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The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Aging

The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Aging

Featured image: The Dalai Lama visits a patient at Westmead Hospital in Sydney in 2013. Photo Rusty Stewart/Dalai Lama in Australia (DLIA).

In April 2013 the Dalai Lama met scientists at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland to participate in a conference on aging: “Living and Dying in Peace – Crossed Perspectives on Aging.” Below is a summary and some highlights from the talk, excerpted from the article about the conference, Conference on ‘Living and Dying in Peace’ at University of Lausanne.

“From the individual’s point of view, if we train from a young age on a mental level, developing our analytical ability, the mind will remain alert. I’ve noticed that people who do this may face physical decline, but their minds remain clear and alert. From the family point of view, affection and support are important.”

The first question put to His Holiness imagined a young boy asking his grandfather “Is it a good thing to grow old?”

His Holiness replied:

“I think it depends on what kind of life you have led, whether your life was meaningful and of benefit to other people. The grandfather might say time keeps moving on, eventually we all become old. One day, although you are young now, you will be old too. This is a natural process. He might say I’m fortunate to have lived this long, but I’ve not wasted my time and I’ve gained some experience of how to live.

“On the other hand, if he’s filled his time with sensory pursuits and dedicated himself, for example, to sport, he might say I can’t hear properly any more, can’t see properly – it’s all become hard work.”

His Holiness with his mother, Diki Tsering.

The first presenter spoke about increasing life expectancy and different categories of older people, the ‘young old’ who are still active and the ‘old old’ who are increasingly frail. He asked: “How can we age well when our physical abilities are declining?” His Holiness answered that an important factor is your state of mind. Whether your mind is calm and peaceful depends not on your being knowledgeable, but on whether you are warm-hearted. Inner peace automatically gives rise to trust and friendship. On the other hand suspicion, mistrust and lies mean you end up alone and unhappy.

“From the individual’s point of view, if we train from a young age on a mental level, developing our analytical ability, the mind will remain alert. I’ve noticed that people who do this may face physical decline, but their minds remain clear and alert. From the family point of view, affection and support are important.”

Asked how to deal with dementia in the old, His Holiness replied:

“I don’t know, because I have no experience, but I believe showing affection is very important. You can show affection without having to rely on words.”

He speculated about how memory declines, noting that while you tend not to forget faces, remembering names is difficult and because of the concepts they represent there is terminology that you never forget. He wondered whether we forget names because they have no meaning, whereas terms with meaning are much easier to remember.

Asked how to deal with dementia in the old, His Holiness replied:

“I don’t know, because I have no experience, but I believe showing affection is very important. You can show affection without having to rely on words.”

A question about spirituality prompted him to try to define the term, wondering if it means looking for meaning in life and the world; a collection of visions and values that are beneficial to ourselves and others. Because there could be spirituality linked to religious faith and independent of it, he suggested that people who have no faith might derive benefit from secular ethics. Otherwise, they are prone to come under the sway of destructive emotions. He stressed that just as it is wise to take care of our physical health, we also need to take care of our emotional well-being and proposed a programme of emotional hygiene.

University of Lausanne Rector Dominique Arlettaz welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his opening address at the conference on “Living and Dying in Peace” at the University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 15, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL

The discussion came round to the role of the aging in society. His Holiness recollected a programme in Stockholm in which old people were brought in to work in kindergartens. They took part in the care of young children, played with them and told them stories. He said that there is great potential for mutual benefit in such activities. The children liked the presence of the old people, who in turn were re-energised in the presence of children. His Holiness joked:

“When I talk to young people it makes me feel young, but when I’m talking to old people I wonder ‘Who’ll be going first, you or me?’”

His Holiness said that his discussions with scientists, educationists, social workers and other concerned people lead to the conclusion that we need a system of values that contributes to the basic happiness of all members of society. Such a system could include techniques for training the mind. Education is the avenue for change. Education is the way we can change the course of humanity. And he suggested that ancient Indian knowledge about the mind and emotions as preserved in literature belonging to the Nalanda tradition could make a valuable contribution to this.

When pressed to recommend ways that the elderly who have not trained themselves earlier in life could begin to change, His Holiness said he doubted that there was an effective method, pointing out that such methods need to be adopted when we are young.

After a leisurely lunch filled with conversation and discussion the conference resumed. Asked to respond to the statistic that a majority of people die in hospital His Holiness surprised the panel by saying that if you die in hospital it means that all efforts to save your life have been exhausted, so there will be no room for regret. On the other hand he agreed that doctors and nurses need to treat their patients as beings with feelings of pleasure and pain, rather than as inanimate machines brought in for repair.

When pressed to recommend ways that the elderly who have not trained themselves earlier in life could begin to change, His Holiness said he doubted that there was an effective method, pointing out that such methods need to be adopted when we are young.

