“Nothing can be more important than being able to choose the way we think.”
Soon after my eightieth birthday, I was walking on Stinson Beach with friends when I saw a huge eagle soar by overhead. As it came lower, I was astonished to see it was actually a young-looking chap flying just like a bird. He made a perfect landing a few yards beyond us. I thought, “What an extraordinary skill for a young fellow to acquire!” So we went up to him. He had a kind of mask on, and when he took it off I saw he wasn’t young at all.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said with surprise, “how old are you?”
“Seventy-eight,” he replied proudly, “and I’m going to do this until I fall down dead.”
“How long did you take to learn?” I asked innocently. (I’m always alert for good copy.)
“Three years,” he said, “practicing every day.” Then he added encouragingly, “You can learn too.”
I wanted to tell him that I do this every day in meditation: fly high where even the soaring eagles cannot reach and then come back down to earth and make a perfect landing. I thought he could have spent his enthusiasm in a higher cause, but all I said was that I had more useful skills to learn – and teach.
Leaping off cliffs is fine for twenty-year-olds, I wanted to say, but not worth the time of a mature person. The human being needs challenges, and we do not find adequate challenges in modern life. I’m told that hang gliding is a perilous sport that affords a lot of challenge. I don’t think it is perilous enough. Try conquering your anger! When you are bursting with fury against somebody with whom you are emotionally entangled, somebody who has provoked you until you are about to explode and shoot off into outer space like a missile, try to move closer to that person, to be kind to that person, to do something good for that person; then you will find a challenge worthy of a human being.
When people go on climbing impossibly dangerous mountains, crossing the Sahara on foot or the Atlantic by canoe, surfing in the sky or spelunking under the sea, what they are really looking for is a challenge worthy of the infinite desire with which all of us are born. Many, many people go through life without learning that physical exploits cannot offer this kind of challenge, which is what the first half of life is for. But there are a rare few who become so restless that nothing can satisfy them. They have tried sky-diving and hang gliding, jumped the Grand Canyon on a motorbike, climbed all the eight-thousand-meter peaks of the Himalayas solo; still there is an emptiness in their hearts. Men and women like these are truly gifted, because nothing superficial, nothing finite can satisfy them. There is a marvelous outburst in the Upanishads which thrilled me the first time I read it and continues to thrill me always: “There is no joy in the finite. There is joy only in the infinite.” This is the glory of the human being.
All the world’s great scriptures and mystics agree that not even the greatest of worldly achievements will satisfy us completely. Nothing finite can ever satisfy us. Sooner or later, all the vitality that has gone into pursuing a thousand goals in the outer world must one day flow into one huge, torrential desire to discover that divine presence in the heart. In every mystical tradition, lovers of God exclaim with Saint Augustine, “Lord, how can I ever find rest anywhere else when I am made to find rest in thee?”
The Upanishads remind us of life’s highest goal in beautiful words:
In the city of Brahman is a secret dwelling, the lotus of the heart. Within this dwelling is a space, and within this space is the fulfillment of our desires. What is within that space should be longed for and realized.
When people tell me some of their daring experiences, I want to use an American vernacular expression I am not usually prone to: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Don’t let yourself be excited by any of these tuppenny-ha’penny experiences. The final triumph will come when God reveals himself in your consciousness, and this experience is repeated over and over again until at all times, with eyes open, you see the light of God on the mountain, on the sea, in the forest, in your home, in all people and all creatures. This is life’s supreme purpose. Your love will be multiplied a million times; your joy will be multiplied a million times.
Western culture is essentially youth-oriented. Everyone seems to wish that he or she could be young forever. To me, there is deep sadness in the idea that when our career goals have been achieved and our family responsibilities fulfilled, we are finally free to go after whatever youthful pursuits we might have missed out on earlier. This is going backwards on the path of spiritual evolution, which rises from the physical level of life to the mental level and then to the glorious awakening of spiritual awareness. This awakening is the great opportunity that awaits us in the second half of life.
