In her amazing article on aging gracefully – which also explores the subtle forms of resistance to seeing the truth of aging – Deborah Willoughby explains the Four Stages of Life according to the yoga tradition.
In brief, they are:
Deborah goes on to explicate these stages in further detail:
“The yoga tradition offers a completely different script, one rich with possibility. In this version, the play of life unfolds in a graceful arc from birth to death, becoming more nuanced and rewarding as it moves toward the denouement—perfect fulfillment, not “mere oblivion.” Here we play four distinct roles as the drama of life unfolds: student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciate.
The first two are self-explanatory and accord well with our modern view. During the student years—childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood—our primary task is acquiring the knowledge and skills we will need to make our way in the world. We draw on these attainments when we become householders, immersing ourselves in the rush and roar of life as we go about earning a living, raising a family, and doing our civic duty.
But here the resemblance ends. In our modern script, the third act—retirement—defines us in terms of what we’ve left behind instead of what lies ahead. Up through our late 50s and into our 60s, our energy has been mainly focused on tangible achievements: earning a degree, building a career, raising children, acquiring property, perhaps making a name for ourselves. Now, as these familiar identities and activities fall away, we find ourselves without a clear, purposeful direction.”
Deborah then zooms in on her own personal resistance to entering the Forest-dweller stage – which manifested as a persistent detaching retina. Her refusal to slow down her pace as Editor of Yoga International magazine impeded her full recovery after the first episode and laser surgery.
Quickly returning to a frenzied pace, Deborah’s retina detached again. Not just once or twice. Four times altogether. This forced an extended state of convalescence. The physical ordeal and total collapse took three months, but Deborah’s recovery and internal shift to the forest-dweller stage took much longer.
The Ingrained Desire for Continuity
“Abhinivesha“—the ingrained desire for continuity – according to the Yoga Sutra “is firmly established even in the wise.” Due to this ingrained desire for continuity, transitions – and especially moving into the forest-dweller stage – can feel more like a battleground, earthquake, or tsunami than a graceful dance. It’s common to cling to our well-formed identity and all that we have come to know and rely upon in the external, material world. But it’s only through letting go that we can experience the next stages of emotional and spiritual growth.
Sadly, there’s no spiritual education or context in Western culture that skillfully guides us through these transitional stages. Au contraire.
Our fast-paced modern culture, which worships youth or the semblance of youth, encourages us to dig our heels in even deeper. Aging is generally frowned upon and seen as a negative decline. Willoughby offers scientific evidence to the contrary. But generally, due to our cultural conditioning, we are eager to try to reverse the aging process instead of embracing this new stage of life which, as Deborah suggests, has its own values and deep rewards
But our resistance comes with a price. This ingrained desire for continuity identified by Patanjali is one of the fundamental ways we cause ourselves pain. And in addition to the pain we experience through our clinging to what was, there’s a danger of missing the real meaning and purpose of live.
The great sages know that the purpose of this life journey is “not to accumulate possessions or experiences or power or fame, but to gather the tools and means to promote awareness of the luminous field of conscious energy that is the core of our being. They knew that to die without having accomplished this purpose is the greatest loss.”
Reading this article illuminated the growing sense of disenchantment I feel with the internet, social media, and the material world in general. It all seems somewhat meaningless. I understand that it’s all transitory. But – as it is said in my tradition – understanding is not realization and realization is not liberation. This is the gap of incongruence – knowing but not fully realizing – that continues to propel me forward.
Although I’m not quite at retirement age, I’ve seen a number of friends die in their fifties and another – just a few months ago – in his twenties. I feel impermanence sitting on my shoulder. I hear this inner call to gradually acclimate to the forest-dweller stage of my life. To more deeply explore not that which changes, but that which endures.
Entering the forest-dweller stage of life, doesn’t literally mean retreating to the woods, though some individuals may do so. It simply means shifting the balance of your energy from the outward to the inward. It doesn’t necessarily mean giving up all work, creativity, or all outward activity. Instead it means engaging in activity with a lightness of heart, balance, perspective, and greater sense of inner awareness, while also allowing time to draw inward. Deborah, for example, left her demanding position as Editor of Yoga International magazine and now teachers seminars on yoga for the 50+ crowd.
Deborah concludes by saying, “This is the gift waiting for us when we embrace the third stage of life—not mere oblivion and not an encore of our 40s, but fulfillment and perfect freedom.”
One important reminder: there’s no need to wait until the third stage of our life to reflect upon “the ingrained desire for continuity.” We can begin to question, investigate, and unknot this source of suffering at any time in our life.
What are your thoughts on these stages of life as defined in the yoga tradition? Do you feel this “ingrained desire for continuity”? Are there ways that you offset it?