Aging in the Buddhadharma 1
Part One of an interview with Acharya Han de Wit
by Adrienne Chang
Acharya Han de Wit was an early founder of the European Shambhala sangha and close student of the Vidyadhara. In addition to his decades of teaching and work within the Shambhala sangha, Acharya de Wit is an internationally-renowned psychologist and one of the original thought-leaders within the field of contemplative psychology. As a research psychologist at Dutch and American universities, Acharya de Wit is author of over a dozen books exploring Buddhism and the intersections of academic and contemplative psychology, some published by Duquesne University Press, USA. Now with over four decades as a practitioner and teacher, Acharya de Wit sat down with us to share some of his views and experiences of aging in the Buddhadharma.
Adrienne Chang (AC): How has the dharma shaped how you view growing older?
Acharya Han de Wit (HW): Well, I believe that first you have to recognize you’re aging. For me, it’s a natural thing: we see increasing limitations we didn’t have before that are connected to aging, but in and of itself, these limitations are not a new thing. There have always been obstacles and compromises in our life, like going to a new school, having a job you only partly like, losing a good friend. Old age is too much of a solid concept to me. For me, limitations that come with old age are not a special thing. The whole idea of impermanence is that I’ve grown up with it: things come and go. For example, I had a small stroke, and I couldn’t lift my arm for a while. This could have happened at any age.
I’m not surprised that I’m aging and I have no trouble with it. I see my dog, we’re both getting older, we’re both old men. It’s nature. It’s natural. I have to adjust to certain limitations. I’m less strong. But I have complete acceptance of that fact. Buddhism teaches us to be sick in a healthy way, to get old and to die in a healthy way. Having a healthy attitude—the acceptance of the limitations that come with growing old.
The Buddhist path helps people to accept impermanence, and accept the naturalness of one’s body getting old. For me, I see my body as part of nature, part of the physical environment which belongs to the earth. It is made of the elements, water, earth, wind, fire, if you like. It’s not so much mine. I don’t know if that view is connected with aging or practice or both, but maybe when the body starts to give in, gives up, you become more aware of how much it is part of the physical reality. It belongs to that plane.
But there is another aspect to aging, which I find intriguing: Our ability to adjust gets less; you and the world begin to go separate ways. I think this is maybe more difficult than accepting your changing body and mind– feeling as if you’re living in a world that is less and less yours anymore. It’s like immigrating to another country. It’s a slow process of culture shock. So, the culture in many respects looks like a culture you know, but it’s actually changing very fast. It’s going to be faster and faster. Would I want to live for 200 years? New research into repairing telomeres [parts of the chromosome which affect cellular aging] is exploring how we can live longer, and they are beginning to do this with mice. Mice can live longer. This is not science fiction anymore I thought– no, this is not what I want to do.
Why do I feel that way? Because it’s not just your body that is changing, but it is the world around you that changes as well. The technical and cultural changes that happen around us are so fast. For example, I have a new heating system in my house that is a very technical, wireless and sophisticated system, and I resent to learn it! But it’s the only thing they have nowadays. My grandson is much quicker with smartphones that I am. If I lived for 200 years, I think I wouldn’t have the ability to adapt. I would feel increasingly isolated and not part of the culture. That side of aging, I think is at least as challenging as relating to one’s own physical old age, sickness and death.
AC: It’s aging in the 21st century– this very rapid pace of change. How do we work with both phenomena happening in the West right now: an ever-increasing aging society (we are demographically aging in many Western countries) and a rapidly changing culture?
HW: I believe the separation between the younger and older people will be bigger.
AC: How so? Culturally, psychologically, physically?
HW: A bigger difference in how they live their lives. Culture is determined by customs, cultural habits– these habits are so engrained, you hardly know you’re using them. But then the culture changes, and then you suddenly notice that your way of relating doesn’t apply anymore. You realize your way of relating isn’t used any more. As I said, it’s a slow process of culture shock.
So, the sense of belonging in society is not a given. You have to navigate new ways; you have to find new ways. They are new ways for me, but for my grandson, he’s growing up with it. This difference of culture change, it intrigues me.
My Tibetan son-in-law took three years to adjust when he came to Europe. I’m very interested in different cultures; how it feels to move from one culture to another. I saw that it took him three years to get rid of all unnecessary fears. He knew things were different, but how are things different? We do so many things naturally, habitually, without even knowing it.
So, if you live forever, or even if you live for 200 years, that cultural adjustment would be even more so. I would be happy not to live 200 years, even if this science of telomeres advances—it doesn’t help you learn to adapt and adjust to new things. That ability to adjust becomes more difficult. I tried to learn Tibetan, because of my family. It was so difficult, because I couldn’t remember! When I was 5 or 6 years old, I could remember more easily, but this is the reality now.
Editor’s note: part two of this interview is coming soon, so watch this space for more from Adrienne and Acharya de Wit. To explore more issues related to aging, visit the Aging Hub: https://aging-hub.shambhala.org .