Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hearing the Dralas at Play

The following article will appear in the March/April 2012 issue of the Halifax Shambhala Centre newsletter

Hearing Aids: A personal reflection

The steering group on aging has been meeting monthly for more than a year. The meetings are held in the Garuda Room. There are only five of us who have been consistent members, so we have come to know each other quite well. We are all over 60two of us, including myself, are 70). At the most recent meeting I notice that three of us were wearing hear aids. Perhaps I noticed because it was the first meeting since I had started wearing one.

My hearing was tested two years ago and showed a significant loss of the high frequencies. The audiologist suggested I try a hearing aid, but the cost put me off. The hearing aids started at several thousand dollars and went up from there. My health insurance covered only $600. I decided my hearing wasn’t bad enough to require a major cash investment. Nonetheless, over the past two years I became more and more aware of how much I was missing due to my hearing.

The most obvious loss for me was in conversations with people, especially if there was background noise happening. Sitting in a restaurant, for example, and trying to hear what people were saying across the table was noticeably difficult. Even at home I frequently had trouble understanding what my wife was saying if she was any distance away, or if the TV was on.

I was particularly concerned by the fact that I began to nod and smile at people, as if I had heard what they said and agreed with them, when actually I had no idea what they had said. This usually worked in the sense that the conversation continued on and people didn’t seem to realize that I had missed what was being said. But I had the sinking feeling of faking it and wondering whether my response had, in fact, been appropriate. Was I agreeing with things with which I actually didn’t agree?

So when the hearing clinic called and said I was due for a two year follow up testing that would not cost me anything I went. The results were not much different this time, but my inclination to try hearing aids was different. My wife was very supportive and encouraged me to go ahead and spend the money.

The hearing aid device itself was remarkably small and light. It was easy to wear and most people didn’t notice the difference. But I certainly did. From the moment I put on the hearing aids I became aware of a level of sound that I had simply not noticed, perhaps for years. While the hearing aids clearly made it easier to follow conversations, it was the emergence of little, seemingly inconsequential sounds that surprised me. The crinkling as a piece of paper is folded in half, the rustling of leaves in the trees, the swish as I put on my down jacket and the sleeve rubs across the body of the coat.

Hearing those sounds evokes images of coincidence, the complex unfolding of phenomena, this bumping against that, the simple energy of phenomena that attracts the Dralas. Hearing those sounds evokes a sense of confidence and relaxation with things as they are; a sense of basic goodness.

They say that isolation is one of the dangers in old age and that staying engaged with the world can help to keep a person healthy, physically and mentally. Reflecting on my experience over the past several years, with increasing difficulty following conversations and missing (although I did not realize it) the symphony of small sounds that have the potential to communicate the nature of reality, I can see that hearing loss can easily contribute to a sense of isolation and withdrawal into oneself.

In the Shambhala teachings the senses can be used as a powerful means for waking up to the nature of reality, to the basic goodness of oneself, to the basic goodness of others and to the basic goodness of society. As the senses become less sharp with age, as they so often do, it would seem wise to use whatever aids are available (hearing aids, glasses, cataract surgery) to preserve these channels of connection with the world; the better to hear the Dralas at play, the better to hear the teachings, the better to hear what our companions have to say on the path of enlightened society.

--David Whitehorn (Mountain Drum)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Aging series on the Shambhala Times website

The international Shambhala Working Group on Aging has a series of articles appearing on the Shambhala Times website.

To see the article click here

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Aging in Community

The Halifax Working Group on Aging has begun placing an article in each issue of the Halifax Shambhala Centre newsletter (the Banner) to stimulate discussion about aging related issues. This article, from the Sept/Oct 2011 issue, explores some issues related to housing.

Aging in Community

Where will we live as we grow old? This question seems to arise more and more often these days. I hear it from friends who are sixty and older, and I hear it in my own mind. Where do we picture ourselves living over the next ten or twenty years?
One vision that seems quite common involves living where we have easy access to contact with family and friends. Some people describe this as “aging in community”.
It sounds great. You have family and friends available for social support and for more intensive help should you need it. But the question is how to achieve the goal of “aging in community”.

Over the past several years I’ve been collecting some possible answers to that question. Partly this has been part of my role as chair of the Shambhala Working Group on Aging, a part of the international Shambhala governance structure. Partly it has been related to my personal situation. I turn 70 in November. In the past two years I see increasing signs of my own physical and mental vulnerability. The idea that I may actually need some frequent support from people beyond my immediate family seems more and more believable.

