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Kittredge: Remember to Breathe

05/09/11 5:55PM By Susan Cooke Kittredge
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(HOST)  No matter how hard we try alter our behavior, sometimes it takes an outside event for us to change. Commentator Susan Cooke Kittredge has learned this in one of life’s most pivotal moments.

(KITTREDGE) For all the focus on meditation and mindfulness, on the spiritual practice of being fully present in the moment, it remains a really hard thing to do. Initially popularized by the New Age movement, the intentional practice of slowing down - whether through meditation or in everyday living - has been adopted and encouraged by most religions today.  Retreats, courses, books and DVDs that endeavor to teach us how to meditate and breathe are rampant.  

It says something about our lives that so many of us need to be reminded to breathe.  Meditation is difficult for me; I sit with great intention and am immediately reminded that the dishwasher needs unloading or my toenails need cutting.

But when natural disaster strikes, most of us instantly perfect the art of living in the present.  Stories from the storm-ravaged south attest to this; people who lost houses and businesses were devastated but so grateful for their lives and for the day they were living.  We are a pretty weak-willed lot; it's a struggle to do something we don't especially want to do.  But we are also a very adaptive species, and when an external force alters our circumstances we shift gears quickly.

For the past couple of weeks I have been living every moment fully present with little thought for the future.  It has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.  My mother is dying here at home with me.  I am able with some reliability to say what I will be doing in the next hour, but beyond that I have absolutely no idea.

Mum sleeps a lot, eats nothing, drinks little,  but is still, for a few hours a day, her spunky self, smoking cigarettes, trying to remember her life and, for some reason, the lyrics to most songs composed in the 20th century.  Last week she awoke in the middle of the night; I heard her on the baby monitor and I rushed into her bedroom. "Are you okay, mum?" I asked.

She replied, chipper as could be, "'It's only me from over the sea said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.'"  I tucked her in, gave her some water and went back to bed, shaking my head in delight.  Lying in the dark, staring at the ceiling, listening to her sing and to my husband, asleep by my side, snoring like the real sailor he is, I thought, "So this is the stage of my life."

As she fades more each day, I sit with her, so honored to be able to be exactly where I am and no place else.  As I sit quietly beside her, I do focus on breathing, but it is hers, not mine. This is a completely absorbing practice, as anyone who has ever sat beside a dying person knows so well.  Most of the time we are better at loving others, I think, than ourselves.  I have learned this from someone who would, if she could, breathe her last breath for me.

Special note: Susan's mother, Jane Cooke, died on Mother's Day, shortly after this commentary was recorded. She was 98.

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