Poet and yoga instructor Elizabeth Kadetsky imagines that her mother’s mental state since succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease may resemble the gift that longtime yoga practitioners achieve: deep immersion in the present moment. Watching her mother’s untethered attention – sometimes fleeting, sometimes mysteriously arrested in a random focus – Kadetsky suspects (and hopes) that “To exist outside of memory is to occupy the moment wholly.”
What Kadetsky has learned from her practice of yoga has helped her accept her mother’s changes as the disease advances. Yet when her mother’s attention constantly strays from their conversation, for instance when they’re sitting together at a cafe, Kadetsky writes, “After a while I get frustrated and hold up my cell phone to suggest to her I’m going to do some business.”
Yoga taught Kadetsky that “life contains pain and pleasure; by cultivating detachment from both, the yogi observes both their beauty and hardship without allowing either to overwhelm experience. Watch, observe, knowing you can’t control.”
Yet in a personal essay celebrating this wisdom she doesn’t note the irony that she, an experienced yogi, cannot simply sit with her mother’s distractedness in peace and open receptivity.
It’s a challenge to spend quiet, attentive time with someone whose unpredictable mindset frustrates efforts to connect. Generally human beings need a sort of airstream between them through which words and vibes can flow back and forth without extreme static, confusing non sequiturs, or uncomfortable silence. It must feel like a daunting challenge when the unpredictable mind on the opposite side of the table is your mom, greatly altered from the familiar person you knew all your life.
People who aren’t close relatives can be easier for us to engage with equanimity, but few of my human encounters unfold like blossoms. As a Freestyle Volunteer I meet each week at cafes with individuals sharing our public spaces who are socially isolated by mental illness or homelessness. When I sense myself becoming frustrated or anxious because a coffee companion exhibits disconcerting symptoms, or when the person sitting across from me suddenly feels alien to me because homelessness has made his or her life feel overwhelmingly sad or strange to my heart, I try to remember lessons similar to the ones Kadetsky learned from yoga: “If a muscle seizes up, just wait, it will relax – keep stretching or flexing. If you feel a mental reflex to resist something, just sit with it, the reflex will pass.”
With practice, this kind of deliberate relaxation of mental muscles works. (Well, usually!)
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s lovely “Living in the Moment” is one of a series of blogs on the theme of “Happy Days: In Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times” at the New York Times online. More about my Freestyle Volunteering – having coffee weekly with a few individuals who are socially isolated in our midst by mental illness or homelessness – is tabbed above, at How I started freestyle volunteering.