In our secular society growing old is a disaster, particularly – but not only – for women. As a consequence, in this part of the world nobody is old. Everyone is ’still young‘, maybe already ‚a little older‘ or of ’senior citizen age‘, but by no means old. In this essay it is about determining why this is so and how the seeker of truth can view the subject to benefit his search.
First of all it is worth examining what aging really is.
What grows old? As everyone knows, the body grows old. Substance reduces, sensory perception changes, energy decreases, speed of reaction takes longer etc. The mind also grows old, memory weakens, thus decreasing the ability to learn, interest in the outside world diminishes etc. For some these processes start earlier, for others later but at some time it will affect everybody.
„Okay,“ one can say, „that’s life. One has to accept it.“ True. But who is really able to do that? Who really has no problem when hair or teeth fall out, when visual or hearing ability dwindles away or when one can master less and less ‚to do’s’in a day?
Many claim to be afraid of senility and illness though not of dying itself. Nevertheless, in the end it makes no difference: the cause for both fears is the notion that if body or mind change, I change. If body or mind decline, I decline. If body or mind fall ill, I fall ill. And if body or mind die, I die.
The identification with body and mind cannot be overcome easily. Theoretically I may know that I am not the body. However, do I still know it if, stuck behind the steering wheel of my car, I see that the tanker in front burst into flames? I may lose the insight that I am not the mind even faster. Who amongst us remains constantly aware that his thoughts and feelings are just waves in the infinite ocean of „I am“?
What then can one do? The readiness to look beyond one’s present identity is valuable in itself; one starts to question one’s own self-image. At first this is still quite theoretical. However, at least, it becomes clearer and clearer that the true Self exists and that one can recognise it. Some have discovered it already; but their knowledge finds no place in western secular thinking, they need the support and confirmation of those who know more about it.
First of all it is a matter of searching for the knowledge of the true Self – something the readers of these essays already do, otherwise they would not take the time to read them. And those who are lucky have found a teacher who they trust and who accompanies them on their search.
What you take to be the „I“ in the „I am“ is not you. To know that you are is natural, to know what you are is the result of much investigation. You will have to explore the entire field of consciousness and go beyond.
Secondly it is a matter of questioning one’s world view. Why? The secular mindset thinks that with the birth of the body one starts to be here; with its death one leaves. In between everything revolves around bringing about as many positive experiences as possible – whether they be of a material, emotional, mental or spiritual nature. This is what almost all people call ‚life‘. Nothing points beyond birth, death and experiences.
The fact is, one is already born, and dying is somewhere ahead; so if one notices at some point that one gets less and less out of experiences that are, after all, an essential component of ‚in between‘, then one falls into a dark pit – particularly if the dwindling interest concerns those experiences that one always used to cherish.
In India for thousands of years there is the system called ashrama. Life is divided into four stages called ashramas, which are considered natural for a human being. Even if it cannot be transposed one-on-one onto our western lifestyle, this model can release us from the many burdensome concerns related to the ageing process. This is because the ashrama model is based on a completely different understanding of life than the western one described above.
In outline it is like this: The very essence of a person is eternal, it does not come, it does not go. It is called atman. Birth of the body, similar to its death, does not alter this fact even a little. But as human beings are born ignorant they do not recognise themselves to be the atman; instead they consider themselves to be body-mind system, as having a beginning and an end and gaining experiences. The ashrama model is designed exclusively to use the life to free oneself from this wrong identity and to recognise oneself as the atman that one really is.
A general longing for liberation is only the beginning; to find the proper means and use them is the next step. The seeker has only one goal in view: to find his own true being.
The first ashrama is called brahmacharya, it is the stage from childhood to youth. This is the time to lay the foundation in order to enable the person to best fulfil the potential of the later stages. This means, now it is a matter of developing mental and emotional intelligence and values which will be of benefit later.
The second ashrama is called grihastha. It is the stage during which one makes one’s contribution to human society – by working, building a family and by the fact that one supports those belonging to the other ashramas. Since only during the grihastha stage money is earned.
The third ashrama is called vanaprastha, it is the stage from around the age of 50 in which the retreat from social life begins. One devotes oneself more and more to spiritual life.
The fourth ashrama is called sannyasa. At this stage property and all worldly ambitions are renounced. From now it is only about striving for Self-realization, enlightenment.
In India, the general orientation to this model is still alive. It means that at no time in life does the feeling arise that all options have been exhausted and from now on one is merely burden on others. On the contrary, with increasing age the focus is increasingly about what is essential. Besides, as the identification with the body is already considered as something to be overcome, health impairments of old age are also taken less tragically.
