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!