So here are a few ideas I’ve come upon. They don’t make up a comprehensive survey of how we could live as we get old, there are many approaches and projects I haven’t included and don’t even know about. And I do have my own bias about which approaches are practical. Please keep that in mind as your read this article.
For the purposes of the article I have divided the approaches into two main categories: (1) physical community, with people living in close physical proximity, and (2) virtual community, with people linked together but not necessarily physically near one another.

Physical community: Often, when I hear people talk about aging in community it is in the context of intentionally creating some kind of physical community. That is, moving into a living situation that is physically very close to a number of other people. Here are few examples:

There are some lovely and inspiring projects that have been going on for many years, such as the Camp Hill movement( These are almost utopian projects, set in rural settings, with a wonderfully humanistic philosophy of aging.

An interesting current trend is Co-housing. With careful planning, a community is brought together to live in close proximity to one another. There are some lovely co-housing projects for seniors such as the Silver Sage development in Boulder, Colorado ( Senior co-housing usually does not include the ‘levels of care’ concept used in retirement communities.

Retirement communities with multiple ‘levels of care’ are a popular approach in mainstream North America. You buy into the overall project and start with a nice apartment where you are totally independent. When you begin to need for assistance you can move into a different section of the community where supports are available. Some Shambhalians have looked into the possibility of gathering a group of friends and all buying into the same retirement community. (In a similar way, a group of friends could organize themselves to move into the same co-operative housing building).

There are many "Faith-based retirement communities” ( but very few of them are Buddhist.

However, recently the San Francisco Zen Center has been working on developing a large retirement community in Northern California. They partnered with Northern California Presbyterian Homes and Services, a big non-profit that already runs several large retirement communities. A marketing study has been completed. Their systematic business approach is an interesting model.

Could we, as Shambhala practitioners, create a physical community, a cohousing project, a retirement community? From what I have seen so far the obstacles are that, like any large-scale project, it requires a long and complex process of planning, and major financial investment.

Virtual community: Aging in Place / Aging at Home. Another approach that may less complex and costly is to create a ‘virtual community’ that supports people in their current living situations.

This kind of “Aging in Community” was explored by social workers in the 1980s. They were trying to figure out how to efficiently provide services to seniors living in urban areas. They realized that creating new community housing that would bring the seniors together in a close physical community was both expensive and not very popular with the seniors themselves. Most seniors wanted to stay where they were, even if the conditions were not perfect. The idea of then was to bring the social services to the seniors where they lived, rather than moving the seniors to the services.

The province of Ontario has invested heavily in an‘aging at home’ initiative ( that includes home health care and home renovations.

The Village Movement: Recently the basic idea of ‘aging at home’ has been developed in an innovative way by seniors, many with significant financial assets, who want to stay in their own homes as they age, but recognize the need for increased support. Rather than waiting for government or social agencies to create supportive program, they did it themselves.

The innovative process they used was simply to join with other people in a similar situation and set up a group buying organization that would facilitate affordable and efficient access to any extra help you need so you can stay in your current home. These kinds of organizations are appearing in a number of places under the name of the Village Movement (

One of the original and most highly developed ‘villages’ is on Beacon Hill in downtown Boston. Their website ( a great introduction to this approach. It shows the wide range of services to which they provide access. These range from home health care to delivery of groceries to plumbers. One interesting feature is that there are membership categories for people of varying income.

So what is involved in creating a ‘village’? In brief, a group of people (it could be exclusively seniors, or not), form a buying group and negotiate priority access, and discount price, from professional services of various kinds that are relevant to helping the members stay in their homes as they age. In doing so a community is formed. It is interesting that a ‘village’ is not primarily set up to have its members help one another directly, but by participating in the organization the opportunities for mutual support are obviously enhanced.

Conclusion: This article is a ‘finger painting’, rather than a rigorous discussion of housing options. It is intended to stimulate discussion. As we all continue to explore our options for where and how to live as we grow older there are clearly a wide range of possibilities. As is evident, my own bias is that the “village” concept is one well worth considering in more depth.

--David Whitehorn
9August 2011, Halifax

Thanks to Tom Bell, Pam Denicola and Dr. Andrea Sherman for insightful comments that helped shape this article.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


After a series of open meetings on aging at the Halifax Shambhala Centre, documented in several postings on this blog in 2010, an aging steering group was formed to guide further development of aging related projects. The steering group has been meeting monthly and has written the following update to be published in the newsletter of the Centre (The Banner) in March 2011. The Banner is available online through the Halifax Shambhala Centre website. The update summarizes the key issues identified so far in the process of working with aging and provides an example of how one Shambhala Centre is relating to the simple fact that a great many of its members are getting old.


