Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Buddhadharma Editor Tynette Deveaux shares the difficulties of caregiving and the truth of suffering. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
Driving home with my 82-year-old old mother from a bookstore the other day, I was tempted to pull over and leave her by the side of the road. Not one of my more noble thoughts for sure, but I had reached my limit. She was angry and laying into me about everything she believed was wrong with me and the world. A short time earlier I had intervened when she began to tear a strip off a young store clerk because the credit card machine didn’t have a tap function and she couldn’t remember her pin number. She felt it was an abuse of seniors and wasn’t afraid to tell him so.
I took my bodhisattva vow long before my divorced parents decided to move to the city where I live so they could be closer to me. If I had known how hard it would be to support them in their declining years, I might have thought twice about vowing to save all sentient beings. It’s a tall order after all, even when the person you’re trying to save isn’t a parent who’s pushing your buttons. And when it is, well, it can be downright discouraging. Those of you who are caring for an elderly parent or loved one, or perhaps a child with special needs, know what I’m talking about.
Buddhism teaches the four noble truths, beginning with the truth of suffering, and it holds out the promise of enlightenment for those who walk the path. But this can feel remote and unhelpful when you’re caught up in the heavy demands and crises that often come with supporting someone who can no longer care for themselves.
In his article, “In the Moments of Non-Awakening,” Buddhist teacher Larry Yang shares a refreshing admission: “I’m much more interested in how we practice with not awakening, with not being enlightened, because, frankly, those states of being are more present in my life than not.” Rather than turn away from our despair and disillusionment, he asks whether we can look at the pain we find ourselves in with tenderness and say, “Can I love this too?”
I haven’t found the answer yet, but I’m thinking about it. I hope you will too.
—Tynette Deveaux, editor, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly
Old age forces you to let go of one damn thing after another! But as Susan Moon learns from her mother, it can also be a golden opportunity for poetry, friendship, and moderate amounts of wine.
I couldn’t know how hard it was to become a widow after sharing your life with another person for fifty years. Nor could I know what a relief it might be, after the last long years of caretaking.
When you look at old women from the outside, not identifying with them, you don’t think how lonely they might be, or how much patience it takes to get the walker in and out of the elevator. You forget that they didn’t used to be like that, that they used to go canoeing in the Minnesota woods or waltz until the wee hours, that they knew another kind of life outside this building. You think they came into the world wrinkled and deaf.
When age and dementia undo her friend Julia, Elizabeth Brownrigg discovers that true compassion sometimes means setting boundaries.
Compassion means caring for everyone, including yourself. It contains the irony of separating yourself from someone else even as you acknowledge that you are not separate. It means saying, “This is all I can do.” In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chödrön says, “In order not to break our vow of compassion, we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.”
In the the Spring 2019 issue of Buddhadharma, Larry Yang takes an honest look at what it means to be a dharma teacher who hasn’t been, and doesn’t imagine ever being, enlightened.
We must dig deep into our practice in order to navigate the extremes of despair and disillusionment. We must listen to what is underneath it all, to where freedom is calling from, by asking: Can I open to this? Can I turn toward this? Or in the inadequate language with which we must communicate, can I love this too? Can we incline toward the despair and imperfections of this life with the same diligence we give other objects of mindfulness? Can we practice presence when life feels impossible?
It may seem counterintuitive, but when we practice awareness and offer kindness to the uncooked, imperfect aspects of our lives, we actually strengthen our mindfulness. We don’t need to attach to either awakening or non-awakening; neither is anything more than an experience to hold with tender awareness.