In a biological sense, the processes of life and death proceed together from the moment we are conceived. Since birth we have been entered in a race with death. And sooner or later – from a strictly biological point of view, as early as age 25 – there comes a time when life begins slowly to lose ground. At that point, as far as biology goes, we enter the second half of life, a losing battle in which most of us hope for little more than to slow the advance of time.
But there is another sense of this phrase “the second half of life” which has little to do with age. In this view, the first half merely sets the stage for the drama we are born to play. This is the time for experimentation, when we play with life’s toys – money, pleasure, power, possessions, prestige – and learn for ourselves what they are worth.
Many people never go beyond this phase. Nothing in modern civilization, with its cult of youth, encourages us to look farther. But it is only when we throw these toys away and begin to search for answers to life’s most urgent questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What is life for? – that we really begin to live.
These are the years in which each of us is meant to grow to our full stature as a human being. They are the years for profound personal discoveries and great contributions that can be made only when one turns inward. For those who take up this challenge, life holds out unique promise: the fulfillment of living for a lofty goal, and of finally discovering within themselves a living presence that is beyond change and death.
I don’t expect to dissuade young people from experimenting with sensory satisfactions and burning their fingers. Whatever eloquent assurances they hear about the second half of life, they are not likely to listen until they have had repeated opportunities to understand the fleeting nature of physical pleasure and personal profit. In all great mystical traditions there is a wide margin for this kind of experimentation allowed to the first half of life.
But when the inevitable decline of the body becomes a living experience, we should be ready to appreciate the lesson and benefit from what life is showing us firsthand. That is why it grieves me so much to see older people in this country who seem to have no purpose beyond clinging ever more tenaciously to physical phenomena.
The mystics are loving realists. They don’t say, “Let me see your angel’s wings”; they remind us that we all make mistakes in life, and that without making a reasonable amount of mistakes, most of us cannot learn to grow. None of us, therefore, need be depressed about our past or present. On the path of meditation, even past mistakes can be made into powerful assets if we have learned something by making them. The purpose of difficult situations is to get us to master something in ourselves, and until we do this by facing such situations squarely, they will come to confront us again and again, more complicated and more distressing each time around.
The great Indian poet and dramatist Kalidasa has a beautiful verse that praises with poetry and precision those who have fulfilled each of the four stages of human life and at the end attained life’s goal. According to this verse, the first stage – say, the first twenty-five years – is for learning: not just book-learning, but the arts of life and the skills of self-mastery. After that, for another twenty-five years or so, come the responsibilities of the householder – vishaye ’sinam, the pursuit of physical satisfactions. This rough division is thousands of years old, but even in my day, the usual age of retirement for Indian professionals was 55, about the same as envisioned by our sages.
Today, of course, as longevity has improved, many men and women stay active in their jobs long past their fifties. But even if we prolong retirement till we are 65 or 70, it is good to treat the age of 60 as the point at which we enter the second half of life in the biological sense. One of the beautiful reminders of this in the Indian spiritual tradition says that when your son or daughter is up to your shoulder, it’s time to start preparing for this great change. Then, to paraphrase Kalidasa, it becomes urgent to learn to live in wisdom: muni vrittinam, “to live like a sage”; that is, to start letting go of material things and personal attachments and learn to live not for ourselves and our family alone, but for all.
That is why, in India, the sixtieth birthday is a joyful celebration. Not the sixteenth, the sixtieth, because it is halfway. You have reached the intermission. You can go out to the bar, take a break, and come back to resume the second half of life’s drama, when the clues in the first half begin to come together and the plot begins to make sense.
Implicit in this celebration is the conviction of India’s ancient sages that the normal span of human life is 120 years. This is a magnificent concept. According to them, to die at age 60 or 70 is to fall victim to a premature death. By this accounting – which does not, to my knowledge, contradict current biological theories of aging – we all have potential for health and longevity far beyond what is usually achieved. It has long been my contention that by following the simple rules of health and learning to train the mind, we can dramatically increase our chances for a long, active, happy, fulfilling life. And training the mind means gaining freedom from most of our earlier physical attractions, which drain our vitality and distract us from our purpose. We need to learn to exercise sense restraint, free ourselves from selfish attachments, and gain some measure of detachment from our private world so that we can find fulfillment in the happiness of a larger whole.