Remember the 1970’s, and some of us were first connecting with Shambhala. We were young and didn’t think much about being old and the coinciding sickness or disability. Perhaps we recited the reminders of “precious human birth” and “old age, sickness and death”, but our hair was not gray, and our bodies were capable of sitting nynthuns with the main hardship being resisting the urge to scratch an itch or swat a pesky fly.

Nearly forty years later, on a day-to-day basis we may not be aware of how much we have changed. But bump into an old friend whom we haven’t seen for 20 years, and with a shock, we say to ourselves, “wow, has she aged! Gee do I look that old too?” Or do you experience a jolt of incomprehension when you see a photo of yourself these days?

Those kinds of experiences have prompted some of us to feel our age and begin to look into how our aging relates to Shambhala path both as individuals and as a community.

In the spring of 2010 a series of open meetings were held at the Shambhala Centre to explore aging related issues. Through talking circles and small discussion groups, a list of ideas, concerns, questions and needs was generated. These were assembled into general categories as follows:

(1) HEALTH, age related diseases, chronic illness and pain, nutrition, exercise and active living, social isolation and accessibility to Shambhala Centre and health services;

(2) SUPPORT, seniors’ support group/online support network/healing meditation group, caregiver support, the Deleg system as a network for support, phone calls to people who are isolated, information sharing through workshops, support groups, programs; (

(3) LEGAL, wills, estate planning, power of attorney, advanced directives, organ donations, financial resources;

(4) HOUSING, options, group or shared housing, long term care facilities, homecare; (

(5) END OF LIFE CARE, hospice, palliative care, preparing for death and dying, funerals (planning, cost, sukavati ceremony, etc.);

(6) ELDER WISDOM, a formal rite of passage into the status of "elder", a Council of Elders, passing on to future generations, keeping active, and contributing to Shambhala and wider community.

To focus on priorities and begin taking action a steering group was formed that has been meeting monthly. The members (David Whitehorn, Tom Bell, Denault Blouin, Robert Halpern, David and Meera Flint, Myra Donnelly, Yeshe Fuchs and Pamela DeNicola) have identified four core projects/issues:

(1) Survey of needs and attitudes, (2) Seniors Support Network, (3) Programs for Shambhalians 60+, and (4) Council of Elders. The current thinking on each of these projects is as follows:

To understand the needs and concerns of Shambhala seniors we need to conduct a survey. The steering group is compiling a list of seniors and contact information. This list will enable us access to distribute the survey to senior members as well as provide a basis for ongoing communication, including connecting with seniors in need. Our next step is to design the survey questions. We hope to be able to have the survey ready this spring. Updates will be posted in the Banner

We will begin to develop a support network by first relaying information through regular newsletters and Banner information and articles.

Survey data will help to focus the need for a support network and how best to design and implement. Some ideas that have already arisen are (1) online support group to share information and enlist support/help, (2) phone group (volunteers who call senior members as well as any member who is suffering from loss, disability, illness, etc.) to check in on those needing support, (3) support group that meets regularly (i.e. Seniors Anonymous), (4) Deleg support network (volunteers in each delek who provide support when needed).

There are many issues that seniors may wish to explore through organized programs. Recently the Shambhala Centre hosted a weekend with Jacquie Bell and Shari Vogler on preparing for the end of life. The Thursday night Sadhaka class is currently discussing Ponlop Rinpoche’s book “Mind Beyond Death”. And in October Dorje Denma Ling has invited Andrew Holecek for a weekend program, “Dream Yoga and the Art of Dying”. These are wonderful examples of programs that are useful and relevant for everyone, and particularly seniors.

From the Shambala Centre database we know that more than half the current members are 60 years of age or older. Reflecting on this, we can see how important it is for seniors to share our accumulated wisdom with the next generation as they take on more and more responsibility. By doing so, seniors can play an important role in the continuation and flourishing of our lineage and the Centre. As elders we can lend our experience as wisdom and compassion holders. To help with this process, the steering group is exploring the idea of a Council of Elders that could represent seniors within the governance structure of the Centre.

Friday, February 11, 2011

New York Zen Center Program Could Transform Healthcare for Elders

The following article was written by Andrea Sherman, a member of the Shambhala Working Group on Aging.

Our society has made demons out of illness and death. With tireless integrity and compassion, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care prescribes the Buddha’s medicine: sanctity of life, vows of service and letting go.”—Roshi Bernie Glassman, Ph.D.

In September of this year, I became a student in the Foundations of Contemplative Care program offered through the New York Zen Center. My motivation came from my desire to integrate spirituality into the training and practice of my professional and personal work in creativity, aging and person-centered care.

