Aging Gracefully


Five years ago, on a picture-perfect August morning, the life I’d been living ended abruptly. A hole opened in my retina, catapulting me out of my job-centered identity into vanaprastha, the third, or forest-dweller, stage of life. In the yoga texts it sounds inviting—a peaceful, leafy turning away from worldly affairs to focus on moving inward. But I hadn’t given it much thought and certainly didn’t imagine it applied to me—not yet, anyway. I was only 56—too young to think about retirement. And besides, I was busy.

a peaceful, leafy turning away from worldly affairs to focus on moving inward

I don’t mean to imply I thought I was young. I’d been noticing a shift in my energy and preoccupations for some time, little things mostly: late nights left a deeper trail of fatigue than before; a hideous haircut was annoying but not distressing; my knees protested when I skipped asana practice. Little things. Clearly I was passing through late middle age—perhaps had even moved beyond it—but it didn’t seem to matter much. Looking back, I can see I was firmly in the grip of abhinivesha—the ingrained desire for continuity which, to quote the Yoga Sutra, “is firmly established even in the wise.” I was far from wise—and about to prove it.

At the time, I was the Himalayan Institute’s president, as well as Yoga International’s editor when it was a print magazine. In both capacities, I worked closely with Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the Institute’s leader and my spiritual teacher. From time to time, as I moved into my mid-50s, Panditji told me I was doing too much and suggested I find and train an editor to replace me, but I’d been playing that role for 14 years and was firmly identified with it. With no obvious candidate in view I kept on doing what I’d always done. Actually, I started more of it—adding frequent three-hour commutes to Manhattan to work on a magazine redesign, then staying up late when I got home, and putting in full days on the weekends to make up for lost time.

“It’s time for your focus to shift and your awareness to expand, but you’re resisting.”

Troubled by how anemic my spiritual practice had become (my to-do list was goose-stepping through my head when I tried to meditate), I eventually asked Panditji for help. “You are misdirecting your attention,” he said. “You’re constantly telling yourself, ‘This is what is real. These administrative problems are real. Producing a magazine is my purpose in life.’ Your endless focus on these externals drowns out the subtle dimension.” He looked at me for a long moment, then added, “It’s time for your focus to shift and your awareness to expand, but you’re resisting.”

But then my focus did shift—not because I decided to stop resisting but because I was lucky. A defect in my left eye forced the shift from the external to the internal that is the hallmark of the forest-dweller stage of life. Though this was no leafy stroll in the woods, at least not at first.

Age-Old Paradigm

The leading edge of the baby boom generation turned 55 a decade ago, so I have plenty of company here in this later stage of life. In a sense, it’s brand new territory. As recently as 1900, average life expectancy was 47 and only one of every 25 people born lived to see their 65th birthday. Now one in eight of us do, and with average life expectancy at 78 and rising—exceeding 83 for anyone still around at 65—a new stage is emerging in the years between midlife and full-blown senescence. We aren’t even sure yet what to call it. Late middle-age? Full maturity? Retirement? The silver years? The encore years? Second adulthood?

Part of the reason I didn’t recognize myself as having entered this amorphous phase of life is that I didn’t (and don’t) feel old. If I had, I would have blocked the feeling by any means possible. After all, we’re heirs to an ingrained belief that age-related changes are negative—harbingers of decline, disease, dementia, and various shades of loss. And this isn’t only a modern assumption—it’s been with us for centuries. One of the most quoted Shakespearean passages is the speech about the seven ages of man from As You Like It. Here the world is seen as a stage on which we play many parts, making our entrance as infants, wending our way through school, trying on various roles as adults, diminishing as we age, and finally stumbling off the stage in “second childishness and mere oblivion.” In this depressing portrayal of the trajectory of life, a peak of attainment in middle age is quickly followed by a cascade of loss, reducing us, bit by painful bit, to making our exit “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Only in the past 25 years, as our life spans passed the three-quarter-century mark, has a coherent counterpoint to this painful scenario begun to emerge, one in which we tell ourselves that in the years after 55 or 60 the best is yet to come—this is the time to get another degree, switch careers, start a business, maybe even take up skydiving. Although an improvement over the idea that aging is merely a prolonged slump into senility, this new emphasis on “successful aging” often boils down to an effort to flip the script back a few pages and replay the middle scenes as long as possible.

Four Stages of Life

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.

In the script written by the yoga tradition the direction is clear. The student and householder phases of life are a prelude to the ultimate achievement—freeing our attention from outward preoccupations and bringing it to rest at the core of our being. Here, in the third stage of life, we have the privilege of stepping away from the external identities that so easily become all-consuming. By the time we’re approaching our 60s, we’ve lived amidst the rush and roar of life long enough to recognize the outer world is, in the words of Alistair Shearer, “a place of limited charm, a realm hedged in by restrictions and forever being eroded by transience.” We have enough experience to realize that name, fame, possessions, and power will never be a source of lasting fulfillment, and as this realization dawns, our attention shifts from what changes to what endures, pulling our focus inward.

