Sunday, April 27, 2014

Memory Loss and the Noumenal Mind

As he slowly slides towards the end of his life, my father is suffering from progressive memory loss. Alzheimer’s runs on his side of the family; nonetheless, he seems—so far, at least—to have avoided the most debilitating forms of the disease. Nonetheless, he fades in and out of this world, withdrawing into a series of hallucinations or dreams which represent, to him, realities. I’ve been curious about these inner situations, and asked him a number of questions about them; it appears he has one foot in another world, one others cannot see or touch. He’s slowly withdrawing from this world, loosening the tethers that bind him to this reality—the one we know and inhabit.

It strikes me that he is being withdrawn from this world into an increasingly intimate inner world; and indeed this is how I remember experiencing his mother as her own Alzheimer’s took her out of this world. There is a progressive drawing inward, as though the mind were leaving this world, and re-entering the mind of God.

This forgetting of self is ultimately accompanied by a gentleness; and if the sufferer is willing to let go without resistance, the personality dies without any anger or remorse. To be sure, a personality that resists this dissolution may become violent or angry (and the stronger the ego is, perhaps, the more likely that resistance); but in general, the dissolution of the phenomenal mind seems to me to be an entirely natural process, and one that is furthermore perhaps even desirable at the end of life. The possibility is, after all, that we let go of everything we are and let God flow into us; and perhaps this is what’s happening here, distressing though it may be to loved ones.

A specific example comes to mind.

Our old friend William (Bill) Adie—a business friend of my father’s— was an important part of our family landscape from the 1960’s onward. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from progressive nonfluent aphasia, a form of dementia characterized by a progressive inability to speak.

Bill was an accomplished artist. Over the course of his disease, his artwork underwent a progressive change that, I believe, reflected a fundamental change in his relationship to the inner and outer world. Because the dementia he experienced was specific in nature and resulted in partial, but not complete, separation from the ordinary or phenomenal world we all share experience of, I believe the nature of his artistic insights can help shed some interesting—and hopeful—light on the nature of inner change during the process of literal, psychological, and psychic withdrawal from the phenomenological world.

In the period of his life during which he was still communicative, Bills’ artwork was consistently geometric, featuring paintings based on landscapes derived from and inspired by the contour patterns found in wood grain. Primarily focused on colors, these striking works were abstract masterpieces which revealed little of the artist’s mind, or created any specific world views which might give us insights into man’s psychic or spiritual life.

As he withdrew, however, and entered a world which was increasingly inner and unable to communicate with the outer world through language, Bill’s paintings began to change. They evolved into deeply spiritual investigations of the human experience, replete with lines of psychic force, generative imagery, and piercing questions about the nature of human relationship. Clearly, the loosening grip of the verbal and external mind on his inner world caused him to embark on a process of transformational discovery that changed his paintings; changed, in fact, not just the form of his paintings, but the very soul of his paintings.

Just what was at work here?

I think what we are facing is a record of the original mind. I use this term in loose reference to the Zen master’s concept of an original mind, the mind we have before we are born. There is a noumenal mind, a mind in and of itself, that relates to what Meister Eckhart calls the mind of God; and this mind can of necessity bear little relationship to the phenomenal mind we inhabit during the course of a lifetime. This original mind is the mind into which the phenomenal mind returns as the soul releases its grip on the body. It is during this period that mind returns to mind; and in doing so, it forgets everything that mind ever was in this world. 

As I watch my father slowly decay into this otherness, which distresses us and we cannot access… it occurs to me that the distress is all our own, and belongs to this world only. My father (like Bill) seems entirely at peace with what is becoming of him; and perhaps this is because his mind is drawing inward towards that intimate contact with God, which we all so crave, but have so little understanding of. 

Of course that mind, and contact with it, must be quite unfamiliar to us; and so how do we know we are not seeing it, active, in this process? In short, we do not; and so maybe there is something far more subtle going on in the world of what we call “dementia” than we can fathom, from the world where we break things into pieces in order to understand them.  


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