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Apr 15
Opinion Pieces
Old Age and The Path

by Han de Wit

“…freeing oneself from how we used to feel about our practice as it has been defined by our lineage, that is, as defined from the outside, we can and hopefully will be able to redefine our practice from the inside.”

Somewhere in ‘Born in Tibet’ the Druk Sakyong Trungpa Rinpoche tells this story about an old man that was about to die. His son told him that by now it would be time to say the prayers that he had learned and practiced in his life. But instead the old man just began to make up and sing his own spiritual songs and prayers. He said to his son not to worry and that all will be well. And when he died, he died beautifully.

This story came to my mind because with old age approaching, I see many people becoming unable to practice the path and follow the (demanding!) curriculum as it is outlined in our mandala. They cannot but drop out of it. Even to receive some guidance from those who are supposed to provide this, can become difficult. Maybe some sangha members may visit the old person for a while, and maybe he or she will show up at certain special days at our centers, but ultimately, he or she will be on her own and in most cases, slowly disappear out of sight from the sangha. I can only hope that old age and years of practice have brought the freedom and profundity that enables this old human being to practice and pray like the man in this story.

Our Shambhala curriculum and its practices are designed for young people. And the implicit message there seems to be, is that at some point in time, we will be on our own. In a sense, we have been on our own all along, of course. But right from the beginning, when we enter our mandala, there is a strong feeling that we need only to rely on the path and practices as outlined in our mandala. I think that is good for a while, but in the end, we should realize that we really are on our own – also in terms of how to give shape to our own spiritual practice. And that is a natural thing.

This is important to know, because otherwise we, as old people, might easily feel left out, left behind, and forgotten. And we are. Moreover, old age might make us unable to practice ‘as we (think we) should,’ and therefore make us feel we cannot make further spiritual progress. So, freeing oneself from how we used to feel about our practice as it has been defined by our lineage, that is, as defined from the outside, we can and hopefully will be able to redefine our practice from the inside. That will enable us to really enter a deeper and more intimate connection with what our path is actually about. We will sing songs, and embrace the sweet pain of human existence with gratitude and with deep devotion to our lineage.

This essay originally appeared as a blog entry at the Aging Hub; click here to see more blog entries in this series.

Han de Wit serves as an Acharya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. With his wife Ineke, he has worked to develop the European sangha. Through the years, this has meant serving in all kinds of capacities: from giving individual meditation instruction and training new instructors, to giving public talks for large audiences; from introducing Kasung practices and teaching Shambhala Training, to introducing Ngedon School. 

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22 responses to “ Old Age and The Path ”
  1. Christine Heming
    May 13, 2017

    Thank you. Like the Buddha’s four noble truths, it is a relief to hear the truth. This is my experience as well.

  2. Celeste Budwit-Hunter
    Apr 25, 2017

    Thank you! I’m 55, but this applies to my situation in slowly recovering from chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. I can’t participate in the mandala in ways I would like. I’ve been very grateful for a path that points out practice opportunities in every moment. (And for online opportunities to connect with teachers and sangha!) Thank you again.

  3. Monique Marquer
    Apr 24, 2017

    Thank you Acharya Han de Wit for this touching article. My mother is 95 years old, catholic. She forgets immediatly what she hears. Nevertheless, we are practicing the authentic listening, peacefully. Yesterday we talked about the fear of God and the agression of social environment. Confiance in what we are!

  4. Jill Sarkady
    Apr 22, 2017

    Dear Acharya de Wit:

    Good morning or afternoon wherever you may be. I am grateful for you reaching out to us elderly practitioners. Much of what you said has happened to me due to a number of circumstances. The transformation from relying upon practice as defined from the outside to learning to trust my awareness and immersion in basic goodness in experience in the moment has been a gradual one. I wonder though if as students stop seeing the teachings as something coming from the outside that doesn’t happens naturally, I feel that I am a stronger practitioner as I have to rely upon my own basic being and experience rather than spatially being in the center of the mandala or deeply connected to one given Center.

    I have also found it extremely hard, and disappointing at times, to share experiences with younger students — the language and perception of experience is different. However, that same difficulty and pain has provoked me to teach more from my heart which has enabled direct communication with younger students because they feel more what I am saying and sense that is not a sound-bite or overly analytical presentation being spoon fed to them.