For 10 weekends during the year, students with varying backgrounds such as nurses, social workers, priests, hospice workers, doctors, therapists, caregivers, and other professions participated in this Buddhist-centered inquiry into the practice of service to others. The interfaith, experience-based program is geared to professionals with a wide array of experiences in life, caregiving, Buddhism and other spiritual practices.

To complete the program, participants must complete 100 hours of volunteer caregiving, supervisions, readings, monthly reflection papers, verbatim, doing advanced directives, and a final project. Each month there is a focus on a Zen Buddhist precept. This training structure offers ethical guidelines that “frame” each month. The precepts are:
· Not killing.
· Not stealing.
· Not misusing sex.
· Not lying.
· Not giving or taking drugs.
· Not discussing faults of others.
· Not praising yourself while abusing others.
· Not sparing the dharma assets.
· Not indulging in anger.
· Not defaming the three treasures.

Participants consider the precepts from three perspectives: literal, relational, and intrinsic. Another way to translate this is to pose three questions for the precepts: Does the action of my physical body uphold this precept? Does my action free others from suffering, and, not being separate (intrinsic meaning of no separation)?

Contemplative care is an approach to spiritual care and can be helpful to those caring for older adults who are ill, suffering, and dying.

The following excerpts from an interview with Robert Chodo Campbell, Zen priest, co-founder and co-executive director of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, illustrate some of the program’s key concepts.

Question: What is contemplative caregiving?

Campbell: One can only be as intimate with another person as they are with themselves, to find intimacy with one’s self there has to be a capacity for deep introspection and reflection, or we could call that contemplating. I think it’s really important to know who we are on a deep psychological and emotional level if we are professionals taking care of others. Out of a contemplative practice we learn to realize that there is separateness and there is no separation with the other. I think that’s what contemplative caring is, caring for the other, wholeheartedly, without getting lost in their journey. This is their journey, not mine and yet we are companions. In a way we are guiding each other.

Question: What is presence?

Campbell: Presence quite simply is being present to one’s self and other, with no separation, presence is being fully aware of what is occurring in one’s self in each moment. Presence is breath. Presence is inhale-exhale.
Putting the Foundations Program into Practice

In the first meeting of the Foundations in Contemplative Care program, participants learn about the Three Treasures:
· Not-knowing or formlessness.
· Bearing witness of the relationships unfolding within and without us.
· Loving action.

Not knowing is to give up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe. Bearing witness is to see the joy and the suffering of the world, and the expression of loving actions to us and to others. This translates into practice as I learn to enter the room of the hospice resident, and to “greet the room” as I enter, not knowing, scanning myself before entering the room, and “reading the room energy” I enter, in, to be present. This is attunement, tuning in. The three wheels are:
· Myself.
· The person.
· The time and space of our connection.

Then, I bear witness to the person and to myself, practicing “being” with joy, and with suffering. Feeling the courage, remembering that “it’s not what you do, it’s who you are.” We practice active listening to the person, an older person who is ill with chronic disease, and perhaps listening to someone who is actively dying, contemplating the images that are presented to us. Loving action can be the spiritual presence and energetic space of prayer, allowing the person to be where they are, and opening to the “tender and awakened heart.”

A goal of the program is for us to become “awake” for all of those that we encounter as caregivers, and to respect the dignity of all human beings. Since the program’s inception, contemplative care has been provided to 14,977 hospice and hospital patients, 3,839 healthcare providers and staff, 2,469 workshop participants, 21 units at Beth Israel Medical Center, and 8 hospice suites at VNSNY Hospice.

Question: Do health professionals learn to practice presence?

Campbell: When you leave one patient, before going to the next, take a deep breath. This simple ritual symbolizes being present to what you are fully in this moment—not taking the last patient into the room of the next patient. So where is your breath, where is your mind?

The important thing for any caregiver, particularly for those who care for a dying person is to be fully conscious of the fact that we are dying too. To think differently denies one’s truth. When we realize we are dying in each moment, life becomes that much more precious.

There is no separation between life and death. We are dying from the moment we are born. Life and death go hand in hand. If you could see that you and I are hand in hand then there is no separation. When I am taking care of you, I am taking care of myself. Simple.

Contemplative Care and its practices could transform care for elders and their concerns, fears, and ultimately their legacy and the meaning of life and of death. The contemplative care model includes providing compassionate care for the healthcare community, and creates an integrative and nurturing model of care that is self-reflective and transformative.

Andrea Sherman, Ph.D., is co-founder and co-author of Transitional Keys, a lifecycle transitions program that uses multi-disciplinary arts to ease, assist and enhance change and transitions. She is on the FORSA Editorial Board, and is a student in the Foundations of Buddhist Contemplative Care program.

