In a recent column, I talked about the 4 stages of life that make up the Hindu varnasrama system. As a refresher, during the second stage, we pursue social, professional and financial growth. And while some people get stuck at stage 2, many of us move to a third stage where we begin to focus more on our spirituality and faith.
A slightly different system comes from the philosopher Daisaku Ikeda and his book Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth & Death, A Buddhist View of Life. Instead of 4 stages, Ikeda breaks life down into 3 stages. But much like the Hindu system, the Buddhist author sees the third stage as a time to “value something in your heart besides prestige and social position.”
In other words, around the time we reach age 50, give or take a few years, it’s time to back away from the continual upward striving that’s common to many of us in the West. No more upgrading your possessions or trying to get ahead socially or professionally. It’s time to take a step back and focus on what really matters.
Your happiness in the third stage depends on your outlook.
Ikeda tells us that we have a choice. We can look at our advancing age as “a descending path to oblivion,” which is obviously no fun. Or we can look at our third stage of life as a more meaningful time in which we “attain our goals and bring our lives to a rewarding, satisfying completion.”
For some, easing up on the gas pedal of life is easier said than done. The author says that aging gracefully is for some more difficult than dying. He includes a poignant quote from Dr. Norman Cousins to make his point:
Death is not the greatest tragedy that befalls us in life. What is far more tragic is for an important part of our selves to die while one is still alive. There is nothing more terrifying than this. What is important is to accomplish something in life.
There are 3 paths that can lead to a more spiritually rewarding life.
It may come as no surprise that we need to find real purpose and meaning in our lives as we age. But how? I’ve taken some of Ikeda’s thinking and created three “paths” your purpose might fall into. One, or more, are sure to fit you. They are:
- Path 1: If you can help those in need, volunteer.
- Path 2: If you have knowledge to share with others, teach.
- Path 3: If you are creative, then write, paint, weave, sculpt, create.
What’s your path? Regarding the last point, know that creativity comes in many forms. I have a friend with a green thumb and each year he cultivates an amazing garden full of fresh fruits and vegetables. He does this for his own enjoyment, but also for the pleasure of friends and relatives who are given a “goody bag” each time they visit.
Five pointers for making your way on your path.
Whether you choose to volunteer, teach or create, or some combination of the 3, there are other steps you can take to remain spiritually vibrant in your middle to later years of life. Ikeda offers the following pointers, whose benefits he says are proven by scientific research. They are:
- Stay socially involved. Those who withdraw from society, tend to deteriorate more rapidly both mentally and physically. So: Greet your neighbors. Gather with friends. Stay active, both through exercise and community involvement.
- Be mentally active. Continue to pursue intellectual interests. Engage in stimulating activities like chess, bridge or learning a foreign language. Read challenging books. Keep growing and learning spiritually.
- Have a flexible personality. Be willing to try and experience new things. Keep your mind and options open.
- Keep a sense of humor. A positive mental outlook accompanied by a life that includes laughter can help the secretion of endorphins, activating the feeling of happiness.
- Put death in perspective. Like the practice called memento mori, Ikeda asks us to remember our death. He reminds us that “death is inevitable, so it makes sense to view death positively and as the point of departure for a new life.” Remember that life is eternal and this life is a stepping stone to another.