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Jul 17
Community Articles
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.

Mary Whetsell; Director of the Shambhala Office of Societal Health and Well-Being

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.

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: [email protected]

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4 responses to “ All Ages and Abilities Have a Home in Shambhala! ”
  1. Michelle Munro
    Jul 28, 2012

    I appreciate this article, Ms.Whetsell, and the contribution of Societal Health and Wellbeing to our community so much.

    I recently attended Enlightened Society Assembly at Dorje Denma Ling. There were people with various mobility challenges, severe environmental allergies, energy limitations, and a host of other “unseen” difficulties I’m sure.

    There was such a sense of accommodation, and permission to be gentle with oneself. There was an intense schedule yet, if one had to make adjustments it was completely ok. Whether that be ROTA adjustments, seating arrangements, meal adjustments, or what have you.

    Certainly for myself, I was intimidated by taking on this program being 5 months pregnant with my second child. For some people this is not a factor in participation. For me, it was.
    My fear was met with such kindness that it was difficult to buy into the whole story line of comparing myself to others. I was able to relax with myself and my surroundings to a rare degree, and felt supported by my fellow practitioners to do so. I learned more from working with gentleness during this program than I ever have pushing myself to “keep up” with what my mind so desperately wants to convince me “everybody else” is doing. Diversity is good!

    This assembly certainly felt like enlightened society on the spot. It was the deep caring and inclusion, not necessarily the “action” part that might first come to mind, that invokes that sense.

    The Sakyong’s emphasis on kindness, and the awareness being created through out our community thanks to groups like Societal Health and Wellbeing, helps to inspire us all to drop our self aggression and deception and become genuine, open hearted warriors.

  2. Maryjane Heyer
    Jul 20, 2012

    I wonder if it would be possible to come up with a half height chair, or a 3/4 height chair for folks who can’t sit low enough for a gomden? Or perhaps even a taller meditation bench? I personally have issues that make sitting on a gomden difficult, but I do feel marginalized when sitting in a chair. It is difficult not to set the chairs at the edge of the room, however, as they obstruct the access of those who don’t need them if they are placed anywhere else. I think some of our inventors need to wrap their minds around this one and see if they can come up with a better meditation bench. (remember to make one that’s weight-rated highly for those of us who weigh more than 225lbs.)

    On the other hand, there is such a range of differing personal difficulties. I think that finding that compromise within ourselves and with the community around us is part of the challenge of practice. I think that learning the confidence to ask for help is part of warriorship. I have always found the members of my local Shambhala center more than happy to accommodate me in any way that they can. Indeed, Shambhala is the one place where I know with a certainty that asking for help will yield results.

  3. Matthew Peterson
    Jul 20, 2012

    Thank you for this article. I am 40 yrs old and have had severe arthritis in my knees and my back for nearly a decade, and had a spinal fusion a little over a year ago. Other than being a bit over weight I look outwardly like a normal man, and I’m 6’4″. When I first started going to my local Shambhala Center I was very self conscious of using a chair but when I explained my situation the rest of the practicioners were very understanding and continued to reassure me that I was equal even though I was required to forgo the Gomdens for a chair. I hope that through this article more people will be aware of hidden disabilities and make practical adjustments to meditation practice and retreats.
    Matthew “Lodro Riwo” Peterson
    Milwaukee Shambhala Center.

  4. Thank you for this insight, thus great to know the subtlety of assumptions and it’s powerful undertow. Kindly, t

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