We have a commonsense notion of self. Self is thought of as a given, unique, agentic, independent, integrated, cohesive source that is permanent, underlying the flow of our conscious experience. We experience self as the independent cause of voluntary action.
Al Kaszniak, Neuropsychologist
from Notes on Zen Brain: Contributions to an understanding of self-awareness from the study of neurological illness
Al’s research examines how the constructions of self are dismantled through a disease process that we call Dementia which means “deprived of mind.” Alzheimer’s disease is the most common one we identify as a Dementia and is the major cause of Dementia. Memory loss, changes in behaviour, transposed timelines and relationships, and reduced intellectual function create a flowing parody of the Three Doors of Liberation: selflessness, signlessness and aimlessness. Age is not protective, nor are accomplishments, intellectual prowess, wealth, fame, or any of the legacies of our actions. And in its initial stages, it’s hard to discern the development of the disease from the assertion of personality.
The most read post on this blog is losing and letting go, an exploration of my relationship with my mother who was diagnosed with vascular dementia three years ago. I can only think that the popularity of the entry is because so many of us are trying to cope with the transformations this disease brings not just to the self of the person afflicted but to our own identification with the Other. In our commonsense understanding of Self, we hold to the belief that under the expression of wild words and bizarre behaviours there is a solidity that will re-assert itself – given time, rational discourse, and a good night’s sleep.
It was easy for friends and family to lionize my mother. She was certainly larger than most lives, passionate, fierce, and dominantly generous. Her independence was legendary and there were few who returned for forgiveness after encountering her cold rage. She and my father walked from Rangoon to Mandalay, a distance of some 400 miles, to escape the occupation of Japanese forces. There are stories told from that period that cast her as an avenging protector, a trait that did not serve her well when transplanted to the West twenty years later. In an environment that conceptualized relationships differently, she entrenched, refusing to reconstruct herself. Or perhaps, there were no pathways, never had been any, that allowed a perception of experience as relational.
As she lost the world she understood, she had little choice but to disavow the world she had. Having watched this from childhood to adulthood, I wonder why I pushed back against her unravelling self when the dementia began to flourish. In the first few visits with medical personnel, I took great pains to explain that “this” was who she was: the rage, the lack of tolerance for not getting what she wanted immediately, the blaming, and the shaming. They tried to explain that “this” was involuntary, a dismembering of neural networks that left her blameless and a candidate for equanimity and compassion. I watched her put together the fragments of her identity, like a kaleidoscope, creating new combinations yet only ever arriving at the same place of desiring, rejecting, and confusion. All observers agreed on the impact of her behaviours. Yet I went home each night from the hospital where she lived for three months feeling like I had been transported into a strange universe where I knew everyone was finally seeing what I saw but were not bearing witness to it.
As she became disconnected from the concepts and ideas about her I had built for decades, she said as much about me in that way she had of highlighting my deficiency in making the world easier for her to cope with. We were responding involuntarily to who we were to each other but remained unaware of it. It reminded me of a phenomenon called Alien Limb in which the person afflicted claims their limb (an arm usually) is not their own. The arm acts in various ways that are often embarrassing or oppositional to the person’s wishes or intentions yet the person will insist it was not their actions. Combine this with a phenomenon called anosgnosia (an unawareness of having a deficit) and we had a pithy metaphoric recapitulation of what our mother-daughter relationship had become.
There is Dharma in this if we can get past the drama. It raises for me the question of how to drop under the surface of losing identities and see, feel, realize the selflessness, the interbeing, the interconnectedness that is the mystery of relationship. There is nothing lost. There is only an observation of what is letting go.
Thank you for practicing,