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Jun 09
Community Articles, Pacific Northwest
An Elder Warrior’s Marathon
photo by Charles Blackhall

photo by Charles Blackhall

This article was kindly submitted by Shastri Susan Chapman, one of four shastris (senior teachers) appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche to serve the Pacific Northwest region of Shambhala.

by Shastri Susan Chapman

Seven months ago my father’s life took a dramatic turn and he’s now confined to a wheelchair in a residential care facility. For decades his daily routine included both jogging and meditation, so Dad would have loved Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book Running with the Mind of Meditation. Now Parkinson’s disease freezes his body and shrinks his attention span. While he naps I read the book silently. It slowly dawns on me that I’m witnessing in my father the kind of warrior practice my marathon-runner teacher is describing.

Dad is living proof that it’s possible to be in training without leaving your chair. His confinement reminds me of the three-year retreat my husband and I completed ten years ago, an opportunity to radically simplify your life in order to deepen practice. This restraint can be heaven or hell, a prison or a retreat, depending on how you work with it. Reading the Sakyong’s book helps me realize that the qualities we see in my dad these days are the results of seeds of virtue planted and cultivated for a lifetime.

A spiritual warrior knows that joy comes from letting go rather than holding on. One example is letting go of privacy. Whether we’re in a group retreat or a care facility, loss of personal space and time can create further openness for the warrior, or it can trigger intense reactions. In the second month, Dad shared a room with an angry man who cursed day and night. George had been a successful attorney and country club member who had secured a lifestyle that divided winners from losers. Then at age 89 he had a stroke, and from that day on he lived (and eventually died) in a self-created hell.

Only weeks into his own hospitalization, Dad wasn’t well and was still adjusting to his own life changes. But as a physician and father of five children, his job description was to attend to other people’s suffering rather than to push it away. His lifelong training was to use irritating situations to strengthen his mind with compassion and patience rather than poisoning it with resentment. Like the Sakyong who ran a marathon with a blister on his foot, Dad doesn’t let pain shut him down.

At any age, life’s challenges show us where our strengths and weaknesses are. The difference between a warrior path and a cowardly path lies in how we use that information. First we train in mindfulness as a way to accept frustration with gentleness instead of blame. The discipline is to be friendly to ourselves and merciful to others.

With the determination of an athlete and the focused awareness of a samurai, Dad taught himself to bring a fork to his mouth by dividing the movement into three stages. To the casual observer his gestures appear clumsy, but when you pay close attention you realize how skillful his maneuvers are. Eating with him is like doing oryoki (contemplative eating) practice.

One of my favorite teachings from the Sakyong’s book is about the importance of creating positive environments in our life. Regardless of our situation, if we want to be happy, the formula is simple: switch the focus from me to you. While it’s true that many of our social situations at home or in the workplace seem beyond our control, most of the time we can increase harmony in our environment by opening our eyes and ears to the people around us.

My book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, was inspired in part by a conversation with my dad several years ago. Sitting on the patio one day, he told me he’d taken a personal vow in the past to refrain from speaking negatively about other people, even his enemies. This confirmed what I knew. I’d never heard him speak badly about others. But along with this he practices the opposite, asking questions and being curious about other people. As a result he’s a human magnet. The nursing home staff treat him like family and his smiles are contagious.

Sitting with Dad and reading the Sakyong’s book has redefined my view of a marathon-warrior. I may never be a runner, but that’s no longer an excuse. The time to just do it is now.

Shastri Susan Chapman is an author, licensed family therapist, and teacher of contemplative psychology. A member of Shambhala since 1974, she mentored with Pema Chodron at Gampo Abbey for nine years, completing a three-year retreat and serving as retreat leader for six more years. She now lives with her husband in Burnaby, BC.

The Victoria Shambhala Centre is hosting Shastri Chapman at our Open House on Wednesday, June 27th, where she will speak on a topic from her book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication. To learn more follow this link: Open House – Mindful Conversations: Bringing Relationships to the Warriorship Path.

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1 response to “ An Elder Warrior’s Marathon ”
  1. Lisa Steckler
    Jun 10, 2012

    This is a wonderful and powerful story. It takes a real warrior to have the patience and curiosity to see these qualities in your dad, Susan (I am thinking about you watching him feed himself with a fork). I remember meeting him at a party and he was so warm and magnetizing (this is a good way to describe it). I am so glad that I had that night to talk with him and meet the man that raised you. Great reflections…
    Love, lisa

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