by Andrea Sherman.
Our aging as path series is inspired by Japanese culture, where we recognize those individuals who are regarded as preservers of important intangible cultural properties. Our first in this series is David Whitehorn (Shambhala name: Mountain Drum), from Halifax Nova Scotia. He is the first chair of the Shambhala Working Group on Aging as well as an officer in the Desung Arm of the Dorje Kasung.
Andrea Sherman spoke with David, who is celebrating his 75th birthday, about his journey in Shambhala and his experience of aging.
AS: When did you first meet Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche?
DW: It was in the basement of the Catholic Center at the University of Vermont, in January 1971. Trungpa Rinpoche came in wearing a big coat and a Russian fur cap with earflaps. I have a strong memory of that moment. It felt like I had encountered someone unlike anyone else I had met. To me he seemed like the ultimate scientist. At the time, I was a neuroscientist, teaching in the medical school in Burlington. At some point I asked Rinpoche “why does one meditate” and he pointed to one of his students, Chuck Lief and asked him to answer. Chuck said: “it’s like brushing your teeth, you just do it because it is good for you.” Over the following decade, as I became more involved with meditation, and with helping other people develop their meditation practice, my career path shifted and eventually I went back to school at Yale and completed a Masters in Nursing with a focus on psychiatric nursing.
AS: It’s interesting how you seem to have a parallel career and spiritual path, in particular with your work as a Desung. Could you tell us a little more about your work in this area?
DW: Yes, I have been very interested in how the teachings of Shambhala, and Buddhism in general, can help us work with difficult situations of all kinds, particularly mental disorder. The key point for me is that basic goodness, inherent mental clarity, is not altered by any conditions or situation, including mental disorder. It is always waiting to be experienced, even in the midst of the most intense “symptoms”. As Desung we are exploring how we can protect access to the experience of harmony that naturally arises when a person relaxes into their own basic goodness and the basic goodness of life altogether.
AS: How do you do that?
DW: That experience is always available to everyone if we can relax and let go of our tendency to elaborate on what we are experiencing. The skillful means as a Desung, to help others, begins with connecting to that space of primordial purity our self. That can create an environment, or a container, in which another person can also relax. From that point of view, Desung practice is something that everyone can do. Everyone can be a protector for themselves. Aging is good ground for that too. There are difficult situations all along the way through life. The practice seems to be to open and surrender to the inherent harmony and beauty of whatever you experience, difficult or not, in each stage.
AS: How has this impacted your own experience of aging, now that you are 75?
DW: There certainly are physical and cognitive declines happening for me and there seems to be a tendency to withdraw, becoming more rigid and disconnected from the flow of the world, especially since the world is changing so dramatically and it is easy to feel out of place. I definitely feel the urge to snuggle into the cocoon of being an older person, of holding onto my own version of reality and my particular conceptual view. In some sense it seems clear that I am able to do less, and I have to be more careful about identifying what is most important and where to put my energy and attention. But I keep finding interesting projects to get involved with and I do like to hold the view that basic goodness is beyond time and my access to the experience of harmony is not at all lessened by being older. Perhaps I have even more opportunity to relax with things as they are.
AS: Can you talk about the concept of loss?
DW: I know people talk a lot about loss with aging, but I don’t find that very helpful, for me anyway. There certainly is actual loss and then there is the concept of loss. My own view is that you can’t believe your own thoughts, concepts and storylines of aging, including the concept of loss. How you are right now is appropriate to the arc of your live. For me the thought that “I shouldn’t be this way” is what causes trouble. When that kind of thought comes up I tend to experience fear and depression. As contemplative practitioners we can notice when that kind of thought arises and recognize it as conceptual mind at work, trying to make things work out easily for “me”. My view of the path of aging is about surrendering to what is actually going on and questioning the concepts that we have about life and death. For example, why is death so bad? As we well know it is an essential part of the lifecycle. Again, it seems to me that it is helpful to remind ourselves that conceptual mind is quite limited in what it can understand and, when it comes to really significant issues of life and death, it isn’t a reliable authority!
AS: Tell us about how the Shambhala Working Group on Aging got started.
DW: It was 2008, I think. Richard Reoch and I had a conversation about the many people who had dedicated their lives to Shambhala, and forgone careers, and his concern about them as they got old. He was interested in how the Shambhala community could pay attention to that issue. So we gathered a group of 8-10 people that I knew had interest and experience in working with aging and that was the start of the working group. When we began looking at the issue of supporting one another in old age we felt that would be best done at the local level, so we began to encourage and support aging groups at local Shambhala centers and communities. There are some wonderful examples of that happening, such as in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
In 2009 there was a Shambhala Congress in Halifax and aging was one of the topics. During the Congress a statement on aging was adopted. The statement acknowledged both the physical and cognitive decline in old age, and the unchanging nature of basic goodness. There was also the sense that old age is actually conducive to realization. We have a longer experience of practice and with somewhat less connection to worldly activities we can become more centered on the actual experience of just being awake. From that point of view, even physical and cognitive decline can be helpful by slowing us down so we can experience the present moment. Traditionally in Buddhism the moment of death is actually the best opportunity for realization.
AS: Perhaps we have more glimpses of the nature of mind as we age, and there is more grace in old age.
DW: For me it has been interesting to work with the concept that there is more than one lifetime, an interesting perspective in old age. Can I hold a sense of continuity beyond death without any fixed concept? It seems helpful for me to contemplate a cosmic view as I move toward the end of this lifetime. For me the Shambhala vision of social transformation is central. My parents were very interested in how society could become more equitable and compassionate, so I have been thrilled to be able to participate in an actual social movement (Shambhala) that has a real possibility of supporting that kind of transformation. That kind of transformation, according to the Shambhala cosmic history, so to speak, definitely takes more than one human life time. So if I see myself as a Shambhala warrior that means I intend to go off to Shambhala after death and train further so I can come back and continue the work. I find it helpful to have the sense that my life has been about contributing to the development of a positive culture based on worthiness and appreciation for everybody and everything.
AS: Do you have any final thoughts before we end this conversation?
DW: Yes. Don’t take anything I say too seriously. I am just a student trying to practice and learn. My understanding is definitely a work in progress and my ability to manifest as awake, moment to moment, is always a question. Everyone has their own path. As Trungpa Rinpoche used to say quite often, “your guess is as good as mine”.