Moreover, each of these stages makes sense not only for oneself, but also for the society as a whole. The fact that vanaprasthas as well as sannyasis are considered to be fundamentally important members of a functioning society 1 forms one reason why the grihasthas are called on for making these stages possible. The functioning of a society that is without members who devote themselves more and more to the spiritual, is considered to be decadent and inferior.
A number of people over 50 consult me because they derive less and less satisfaction from certain activities. On the other hand they feel pressured by the fact that others consider them as peculiar because they do not fit into the ideal picture of the western society’s senior citizen. Neither do they want to take part in the next marathon, nor live out their creativity; neither do they want to dance the night away at loud parties, nor take part in the one hundred and twelfth therapeutic process – even the long dreamed of round the world trip does not seem as tempting any more as it had been some 10 years earlier. These people often deem themselves depressed because nothing seems to pull any more, nothing seems to push any more.
But on a closer look it turns out that they are just unable to recognise what it is that pushes and pulls. Since what pushes now and whereto it pulls now differs from what in the first half of life had pushed and pulled. Against the backdrop of the ashrama model it becomes immediately obvious that it is natural to devote oneself, finally, to the basic questions of life. Particularly for those who have been on a spiritual path already in their young years, it is often difficult to understand that what spirituality is about now differs radically from the first half of life. Those for who it does not differ do not have a crisis now.
The idea of enlightenment is of utmost importance. Just to know that there is such possibility changes one’s entire outlook. It acts like a burning match in a heap of saw dust. A spark of truth can burn up a mountain of lies. The very hearing of it is a promise of enlightenment.
Beyond 50 it is about withdrawing one’s attention more and more from all what is transient and to direct it to that which remains. In the course of vanaprastha one may say goodbye to one’s own ambitions. Whoever had a successful life up to now, will rethink as much as the one who could not realise his dreams – and in some area of life this will be always the case. In regard to our earthly existence something will always remain unfulfilled. From 50 onwards we search more and more for that which continues beyond birth and death.
Of course there are people whose career shoots up in the second half of life 2, but they probably do not belong to the readers of these essays and not to those with who I usually speak. It is all a matter of priorities. If my one and only aim is my career, I will be successful in my career. If my relationship is more important to me than the career, it is less likely that I will be as successful in my career – likewise if I orient myself more and more towards the spiritual. This is the very ground for the ashrama model; one simply cannot do everything at the same time.
Those whose search for truth now gains an increasingly higher priority have to put up with the fact that they differ from the ideas and ideals of the thirsty-for-life western society. Most have a sense of relief when hearing that what they had classed as wrong and insane, in another context is thought of as natural and desirable.
Then after the first relief doubts rise again: Isn’t this resignation? Five little old little ladies lost in the gigantic nave, the only ones attending the holy mass – help! Better book another dance workshop, start another training course, go and search for true love, book up for the gym. No objection. It just is not going to expel the notion that something basic is missing. To face up to this reality, actually is the exact opposite of resignation.
The basic, which is missing, is the knowledge of what I truly am – the one, eternal, limitless consciousness that is in and through everything: the atman. What do I win if I know that I am this? Completeness, absolute fullness – nothing is missing any more, under no circumstances, in no stage of life, not even in death.
What often makes it difficult in our society is that the spiritual search is neither esteemed nor supported – certainly not financially. This means, that for all those who did not set aside a pension and have no property in their grihastha life, this very grihastha stage will intrude far into vanaprastha. With this we have to live, it cannot be changed. Still we can find to a more settled position, even whilst taking care to meet our financial obligations, or on the other hand trust that we are moving in the right direction if we follow our true needs.
Whoever prefers to go for a walk than go to the cinema, whoever would rather read a spiritual book than shop, whoever would rather meditate than chat on Facebook – in short, whoever prefers to withdraw a little does justice to a natural impulse. It means a big relief for every seeker of truth if he can yield to vanaprastha – without the idea of being depressed, brainless, unimaginative, unproductive and boring.
Those, however, who do not seek truth will not be supported by vanaprastha. As mentioned, it is there to create space for the essential questions of life. Only if these steadily move up on our list of priorities, will we find a sense of meaning and deep satisfaction in this stage.
For self-realization you need a well-ordered and quiet life, peace of mind and immense earnestness.
- Even though sannyasis, having no social obligations anymore, no longer participate in the running of society, they are nevertheless an essential part of it.
- In the corporate world spirituality has started to be held as something furthering one’s career -_ mostly in the form of meditation. This is due to a different understanding of the term „spirituality“, see Essay Spirituality