This is dedicated to my mother, a good friend, and my paternal grandparents for whom I was woefully unavailable, as well as all caregivers.
Are you the caregiver for a dependent? Does it feel unrewarding? Is it burdensome?
Well, take a load off. It wouldn’t be caregiving if it was all fun and games. You’re not a robot. Sometimes, perhaps often it’s not going to feel good. At all. Ease up and be good to yourself. It is a great and arduous service.
Here are four qualities to cultivate as you navigate this experience:
- The long view
Compassion is a selfless form of passion, a self-indulgent emotion transformed by wisdom into empathy for the suffering of others. The emotional energy of compassion is every bit as potent as ordinary passion, but rather than scattering energy and disrupting equanimity with bouts of unrestrained emotion, compassion focuses energy and motivates intent to apply one’s wisdom and other resources towards helping people.
— Daniel Reid
Compassion is an essential life quality. If it can help the Dalai Lama keep his equanimity, it can help you. When compassion becomes an anchored part of your being, your human heart becomes greater. It is no longer so little and fragile. There is this grid that becomes available, like steel rebars that support concrete buildings. Except this steel is steely without losing feeling; strong without being harsh; immaterial but so very present; long lasting without loss of meaning.
Compassion makes the heart sacred and it is from there that you serve, not from your personal heart. Compassion is the extra hand to carry, ear to listen, pep to finish, patience to linger, forgiveness to smile, and surplus kindness.
And it isn’t only for the other. It is for both of you. Compassion is available to you and you are in as much need of it as your dependent. Compassion doesn’t separate and classify. There isn’t any hierarchy in it. Compassion isn’t allocated by approval, you don’t have to qualify.
You do have to make yourself available to it.
Learn to detach… Don’t cling to things, because everything is impermanent… But detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate fully. That’s how you are able to leave it… Take any emotion—love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I’m going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that love entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, ‘All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.’
— Mitch Albom
Detachment is a place of self-control and objectivity. It is the starting place of the long view. When detached your goat is ungettable! Your buttons are unavailable and you protect yourself. There’s fluidity of motion and action and patience is effortless. Detachment allows service to come through you, rather than from you.
Caregiving is a series of tasks, on one level. These tasks may become tiresome and put pressure on your time and energy. Yet the tasks are unavoidable. When approached with resentment, dread, inattention and emotional escalation, you’re tired and unavailable from the get-go.
Detachment creates spaciousness in heart and mind, and powers your limbs for the tasks at hand.
I wasn’t able to find an appropriate quote for what I want to say here, so this one is mine:
Recognize that everything that rubs you the wrong way about your dependent is an unhealed part in them expressing itself, crying out for help, looking to be recognized and loved, to be heard and held, to be made whole however desperately.
Recognition is to see the person behind the dependency. More, to see the soul behind the person. Recognition is to not equate the person with their suffering. Suffering is part of the person, but it is not the person. It is something they are going through and they are in fear. So are you probably.
When you recognize what is actually happening, your buttons are again unavailable, your goat is happily bleating and there is more spaciousness. The way your dependent makes you feel is not personal. It is about them and it simply is. You must let their behavior bounce off of you, for they can’t help it.
The other side of recognition is to be very aware of your own resources and limits. Like compassion, recognition works both ways. Where do you stop and the other person begins? You may be a caregiver, but you retain autonomy and the two of you haven’t merged.
Recognize not only your limits but also your own needs. Endlessly giving doesn’t work for either party, quality care suffers and so do you. This requires a promise. A promise you keep and act upon. It is simple but you must be resolute. If you need a fill-in, be resolute about that too.
The long view
Kalpa: An exceptionally-long (but varying) period of time in Hindu and Buddhist thought.
Every 100 years, a bird flies over the summit of Mount Sumeru and, in so doing, brushes the pinnacle with a red silk scarf held in its beak. A kalpa is the period of time it takes to wear the mountain down to nothing by this activity.
No, that is not how long you have to give care! It is only a lens to help you get perspective. The burden of care you’re giving is circumscribed in the temporal. There is much more to reality than the temporal.
Service is merit and merit is spiritual currency you want to have as you navigate eternity.
When you serve meritoriously it gives the served an opportunity to grow and evolve too. This may be very hidden and completely unobservable, but do not despair. Practicing awareness-enhancers such as compassion, detachment and recognition creates a crucible of heart energies and thoughts for personal growth and spiritual development to take place, even if the other person is not actively engaged.
Furthermore, the way you view the person you care for, how you approach and interact determines greatly what responses and reactions you receive. If you think they are cranky and demanding, then that’s what they will be. You get what you expect. One way to avoid this is to expect something different. Envision and affirm more productive and cooperative behavior and interaction.
Hold this person in a new light, the light of possibilities. They may be entrenched in their patterns and misery, but you can trust that they would rather not be. They would rather have dignity returned and show appreciation, share a smile and a warm look.
Create the space of sacred heart for mutual acknowledgment, trust and solidarity. You’re in it together and the sooner you surrender power struggles, the more rewards there will be. This may include you neutralizing any power plays coming from the person in need of your care. Yes, it seems like you have to do all the work, all the inner work, and all the outer work. Yet, right there a gate opens to a garden where the sun shines and the beauty of flowers is available equally to both of you.
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