I think my mom is enlightened. She has dementia. The juxtaposition of these two statements might appear rather odd, but I am quite serious—in a way. Mom is in the moment. She only responds to what is in front of her, and no traces of an event remain after she moves on to another experience. She does not know how to label most things until she is told, and then she simply replies, “Whatever you say.”
I am certainly not lauding the dementia experience. It is a very challenging decay of the mind. But I am pointing to the way this unfortunate condition seems to mirror the teachings of the enlightened ones. All the buddhas teach us to be present, to notice the habits of mind that label and imprison our reality. They suggest this limited view of reality prevents us from being “fresh” to the moment, allowing pristine awareness to dawn as a kind of wisdom display.
Experiencing life events without pre-judging or peering through a veil of preconceptions is sometimes referred to as “naked awareness.” The great sage Padmasambhava suggested that the fundamental nature of mind is “naturally self-liberated through seeing with naked awareness.” According to Namkhai Norbu, “The nature of mind is like a mirror which has the inherent capacity to reflect what ever is before it, whether beautiful of ugly; but these reflections in no way modify the nature of the mirror.”
When we engage in meditation, we discover the condition of the mirror and notice there is nothing to alter or modify our pure awareness. Unlike dementia, however, we have the opportunity to engage life with great skill. We can express compassionate action with the tools we have stored without our fundamental nature being modified in any way. We experience life “nakedly” and have much more energy to be of benefit to all beings.
Even through the misty veil of dementia, mom has become a bodhisattva, reminding me of my true nature. I see, reflected in her, the unaltered mirror of mind and am grateful I can be present and care for her as she completes her life journey.