May You Grow Old Gracefully

Swami Suryamurti Saraswati

My mind goes back to a train journey of several years ago. The compartment was comfortably filled up, with everyone having a seat, including a family of six or seven. Among them was an elderly lady, about 70, in a white sari, white hair framing her face. She was seated calmly, and neither spoke nor did anything. Yet she stood out from the rest of the family. A little girl said she was hungry. Her mother, who was obviously the daughter of the old woman, pulled out a snack box and distributed snacks. Somehow, the old woman was overlooked. Everyone started eating and suddenly the little girl asked, "Daadi, why aren't you eating?" In the hushed silence that followed, only the rattle-tattle of the wheels was heard. The child's mother covered up the lapse by quickly passing the old woman a share. The old woman smilingly accepted the snack without making any fuss.

Remembering the incident now, I could understand what 'growing old gracefully' meant: to play different roles to suit different stages in one's life. Ageing and growing old is part of living. The longer one lives, the more one ages. There is no escaping this. Grace in life can come only when you accept the inevitable, without any expectations. Therefore, when someone wishes you, "Ayush maan bhava," meaning may you live life to the full, it includes both the happy and the unhappy parts of life. For, according to yoga, karma includes both the happy and the unhappy in life, and both must be lived out (or enjoyed) to the full in order to exhaust the conditions of karma. Only then will one be able to evolve to the next stage of life, ultimately escaping the cycle of birth and death. If for any reason, some parts of life remain unlived or unfulfilled, then these portions get added to the next successive births so they may be exhausted.

That's why the wise men bless us with a full life rather than a happy one. Since we all have to age according to the individual life span that we would live, we have no choice about growing old. But we do have a choice about how we are going to grow old. We have a choice to make old age a curse, both for us and for everyone around us, or to make old age a beautiful experience of the good and the bad, of the happy and the unhappy, so we can bid 'goodbye' without any remorse when the time comes.

Four stages of life

Ageing gracefully is to go through life without any conflict between the past and present life events - within oneself, within the immediate family and in society. In order to avoid such conflicts, the seers of India had divided life into four ashramas, to suit the different stages of ageing, to suit the different roles an individual will be required to play in each stage.

The various important events in the life of an individual, like birth, growing up, marriage, birth of children and grandchildren, and deaths and the ceremonies connected with them, help us to move smoothly from one role to another. If one accepts the changes gracefully and neatly fits into the new role, one will enjoy life as much as before without any of the aches that come from attachment to the past.

The four stages into which life was divided by ancient sages are based on a concept as simple and pure as prakriti herself would create - on the basis of ageing!

Brahmacharya ashramais the first stage of life, up to 25 years, where the youth aspires for knowledge and a career, in order to fulfil the material needs, the artha aspect.

Grihastha ashramais the householder stage, which starts from 25 years and lasts till 50 years. In this stage, one marries, has a family, and works to maintain the family and society, in order to fulfil the emotional needs, the kama aspect.

Vanaprastha ashrama, the third stage, is life after retirement and lasts from 50 to 75 years. This retirement highlights the fact that all beings, including the members of one's own family, have their own destiny to fulfil. It is futile to interfere with the destiny of one's children or grandchildren. However rich you may be, you cannot change the destiny of others. But you can provide positive and good quality samskaras so that they can work out their own life and destiny.

Sannyasa ashrama, the fourth stage, doesn't mean wearing geru clothes and living the life of a monk! The concept of sannyasa ashrama begins from 75 years and lasts till 100 years or death. It is to maintain a balanced view of life. In pain and pleasure, in justice and injustice, one must maintain internal harmony and equilibrium.

In the fast changing times of today, conflicts between the generations occur on different aspects of life and lifestyles. The generation gap widens when the realization dawns that the new generation is more aware, and more informed about the present times than their elders. The progress and dynamism of the younger generation is happening without any help from the elder generation. The fairy tale beginnings of one's role as a father or mother become reduced to mere flashbacks in one's later life. Or remain as so many photographs in the family album. Thus, in every successive generation, the parenting role becomes more sharply defined than before, and becomes that much narrower.

Ancient concepts of old age

Ancient concepts of old age were yogic, and were centred around reverence for the wisdom of the aged. In India, China, Japan and some of the Eastern countries, old people represented the repository of the collective wisdom and culture. Most of the rishis were aged men, with flowing white beards on their chins and wisdom on their lips. So were ayurvedic doctors, master artisans and teachers or gurus.

