When the Olympic torch passed through London early in the morning, the seniors I teach welcomed it with a public performance of Tai Chi – and got the locals to join in. It was a startling reminder of “positive aging”! Meditation aging and tai chi
Working with older people in this way very much helps fulfill Shambhala’s aspiration: Aging is not a problem to be avoided or denied. Like any other phase of life, the older years are an opportunity to wake up. Nonetheless, there is a reality to the decline in physical and mental capacity that accompanies what is conventionally termed ‘old age’. It is helpful to acknowledge aging and mix the experience of being older with practice.
I have come to realize that working with older people is providing me with a magnificent opportunity to wake up, appreciate life and experience basic goodness. My encounters with over 200 people every week offer innumerable moments in which to promote well-being and an open, all-embracing, positive outlook on the world.
The Sakyong (the spiritual leader of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage) often quotes Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’ve seen the truth of this. In our Tai Chi classes, what is communicated to the seniors is not just the movements and exercises but a feeling and attitude – not in explicit words but in the demeanor and approach that emanates from the teacher and is reflected by everyone in the class.
Each session is also an opportunity for me to go beyond what the Sakyong calls “the Goldilocks Zone” of comfort and habit. I have to work with my own feelings of fatigue and irritation or sadness. It can be tiring and draining to relate to the seniors, get off the “me plan”, and be there for everyone’s aches, pains, personal dramas, medical emergencies and, yes, their deaths.
It is these very relations and interactions with individuals that make the “work” such a precious and privileged experience. I have had to learn to acknowledge and care for each of them. It’s about being completely present and supportive. Out of this come genuine cheerfulness and the possibility for transformation.
Working with Elders
Several years ago a gentleman called Bob came to the class. He was in his early 80’s and had recently lost his wife. He had been a meat porter in London’s meat market for 50 years and had never done any formal exercise. At the beginning, he stood at the back and tried, with difficulty, to follow along. But he persisted and came regularly and eventually became completely committed to the weekly class. He was always the first to arrive and never missed a session.
He fell ill with cancer and could no longer attend. He asked to have a copy of the music I played in the class so that he could continue to do the movements at home. I visited him there and he expressed his appreciation of learning Tai Chi and how it had “opened up a completely new world” for him. When he eventually died, his daughters contacted me and asked if they could play the music at Bob’s funeral – as he had requested – since Tai Chi had changed his life.
Let me also tell you about Jessie. She’s in her 90’s. She has lived the life of a hard-working Londoner. She has never worn trousers – only dresses for her. Although she is no longer able to come to the class (the new venue is too far for her to walk to), she was a regular for many years.
At short notice, I was invited to make a presentation at a national conference in London on the prevention of falls and the role that Tai Chi can play in improving balance. I had the idea of taking Jessie along to talk about her experience of Tai Chi.
The conference room was full of doctors and other health professionals. Together, Jessie and I mounted the stage, I gave my short presentation and then invited Jessie to address the conference. She had never done anything like it in her life! Suddenly, there she was: speaking in a strong voice without hesitation – in her cockney accent.
She explained how Tai Chi was keeping her mobile and enabling her to climb up to her second floor home. She then joined me in leading the delegates in a few Tai Chi movements. A couple of years later, I met someone who had been at that conference and the appearance of Jessie was what she remembered. “You were the person who brought Jessie!” she said.
What better evidence of awakening confidence and enriching the experience of life!
Join us at the NY Shambhala Center for Conversations On Aging, an opportunity to share concerns, experiences, ideas or expertise. The next Conversation will be Monday, Dec 10th at the Shambhala Center.
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