"O the mind, mind has mountains" declared poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889). This poem, one of his "terrible sonnets," continues:
"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there."
Hopkins wrote from an experience of depression and intense internal anguish (and yes, in other poems, from an ecstatic celebration of his senses engaged with the natural world).
But those lines about the mind and its frightful, sheer cliffs came to me this weekend when I was contemplating and experiencing (in mild form) the turbulent currents of an elderly woman's mind suffering from dementia with a long tendency toward anxiety thrown in, plus recent dealings with low sodium and doctors meddling with her medications.
There were wide swings of mental ability--from not recognizing the face of a beloved family member to being quick to recall appropriately and speak the name "temporomandibular joint disorder." From being connected to her sense of humor to lamenting her continued existence on the planet, transitioning between these two poles seemingly in a breath.
The doctor suggested that in speaking with her, we begin again every moment as if from scratch--not counting on her memory of what has already been spoken, even a minute before. Every sentence is a new experience. It's not hard to see the spiritual wisdom and practice in that! Begin every moment as if from scratch. See things new. Let go. No agenda. Begin again and again and again.
The backdrop to this inside drama was an equally dramatic and turbulent outside one, as waves of sooty, dark clouds, torrential rains, winds blowing leaves inside out swept through the area two or three times in a matter of hours. I tried unsuccessfully to bring my mother's attention to the weather out the window, thinking she might enjoy it, thinking it might distract her from her aches, pains, and fears.
To me the weather out the window was a kind of solace, a fascinating piece of physical reality, forces way bigger than me, easily appreciated from the warm, dry safety of a hospital room. A little recharge for my spirits--to watch the weather outside while doing my best to stay present to the weather inside the room.
The mind has mountains indeed.