The other day I was talking about ageing and sageing with my old friend and mentor Ram Dass– formerly Richard Alkpert, spiritual pioneer, Harvard professor and consciousness explorer. Since his stroke, he’s given up the mainland and wants to pursue what Hindus call “the fourth phase of life” here on the island of Maui. Hindus tradition teaches that after studentship, young adulthood, mature parenthood and community member come careership; leaving this world and this life behind and giving oneself to God, to the afterlife or lives, and to eternity– the fourth stage– is the ability to cap and complete this life and prepare for what comes next.
It seems to us that the AARP model of retirement– cheerful and helpful as it is– errs too much on the side of fighting and resisting ageing forever, and pursuing an active leisure retirement career of skiing, travel, and incessant activity. Isn’t there anywhere in modern life, even after retirement and on into old age, where we can respectfully and meaningfully consider life’s greatest questions and give ourselves to a higher purpose and to the eternal?
Rest is sacred– or so the ancient Indian saying goes. Lounge and invite the soul, said Whitman.
Although he has been an international peace activist since the Sixties, the community symbol of the Venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanhs Plum Village in France is the hammock. This paradox is hard for activists and Western intellectuals to comprehend.
We are the elders now; must gather what wisdom we can muster and pass it on to the next generations. We can do that in innumerable ways, great and small, through teaching, parenting, mentoring, volunteering, and being of service wherever and whenever we can– being a benefactor to the young’uns, a beacon in this benighted world, and exemplifying a wiser and kinder way of life.
As for higher education, I say: Treat each child as a prodigy, and they will be.