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The Unexpected Gift of Caregiving

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The helping hands of a caregiver

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Mindfulness and caregiving are intricately intertwined. Look to caregivers to learn how to practice acceptance, heighten observation, and boost loving-kindness.

Mindfulness is a Team Activity For Caregivers

Caregivers have a super-power that is largely unrecognized, even by caregivers themselves. It is mindfulness—but with a twist. We think of mindfulness as a private endeavor of the individual consciousness, practiced in silence. But caregivers are rarely alone. (Even if they often feel isolated.) 

The natural mindfulness of caregivers is a nonjudgmental and acute awareness of what is happening with them and around them. And this loving labor is perfectly aligned with living in the intimate spaces of the radical now. So caregivers naturally default to mindfulness with a vulnerable loved one, because they have to. Mindful duality is the operating system of caregiving. 

Eva Feder Kittay is a moral philosopher and mother of Sesha, her adult daughter with severe cognitive impairments. She describes the whole-hearted listening that Sesha commands and the delights that await anyone willing to suspend their own ego and busy agenda in order to commune in that humble and quiet way.  Eva told this story about an important moment of learning:  

“I had been with Sesha in Central Park and I was working on some walking exercises that the folks at Sesha’s early intervention program had assigned. I was working terribly hard trying to get Sesha to cooperate and do what I was supposed to get her to do. I sat her down on her stroller and I sat on a park bench. I realized that I was simply exhausted from the effort. I thought, how on earth am I going to do this? How can I possibly do this job? When I looked down at Sesha and saw her little head pushed back against her stroller and moving first to one side and then to another, I couldn’t figure out what she was doing. Until I traced what her eyes were fixed on. She had spotted a leaf falling and she was following its descent. I said, “Thank you for being my teacher, Sesha. I see now. Not my way, YOUR way, slowly.” After that, I fully gave myself over to Sesha. That forged the bond.”  

This story is important because it underscores the beginning of an understanding and acceptance of a ‘new normal’ that is driven by love, vulnerability, patience, and mindful acuity.  Most people don’t know where to look for someone to model every day mindfulness that includes a connection with others. One group we all should look to for first-hand experience in living mindfully together is caregivers because their knowledge and experience offers up a crash course in becoming fully human.

Ron Purser, in his book McMindfulness sees the mindfulness movement as epitomizing a malignant trend of contemporary Western individualism because it has sometimes been co-opted for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes. It is very likely that he wasn’t talking about caregivers, because they live a different definition of mindfulness every single day. Being fully present in caregiving enables us to create ways of living with others in intimate, meaningful, and mindful ways. 

Here are three lessons about living mindfully we can learn from caregivers:     

1. Accept Our Loved Ones for Who They Are

Chronic illness changes us in profound ways. Caring for someone with a progressive disease, especially one that impacts cognitive abilities, requires that you reintroduce yourself to a loved one regularly—in some cases daily. It is difficult to side-step the painful question that emerges with almost every encounter, “Where is the person you used to be?” But a more mindful approach means learning to rework how you orient yourself by asking a different question: “Who are you today, right now?” This is a skill that is useful to all of us. We all change and grow throughout our lives, regardless of our health status. Being in a mindful relationship with others requires that we accept change in our loved ones as normal. 

2. Carefully Observe What Is Happening around You

Often, caregivers get caught in a whirlwind of duty and necessity. Their sense of self is frequently first to be jettisoned in a hierarchy of family needs. But the intimate space of caring is not a one-way street of compassion. Fetching a cup of tea for an ill spouse can mean one for yourself, too. Watching the steam rise from the cups together is where mindfulness becomes a team activity and a reminder that shared space and attention can also be the source of fulfillment. 

Whether we are caregivers or not, we are all at risk of forgetting how to careful and nonjudgmental in observing the world around us because we are so consumed with the compounding pressure of work, family, and day-to-day activities. Caregivers who find moments of mindfulness, in the ordinary—even amidst their awesome responsibilities—can show us the way to hone our ability to mindfully observe. 

3. Cultivate Metta, or Loving-Kindness

Mindfulness refocuses attention by asking us to reflect on what is—rather than what isn’t, what could be, or what should be. And that is a very good starting point for self-compassion or Metta, as it is called in the Buddhist tradition. Metta involves the contemplation of loving-kindness—the sort that parents feel for their new baby. To begin, a caregiver directs all that loving-kindness to herself, as if she is the baby worthy of attention, love, grace, and an orientation that is not bound by judgment. The sensation of being filled with loving-kindness prepares one to begin giving it to others. Caregivers practicing Metta can learn to “breathe out” (or send) happiness and “breathe in” (or receive) suffering. All of us can look to effective caregivers as a model for loving-kindness in action. 

Read more about loving-kindness and it’s effect on empathy.




Donna Thomson and Zachary White, Ph.D, are the authors of The Unexpected Journey of Caring: The Transformation of Loved One to Caregiver.


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