Photo Felix Imhof © UNIL

The Dalai Lama shares his vision of old age with the NCCR LIVES director

During a visit to the University of Lausanne on April 15, 2013, the spiritual leader answered questions from several scientists, including Prof. Dario Spini, director of the NCCR LIVES. Throughout the day, Tenzin Gyatso displayed a sincere interest in research, and he is proof that at nearly 78, your mind can remain effervescent.

Ten views on aging — from the humanities, social science and medicine — were discussed on Monday, April 15 at the University of Lausanne to honor the Dalai Lama's call for a dialogue with scientists. Ten points of view plus one : that of Tenzin Gyatso, always wise, often facetious and at times modest; not forgetting the excellent moderation of the debate by vice-chancellor Philippe Moreillon.

The university organized a large-scale event, with nearly 1,300 handpicked guests in the hall and a broadcast for those not fortunate enough to have a seat. The large crowd was mainly interested in hearing this exiled Tibetan leader, whose relaxed manner contrasted with the formality of the occasion.

During the morning session, Dario Spini, director of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, was the first of the round table participants to outline current knowledge of the aging process as seen from a "life course" perspective, the NCCR LIVES specialty.

Prof. Spini mentioned the increase in life expectancy and the fact that, in the West today, old age consists of two stages: a first one, where seniors are still active and in good shape, followed by a later end of life, in which increased physical and mental fragility become a challenge for families and society. Finally, he stressed that responses to old age take various forms: while old age still evokes negative attitudes, studies show that seniors' well-being is often better than that of adolescents and young adults. Dario Spini says it would be useful to develop a better interdisciplinary understanding of ways to be more “authentic and generative” during the last stage of life.

How does one age well?

Like all the other roundtable participants, Prof. Spini had prepared a question for the Dalai Lama, presented as one for which science has still not found an answer: "How can we age well when our physical forces are declining?" the LIVES director asked. "Through a genuine concern for others," his Holiness replied. "A healthy mind means not only knowledge or education, but mainly is a warm heartedness."

Throughout the day, the spiritual guide returned several times to the question of education. He spoke of the training necessary — from the earliest age — to be aware of emotions, for sensory experimentation and reflection. "Don't just copy, but analyze by yourself, debate and create an alert mind!" he urged the audience, particularly the students.

Because, according to the Dalai Lama, "There is no effective method" for changing after a certain age: "That must be cultivated from childhood, ... unless you can operate on the brain to take out anxiety and replace it with enthusiasm," he said with a loud laugh.

Several times he underlined the need for research on certain topics: for example, on the impact of friendly surroundings on the elderly, or on phenomena associated with retaining memory. He took the opportunity to mention the creation in Zurich of a Swiss branch of a US-Indian institution that he helped develop: The Mind & Life Institute. He called on the Swiss and their researchers to get involved. "Education may change the whole humanity, not the Buddha or Jesus Christ," the Dalai Lama said. He eventually promised he would make himself available to return another time for dialog with scientists.

"I came out of the meeting energized and happy," said Dario Spini at the end of the event.


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