The English word detachment has a dreary sound. It suggests indifference. What is meant is really just the opposite: indifference to one’s private pursuits and prepossessions for the sake of a tremendous expansion of consciousness, until our love embraces the whole of life.
The first half of life is a time of accumulation: acquiring knowledge, learning skills, gaining experience, raising a family, building a career. But in the second half, the experience of our earlier years should bring the wisdom to know what is important and the desire to concentrate on what matters most. And that always involves letting go: simplifying our lives, doing fewer things better, turning away from the thousand and one activities with which all of us experiment in our younger years and which we have learned are, at best, blind alleys.
In this sense, the second half of life begins when we’re ready to put aside the toys we have been playing with and focus our experience, vitality, and skills on what matters most. This has nothing to do with age; it means we’re done playing: we have learned that what really matters is within us, and that every contribution we can make to life is enhanced if we turn inwards. Merely understanding this could transform our society, which is wasting the resources of millions of people in the second half of life with skills and resources the world needs.
Most of us are still active at this stage of life, perhaps even at the zenith of a career. We have experience, skills, and a measure of wisdom in our field. Simplifying and focusing our lives often releases even more energy and creativity. It isn’t practical to learn detachment by retiring into a forest hermitage like those ancient sages; we need to work. The secret is to work for a goal far loftier than ourselves, preferably with others, in a job that benefits society without compensation, reward, or even recognition.
To me, this means that the second half of life is a triumph. This is when life really begins: a time for creativity and fulfillment in giving back to life from our rich accumulation of experience, wisdom, and resources. When we continue to live for ourselves alone, we are depriving society of this precious legacy. It always pleases me to see so many of my friends giving back to life what they have gained: medical and legal professionals making second careers of community service, for example, or business people donating skills and resources to support nonprofit work such as ours. In fact, looking back, I can see with some surprise that this is what I did myself when I retired from education for degrees to begin my own second career: education for living.
Meditation is essential to making this kind of service a field for spiritual growth. The practice of meditation, if done with full effort and sustained enthusiasm, cannot but result in detachment and the expansion of consciousness as the activity of the mind quietens down. But meditation alone is not enough; we must learn to implement this detachment in our daily lives. That is why selfless service – dedicating time for the benefit of others – benefits no one more than ourselves.
You can see how advanced our ancient sages were in this point of view. They recognized something not widely understood today: even with all the advances of medical science and technology, what does it matter to live a bit longer if we are not making a contribution to the rest of life?
In many ways, youth postpones learning how to put first things first. We tell ourselves we can settle down later. In this sense, entry into the second half of life is not marked by any external milestone like a birthday, but by a sea change in our way of thinking.
The Buddha repeats over and over again, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Until we change our mode of thinking from selfish to selfless, from physical to spiritual, from obsession with ourselves to devotion to the welfare of others, there is no possibility of receiving the rich legacy of boundless love, unfailing wisdom, and scintillating health that is our birthright as human beings.
As a professor I must have seen students lose sight of their priorities a thousand times. When they should be doing their homework or preparing their papers, they discover they have other urgent things they need to attend to: pizza places to visit, guitars to practice, dart skills to improve. Only when the time for finals comes does the question arise, “Why did I do all this? Why didn’t I do what needed to be done while I had the time?”
The most precious gift that meditation can confer is to protect us against this question, which will come to all of us, you know. For young and old alike, time passes all too swiftly, and none of us knows how much remains. One day or another, all of us are going to have to take our finals. Why not start preparing now? The richness of a new stage of life beckons us to explore the inner world of the spirit with the same fervor and gusto that we gave to our youthful exploits in the world of the senses.