Do you worry about getting old and all the things that commonly follow it such as wrinkly, saggy skin, weak bones and organs, sickness, diminished immunity, memory loss, dependence on others and loneliness?
We will have a better ability to ride these sorrows if we maintain a spiritual view of our existence and hold our inner evolution in mind. We will then enjoy a happier old age.
We are spiritual beings using our human life experiences to mature in consciousness and rediscover our immortal divine nature. This is the primary reason for our existence.
But we have lost sight of our spiritual identity. Wrongly identified with our ever-changing temporary human bodies and holding strong attachments to the people and things in our lives, we suffer.
The four stages of life
Looking at our lives from a spiritual perspective, the masters of Vedanta give us an understanding of the four stages we go through and how each one advances our spiritual evolution. They are—Student, Householder, Retiree and Renunciate.*
Student: In the student stage we acquire not only worldly knowledge but also spiritual knowledge about our true nature and purpose of life.
Householder: In the householder stage we evolve by fulfilling our duties to our families, society and our jobs or professions.
Retiree: As we grow older, we gradually retire from our duties and begin to devote more time to our spiritual pursuits.
Renunciate: Finally, in old age, we totally give up our worldly preoccupations and activities to focus exclusively on our spiritual unfoldment.
The fact that Nature has designed our bodies and senses to begin to fail in old age points to the fact that this is the time to turn our attention inwards.
Also, all our duties to our families, society and careers fall away in old age. Since no one has any expectations of the elderly, we will have all the time we need.
For what, you may ask? —For spiritual study, reflection and meditation. This is how we will realise our true Self.
This may sound pretty boring to you. It only appears to be so because we are accustomed to gaining our happiness from the outer world and don’t know how to seek out a deeper joy and sense of peace within ourselves. (Read: True Happiness is inside—really?)
The readiness for full-time spirituality has to be cultivated beforehand if we want to ensure a happier old age.
The first and most important thing to do is to accept that the renunciate stage will approach us. Whether we like it or not, we will have to give up many things in old age.
We should gradually outgrow our dependence on, and preoccupations with the outer world now. Spiritual master, Swami Vivekananda urges us: Kick the world before the world kicks you.
There is a book written by Vedantic master, Adi Shankaracharya entitled, Seek the Eternal or Bhaja Govindham in Sanskrit.
In it, he corrects our erroneous thinking, misplaced values and wrong way of living.
Here are some facts from this book . . .
Keep the real goal in mind
We spend all our time acquiring, enjoying and preserving worldly things and relationships, all the while forgetting our real goal and purpose in life.
Whatever we gain here is left behind when we die; we must use our lives to unfold spiritually.
Desires remain young as the body grows old
Adi Shankaracharya paints a sad picture of an aging body…It becomes worn out and sluggish. The teeth begin to fall out and the hair turn completely grey. It needs the support of a walking stick.
He tells us that in spite of the body’s shrunken capacity to indulge and enjoy sensuous pleasures in old age, desires for them continue unabated. Just imagine the frustration and anger of an old person with umpteen desires that have absolutely no chance of being satisfied.
It’s wise to keep the long view in mind, simplify our lives and reduce our desires as we age.
How can we begin to reduce them?
Careful thinking and sublimation
Adi Shankaracharya tells us that the flames of desire cannot be put out by indulging in them. It would be like adding fuel to the fire. We should not suppress them either because they will continue to fester in the mind.
The remedy is to sublimate them by carefully re-thinking our everyday indulgences and coming to terms with the fact that there is no end to desire. For example, no matter how many times we enjoy eating or drinking our favourite food and drinks, they never give us permanent satisfaction. The craving for them always returns and we keep giving in to them.
There is no denying the fact that there is joy in worldly pleasures. However, if we spend an excessive amount of time pampering the body and providing it with pleasures and comforts, we won’t have the time nor the inclination for our spiritual pursuits.
To evolve spiritually, we must cultivate dispassion for worldly things.
The masters of Vedanta describe dispassion as an inner disinterestedness to gain joy from people, material things and situations.
This does not mean that we should totally avoid them. If they are present, we can enjoy them in moderation. If they are absent, we should not hanker for them, complain or get angry. The goal is to focus on maintaining an inner peace and balance.
To cultivate dispassion, we must impose some intelligent self-restraint and turn the mind’s attention to higher spiritual truths and ideals. For example, we can assert that we are not our bodies, and that all things are temporary. Our human life is precious, and we have a higher purpose to fulfill.
We can also develop inner qualities such as kindness, humility, truthfulness, charity and faith in a higher power. These are valuable assets when meeting life’s challenges not only in old age, but at any age.
A gracious old age
Old age is an unavoidable part of our life cycle. If we don’t experience it, we won’t be experiencing life fully. Although our outer beauty is diminished, we must remember that our true spiritual essence remains beautiful, immortal and ever young.
Old age is a time to put into practice the wisdom, dispassion, virtues and faith that we have acquired in earlier years. If we prepare ourselves ahead of time, we will be happier, and reap the blessings of a life lived well, and on purpose.
*Read more about the four stages of life in: Ageing Gracefully
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Wow, this is a good article, especially for me. I always feared growing old, but now that I am ACTUALLY growing older (middle almost late 40s), I can totally relate to the feelings of letting go of the old desires that don’t suit me anymore – so less looking for worldly comforts and more looking for peace. Less worried about what people think of me and more looking into what can I do more for others.
Thanks so much for this.
Thanks for your feedback, Smita. I’m glad that you’re thinking about your old age decades before you actually get there! Good for you!