Commenting on whether warm-heartedness is a natural function, he said:

“Yes, our lives begin in our mother’s womb and her physical touch and expression of affection are essential to our healthy growth. This is the basis for our later development of a warm heart.”

To questions about helping the old or sick to die, he said we have to investigate why they wish to die. We have to use both compassion and wisdom to assess what is the best course of action. He said that in Buddhist practice helping to end someone’s life is permitted if it will benefit them in the long run, but again compassion and wisdom are needed to make the judgement.

He was asked whether it is important to train ourselves to meet death, and if so, how to do it.

“Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.

“Training depends on the individual’s ability. One approach is to develop awareness of your dreams. If you can train yourself to recognise that you are in the dream state and take control of it, you can have a deeper experience of the dissolution of the elements that take place during the process of death.”

When it came to questions about rituals associated with death, His Holiness was firm in asserting his scepticism about the efficacy of rituals in the process. He conceded that if they were conducted by someone with experience and understanding they may have some benefit, but otherwise he doubted they would be of much help.

“Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.”

Coming back to the meditative practices that in effect rehearse the process of dying, he mentioned that he goes through them himself four of five times a day. In this connection he talked about meditators who remain in posthumous meditative equipoise after death. These are cases in which brain activity and the heart have ceased and yet the body remains fresh for several days. Over the last 50 years he is aware of 30-40 cases like this, including that of his Senior Tutor who stayed in such meditation for 13 days after he died. Science has as yet no explanation of this phenomenon, while the Buddhist explanation is that it involves the existence of subtler levels of consciousness. Although the heart, circulation and the brain have stopped, it is only when the subtle consciousness departs that the dying moment is reached and the decay of the corpse begins. (DalaiLama.com)


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
In Our Dotage

In Our Dotage

The morality of growing old

Moon&flower

The moon and its flowers

 

 

Moonflower.1

Moonflower in the night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I left the front door this morning, I saw the moonflower folding on its vine. A whiff of regret swept over me for the subtle and seductive scent dissolving, the green sepals forcing that purest white leaf inward. I stopped myself and looked hard at the dying flower, that single moonflower lasting but one night: its dying form had its own beauty.

Dying Moonflower

Dying Moonflower

 

I saw I had been missing something by not stopping, not looking hard. I sensed there is a morality in every moment, a moral obligation to be present, not just to the sensuously pleasing but also to the sensuously unpleasant (and what often upon closer look has a peculiar beauty despite the tired tread of age).

Moth in Moonflower

Moth in Moonflower

 

As W.H. Auden (pictured below), an old master himself, wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood…how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.” No one particularly likes to look at the ravages of age head on with the exception of doctors or scientists who study them.

auden

His map of age

 

 

The poet Wordsworth wrote about aging in a poem about a different flower from the moonflower, about a small celandine that stopped him as he walked through the woods.

 

 

LesserCelandine

The lesser Celandine

“…But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed

And recognized it, though in altered form,

Now standing as an offering to the blast,

And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

 

I stopped, and said with inly-muttered voice,

It doth not love the shower nor seek the cold;

This neither is its courage nor its choice,

But its necessity in being old.”

The moonflower and the celandine both fold and fray not with courage or choice but by necessity of age, like those of us who live long lives. Yet that aged stance, that “offering to the blast” whether straight, hammertoed or with walker or wheelchair, that stance takes courage.

If we don’t look hard, we will miss it, we will miss them. The word dotage signifies not just dottiness or feeblemindedness but to dote, to give attention. Our older ones deserve to be doted upon.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
The Song of the Sea Urchin

The Song of the Sea Urchin

February 21, 2015

I seaUrchinwas thinking as I ran on the beach this morning about the ephemerality of life, the beauty. I was thinking how much of a distraction beauty is, a wonderful distraction but a distraction that sometimes moves aside. This displacement of beauty can happen with its loss through age, accident etc. I was thinking how our culture scrambles to keep that ephemeral beauty in the forefront of our perceptions, desires and goals. Beauty is so pleasureable.

But this morning I was struck by how distracting it is and how much is missed in the power of its strong focus and how the engrained habit of that focus makes beauty’s ‘pushover’ harder and harder to happen. It almost takes a Zen moment to shift beauty out of the picture as it were.

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There I was in the sands of the crashing Pacific, brown pelicans floating past, dolphins seaming the waves but the Californian sky was unusually torpid, gray. It was that absence of brightness that stunned me into this plain thought: There’s something better than beauty, something lighter, freer, way beyond me or my perceptions or ephemeral pleasures, something right at my feet like the shell of a sea urchin.

The sea urchin proffered its vacant shell to the sand; the seashell landed on the beach, hollow–both empty. An emptying precedes replenishing. I held the shell to my ear–emptiness resonating. That readiness for replenishing is all around, not just in the shells that might end up on the beach but in the lost looks of lined faces waiting to be taken up, smiled to, engaged; in the shaking hands ready to be held and steadied.

