First of all, apologies to Shakespeare for rewriting his famous line from As You Like It, where the world is compared to a stage and people to actors. What follows in the play is a description of seven stages of life, from the mewling, puking infant to the aged person returned to childishness, a typically brilliant Shakespearian mish-mash of humor and truth.
You may be familiar with the Hindu teaching of the Four Stages of Life, which is less physically focussed than Shakespeare’s stages, and less psychologically-based than the the stages of human development famously proposed by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson*. The four stages in Hinduism are known as Ashrama and are roughly correlated with biological age:
- Brahmacharya (Ages birth – 24) – Student Life, focused on education, including the practice of self-discipline, learning to live a life of moral righteousness and duty, including celibacy (hmmm).
- Grihastha (Ages 24 – 48) – Householder Life, focused on relationships and earning a living, all undertaken virtuously.
- Vanaprastha (Ages 48-72) – Retired Life, a time of handing over duties, serving as an advisor, and transitioning to a more spiritual life.
- Sannyasa (Age 72-on, or any time after age 24) – Renounced Life, release of material desires and prejudices, represented by disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home, and focussed on peace, simplicity, and spiritual life.
No matter which phase you find yourself in the Ashram scale, one can benefit by keeping the main thing the main thing, and assessing where our priorities are off track or unhelpful. What I love is the priority given to ethical training and behavior, along with the deep significance of the final stage of life.
For many older people with their life’s work done, finding a continued sense of purpose can be a challenge. Hobbies and television can only take one so far before the deadly despair of loneliness and boredom take hold. While particularly the bane of the elderly, this can really happen at age. Many in their peak earning years are trapped in unfulfilling jobs, living from vacation to vacation, from purchase to purchase, or paycheck to paycheck.
I am in the process of marketing a novel entitled Borderland, in which the protagonist, Claire Blixt, undertakes a major transition to a simpler life, inwardly knowing what she needs without really knowing what she’s doing. In the midst of ennui and on the heels of several disasters, she tries and fails at suicide via bridge leap. Instead of suiciding her body, she suicides everything except her physical existence. An ill-considered move to a remote town where she had never been bring her to a connection with the natural world and to people whom she unexpectedly learns to love.
As the materialistic trappings and desires of her former life melt away, Claire finds meaning and purpose.
And isn’t that the goal for each of us?