In the traditional culture that gave rise to yoga this was called the forest-dweller stage, not because people literally retreated to the woods (although some did), but because, recognizing the transient nature of external achievements, they withdrew from these pursuits to strengthen their connection with the deeper dimensions of their own being. Theirs was a civilization—stretching back beyond 2000 BCE—deeply immersed in the natural world. The full span of life was 100 years. Read the latest studies on the lifestyle that promotes longevity and you’ll understand why. They ate a plant-centered diet of locally grown organic foods. They walked everywhere. Their households were multi-generational and their communities were woven together in a robust web of interdependence. But above all, they had a vibrant sense of the meaning and purpose of life.

They knew that at our core we are immortal, forever untouched by decay, destruction, and death.

They knew that at our core we are immortal, forever untouched by decay, destruction, and death. They valued the body, senses, and mind, but viewed them in the aggregate as a vehicle for making the journey of life. They did not confuse their core being with this vehicle any more than we confuse ourselves with our cars. Like a car, the body is well engineered for a long journey. And the purpose of this 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. And they saw that by the time we have reached the third stage of life, we have all the tools and means necessary to accomplish this goal. When we use these years of choice and opportunity to deepen our awareness of the inner world, the third stage merges into the fourth, climactic stage—spontaneous renunciation of the transitory for an all-encompassing engagement with the eternal.

Science of Aging

This view of human potential as an infinitely expanding capacity unfolding across the full span of life is congruent with the inner sense most of us have as we age. At the time I was pulled up short by an unstable retina, it felt like my capacity and creativity were increasing and my outlook on life was becoming more positive. As it turns out, there’s a solid biological basis for this. While it is true that muscle mass declines, reaction time slows, and short-term memory wavers as we age, in some key areas, our capacities expand rather than erode. As we move through our 60s and 70s and into our 80s, the brain and central nervous system are altered in some surprising and life-affirming ways.

For decades, all of us—scientists and laypeople alike—were convinced the brain stops developing after adolescence, and that further, we are destined to lose 30 to 40 percent of our brain cells as we move into midlife and beyond. But as it happens, the brain constantly reconfigures itself in response to experience, forming new cells throughout life.

To cite one specific example, neuroscientists now tell us that the dendrites in our brains increase in both number and length in the third stage of life. What does this mean in layman’s terms? Gene D. Cohen, MD, a pioneer in the field of geriatric psychiatry and an expert on what happens in the brain as it ages, explained it in a lecture using an analogy in which brain cells are trees, dendrites are branches, and neurotransmitters are squirrels. The more branches trees have, the easier it is for squirrels to leap from one to another. “Likewise,” Dr. Cohen explained, “if adjacent cells have more dendrites they form more points of contact, called synapses. Increasing the number of synapses improves communication between cells.” He added that from our early 50s into our 70s, the buildup and length of dendrites is particularly robust in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with visual spatial processing, memory formation, and processing new memories for long-term storage.

Barely a week goes by without another scientific study confirming the yoga tradition’s thesis that our capacities have the potential to expand in the later decades of life.

And that’s not all. Barely a week goes by without another scientific study confirming the yoga tradition’s thesis that our capacities have the potential to expand in the later decades of life. For example, studies show that as we move into life’s third stage, we use both hemispheres of the brain more efficiently; our ability to integrate cognitive and emotional intelligence expands, and along with it, our ability to integrate competing issues and solutions; the limbic system (the area of the brain that produces and regulates emotional response) grows calmer; and we pay more attention to positive experiences than we do to negative ones. On the whole, these changes lead to what Dr. Cohen describes as “a maturing synergy of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgment, social skills, life experience, and consciousness” that continues well into our 70s. If we understand that life has a purpose and meaning, we can use this new capacity to find complete fulfillment in the third stage of life.

All of this assumes that our brain—and the rest of us—stays healthy. The dark underside of longevity is the specter of dementia, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or some other malady stripping away our physical and mental vitality, leaving us to molder in the twilight. On the bright side, we now know there is much we can do to preserve and enhance our vitality, thus greatly increasing the odds that our “health spans” will come close to matching our life spans. We are no longer nearly as prone to thinking of life after 60 as an accelerating downward spiral as we were a few decades ago. There is a wealth of information—much of it based on sound research—on how to prevent disease, maintain a high level of cognitive and physical function, and remain engaged as we move toward the century mark.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this revolution in how we think about aging: in a sense nothing really changed. Rather than recognizing this as a distinct stage of life—one that has its own value and offers its own deep rewards—we seem to have embarked on an elaborate social compact to make 60 the new 40 and 70 the new 50. This is a dispiriting replay of the assumption that aging is all about loss. In its extreme form it leads to “amortality,” a term coined by British writer Catherine Mayer for the trend of living as if age has no meaning, which has been gathering momentum since the baby boom generation began hitting 50. As Mayer explains it, amortals “live the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things…right up until death.”