 “…An aged man is but a paltry thing,   A tattered coat upon a stick, unless   Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing    For every tatter in its mortal dress…”.  (“Sailing to Byzantium”, W.B.Yeats)

 When I got home, I read about Oliver Sacks dying, a man still ‘clapping his wings’. His inspiring article from the N.Y. Times is quoted below.

My Own Life

Feb. 19, 2015

A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted. It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love.

Hume continued, “I am … a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Here I depart from Hume. While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions. And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Children, Roses and the Aged Reflect Their Care

Children, Roses and the Aged Reflect Their Care

Nearing 90 by William Maxwell

Aonghais the Elder and Aonghais the Toddler.

Aonghais the Elder and Aonghais the Toddler.

Out of the corner of my eye I see my 90th birthday approaching. It is one year and six months away. How long after that will I be the person I am now? I don’t yet need a cane but I have a feeling that my table manners have deteriorated. My posture is what you’d expect of someone addicted to sitting in front of a typewriter, but it was always that way. ”Stand up straight,” my father would say. ”You’re all bent over like an old man.” It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t now, though I agree that an erect carriage is a pleasure to see, in someone of any age. I have regrets but there are not very many of them and, fortunately, I forget what they are. I forget names too, but it is not yet serious. What I am trying to remember and can’t, quite often my wife will remember. And vice versa. She is in and out during the day but I know she will be home when evening comes, and so I am never lonely. Long ago, a neighbor in the country, looking at our flower garden, said, ”Children and roses reflect their care.”  This is true of the very old as well.

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“Gertrude Jekyll” rose

Because I actively enjoy sleeping, dreams, the unexplainable dialogues that take place in my head as I am drifting off, all that, I tell myself that lying down to an afternoon nap that goes on and on through eternity is not something to be concerned about. What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead they don’t read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke. One might as well be — I am not — I think I am not — afraid of dying. When I was 17 I worked on a farm in southern Wisconsin, near Portage. It was no ordinary farm and not much serious farming was done there, but it had the look of a place that had been lived in, and loved, for a good long time. The farm had come down in that family through several generations, to a woman who was so alive that everything and everybody seemed to revolve around her personality. She lived well into her 90’s and then one day told her oldest daughter that she didn’t want to live anymore, that she was tired. This remark reconciled me to my own inevitable extinction. I could believe that enough is enough.

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Kate & Bob

Before I am ready to call it quits I would like to reread every book I have ever deeply enjoyed, beginning with Jane Austen and going through shelf after shelf of the bookcases, until I arrive at the ”Autobiographies” of William Butler Yeats. As it is, I read a great deal of the time. I am harder to please, though. I see flaws in masterpieces. Conrad indulging in rhetoric when he would do better to get on with it. I would read all day long and well into the night if there were no other claims on my time. Appointments with doctors, with the dentist. The monthly bank statement. Income tax returns. And because I don’t want to turn into a monster, people. Afternoon tea with X, dinner with the Y’s. Our social life would be a good deal more active than it is if more than half of those I care about hadn’t passed over to the other side. I did not wholly escape the amnesia that overtakes children around the age of 6 but I carried along with me more of my childhood than, I think, most people do. Once, after dinner, my father hitched up the horse and took my mother and me for a sleigh ride. The winter stars were very bright. The sleigh bells made a lovely sound. I was bundled up to the nose, between my father and mother, where nothing, not even the cold, could get at me. The very perfection of happiness.

'Graham Thomas' rose.

‘Graham Thomas’ rose.

At something like the same age, I went for a ride, again with my father and mother, on a riverboat at Havana, Ill. It was a side-wheeler and the decks were screened, I suppose as protection against the mosquitoes. Across eight decades the name of the steamboat comes back to me — the Eastland — bringing with it the context of disaster. A year later, at the dock in Chicago, too many of the passengers crowded on one side, waving goodbye, and it rolled over and sank. Trapped by the screens everywhere, a great many people lost their lives. The fact that I had been on this very steamboat, that I had escaped from a watery grave, I continued to remember all through my childhood. I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night’s sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself it is as if I had driven a mine shaft down through layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me.

Donald's father with Kate and Aonghais.

Donald’s father with Kate and Aonghais.

I have not forgotten the pleasure, when our children were very young, of hoisting them onto my shoulders when their legs gave out. Of reading to them at bedtime. Of studying their beautiful faces. But that was more than 30 years ago. I admire the way that, as adults, they have taken hold of life, and I am glad that they are not materialistic, but there is little or nothing I can do for them at this point, except write a little fable to put in their Christmas stocking. ”Are you writing?” people ask — out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, ”Nothing very much.” The truth but not the whole truth — which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why. I still like making sentences. Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything. ”I have regrets but there are not many of them and, fortunately, I forget what they are.”

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.