Entering the Forest of Many Delights

The forest-dweller stage of life

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:

  • Student
  • Householder
  • Forest-dweller
  • Renunciate

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.”

Disenchantment

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?

If this article inspired you, please share the link with others.  Thank you so much  for reading.  You can also connect with me on Google+ or the Always Well Within Facebook Page.  With love, Sandra

13 thoughts on “Entering the Forest of Many Delights

  1. Sandra, this article speaks to me on so many levels. I love the line, “It simply means shifting the balance of your energy from the outward to the inward.” I feel this shift happening more with each passing day. I try as best I can within the confines of my own “ingrained desire for continuity” to embrace the third stage of my life, but it’s not easy – and as you’ve said, the internet, social media and materialism don’t make it any easier. I do think the internet can be a place to spread this message, dispel myths about aging and empower others, as Deborah and as you have done for me. Thank you.

    • Katie,

      I’m very touched by your message. It’s easy to feel alone, confused, and lost when these feelings arise with in – the push and the pull. By being honest with ourselves and with each others, we can – as you boldly suggest – empower and support each other.

      I’ve been sensing this tune in your posts and feel a kinship in your unfolding.

  2. You quote so many wonderful and inspiring sources. Coming back from retreat, and being mostly retired, I do have time to reflect, to practice and to notice my risings- to be curious and be different with them. Slowly I think I am becoming a kinder person. Patience, persistence, and love. It’s both a dynamic and a quiet process.
    Thank you. Love, Mimi

    • These are such beautiful insights, Mimi! I love the attitude of curiosity that you have embraced. I also appreciate the interplay of the dynamic and quiet aspects of the process. Patience, persistence, and love are worthy aspirations that are high on my list as well.

      I see you are still carrying the beauty and spaciousness of your retreat forward into every moment. You inspire me so much, my dear former neighbor! Thank you for taking a moment to share your thoughts and refresh our connection.

  3. Hi Sandra,
    Thanks for your loving words on Katie’s blog. I felt I could mention my son-in-laws and two daughters stories because my girls don’t read her blog. I don’t think the article would have had the same impact without them.

    Now about this post. I like it. I’m going to Debra’s blog as well.

    I feel like I do this…
    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.

    ….and still hate aging! I’m 57 I have ADHDand the energy of 3 people, and have no aches or pains What am I to do with it all if I continue to slow down? Does this question make sense?

    • You’re welcome, Tess. That was such an authentic piece and I see how committed your are to unconditional love. You determination to love touches me deeply.

      Maybe it’s too early for you to slow down? We’re all individuals. There are general patterns, but we all still need to follow our own pace. The sense that I get is that it’s not about stopping but shifting the balance to look within. But I think this is a good question for you to sit with and see what comes up from within you! Only you know the real answer.

  4. Sandra – thanks for this post and exploration of aging and the different stages of life. We absolutely want continuity and grasp to keep things the way they are – not only our age but our surrounding circumstances. Isn’t that grasping to hold on to what “is” which leads to our continued suffering?

    Btw – you may be disenchanted with the internet and the online world but your writing and inspiration is helping many others on their paths to understanding and maybe even enlightenment. So, please don’t head off to the forest anytime soon:)

    • Vishnu,

      Yes! I agree fully that it’s the grasping that brings pain and that happens continually throughout our life.

      You are so sweet. Thank you for your kind words. I will only go to a forest that has internet access! I hope what I write here is helpful to others in some small way. One day, we all have to disconnect though! But I’m not planning to do that now. :)

      Thank you for your great insights.

  5. I think there is a great deal of wisdom in the four stages of life according to the yoga tradition as outlined. However, I do believe that every individual may experience parts of each one in a unique order as manifested in their own particular journey.

    For instance, I spent the first twenty years as a student and the next twenty with some aspects of the householder but not all. I was married and raised a family and did all that that life phase entails. However, I was a somewhat sheltered, stay at home Mom and wife, and am just now, as 50 approaches, getting comfortable in some of the other householder roles.

    I also currently feel the pull of some of the forest dweller roles. It is an interesting juxtaposition. I find it is a continuous balancing act.

  6. This is an important point, Debbie. I think life circumstances can pull us in different ways that each of our journeys is surely individual indeed. I also feel there’s a continuous balancing acting occurring in my life, but the balance is shifting toward to the forest! Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Hello Sandra,
    I’m a forest dweller without doubt given that I do live in the woods and I do live reclusive lifestyle. This year I have been struggling with my own disenchantment with the internet and the online world too. I do reserach for my paid work online and I multitask but as I know multitasking is addictive and decpetive I have cut back. It’s so hard to achieve a balance between online and offline life and early this summer I became keenly of how much time I do spend online.

    As I expressed in another comment healing and health challenges take time. Relationships also take time and I know I’ve been allowing myself to spend more time online than I do with friends. In these past few years I have lost 3 friends unexpectedly and that has brought impermanence to the forefront. My recognition that I am aging and every now moment spent with those I love and who love me is a precious one.

    As August approached and I was preparing for my friends arrive to spend the month with us I spent time in contemplation feeling like a caterpillar in a chrysalis. As the month progressed I experienced sea change ie. a strong desire to pursue a lifestyle that focuses on improved quality of life. During my month with my dear friends I recognized that time is the most precious gift we have to share with others. Without the time to go deep we can’t inspire and we can’t benefit from the insights and wisdom others share with us.

    As autumn approaches I will be making even more changes with regard to where, on what and with whom I invest my time and energy. I haven’t drawn up a plan as yet but I can feel that one is in the works, so to speak. My energy is shifting inwards and as it does I am experiencing peace.

    • timethief –

      It’s been very inspiring to hear about your “sea change.” I’ve been feeling it’s evolution over the summer and in your posts. You point out many things that take time like relationship, healing, etc. and we can really rob ourselves of this nourishing time by focusing to much online – at least that’s how I feel.

      I’m excited by your new and evolving perspective on how you will be investing your time and energy.

      I look forward to hearing more about it.

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