Do you ever get the sense that you are “over the hill,” and wonder if there’s much more meaning to your life? Our society tends to view aging negatively. The goal is to become as youthful as possibility so you can do all the activities you did when younger. Advertising doesn’t help. Even with graying hair, you need to be beautiful, energetic, athletic, and totally engaged in the life you knew. The matriarch of the family doesn’t want to feel useless, so she insists on cooking Thanksgiving dinner even though she knows she’ll be exhausted afterwards. Individuals keep on working, convincing themselves they are still productive, and therefore worthy. It’s difficult to give up your past activities because our society has such a dim view of what’s ahead.
The Hindu understanding of life puts aging in a more positive light. It posits four stages that span the complete arc of human life. They are: (1) student, (2) householder, (3) retirement, and (4) liberation. In the first stage, the student’s primary duty is to learn. Although learning continues throughout life, the focus shifts to other responsibilities after the schooling years.
During the householder stage, you become an active member of society. Responsibilities of home, family, career, and service to society prevail. Westerners and many modern Hindus get stuck in this stage, believing they’ll be “over the hill” or lead a meaningless life, if they move on.
The third Hindu stage, retirement, begins sometime after the first grandchild is born or when the wrinkles and gray hair appear. Hindus classically see this stage as a time to let go of outer responsibilities and busyness in order to focus on inner spiritual development. It’s a time to read, meditate, attend spiritual retreats and seek answers to the larger questions. Granted people in our society today often plan their retirement in interesting ways—travel, gardening, study, socializing, but the Hindu third stage takes retirement to a deeper and more meaningful level.
During the fourth stage, seekers have reached the goal of the spiritual life—liberation or enlightenment. Therefore, they no longer need to separate from everyday life in order to move inward. They are at home everywhere—in the busyness of the marketplace or the quiet of nature, with others or alone. No longer overly attached to people or things, the liberated person is ready to accept whatever comes their way, such as moving into an assisted living facility or struggling with a serious illness because they are now connected to an ever-changing, eternal part of them, which naturally creates an inner serenity. Just their presence uplifts all who come in contact with them—a goal to which we can all aspire!