April 11, 2005
The four stages of life: some closing reflections
While the stages of student and householder described in Hindu philosophy may not be that different from the way we conceive it, the stages of retirement and sannyasin definitely take some getting used to.
First of all, it looks like you are abandoning all that is near and dear to you. Our normal conception of the last stages of our lives is that we keep active, do some good works in our community, keep close to our families, children, and grandchildren, and hopefully die as respected members of the community, surrounded by those near and dear to us. What stage 3 and stage 4 of Hinduism philosophy of life says is that we should walk away from all that we have spent our lives building up.
The idea that we should use our retirement to 'find ourselves' is also strange because we usually see that as a young person's task, something that they need to do to get a sense of purpose and direction in life. That is because we see the major decisions in life as deciding on a career or finding the person with whom one wants to share one's life, through marriage or some other form of commitment. That is what is usually meant by 'finding oneself' â€“ answering the question "So what do you want to do with your life?" Young people, starting from when they enter high school are asked this question so many times that they get sick of it. And this does not end until they settle down with a career, home, and community, whereupon it is assumed that they have 'found themselves.'
But in the philosophy outlined here, the important question is not what do I want to do with my life but what is the meaning of my life. Such a question is perhaps better addressed later in life, once one has experienced a fuller range of joys and sorrows, births and deaths, successes and failures, and have all that experience to draw upon in order to decide what is meaningful for you.
But in order to address such questions seriously, one must break free of distractions and go deeply into it. It is also an individual journey, because we each make the meaning ourselves. Seen this way, leaving all that you have created and going off to ponder such questions is not quite so bizarre.
But it will seem strange to everyone else in our contemporary society. Imagine the reaction if some person who is considered very 'successful' in the traditional sense announced at the age of 55 or so that he or she had fulfilled all responsibilities and was now going off to live simply in some remote location to try and figure out what it all means. Such a person would be thought to have become unhinged, although it may be the most rational decision such a person makes.
It is admittedly true that carrying out the third and fourth stages in life as described by Hindu philosophy is difficult in western society. But it may be possible to think of ways of reaching that same end without sticking strictly to that same form. For example, it may be possible to live during the retirement stage in a remote and rural area without necessarily living in the forest. Something along the lines of a monastery seems to be a possible model for such a life.
And it would be interesting to see how to manifest the detachment from life's worldly aspects that being a sannyasin implies without having to actually be a mendicant and risk (in the US) being thrown in prison, though a true sannyasin would probably be indifferent to being harassed this way. Perhaps living on some communal farm that produces just the basic elements of life would be a possible alternative.
But I suspect that the specific form that such stages of life take is not what is important. Ultimately, having a philosophy of life enables us to confront our own mortality without flinching. The real question is whether we feel the need to develop one and are willing to do what it takes to develop it ourselves. It does not come prepackaged in religion or in philosophy courses. There is no Personal Philosophies for Dummies in the self-help section of bookstores. (Actually, it would not surprise me if there is such a book, since there seem to be Dummy/Idiot books for everything under the sun.) It is something that people have to figure out for themselves.
I'll end this series of postings by quoting once again Huston Smith from his book The World's Religions:
The unwise life is one long struggle with death the intruder â€“ an uneven contest in which age is obsessively delayed through artifice and the denial of time's erosions. When the fever of desire slackens, the unwise seek to refuel it with more potent aphrodisiacs. When they are forced to let go, it is grudgingly and with self-pity, for they cannot see the inevitable as natural, and good as well. They have no comprehension of Tagore's insight that truth comes as conqueror to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend.
"Truth comes as conqueror to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend." I like that. Words to live by.