Book Review: The Present Heart

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If Western Buddhism has been shaped by an ongoing dialogue with Psychology, it’s in part due to the existence of a talented cohort of psychologically sophisticated practitioners who are also gifted writers.  I include writers such as Jack Kornfield, Larry Rosenberg, Barry Magid, Harvey Aronson, Jeffrey Rubin, Mark Epstein, Jeremy Safran, Bob Rosenbaum and Polly Young-Eisendrath in this remarkable group.  Polly, a Vermont-based Jungian psychologist and long-term student of both Phillip Kapleau Roshi and Shinzen Young, is easily the most prolific of these writers with some fourteen titles to her name.  Her latest book, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Loss, Love, and Discovery (Rodale) is a chronicle of her relationship with Ed Epstein — the remarkable story of their fated meeting and marriage, their decades-long love, and most poignantly, Ed’s tragic and inexorable decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Polly and Ed at the 2003 Mind and Life conference at MIT in Cambridge.  We shared meals during the conference and established an immediate rapport.  Polly and I were on somewhat similar journeys as Buddhist psychologist authors, and while we never again met in person, we’ve kept in touch over the years through e-mails and holiday letters.  It was through these that I first learned of Ed’s precipitous decline and Polly’s efforts to creatively and humanely adapt to it.  Ed was undiagnosed but already in the early stages of Alzheimers when we met at Mind and Life.  At the time, his personal warmth and verbal facility hid any incipient signs of increasing disability from casual observers like myself.  I remember Polly as the more dynamic of the two and Ed as being somewhat more retiring — was that subtle evidence of the insidious onset of his dementia, or just the way things had always been?  One thing was clear — they were immensely likable as a couple, and clearly in love.

Polly has written a brave book exploring the dilemma of caring for Ed when he is no longer able to be her reciprocal partner — no longer the man she married — while simultaneously struggling to sustain her own inner aliveness, growth, and capacity for love.  The frankness with which she invites the reader to know her and her situation in all her and its unique and specific particularity makes this book a rarity and a revelation.  Part memoir and part meditation on the nature of love, the book distinguishes between true love, romantic love, and the one-way street of cherishing without reciprocation. True love, as Polly defines it, is based on a mutual seeing-and-being-seen within an embracing attitude of acceptance and letting-be — a relationship that’s neither fused nor separate, neither symbiotic nor idealized.  She describes her first marriages in which she was needed but never “seen,” her discovery of true love in relationship with Ed, and her rediscovery of true love once Ed could only be the object of one-way cherishing.

Polly’s solutions to her dilemma are wonderfully unique, humorously and heartbreakingly complex, and throughly unbound by tradition.  Without giving too much away, in the process of caring for and eventually arranging care for Ed she also ends up acquiring the responsibility of arranging care for Richard, her first ex-husband, a former philosophy professor who’s afflicted with both circumscribed paranoid delusions and an advancing dementia.  She, Ed, and Richard, soon establish the ritual of regular Sunday dinners at a local haunt — dinners that increasingly resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  How she re-fashions a family from the shards of her life, present and past — the past is never over, it isn’t even past — and keeps her heart alive and growing, is the exciting crux of this story.  Some people succumb to adversity, others rise to the occasion.  Polly’s heroic quest to not be a victim — to accept the karmic flow of life and thrive within it— is an inspiration to caregivers everywhere.  In the course of all this, Polly elucidates how her Buddhist practice — being fully present, seeing and accepting reality, endlessly letting go, dwelling in groundlessness — gives her the tools she needs to cope with adversity.  She also finds Buddhism to be incomplete — it has little to say about personal love, as opposed to universal lovingkindness and compassion — so she learns to supplement the Buddhist path with lessons gleaned from life, psychological practice, and a group of distinguished mentors.

Although this is Polly’s specific and unique journey, I found it resonated strongly with my own personal experience — the final year of my first marriage to my wife of thirty-six years as she painfully succumbed to the ravages of cancer.  I recall how my years of Buddhist practice enabled me to stay present and not turn away, to let go into the reality of things, to cry and laugh along with her, and, after the end, to find new love once old love was gone.  If people wonder what Buddhist practice is practice for, this is it.

It’s funny how it’s the unique and particular stories that teach us what’s universal. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling to be seen, to anyone cast into the role of caregiver, to anyone interested in Buddhist practice, to anyone thrown by unanticipated and undesired adversity and loss, to anyone struggling to be a genuine self, to anyone interested in love. 

Polly Young-Eisendrath
Polly Young-Eisendrath