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 had 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 saying a word or looking 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 the last three grains into his spoon. Was it just the laborious attempt to coordinate a failing mind with fingers 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 belongings 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, 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 intently. 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 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, never to acknowledge the man again.

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!

San Goldberg, 2010

Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website

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