Robert Chodo Campbell, HHC is a co-founder and co-executive director of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. He serves on the Core Faculty for the Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Programs, and is a Senior Zen Buddhist Priest at Village Zendo in New York City.

For information about the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, please e-mail or visit

This article was originally published in Aging Today Online (ISSN 1949-2464) a quarterly publication by the American Society on Aging for its members and is reproduced here with permission of the publisher.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The ground (experience) of aging in Shambhala

Contemplation on the question: What is the experience of aging in Shambhala?

What is written here arose from a 90 minute conversation among 12 Shambhala practitioners, all 60 years of age or older. I have summarized some of the points that were articulated and mixed them with my own experience at the age of 68.

--David Whitehorn (Mountain Drum)
5June2010, Halifax

Precious human birth.
There is a finite amount of time left in this life. The meaning of ‘precious human birth’ becomes more and more evident.

What to do with whatever time remains; a more and more frequent spontaneous contemplation. A long list of personal interests comes to mind, creative passions not yet explored, places to visit literally and in my mind. Perhaps the time could go into long periods of meditation or programs in contemplative disciplines of various kinds that I’ve always wanted to learn but never found the time.

On the other hand, perhaps the time and energy would be better used by engaging the world to help sort out the multitude of difficulties that face the world at what seems like a crucial period in the evolution of human culture. After all, the Shambhala vision is of enlightened society. If that vision has been central to my life so far, would it not make sense to engage it even more intensively in the final years? The Bodhisattva Warrior certainly takes care of her/himself, but does so in order to be able to help others.

There is no escaping death. What will that be like? The practice has always been about letting go, but what will it be like to let go of everything? In my practice, formal and informal, I notice how much I cling to my preconceptions, how often I freak out when the experience of groundlessness suddenly arises. At some level I understand that the ‘me’ who is going to die never really existed, but there is no denying my attachment to this form, empty as it may be. There are inspiring stories of many old people, some great practitioners, some just ordinary folks, who have relaxed into death. But is there a ‘good death’ to which I should aspire, or is it more about relating directly with how ever my death unfolds? If the concept of reincarnation is true, we’ve all experienced death many times and, the last time around, handled it well enough to achieve a precious human birth, but not well enough to avoid reincarnation altogether; or perhaps we chose to return to help others, a comforting thought.

Nursing homes.Death is one thing but what about an extended period of serious illness and disability, being unable to care for myself for months or years. I’ve been in nursing homes and I don’t like to idea of ending up in that kind of institutional environment. Can the Shambhala mandala organize itself to provide an alternative?

Isolation.Even if I don’t need to be in a nursing home, will I become less and less active and become isolated from people and the activities of the world? Will I be unable to attend programs to hear the teachings and be in the presence of great teachers and my dharma sisters and brothers?

A friend who lives alone recounts how, when she had an extended illness, it seemed that everyone forgot about her. Do I take my connections with others for granted? I think of myself as being independent, but there is no denying that I do better, in terms of body, speech and mind, if my life is interlinked with others in a meaningful and caring way in which I can both give and receive.

Happiness.I recognize that there is a difference between experiencing aloneness, the fact of being an individual sentient being, and experiencing loneliness, a confused clinging to the idea that happiness comes from external events (see the 1974 Seminary transcripts). I’m in awe of the 100 year old woman in Halifax, a friend of a friend, who lives in poverty in the most dangerous and degraded apartment building in the city, yet is always caring and giving toward others and radiates happiness.

Is it useful to contemplate and talk about aging?
Has this contemplation on the experience of getting older, the ground of aging, been useful? When a 76 year old friend was invited to participate in a group discussion about aging she laughed. “No thanks, I already did that. I’m too busy living”. Another friend, 94 year old, is angered and offended by the idea that people would relate to her as an old person.

If this kind of contemplation tends to solidify my view of myself as being ‘old’ then it would seem counter-productive. On the other hand, if it helps me to be more aware of what is unfolding in my life and how to work with that in a skillful way, then it would seem to be helpful.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Suggested change to statement on aging in Shambhala

Gary Kellam has proposed the following changes.

Old version (November 2009):

(4) In Shambhala we can simultaneously recognize both the opportunity to be more openly engaged with the world as we grow older, and the inevitable decline in physical and mental capacities, culminating in death.

Proposed new version:

“(4) In Shambhala we can recognize both the opportunity to be more
openly engaged with the world as we grow older and, at the very same
time, the increasing likelihood of conditions that lessen mental
capacity and the inevitable decline in physical capacities that
culminates in death.”

Many thanks to Gary for this important suggestion.