Yogic Retirement Plan

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd.)

Retirement is the period when one takes a well earned rest after a lifetime of dutiful activity. It is a time for relaxed reflection, the mind being freed from the duties and responsibilities of employment, child raising, social obligations, housekeeping, budgeting and all the other practical daily problems with which it has been absorbed for many years. Retirement is the time when the mind can soar high and seek to consolidate the truth learned over a whole lifetime of experience.

What thing, do I really know as a result of the life I have led? What have I learned about human feeling and love? How worthwhile have been my achievements?

On retiring from active life, the individual is free to devote his or her time to the pursuit of the self, to embark on the quest for knowledge, observing the fullness and richness of life in whatever direction or dimension he is drawn, all at his own pace.

Traditionally, in India, a person's life was divided into four ashram as or periods:

  1. Brahmacharya - childhood and student life from birth to twenty five years.
  2. Grihastha - married life from twenty five to fifty years.
  3. Vanaprastha - retirement from active life and retreat to a quiet place with marriage partner from fifty to seventy five years.
  4. Sannyasa - life of renunciation from seventy five to one hundred years.

Today, few individuals live beyond seventy five or eighty years, and few retire from active life before sixty years. This means that now the individual has an average of less than fifteen years into which to fit the experiences for which the whole second half of the lifetime was allowed. Between ceasing active life and dying, there are many things which must be completed and the time of retirement should be considered in this light.

Retirement should be utilized as a time of rest, relaxation and quiet contemplation. During this period there should be a gradual gathering up and piecing together of the past experiences, mental sources and spiritual aspirations in preparation for death. It is tragic to see many retired people today both in the East and West ho experience difficulty in utilising this time of their lives gainfully. They find that with the cessation of active involvement in the work environment, together with the gradual weakening and disintegration of their bodies, they are not able to make the necessary re-adaptation which leads to a creative and happy retirement and a peaceful relaxed death.

It is poor adaptation to this crucial change in life activity which facilitates the progressive mental deterioration and clouding of consciousness commonly seen in many elderly people today and assumed by most people to be a natural concomitant of ageing; in fact, this deterioration is not inevitable in most cases, for man's mental faculties are meant to continue to expand and develop throughout the different phases of life, from birth to death. One most important factor in maintaining mental equilibrium and clarity of consciousness into old age is the will and purpose with which the individual adapts to retired life.

Guilt and frustration

Older people can get deeply caught in past experiences. It is natural that retirement is used to reflect on one's lifetime to date, to sum up the total of one's experiences of learning and loving. What mark have I made on the world? How shall I be remembered? Has my life been purposeful? Have I done my best? In the light of questions such as these, the past life is contemplated. This is most beneficial, provided you know and utilize the techniques for handling the feelings of frustration and guilt which arise from this revision of past events. Frustration and guilt levels can steadily mount in the mind as you see clearly on reflection that you have acted less than kindly towards true friends; that jealousy, possessiveness, desire, lust and hatred were often your motives. All these you will see clearly portrayed in your past life, and you may be overwhelmed with guilt, feeling you have no way of correcting these past misunderstandings. This is a negative and useless feeling, and no person should carry such a burden with them as they approach death. Those who do have missed the point. They have failed to learn the lesson provided by the review of their past actions and to modify their subsequent behaviour accordingly.

The yogic approach to the analysis of your life is to gain and learn the most from the experiences which you relive - this practice requires that you witness the mind in a detached manner. To really benefit and grow spiritually from your reflective self-analysis, you must learn to see and accept yourself totally, as you were then and as you are now. When you accept the fact that your unwise behaviour was mainly due to ignorance, you are beginning to remove this veil and replace it with self-knowledge.

The retired yogi allows his life to replay itself before his mind's eye while remaining a witness to the events. He is detached, emotionally uninvolved - merely observing and accepting himself as he is. This practice which is very valuable for self acceptance and growth, especially as a preparation for death, is the basis of the tantric meditative practice called antar mouna or inner silence.

Frustration is another commonly experienced emotion which arises out of the contemplation of one's life. This is because of many unfulfilled desires which were created during the active stages but were stored in the mind in suppressed form, rather than fulfilled at the time of their arising. These desires have remained the subconscious realms of the mind but during later life they often spring to the mind's surface with great force. Such desires are frustrated because the retired person can no longer fulfil them in the physical world. This is especially true of suppressed sexual desires, which manifest powerfully on the mental plane, but cannot be expressed or fulfilled now that the physical body is ageing and weakening. This is tremendously frustrating and depressing.

