Origins of the Shambhala Working Group on Aging

It has been one year since a working group was formed to explore the issue of aging in Shambhala. With the launch of a web page devoted to aging on the Shambhala.org site, and other initiatives to promote conversation and awareness about aging, it seems appropriate to look at the origins of the working group and where it might go in the future.

How did the working group get started?

One day, in the autumn of 2007, I saw a very brief note in the minutes of the Sakyong's Council indicating the need for a working group on aging.

My first reaction was something like; “what can a working group do about aging? After all, as Buddhists we have been contemplating old age, sickness and death from day one. Relating directly with old age and the end of life is a central part of our path. Do we really need a working group to tell us how to be old?” (Perhaps you can detect my cynical, anarchist roots).

Nonetheless, as a 67 year old semi-retired nurse I had to admit that I had been thinking more and more about my own old age and particularly wondering how I might be taken care of if (or when) I become incapable of caring for myself.

I decided to let President Reoch know that I would be interested in being involved if a working group was formed. It was a short leap from there to a Shambhala Day Deleg pot-luck at the Warrior General's house in Halifax where the President drew me aside to talk and by the end of the conversation I had volunteered to develop and chair the working group.

My first indication that perhaps there was a need for a working group on aging was the incredibly enthusiastic response I received to my e-mail request for members. A wonderful group of practitioners, most with years and years of experience in working with various issues in old age, not only agreed to be members, but consistently attended monthly phone conferences. These phone conferences were lively and informative.

It is difficult to summarize the wide ranging discussions that ensured, but, for me personally, four key issues emerged.

First, a survey done last year by Shambhala showed that 20% of Shambhalians are already over the age of 60 and fully another 50% are between the ages of 45 and 60. This was not a surprise, but the numbers help make the point that over coming years there are going to be a lot of old Shambhalians..

Second, a significant proportion of those old Shambhalians are going to be relatively poor. The reasons why they will be poor vary. In some cases it may be because in their younger years they put their time and energy into developing Shambhala (Vajradhatu in those days) and did not pursue careers or business opportunities that might have resulted in accumulating a higher level of financial resources. Old practitioners who are poor will likely have limited ability to access progressive housing and other services, which tend to be expensive.

Third, in the general society, the existing care facilities for old people who need significant levels of care (nursing homes, for example) are generally not organized and operated on Shambhala principles and are not particularly conducive to a contemplative old age.

Fourth, it is unclear to what extent our own existing practice centers (both urban and land centers) will be accessible to old practitioners who have physical and/or mental limitations.

What has the working group on aging been doing?

In the initial conversations there was a need to get to know one another and to become familiar with some of the basic issues in aging.

The next phase seemed to be involved in trying to get a sense of the magnitude and nature of the issues. For a time the group worked on a quantitative survey that could be sent to all Shambhalians to assess attitudes and resources related to aging. When the survey was essentially ready the group decided to set it aside for the time being. This decision was based on a concern that gathering such information might imply to the sangha that the working group was planning to design some kind of centralized Shambhala “health care” system for old practitioners. The group was acutely aware that the sangha is distributed throughout the world, with great variation in cultural, political and economic factors. It was clear that no single model or approach would work everywhere.

As well, from the start the working group recognized that the inherent wisdom and compassion of the Shambhala sangha was the key resource for addressing any issues of aging. One of the young members of the group suggested that we should “push the Bodhisattva button”; that is, remind and encourage one another and the sangha to view caring for each other as we age as a key part of our path as practitioners.

To that end (and to provide access to relevant information) the group is launching a page on the Shambhala website and initiating an e-mail discussion forum (aging-talk@shambhala.org) to encourage and cultivate a sharing of experience and wisdom about aging.
   Note: people interested in joining aging-talk need to have a Shambhala members' ID and password an also sign themselves up, through their member's profile, for aging-talk); instructions are here.

As well, the working group is looking ahead to the next Shambhala Congress which is scheduled for November 2009. The intent is to make a major presentation at the Congress and, if there is interest, to develop a number of task groups to further explore various approaches to contemplative old age.

What is the future direction for the Shambhala Working Group on Aging?

This question is an ongoing contemplation. The overall goal seems to be to support a process by which the entire Shambhala sangha will, step by step, become engaged in considering how we can incorporate old age into our individual and community practice of creating enlightened society, including caring for one another as we age.

I hope you will join us in that conversation!

-- David Whitehorn (Mountain Drum)
Chair, Shambhala Working Group on Aging
17 March 2009; Halifax.

Current members of the Shambhala Working Group on Aging:

Ann Cason, Aaron Snyder, Marita McLaughlin, Donna Hanczaryk, Jacquie Bell, Victoria Howard, Louis Fitch, Chris Rempel, Susan Keene, Acharya Emily Bower, David Whitehorn

Contact information:

or aging-talk@Shambhala.org