Awakened to Dementia

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In the Fall 2008 issue of Tricycle–an independent magazine that excels at illuminating Buddhist thought for Western readers–Noelle Oxenhandler has a hopeful essay about dementia and the benefits of meditation.

“Already there is compelling evidence that the regular practice of meditation can ease the early symptoms of dementia,” Oxenhandler writes. But keeping your gray matter limber–tapping into the recent craze for brain fitness–is only one of the compelling reasons to practice mindfulness. Meditation also awakens the mind.

“If, as they say in Zen, the rain falls equally on all things,” Oxenhandler writes, “then doesn’t it follow that the bodhi mind–the awakened mind–is bright and vast enough to encompass the fog, despair, and disruption of dementia? … What is mindfulness if not the practice of brining the mind to those places it goes missing?”

A simple example of how mindfulness might benefit those with dementia is kindness practice. Paranoia is dementia’s common, understandable companion. It’s also a frustrating wedge between caregivers and the people they wish to help–injecting that relationship with suspicion, anxiety, even fear. Kindness practice, however, could “make us more resistant to paranoia,” in effect training the mind to open “the door to the unknown with a trusting and welcoming heart.”

“In a dharma talk, I once heard a meditation teacher recount a story about a longtime family friend who was suffering from dementia,” Oxenhandler writes. “Before his illness, this friend had been a highly intelligent and successful man, and he had always been very kind. When the teacher and her husband arrived for a visit, he threw open the door and exclaimed: ‘I have no idea who you are, but do come in and make yourselves at home!’ “

Image by Gio JL, licensed under Creative Commons.

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