    So it is a paradox. I can not forget how much emphasis the Druk Sakyong put on our being alone essentially; the beauty of his metaphor that we are like islands in the midst of a huge river or waterway. We can never escape our aloneness yet that that becomes more of an inspiration to reach out to others and offer ourselves more. We become more and more broken-hearted warriors in our world.

    Thank you,


  5. Jan Watson
    Apr 21, 2017

    How True, Han – thank you. And as VCTR said “The only True Elegance is Vulnerability ” let’s hope as continue to age we can allow the vulnerability to be elegant……..:-)

  6. Thank you for your warm and wise words, dear Han. Your words are like vast and comforting music. I feel blessed and it is a great privilege, a great gift to grow older in this lineage. Bless you!

  7. I recommend reading “The Trackless Path” by Ken McLeod for a very honest discussion by a long time practitioner of the traps and pitfalls he encountered along the way as we look back on decades of “practice” and what we think we have accomplished (or hope to accomplish). Not a book for beginners…..

  8. Richard Sylvester
    Apr 21, 2017


  9. Thank you! It is so good to see this acknowledged and stated clearly. It is certainly becoming my experience. And it’s not just the personal experience of ageing but in the wider culture too. For example, the fact that travel insurance doubles to almost the price of a program after 75 means that this is the last year I’ll be able to afford a program outside of my country, which presents a big change in how I relate to the formal Shambhala practice world.

  10. Inez de Munnik
    Apr 21, 2017

    Thank you dear Han, for this very helpful article!

  11. Sara Demetry
    Apr 21, 2017

    Thank you so much for writing this. A thought I might add is that how we treat the elders in our societies is cultural. Perhaps there are new ways in enlightened society to help elders maintain their connections to Sangha and practice, to young people, so they are not segregated in our society as often occurs in (US) society today.

  12. Friedrich Spengelin
    Apr 21, 2017

    Well said O son of noble family – Thank you Han.

  13. Dear Han, Thank you so much for this. I am 74 and have been sitting with these feelings for some time. After years of being involved in the Sangha all over the world–at Karme Choling, the Stupa, and Dechen Choling–I am now isolated, and miss everyone so much. This is so helpful, especially the acknowledgement that this is a shared experience. I would like very much to engage in a discussion and work on how as a community we might keep people connected as age changes our circumstance financially, and in terms of mobility and energy. Han, your words about being on our own are really helpful. However, it will be sad if our sangha follows the path of the wider culture, where the elders no longer have a place in the community other than in a passing token way.

  14. What a beautiful and simple thing to say. As an aging Buddhist person it feels very relevant. I have felt pretty bad about not being able to keep up and in a certain sense not wanting to. Han is right – we have always been alone but old age is the time when we can embrace it and find our unique way to come to the end of our lives, to trust ourselves and our experience whatever that may mean.
    Thanks for writing this
    Bill Shean

  15. Wonderful & helpful and I am realizing that I can’t do everything and must let it go. I do what I can. Impermanence, equanimity, patience, loving kindness & meditation are a few of the gold nuggets I have understood to walk this path. Thank you!! I am open……………………..

  16. Mieke Corts
    Apr 19, 2017

    Thank you so much dear Han, so beautifull and well said a helpful for our eldery sangha!!

  17. Les Ste Marie
    Apr 18, 2017

    Very thought provoking and timely for me as the process of aging becomes more vivid and unavoidable. However, I’m also interested in whether the sangha of elders can find a way to support each other where ever we are on our path.

  18. Thank you Acharya Han de Wit for your bold and wise declaration. I’m getting old and it is helpful to know from a spiritual friend that things are ok, although I feel that I’m left behind.

  19. Madeline Conacher
    Apr 16, 2017

    Wonderfully said – thanks Madeline

  20. Ellen Berger
    Apr 15, 2017

    What a daring and helpful article!

  21. Timaree Bierle-Dodds
    Apr 15, 2017

    I supplicate all sangha elders to remain as long as possible. You and your wisdom are cherished by children, Under thirties, and beyond! We may not tell one another enough, at the same time, I am so grateful to the elders in the community. with great love and appreciation!

  22. Thank you Acharya de Wit for sharing this touching and to the point essay. It hits home.

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