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Sep 23
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The Flip of Cheerfulness
photo by Sarah Lipton

photo by Sarah Lipton

COLUMN: Aging in Enlightened Society

Exploring the Warriorship of Aging

Interview with Acharya Emeritus Jenny Warwick
by Sarah Lipton

“For what it’s worth, one of the commonalities I have with other folks my age – a physical edge for me – is rheumatoid arthritis in my upper back. It acts up when I sit for long hours on the cushion, and makes me uncommonly ready for bed by 8:00pm,” shares Acharya Emeritus Jenny Warwick.

We are talking via Skype, a medium familiar to Jenny. She sits in the dining room of her Bellingham, WA home. I can see the sun shining through the window into the warm, clean space behind her. This is not our first time meeting virtually – I interviewed her two and a half years ago when her husband Paul died. She has now had some time to become accustomed to that weird word – widow. She has done some aging, too, and wishes to push herself to the edge and share publicly what her experience has been.

Jenny does not want to talk about retirement, because, as she says, “There is no retiring for bodhisattvas.” She wants to talk about the path of finding a life that is connected to a larger vision.

Over the last few years, “my life has changed quite a bit,” Jenny shares. She transitioned from being an acharya to an acharya emeritus because she felt that she needed to step back from the intensity of responsibility. “It took me several months to settle into what that might mean and know how I might manifest,” in the new configuration of her life. “The question of who and where you are is a key Shambhala question because we have the values of creating enlightened society. How do I mix who I am and where I am going with the growth that happens by being in a different stage of my life?” She says she’s figuring it out. It is still an open question.

Jenny Warwick doing brushstroke practice

Jenny Warwick doing brushstroke practice

At 74 years old, Jenny says she is experiencing the ups and downs of the “aging landscape.” She has the great fortune of a routinely pleasant and interesting daily life. The nearby Bellingham Shambhala Center offers a vibrant middle-sized community to practice and teach in. She takes yoga at the YMCA, Chinese calligraphy, and university classes offered in a program called the Academy of Lifelong Learning through Western Washington University. Jenny says, “I have a very good relationship with my three daughters, it’s very open and we really share a lot together.” And furthermore, she lives in a beautiful place, one of her daughters lives upstairs, they live in a beautiful city and she likes to go to the local Saturday market for organic veggies. “Yoga helps me lean on that edge and find health in my body.” Jenny has close friends she can talk with and and share dinner with. “I tend to be a very karmic – active – person who fills in the whole day with activity and turns in early.”

Sadly, these days, friends and family members are developing dementia. Her daughter’s closest friend died a few weeks ago. Jenny is experiencing the accumulation of suffering all around. “I found that after visiting my sister with Alzheimer’s for a week, it would take me two weeks to recover from depression.” Jenny’s father died of Alzheimer’s, and she is currently watching her younger sister struggle through it too. “I work with fear and doubt about getting old, but also the fear and doubt about becoming completely dependent on my daughters.” “What if I get Alzheimer’s too?” she wonders aloud.

A few months ago, after one of these visits she saw a familiar depression coming and instead of falling into again she said – “That’s not all there is,” feeling the strength of her many years of practice and training in Shambhala and the buddhadharma.

From the perspective of an aging practitioner, aging itself presents so many edges to work with. “In aging, the real edge of challenge is loneliness. Sadness is an edge, and so is fear. Loneliness is very connected to fear – the fear of losing ground. The ground is changing and there is feeling the loss of it.” There’s also a lot of space, so making up a life that’s satisfying and also dedicated to helping others takes on different dimensions. There is a flip that is required. For Acharya Emeritus Jenny Warwick, the flip is recognizing the possibilities of cheerfulness.

“I have realized that I can be helpful to people who are aging. I know what it’s like – I’m aging myself.” To support her journey, Jenny recently started reading as many books as she could find on the topic of aging. ”I’m studying and acknowledging the changes in myself, and also learning about how to relate with my family’s experience of Alzheimer’s, which I am both interested in and fearful of.” She was also able to attend a recent deep retreat with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and found her connection to the Shambhala household practice grow even stronger. “I felt infused again with cheer and strength,” shares Jenny.

Backyard brunch with friend Shelley Pierce

Backyard brunch with friend Shelley Pierce

Jenny spent three parts of her summer helping others. She spent a week with an old friend in Halifax whose husband has dementia. Before that, she spent a week and a half at her younger sister’s house in Portland, Oregon, being part of her family and pitching in to relieve her husband who is the main caregiver. “In the household of someone with Alzheimer’s, fresh energy is appreciated by everyone.” Then she spent time with a daughter in Kelowna, British Columbia, during the time her close friend died in Kaslo. They drove together over the mountains for the three day wake which took place in the house where the Warwicks originally gathered together the just-forming Kootenay Dharmadhatu in 1975.

Putting in a plug for mindfulness, Jenny says that she has found mindfulness to become an important tool for remaining calm with the ups and downs of aging life. “We have had a lot of training and practice of mindfulness and now is a good time to put it to use.” With aging, she says, “Sometimes it’s hard to come back because we’ve lost that moment from 3 seconds ago and we aren’t sure where “back” is.” Mindfulness is key to “turning your (aging) mind into an ally.”

“Cheerfulness is the key for me to be with this edge of aging, and to work with these edges in a grounded way.” Even if we are aging, widowed and suffering, we can still flip into cheerfulness.

Just ask Jenny, she knows.

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3 responses to “ The Flip of Cheerfulness ”
  1. Jeanne Cain
    Sep 25, 2015

    I so appreciate your perspective Jenny. As always, it is so generous, self-aware and loving. I wish I could drop in for brunch.

  2. Calandra Smith
    Sep 25, 2015

    What a delightful article to read as one who is also widowed and very conscious of aging, but a late bloomer in terms of Shambhala. The recent loss of my mother has sharpened those edges, or my awareness of them, and courage and cheerfulness are becoming touchstones — very timely as I am poised to take Bodhisattva vows and embrace what I think of as ‘active’ retirement with an opening heart. Thank you.

  3. Carolyn Mandelker
    Sep 24, 2015

    Lovely article, and wonderful to hear Jenny’s insight coming through. Thank you Sarah and Jenny!

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