I just finished listening to Pema Chodron’s “Embracing the Unknown,” which is about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I find the concept of bardo quite interesting. Bardo is the space between life and death. Having cognitive impairment feels like a part of me is dying/has died, and sometimes I think I should be going through the stages of grief. But, frankly I don’t want to go through the stages of grief. I’d prefer to be an optimistic kind of person who can find the best in all situations. But, I don’t always feel like being positive either. I like how Pema talks about how to stay present even when you’re afraid. I want to learn how to live with discomfort.
I’ve been trying this recently, for instance when I’ve been out with my youngest child who is learning to drive. So, I say to myself, “This is okay. I can stay here in my discomfort.” Driving and riding in cars is hard for me now. Everything seems to happen too fast, and there are too many decisions to make simultaneously. I find I can still be helpful to my daughter precisely because things are difficult for me now. It’s like I’m a new driver again with too many things to keep track of, so I can help her learn which things are the most important to focus on. I can do this. I can live in my discomfort. I don’t need to become upset about how I can’t do as much as I used to be able to do. And, luckily for her, I’m not the only person who is helping her.
Tibetan Buddhists say that the way you live is the way you die. In other words, if you live your life scared and angry you’ll also die scared and angry. I’d prefer not to be afraid for the rest of my life and thereafter. I want to be comfortable with where I am and what I’m capable of right now. I’d like to relax and be in the middle of my discomfort. In the “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times” Pema Chodron says that “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” Kinder sounds like a better course of action.
As an aside, it occurs to me that softening and being kinder is also a better strategy for interacting with others. Who are people more likely to want to help? A grouchy person with permanently etched frown lines on their face, or a cheerful but quirky person? It’s hard not to be defensive when I make a mistake, but it won’t endear me to others. It’s probably harder for people who have always been an authority, but I was a librarian. I was trained to find answers from sources other than myself. If someone asked me at work how to spell a word, I’d look it up and say, “According to Webster’s Dictionary that word is spelled…” I was not the authority myself, unless someone asked me a library science question, and still then I’d probably say something like, “In my collection development class we were taught…” So, I’ve had professional training on being humble.
Going back to my study of bardo, there’s this idea that discomfort is something to get rid of quickly, but I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s better to be open to the experience. In the Buddhist perspective difficulties can be used to grow as a person. Instead of fighting I’d like to try leaning in to it. Open myself to it. I’m not giving up on getting better. I’m still searching out every method I can to improve my cognition. I just don’t want to be frantic about it. I tried being frantic, and it didn’t work. I worked myself into a stress ridden tizzy, and gave myself health problems. I’ve been aware for a while that I can make myself sick. Stress induced illness is no joke. I can’t afford to waste any more energy recovering from self-induced health problems. It’s time to stop fighting discomfort.
And, it’s also time to develop a meditation practice. MRI studies have shown that meditation activates areas of the brain, and I’d like all of my brain working as optimally as possible. I don’t think I’ll gain back my short term memory, but there’s this thing called a “cognitive reserve” that I’d still like to be able to tap into. My time as a librarian and a voracious reader has helped me keep more of my verbal abilities. I still have my vocabulary, even when the right words won’t appear when I want them to. Because I’m good at looking things up I can Google the word or concept that I’m trying to express to find the word I want to use. Being able to look up the words I can’t remember is using a different cognitive ability. I can compensate for what I’ve lost with what I still have. I’m convinced that the more I can relax and open myself to this experience the more I’ll be able to tap into my remaining cognitive reserve, and the more likely I am to keep that cognitive reserve.
Embracing the Unknown by Pema Chodron
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