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Living in the Moment

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  • medit8ionsociety
    This is an article that wasprinted in the 7/8/09 NY Times that I think is well worth sharing. It s longer than most of the posts we see, but very interesting
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 11, 2009
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      This is an article that wasprinted in the 7/8/09
      NY Times that I think is well worth sharing.
      It's longer than most of the posts we see, but
      very interesting and with unique content.
      Living in the Moment
      By Elizabeth Kadetsky

      My sister and I had inklings of a slow atrophying
      of my mother's mind, perhaps of her very self,
      before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease
      in April, 2008. And yet, strangely, I'd also
      noticed around that time she'd seemed to be more
      "herself." So I felt oddly reassured at the news.
      The diagnosis seemed to explain something about
      who my mother was, perhaps who she'd been most of
      my life. Due to its seeming genetic component, we
      believed the type to be early-onset. It could have
      started when I was still a kid.

      Yoga citta vritti nirodha — yoga is the cessation
      of the fluctuations of consciousness. This,
      from Patañjali's "Yoga Sutras," was the first
      piece of a classical text I memorized when I
      trained to become a yoga teacher. Perhaps
      paradoxically, this also seemed to describe what
      had been happening to my mother.

      My mother was a fashion model by profession. Tall
      and imposing, dark eyed, with eyebrows like an
      eagle's — La Belle Française, — they'd pitched
      her at her earliest modeling agency, in Boston
      in the 1960s. In person until not so long ago,
      her beauty was so formidable as to make people
      nervous, though in the pictures an endearing,
      long-lashed prettiness offset her severity.

      How this translated into her role as a mother
      was how little she needed to say to intimidate
      us to submission. Rather, she gave us her look —
      accompanied by a baring of long, red-painted,
      manicured fingernails. We got her message. That
      is to say, she was a woman not of words but of presence.

      Today, at 69, she has less of that charisma — she
      has been diagnosed with the disease in its early
      to middle stages. But she has at least as much of
      a quality that I, earlier, modeled myself on, and
      later came to admire in her: a quirky, rather
      peculiar nature that could be summarized as an
      insistence on living in the moment. By concentrated
      meditation on the moment and each moment that
      follows, the yogi gains sacred knowledge. So these
      days, I sometimes believe I am not so much losing
      my mother as communicating, more and more so
      exclusively, with that side of her that exists only
      in the present.

      There was a tic our mother had when we were
      young. My sister did a hilarious and not-so-nice
      imitation. You'd ask her a question, and she'd
      peer at you with her black imperious eyes.
      "Sapristi" — an empress — her boyfriend from the
      time re-named her. She'd stare for five seconds,
      ten seconds, maybe a minute. Thinking. Or maybe
      forgetting, you never knew which, until she would
      finally respond, but often with an unsatisfying
      answer. "Well what do you think?" Was her
      prepossessing demeanor just a cover for her
      trying hard to remember the question?

      Today that's what she does. She sits still until
      it comes back to her, that train of thought, that
      question she was supposed to answer — until, more
      often now than not, it doesn't come back to her
      and she keeps staring, lost, it seems, in the
      present: anaditvaim — time, existing from eternity.

      Alzheimer's is about living in the present. To
      exist outside of memory is to occupy the moment
      wholly. For instance, my mother quit smoking
      around the time of her diagnosis. As she explained
      it, she'd have the urge to smoke, would forget to
      light up before she got her hands on the pack,
      and so broke a 50-year addiction. It seemed the
      craving no longer got stuck in her memory circuits,
      and so easily fell away.

      Another lifelong habit she fell out of around
      this time was yoga. I was disappointed, because
      I'd begun my own study, when I was 19, at her
      encouragement. Her quitting owed to a drug
      prescribed at her memory clinic that may or may
      not staunch the progression of the disease —
      Aricept — that has the side effect of muscle cramps.
      The cramps seemed to be exacerbated by her practice
      of a low-impact, mostly made-up, often-done-in-bed
      sort of yoga. After a while, though, she forgot
      about this contraindication and got back in the habit.

      Sukha / dukha, I also learned in yoga — 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.

      I am not the first person to make this connection
      between the loss of certain cognitive brain
      functions and a yoga-like ability to occupy the
      moment. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who
      wrote a book detailing her experience of a stroke
      that temporarily wiped out the language and other
      functions of her left brain, describes the
      right-brain-left-brain dichotomy as dividing
      thinking about the present — in the right
      hemisphere — and thinking about the past and
      future — in the left. The left hemisphere, she
      says, is responsible for "that ongoing brain
      chatter." The right brain, in her rendition of
      it, collects data through the senses "and then it
      explodes into this enormous collage of what this
      present moment looks like, what the present moment
      smells like and tastes like, what it feels like
      and what it sounds like."

