Book Review of Dancing With Elephants: Mindfulness Training For Those Living With Dementia, Chronic Illness or an Aging Brain Jarem Sawatsky, Winnipeg: Red Canoe Press, 2017.
This is a mind-blowing book! It is written by a man whom my wife and I knew when a child, because of intersecting with his parents (our contemporaries) when they lived in Vancouver, later in Winnipeg and Hamilton. Sadly, Jarem’s father is never mentioned except with reference to his parents’ marriage being “crushed piece by piece” (p. 91). And his mom, who lived the “earthquake” of Huntington’s with denial her only skill, is mentioned numerous times as a kind of foil for what Jarem commits to become other than, determined rather to learn to “dance with elephants”. We knew his brother too, who is also only mentioned for “getting the hell out” of his mother’s home while a teenager at the onslaught of their mom’s dealing with Huntington’s disease. We never hear any name of his family of origin.
I also knew/knew of Jarem’s establishing himself as a noted advocate for peacemaking, justice doing, and in particular his embrace and promotion of Restorative Justice. His university teaching, his books and other writings, are brilliant and wise. Two of his books are offered for free if one signs up for his mailing list. Highly recommended!
Jarem begins by telling us of course that he knows nothing about dancing or elephants. “And yet, this is a training manual and love letter for elephant dancers like yourself (p. 7).” “Elephants” of course are universally the human condition confronting our “big, unacknowledged fears” (p. v7). We learn immediately of Jarem’s lifelong awareness of Huntington’s disease “lurking somewhere in the corner (p. 8).” This is an incurable brain disease that “is a kind of combination of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Schizophrenia (p. 7).”
We learn right away of his family reality: both the possibility of inherited Huntington’s disease, but also of his dear wife, who insisted on including “in sickness and health” in their vows. They had identical twin girls, now teenagers, knowing the 50/50 chance of the potential possibility of his passing on the disease. With his diagnosis of the disease, that possibility became reality.
We are informed of a list of symptoms of the encroaching disease.
While a student in Hull, Enland, Jarem began in earnest his study and commitment to healing justice, which has endured. He signals to us that he does not want to pass on anger, fear or violence to his family. “So I have been experimenting on myself to find a healing way to face disease (p. 14).”
At 41, he retired from his university professor job. He gave away hundreds of books he had accumulated, saving only “the handful I thought might be helpful for me in learning the art of dancing with elephants (pp. 14 & 15).” Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh – known as “Thay” by his students of whom Jarem was one – has pride of place in books he has kept. Jarem writes: “Thay is an author of more than one hundred books. I find his writing and speaking deeply valuable. It is inspiring but also very concrete and practical. (p. 15).” While Jarem and his family were at Plum Village, France, where Hanh lives, they learned the five mindfulness trainings that make up each part of the book. As well as key authors cited for each part are mentioned. Jarem points to the surfeit of books that teach financial and career success. But billions need tips for facing disease, dementia, and aging. Jarem works at “the kind of healing that awakens the heart to love. I call this dancing with elephants because dancing is a playful way of engaging that which we fear most (p. 17).”
Please click on: Dancing With Elephants