The degeneration of the physical body is a perfectly normal process during the later stages of life and should be accepted as such. After working at peak efficiency for around fifty years, it is only natural to expect some signs of wear and tear in the tissues and organ systems of the body. The efficiency with which the body functions begins to lessen and the capacity to work gradually diminishes. Energy is depleted more quickly and tiredness comes more often over the body. The glands begin to shrink and slow down their activity. This process is called involution. The level of hormones circulating through the body thus gradually drops. The lower levels of thyroid hormone result in a slower metabolic race. Decreased levels of the adrenal hormones result in a diminished stress response and less efficient function of the metabolic processes responsible for sugar and energy mobilization in the body. Also, the pancreatic hormone insulin becomes less biologically active, resulting in less efficient energy production and utilisation. Decreased levels of sexual hormones cause a gradual involution in the sexual and reproductive organs. In women, the hormonally dependent menstrual cycle ceases. The heart also functions less efficiently and the blood vessels lose some of their elastic and contractile properties, so that blood pressure and tissue supply of blood are less than perfectly maintained. Every system of the body slows down and its functional alteration in response to extra demands and stress diminishes. The muscles gradually grow weaker and smaller and the bones of the skeleton also lose strength. Joint mobility and flexibility slowly decrease, the skin of the body and of the face begins to wrinkle and dehydrate and with this it gradually loses its elasticity and firmness.

All these changes in the body are perfectly normal and natural processes. Just as an old car, if driven with care and maintained correctly, still gives excellent and long time service, so the ageing body must be driven at a more leisurely pace and with greater respect for its limitations. In this way the body will remain a fine vehicle for many rewarding years, before the time comes to trade it in on a new model!

The mind, on the other hand, undergoes no such degenerative process, and here lies the source of many of the problems which can arise in this stage of life. Unless the mind can accept the decreasing physical performance, realizing the increasing physical limitations, and adapting and modifying its behaviour in this respect, mental energy will dam up as it is denied physical expression. This is the basis of frustration in old age, especially sexual frustration - for sexual impulses generated in the mental plane can no longer be expressed through the physical body. Problems of retirement such as obesity and negativity reflect this frustration, with redirection of the energy into a field where it can be expressed - in overeating or in nagging and complaining.

At this stage it is very important not to further feed this frustration by watching the usual cinema and television shows which titillate and entertain the romantic and sexual desires and fantasies of their audience. Similarly, pop music and many weekly magazines and best selling novels play up to the same sensibilities. These things are not 'bad' or 'evil' - they just exist as symptoms of the collective sexual neurosis of our society. Older people who realize this can save themselves much anguish by avoiding these influences. Constant bombardment of erotic stimulus also stirs up and frustrates the young, but at least they have the possibility of expressing and fulfilling the aroused desire in their day to day lives and relationships. Older people, on the other hand, can only become anxious and increasingly frustrated by the arousal of passions and sexual fantasies which they know cannot be fulfilled or realistically lived out in the world.

Often older people feel that their mind is perverted or abnormal, when actually the subconscious is simply regurgitating the material to which it is constantly being exposed. Such people find themselves engrossed in sexual fantasies which are often offensive to their traditional, moral values and beliefs, and the more they attempt to suppress them, the stronger they become. Great anxiety, guilt and unhappiness are the inevitable outcome.

The solution to this problem which all of us must face one day is to leave cinema, television, modern music and novels aside and take to the practices of swadhyaya, japa and meditation. Spend your time immersed in biographies of saints and yogis, in scriptures and spiritual literature which will uplift your mind and bring you peace. Repeat a mantra and meditate on your ishta devata or God in order to free yourself from worldly throes. This is real relaxation which is the purpose of retirement. Older people who spend their time in this way are never neglected or lonely as they become full of bliss and people are attracted to them as bees are to nectar.

When the mental and emotional energies which can no longer effectively expressed in physical action are redirected into the spiritual dimension, self-knowledge increases and frustrated mental energy is released in a positive way. The spiritual dimension lies beyond the plane of the physical body, so what better time to seek spiritual growth and development than in retirement when the limitations of the physical body are becoming much more apparent. This redirection of energy also ensures that the retired person continues to function as an independent and full human being without becoming emotionally and mentally dependent on family or friends. It is a paradox that the more one surrenders the emotional attachments of the world to the supreme, the more independent and self-possessed he becomes with relatives and friends. Directing one's emotions and thoughts to the divine ensures independence and strength throughout life. The best way to maintain emotional and mental stability, preserve one's health and independence, and enjoy a fulfilling retired life is to take to the spiritual path, irrespective of whether you have been a religious person or not. The emotional energy which produces problems in the mind is a most potent force for spiritual evolution when it is successfully re-channelled to the higher plane and directed to God or self-realization.

Old age is not a time for meek submission. Rather, it is the culmination, the summing up of life. We must accept old age with this frame of mind, approaching death as a warrior not as a victim. Consider the words of Zorba the Greek:

"They say age kills the fire inside a man - when he hears Death coming he says, 'Come in, give me rest'. This is a pack of lies."

The fire inside, the glow of the human spirit, need not be dimmed by age. As the energies withdraw from the physical expression, the flame of self-searching and knowledge should burn brighter.

Take your life into your hands by the reins of your mind. You an opportunity to be reborn, to see with brand new eyes, long before this body has even begun to be discarded. They say that youth is wasted on the young - let not old age be wasted on the old. Carry the sun of self-illumination with you into the autumn of life and you may find that it has turned into midsummer.