How much awareness is too much?

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for almost three years. Well, truth be told I have lapsed here and there, but for the last few months, I have managed to maintain some form of meditation everyday. Mindfulness meditation has helped me in many areas, but most notably it has changed my relationship with my anxiety. No, meditation hasn’t provided a miracle cure – I’ve read of people who swear they have overcome clinical depression and anxiety with meditation but I’m yet to experience that myself. But meditation has helped me manage the anxious thoughts better and gave me some control over how to respond.

A byproduct of the practice of mindfulness is that I became more aware and compassionate with the suffering that goes on in the world. The flip side to that is that sometimes I can feel overwhelmed – there is too much suffering and my resources to help are limited. So one area that I thought I could help was by becoming a vegetarian – at least I would not be contributing to the suffering of animals. I always found it hard to justify our meat eating habits and eventually I made a decision to no longer eat meat.

I’ve been abstaining from meat for over seven months* and although it requires more planning and I end up having to cook meat for the rest of the family more often than not, I’m happy with my decision.  During this process I also learnt that meat consumption contributes heavily to our carbon footprint – so an added bonus to the vegetarian diet.

The problem was that changing my diet made me more aware of the link between what we eat and our health. I did some research and I read a lot about the benefits of a gluten-free, sugar-free, low carb diet, rich in pro and prebiotics and how this diet contributes to a healthier gut. I’ve found the research around the topic quite compelling, specially around the correlation between the health of your gut and your mental health. So I decided to give it a try, removing gluten and sugar from my diet. I was hoping go on this diet for two weeks but only lasted 10 days.

Unfortunately, in 10 days I did not see any benefits – I was feeling weak and tired, sometimes grumpy and more constipated than I normally get. I understand 10 days is not enough to consider this diet a fail but I got really discouraged. I thought I would see or feel something positive after 10 days to keep me going. Maybe I should have planned more (gluten and sugar at the same time, what was I thinking?) or spoke with a doctor before even considering it.

But I guess the bottom line for me is that it got me thinking if I am becoming too mindful of too many things. There is a limit to how many causes one can embrace, how many fights one can fight and how many problems one can solve. It does not matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot add one extra minute to my day – 1440 minutes is all I have and I already have a lot in my plate.

I can’t help being aware of what’s happening around me. I still want to be compassionate. I still want to be there for my friends and help those I can. But this experience was just another reminder that I need to be careful and not bite more that I can chew. And maybe a bit of gluten or sugar is something I can swallow after all.

 

* Confession: I’ve had a bit of fish – as I’m lactose intolerant, sometimes I end up left with very little options, specially when eating out.

 

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I’ve reframed my picture of ageing this holiday

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Four years ago: my mum, very capable at 69, Balmoral beach, Sydney

We all dream of a picture perfect holiday, with white sands, blue beaches and most importantly away-from-it-all. My holidays in Brazil have had a good deal of perfect moments but I certainly didn’t get away from the catastrophes of living. It’s been very confronting to see how much my mum has aged in the last 12 months and hard work to let go of the idyllic view I held of ageing.

The vision I had for my parents in old age was dotted with time for rest and reflection and opportunities to do things they didn’t do when we were young but this simply didn’t eventuate. Of course I was conscious that ageing is a period of decline but I didn’t think my mum would walk the downhill road in her seventies. When dad’s life was cut short eight years ago I knew things were not going to be as rosy as I had pictured them but I was still positive about mum’s ageing. My expectations were reinforced when she came to visit us in Australia four years ago, on her own and full of vitality. Unfortunately I think that trip marked the beginning of her decline.

It’s been emotionally painful to see that the wonderful chef my mum once was can no longer cook a nice meal and the avid storyteller lacks the desire to entertain her grandkids with tales of a bygone era. Mum hasn’t been diagnosed with any age related illnesses but she has endured debilitating spinal problems, hearing and memory loss. She feels frail, alone and at times frustrated with her situation.  When I was growing up anger was a feeling I rarely saw mum displaying but she has a much shorter fuse these days. When I met my mum in this condition I felt a deep sense of helplessness and I wasn’t able to sleep for several nights thinking of ways to help her change her situation.

So, since arriving in Brazil I’ve read a good deal of articles about ageing parents and learnt a bit about the harsh reality of the elderly – the chronic health problems, increasing frailty and social isolation. The suffering of the elderly can be so severe that it can lead to depression and even suicide. In fact, suicide rates around the world are higher for people over 70 than any other age group.

In my eagerness to help I’ve made a few well intentioned suggestions and recommendations that were not interpreted that well by mum. When you lose your independence and control you become very reluctant to change. So instead of creating more friction and stress I’ve decided to change the one thing that I can control: my view of ageing. I have now accepted that my mum is no longer self-sufficient and that the parent I once depended on is now increasingly dependent on me and my siblings.

Once I was able to accept my mum’s ageing as a fact of life and something I have little control over I started to sleep well again. I’ve adjusted my expectations so as to lie within the realm of what is possible and as result improved my relationship with mum. This doesn’t mean I’ll sit down and watch my mum wither – I’ll still do what’s possible to relieve mum’s suffering but I’ll be mindful of her limits, feelings and desires.

These holidays I tried to get away from it all but found myself right in the middle and coming to terms with our mortality and shared vulnerability. It certainly hasn’t been the picture perfect holiday I expected but definitely one I will never forget.