All Ages and Abilities Have a Home in Shambhala!
This is the sixth in an ongoing series of articles on Aging in Shambhala. It is an interview with Mary Whetsell, Director of the Shambhala Office of Societal Health and Well-Being. Ms. Whetsell oversees the community-focused international working groups for the Shambhala mandala, including those dealing with aging and accessibility. She also lives (well) with a progressive physical disability.
Andrea: Could you please tell us more about the Shambhala Office of the Societal Health and Well-Being?
Mary: Over the last several years the Sakyong has been emphasizing the importance of culture and community as key aspects of enlightened society. As I understand it, culture is transmitted down to us from the Lha, and community is more the grassroots situation that meets and receives culture. When the two combine, there is an incredible dance that provides a container for our teachings and our society. Two years ago the Sakyong created an Office of Culture and Decorum that works with the culture aspect (ceremonies, rituals, forms) and the Office of Societal Health and Well-Being to work with developing many different aspects of community– communities that are more diverse, warmer, kinder, and more welcoming.
The Office of Societal Health & Well-being collaborates with centers to help create and nourish community, improve interpersonal communication, and develop skills in working with individual differences and conflict. Our motto is taken from the words of the Sakyong, who said we need to make the Shambhala Centers “more like life and less like school”.
Andrea: How could the land, city, and rural centers become more age and disability aware?
Mary: We need to be able to communicate better with people. As we age, whether we have a disability or not, it is really important to begin to ask people, “What can you do? What can’t you do? What are your needs for rest? What accommodations could be made?” Registration forms can gather some of this info ahead of time, and beyond that, we need to feel invited to speak up about our specific needs. People can be asked if there are any reasons that they can’t fully participate in the schedule. To answer this properly, one would need to know what the schedule of the program is ahead of time. For example, a common retreat schedule typically goes from 7am -9pm, and includes a physically demanding ROTA shift [(work assignment)]; we’ve got to realize that given the demographics of Shambhala there are a lot of people who can’t keep up that pace.
It’s my belief that almost everyone wants to pitch in. Perhaps there could be alternative ways of performing ROTA, such as being able to sit at a table to do meal prep. Even if you can’t do a dish room ROTA, or clean bathrooms, there may be other duties you could help with. I recently attended a program at Karme Choling, where they are doing mantra rolling for the Stupa; people who couldn’t do a physical ROTA were taught how to do the mantra rolling. It felt so good to pitch in without endangering my health or becoming so tired that I couldn’t participate in the program.
Andrea: Is there a question on program registration forms about the age of practitioners?
Mary: I believe most forms ask if you have a physical condition that prevents you from doing ROTA, but they don’t ask about age directly. We might want to find ways to assess a little more deeply questions of capacity without going to the other extreme of making assumptions about ability based solely on age. After all, that would be ageism, right?
Looking at the schedule at intensive programs is important; I attended a Scorpion Seal program recently where during the evening session it was seldom a teaching session on the main topics, rather it was a practice session. This seemed very kind to me and was helpful for people who needed extra rest. That made it possible to take care of oneself without missing a crucial teaching.
I also wanted to mention having alternative seating for people who are aging, and need to sit in chairs, or for people with disabilities. Some chair styles are more friendly to people who are trying to sit in meditation. For example, the Halifax Shambhala Center has put small risers on the back two legs of their chairs so that there is a slight lift, and the pelvis isn’t tipped backwards. You can actually sit up straight. It makes a big difference to be able to take your seat properly in meditation.
Location of the chairs is also important. Once I went into a shrine room where there were about twenty people sitting, three or four of whom needed chairs. The gomdens were arranged up front by the shrine, and the chairs were against the back wall about twenty feet away from the gomdens. This arrangement sends a message to people who sit in chairs that they are not fully part of the group. We have to understand that a growing number of us need chairs; there are skillful ways to integrate chairs into our seating patterns. Just because you are in a chair doesn’t mean you should be back behind a pole or twenty feet away from everyone else.
Our Land Centers have made great strides in remembering to have chairs outdoors when there are lhasangs or other events where able-bodied people typically stand. Similarly, we’re getting much better at offering alternatives to people who may not be able to participate in an event. For example, I was in a program recently where we were asked to take drala walks and explore the woods, but an alternative was suggested for folks who couldn’t do that. Again, this felt so kind! It would be great if all teachers could hold this in their awareness!
Don’t assume you can assess a person’s capacity by just looking at them.
Avoid assuming a person can’t do anything just because they can’t do some things.
Ask people! “Is there any reason you are unable to fully participate in this program?”
Ask people! “Is there any way I can help you?”
Be “chair aware” by having chairs at your centers that are user friendly; don’t marginalize the chairs at your center.
Be creative with ROTA; try to find ways to include ROTA assignments that are modified for people who are older and disabled.
Scheduling should reflect sensitivity to age and ability of participants.
CREATE ALTERNATIVES THAT ARE AGE AND DISABILITY AWARE!
The current demographics of our Shambhala community indicate that two-thirds of us are age 46 or older, and a growing number of us deal with significant physical challenges. In a community based on kindness and generosity, we must actively support one another as we age and/or struggle with disabilities. In this way we can become a community marked by wellness in its most profound form. This type of wellness is not dependent on physical health or other conditions; rather it is marked by the unconditional wholeness that comes from following the path of the warrior.
Mary Whetsell has served the Shambhala mandala as a member of the Sakyong’s Council, and is now a member of the Kalapa Executive. As such, she directs the Office of Societal Health and Well-being and oversees the work of the community-focused international working groups. She also appoints, guides and supports 54 local directors of Societal Health and Well-being. She has a doctorate in psychology, and in addition to her work for Shambhala, maintains a psychotherapy practice in Birmingham, Alabama.
This is the sixth in an ongoing series of articles on Aging in Shambhala. To read the previous articles, please click here. Contributions to the monthly column, “Aging in Shambhala” are welcome. Please contact Andrea Sherman at: firstname.lastname@example.org