a present tense state of affairs. Head’s Up. Be alert, we might say. Perhaps this is close to “every second Zen.” There is a subtle difference, I think, between paying attention to each and every detail … that is, paying attention … and being “awake” [although if one were awake, then one would in fact be aware of details]. Which comes first? The inner state of being awaken … from which arises the consciousness of all about us… or attention to each and every detail … which may then awaken us? Can heaven be in the awakened state … while the devil is in the details? I guess I’ll need to travel 150 days, get in line, and ask the guru.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Judy,
      I think you’re right on both points. But then, over 1000 years has transpired and who knows how the original story was changed–even on November 10, 2010. What has always concerned me is that I see people constantly searching for meaning for their own life as if they are ants scurrying about a table looking for grains of leftover sugar. Instead of being aware of what is happening in their life moment to moment. That ability (or desire) to see what’s happening doesn’t necessarily come about from meditation (although it can). I prefer engagement, hopefully doing something of value, and observing without judging (something the phenomemologists talked about more than 100 years ago). For me, the great lesson of focusing on my own behaviors came from watching a deteriorating mind doing only one thing-eating Cream of Wheat.

      Reply
      • Ronee Henson

        Stan – It is the ATTENTION we give to our patients that’s important. That is sometimes the only momentary connection to reality they still have.

      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Ronee,

        I agree completely that the attention we give to our patients is critical. I’ve seen too many instances when staff routinely interact as if patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are cognitively unaware of what’s happening. But I think more important is that even then staff are attentive, they understand that there are times when a window opens up, just a little one, and patients reveal something about themselves that gives up an understanding of what their new and everchanging world looks like–and hopefully, their insights will teach us about our own lives.

  2. Sharron Clemons

    Hi Ronee, I agree completely that the attention we give to our patients is critical. I’ve seen too many instances when staff routinely interact as if patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are cognitively unaware of what’s happening. But I think more important is that even then staff are attentive, they understand that there are times when a window opens up, just a little one, and patients reveal something about themselves that gives up an understanding of what their new and everchanging world looks like–and hopefully, their insights will teach us about our own lives.

    Reply
  3. Nona Mills

    Far be it for me to refine the guru’s insight, but perhaps a modest commentary could be added. We might ask,”Did he mean ‘pay attention’?” Then pay attention to what? Perhaps tomorrow’s To Do list.. It may need attention. Perhaps to my 401K or my retirement account — the market next week may be wild. Perhaps none of these, we might suppose. There is the German word “Achtung.” Attention. This is stated not as a goal but a present tense state of affairs. Head’s Up. Be alert, we might say. Perhaps this is close to “every second Zen.” There is a subtle difference, I think, between paying attention to each and every detail … that is, paying attention … and being “awake” [although if one were awake, then one would in fact be aware of details]. Which comes first? The inner state of being awaken … from which arises the consciousness of all about us… or attention to each and every detail … which may then awaken us? Can heaven be in the awakened state … while the devil is in the details? I guess I’ll need to travel 150 days, get in line, and ask the guru.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Nona,

      While I’m not as old as the Guru, my understanding of the story’s context is that the intent of the Guru’s call to “attention” is analogous to “awareness.” But the beauty of these stories that have survived thousands of years is they address the readers’ needs, regardless how divergent they are. Thanks for the comments.

      Reply

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