      During her stroke, Bolte Taylor experienced what
      it would be like to operate entirely from the right
      brain. "Because I could no longer identify the
      boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive.
      I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it
      was beautiful there." She refers to this state of
      mind as "La-La Land," she says in a recorded lecture.

      "Imagine what it would be like to be totally
      disconnected to your brain chatter that connects
      you to the external world…. I felt lighter in my
      body…. I felt this sense of peacefulness. Imagine
      what it would feel like to lose 37 years of
      emotional baggage. I felt euphoria."

      "I'm getting wicky," my mother says, a sort
      of joke with herself. She seems to be practicing
      non-attachment: vairagya. We are out to lunch
      on her block in Long Island City. She uses the
      made-up expression a lot now. "I'm getting really,
      really —" she pauses, as if seeking just the
      perfect, onomatopoetic evocation of her mind state
      "—wicky." She laughs, a little nervously. "It's
      weird. Your mother is really weird. All I can do
      is accept it."

      I don't remember my mother ever speaking much in
      complete sentences. She spoke with her long limbs,
      her elegant fingers and body. Today, she sweeps
      her arms across the café and looks at me with a
      weighty expression, hums a little, and then
      stares as if I am supposed to have understood
      her meaning precisely. She perhaps believes she
      has been explicit, though she also has long
      thought we three — she, my sister and I — could
      read each other's minds because we were psychically
      intertwined, probably through many previous
      lives. "I just don't understand. I think I have
      to go to the doctor."

      She is describing post-smoking weight gain, I have
      more or less surmised.

      Before I knew my mother had Alzheimer's, I
      attributed many of the qualities I now associate
      with the illness to her mystical bent. People
      described her as "loopy," or "spacey." Sometimes
      I bore a smoldering bitterness: she didn't seem
      to know or care about the doings of teens in the
      frenetic city. She could also be willfully ignorant,
      and this goaded me too.

      Today, what I think about more often is whether
      the lessons that both of us have internalized
      through yoga can help us understand, and accept,
      what is happening to her. I think about this
      a lot one day at lunch a month later, when it seems
      her language problem has gotten worse. I do most
      of the talking. She says "Wow!" and repeats
      questions: "Where is that?"; "What are you teaching?";
      "Do you have a boyfriend?"; "Wow!"
      After a while I get frustrated and hold up my cell
      phone to suggest to her I'm going to do some business.
      "Do you mind?" I ask her.

      She is staring blankly out the window. "Noooo!
      I love to spend time with you." But I find it
      unnerving to have her so close as I do the things
      I am accustomed to doing alone. I notice the
      barristas looking at us funny. But she's O.K.
      What's my problem? She used to counsel me as a
      kid: What does it matter what they think of you?
      You're never going to see them again, and even
      if you do, so what?

      In yoga I've also learned flexibility — physical
      and mental. 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. This is
      indeed why people sometimes counsel yoga to treat
      addictions. Wait before you act — or don't act —
      as the case may be. You achieve much once you
      stop telling yourself you can't do things.

      After a while I pull out some color swatches
      I've been carrying around for my paint job.
      Last time I did this, five years ago, it was
      already frustrating to hold a conversation with
      her due to memory loss, but she'd helped me with
      color. She stared at a shade and came up with
      a hundred words to describe it. She always had
      remarkable perception. Peaches with mint. Nostalgic.

      Today she doesn't have many words: Bright.
      Depressing. Dark. Grayer. She doesn't seem to
      be connecting; her eyes veer out that window
      while I continually draw back her attention,
      until after a while I give up.

      "All I can do is say this is the way it is,"
      she says, as if to reassure not just herself
      but me. "I can go on long walks. I can enjoy
      myself. I just can't talk to anyone and make
      much sense. I walk, smile at people. You can't
      tell, can you?" she asks, finally.

      The truth is, not really. She is still gorgeous,
      tall and not close to fat even with her post-smoking
      weight gain, her black hair barely grayed. She
      looks ten years younger than her age.

      I hug her. She's dying bit by bit, I think. What
      does it matter what people think?

      "No. Not really," I say.
      Elizabeth Kadetsky, a writer and yoga instructor,
      is the author of "First There Is a Mountain,"
      a memoir. Her fiction has appeared in the Antioch
      Review, Best New American Voices, the Pushcart
      Prize anthology and other publications. She is
      currently a visiting writer at Penn State
      University's creative writing program.
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