Recently on the Tricycle “Aging as a Spiritual Practice” forum which I moderate there has a been a lot of discussion about elderly and aging parents. Certainly there are a myriad of practical problems that come up—nursing homes, dementia, medical decisions, and so on—but underlying these there are more basic spiritual issues. How do we feel about the sudden reversal of role, when we are essentially parenting the people who once parented us? What do we do when parents become angry at us, when they resent our efforts to help, when they resist our difficult decisions and, essentially, make it hard for us to love them?
In the Buddhist teachings on Metta, or loving kindness practice, it is advised that we avoid, at least at first, trying to practice Metta on people who are difficult for us, particularly people who are close to us, such as family. This advice recognizes that Metta is most difficult with people whom we know well, or with whom we have a long and complex relationship. Spouses, partners, and parents definitely fall into this category.
And yet the difficult work that we do to care for our aging parents comes from love, even though we may have a complicated history with our parents that includes many other emotions besides love. This is a perennial human dilemma, made more complicated by the fact that, unlike in traditional societies where caring for the aging and infirm is shared by the whole community, we are often alone in this work—or if not alone, having to contend with other siblings or family members who may have different ideas about what to do.
It is important to recognize, in these situations, that the person who may need Metta the most is not our parents, but ourselves. We can practice in this way:
In caring for my parents, may I be filling with loving kindness;
In caring for my parents, may I be free from suffering;
In caring for my parents, may I have happy and at peace.
That can be our aspiration, and if in some measure by doing this we find some space for equanimity and peace within ourselves, that can radiate out to our parents, siblings, caregivers and caregiving and institutions, and help us cope.
May it be so.
I’d be interested in hearing from blog readers about these issues, and perhaps my next post can follow up on your comments.