From a certain perspective, this makes sense. If we see life as a continuous process of change leading only to death, the natural impulse is to do our utmost to ignore the passage of time and cling to the selves we have been for as long as possible. Students familiar with the deeper dimensions of yoga will recognize amortality as a vivid manifestation of abhinivesha, the ingrained desire for continuity Patanjali identifies as one of the fundamental ways we cause ourselves pain. Yet even when we know life has a purpose, this deep-rooted desire to hold on to the familiar poses a formidable obstacle to moving into the forest-dweller stage of life, as I was hell-bent on proving.

The Grand Shift

There’s a saying in India that a dog walking through a cotton field doesn’t come out wearing a suit of clothes. At the time the hole opened in my retina, I had been living in a vibrant yoga community for 14 years. Intellectually I knew what matters and what doesn’t, what is transitory and what is eternal, but I hadn’t woven that knowledge into a systematic plan to accomplish the goal of life. Instead, I had become so galvanized by my identity as an editor and, to a lesser extent, by my sense of duty as an administrator, that my life had come to revolve around these roles.

At first it seemed that the hole in my retina could be patched by simple laser surgery. But within days, a bigger hole opened and I ended up lying facedown for three weeks while my reconstructed eye recovered from a complicated operation. Had I been less outwardly oriented, I would have recognized this as an opportunity to stop acting as a full-time editor and administrator and focus instead on uncovering a deeper, more nourishing identity. Instead I went back to work, tired and a bit unnerved, but fully determined to do what I had come to see as my real job.

I might still be reinforcing that identity today if I hadn’t been lucky: the retina detached, putting me back on the operating table. A month later it detached again, and yet again. Incredibly, stubbornly, I went back to work after each operation, refusing to let go of who I knew how to be—until the retina peeled away a fourth time and I was so depleted I could barely walk across our tiny living room.

The entire ordeal—from the first sign of trouble to total collapse—took three months. The recovery—and the internal shift to the forest-dweller stage—took much longer. With nothing to do but rest, read, contemplate, and recover, I began to see why abhinivesha is so seductive. Our sense of self-identity coalesces around what we know how to be, and we want to go on and on being that familiar self. We know how to be outsiders—how to get things done in the material world—but we don’t know how, as Swami Rama put it, to “seek within and find within.” I knew how to put a quality magazine together and I derived satisfaction from doing it, but I didn’t know how to discover the core of my being or how to derive satisfaction from my attempts to awaken an inner awareness. Besides, deep-seated habits die hard.

As my health returned, I grew increasingly bored and restless, but Panditji resolutely refused to let me return to the office, leaving me no task other than finding my way inside. It took awhile, but as I gradually allowed my focus to shift, my damaged eye showed me how to locate my internal vision. Because I was essentially blind in one eye, I had no depth perception inside of 10 feet. For a while, I bumped into furniture or chopped my fingers instead of the parsley I was aiming at. Then I discovered that if I slowed down, turned off the autopilot, and looked closely at what was in front of me, I could see perfectly. I began to notice this also applied to doing asana and pranayama, reading the Bhagavad Gita, or meditating. When I attended to the practice I was doing while I was doing it, and let go of the habit of trying to get somewhere or accomplish something tangible, I began to sense—however faintly—the presence of an infinitely subtle force, one that breathes without breathing and sees without seeing. And that glimmer sparked an internal shift from householder to forest dweller.

On the surface, my life today is much as it was before. I’m still working for the Himalayan Institute, still walking through that cotton field. The difference is that now—even when I find myself working long hours—my focus is on weaving an ever-deepening inner awareness. In a curious way, I feel younger—more energized—than I did five years ago. This seemed counterintuitive until I came across a snippet from one of Panditji’s lectures.

“As long as we remain inspired to discover why we came to this world, we remain youthful,” he said. “Old age has no power over us when we are accompanied by faith that we have something precious to experience and achieve in this lifetime. This faith sparks a burning desire to know the true nature of the invisible force that lies at the core of our being, and when it wells up, nothing—not the lack of worldly resources, a limited knowledge of philosophy, the absence of a living guide, or even old age—can stand in the way of our inner fulfillment.”

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.

About the Teacher

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Deborah Willoughby
The founding editor of Yoga International magazine, Deborah Willoughby holds a master’s degree in English... Read more