The reasons are not far to seek. In the olden days, experiments and research took place in the mind and body of the sages themselves, and were replicated in their ashrams in the form of teachings to their disciples. It would take several generations for successive disciples to become gurus before the seeds of wisdom of a Patanjali or a Vyasa became schools of thought and spread along the banks of the Ganga. The living age of the guru often reflected the wisdom accumulated.

Similarly, within the family, it was the old, the grandmother or grandfather who brought up the children culturally and spiritually. It was they who first taught them the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other scriptures. It was the elderly in the family who told stories of valour and of heroics, of the triumph of the gods over devils. It was the elderly in ancient times who kept society on the path of righteousness by the mere strength of their moral voice, and who contributed to the spiritual and moral wealth of the world.

In the flux of a revolution

Most of the masters who are revered for their mastery of the traditional crafts and skills are generally in their sixties and seventies, such as exponents of Hindustani and Carnatic musical traditions, dance gurus, reformers, spiritual leaders and others. Ageing is synonymous with the evolution of consciousness. The new generation is in a hurry to embrace the changes thrown up by the technological and electronic revolution taking place around us. At the same time, the present generation of elders finds itself in a queer 'no man's land'. Lonely and liable to be side-tracked, if it doesn't accept the dramatic changes and become part of the mainstream. To be able to become part of life, one should be able to alter one's attitude towards the changes, welcoming the opportunities to expand one's horizons and discover a new meaning to life, never mind if you are in your sixties or seventies.

People who live long have a lifestyle that is simple, happy and uncluttered, without problems which hasten the ageing process or contribute to diminishing life spans elsewhere. By being useful and active members of their community, the elderly are successfully warding off a life of senility.

According to Dr. Deepak Chopra, new perceptions and ideas keep the brain excited, making the body respond to new knowledge, learning new skills. This is not only a new way of looking at the changing world, but also the most powerful way to keep growing young! Dr. Chopra quotes a patient of his as saying, "People don't grow old. When they stop growing, they become old." This gem on old age comes from the wisdom accumulated by an 80 year-old woman!

When does old age really start?

Nature in her wisdom has not provided any concrete milestone in the ageing process to indicate precisely when one has reached old age. Since old age is evolution, there can be no benchmarks common to all bodies and minds. Left to individuals, the old age pendulum may swing from 60 years at one end of the arc to 100 years or more at the other. The old age span of 60 years to 100 years is as arbitrary as the common retirement age of 65. Socially, the age of retirement of 65 years is accepted as the beginning of old age. Thus, the figure '65' becomes so deeply engraved in the minds of working adults that they may react to it in several ways. One may resist all signs of old age through cosmetic camouflage and accessories. Some may gleefully jump over the 'finishing line' to enjoy the tremendous feelings of freedom. Now, one can catch up with his reading or do any of the hundred and one things for which one never had the time before! Some go through the post-retirement part of their lives with as much pain as a tortoise losing its shell. Though physically and legally they have retired from their jobs, emotionally they haven't retired from their job identity. It may take several years to wrench themselves free. Or they may carry the stamp of their profession to the grave!

Health problems and old age

The body systems and the organs work as a team, supporting each other in their functions. Even the failure of one or two organs will put a much greater burden on the other healthy organs, hastening their own collapse. These and other factors will all cause problems in old age. When young and in the peak of health, it is natural to disregard the wisdom of experience, to disregard even the caution and warning of medical science.

Beside these, there are factors which could affect health in old age without one's knowledge. Every day, medical research throws up newer insights and newer links to diseases which were never suspected before. Almost all health problems are now traced to the mental state of a person. It is now widely accepted that about 90% of diseases originate from stress, and most of the modern diseases affecting the heart, arteries, blood pressure, digestion, the digestive tract and sleep are 'symptoms' of stress. The origin of even cancer is now traced to stress. And stress, in turn, is brought about by tension.

A therapy as old as wisdom

In virtually the entire spectrum of stress-related disorders, yoga has become a standard therapy. Yoga offers the ideal counterbalance to stress in everyone, particularly the elderly, the aged and the sick. Like most treatments, yoga is used as a post-stress therapy but its unmatched, preventative role is yet to be realized to its full potential. To counter the physiopsychological phenomenon of modern diseases, only yoga offers an inexpensive and effective solution. And opens the door to growing old gracefully.