The Eight-Point Program in the Second Half of Life
by Eknath Easwaran
by Eknath Easwaran
Most people look forward to retirement, when they are finally free to use their time as they choose. They don’t have to punch a clock at 8:00, battle rush traffic, dress to someone else’s standards, or work with people they don’t like. They can sleep as late as they want and then lounge about in pajamas if it suits their fancy. They are free to play golf all day, learn a language, start that garden, read every page of the Sunday Times and catch up on all those back issues of National Geographic . . .
But there is a kind of person – I confess I am one – for whom just the thought of filling the rest of one’s days like this is stressful, and “do what I want” throws up a red flag. When you have been working for years on reducing self-will and separateness, it is a challenge to be presented suddenly with every opportunity to indulge yourself. Every sensitive person, I think, knows this is a time to ask, “Then what do I really want? What is most important? This free time is a precious gift that won’t be offered again. How can I make the very best use of it for what I value most?”
Here the mystics of all religions have a very reassuring, practical answer. This is a time, they agree, when the body must decline, but the most precious things in life do not depend on the body at all. Love, wisdom, tenderness, compassion, and selfless service are all qualities that we can cultivate to the last moments of our life.
Meditation is the premier discipline for developing these inner treasures, and that is why I appeal to everyone over and over again, Put your meditation first. By “meditation,” of course, I mean the whole program I follow, all eight points. Together, these eight disciplines comprise a toolkit for making improvements every day in character, conduct, and consciousness – improvements that will not only make each day fresher and more fulfilling than the day before, but will also strengthen us against the gradual decline of physical abilities that goes hand in hand with aging.
Since practicing these eight points in the second half of life raises some new challenges, let me offer a few suggestions for making them the center of your day.
First and foremost, be very regular about your meditation: half an hour every morning, as early as possible, and half an hour again every evening, preferably just before going to bed – same time, same place, every day, weekdays and weekends. What you are doing is making your inner life more and more independent of the world of change, which means it is deeper, more resilient, and increasingly youthful, beyond the touch of time.
You may find as you age that concentration is more difficult. Do not neglect your meditation on that account, but give it your very best effort. Every time you meditate, you reduce your level of body-identification a little and fill your mind with your highest ideals.
In the practice of meditation, what you gradually learn to do is to stand further and further back from identification with the body. This actually enables the body to function better. You may not be able to run as fast or jump as far as when you were twenty, but you develop a grace that grows with the passage of time.
As you learn to turn your attention away from the body towards your real Self, when the body begins to lose its vitality, your security is not affected. Your personality is not diminished.
You can become increasingly aware of the needs of others, and use the resources released in meditation to contribute to those around you simply for the joy of giving.
The mantram becomes more and more important as the body ages. This is the time to use the mantram as much as possible, and not only when you are idle, anxious, or angry. Set aside blocks of time for it, just as you do with meditation, and make it a vital part of every day. Combining the mantram with a long, brisk daily walk is ideal, for walking is one of the best and safest forms of exercise and benefits all parts of the body including the brain. Use idle moments to write the mantram; you can carry a little notebook for this purpose in your pocket or purse. Write the mantram again before retiring for bed; then learn to fall asleep in it.
As always, these two disciplines go hand in hand. They too acquire fresh significance in the second half of life, partly because free time encourages the mind to wander even when we don’t realize it – even if we feel busier than ever because we are trying to fill our days with things to do. Remember that there is no such thing as an unimportant thought or action. Time passes moment by moment, and each moment shapes consciousness, so be particularly careful to do one thing at a time with full attention, even if it seems trivial, and not let your mind get divided or speeded up. (As you might guess, this becomes important for safety too!)
The purpose of meditation is to purify consciousness, replacing junk thoughts with lofty ideals. It is impossible to overemphasize how important it is in the second half of life not to add more to the deleterious stuff that has already gone into the mind through the senses.
One of the best ways to do this is simply to turn off the TV, which more and more research is linking to the deterioration of mental status as we age. In addition, all the mass media contribute to stereotypes about aging that slip into our consciousness unnoticed, which studies indicate has a negative effect on our image of ourselves. Meditation on passages from the scriptures and mystics replaces this image of ourselves as aging physical creatures with the loftiest self-image possible, reminding us that our real Self is beyond time, old age, and death.
Taking our minds off ourselves, too, becomes more and more critical as we age, with the body clamoring for attention and so much more freedom for self-indulgence. One of the most effective and rewarding ways to expand our consciousness beyond ourselves, as I learned from my teacher, my grandmother, is by putting those around us first.
This can be more challenging after retirement because there are often fewer people in our lives. That is one of several good reasons to find places outside the home where you can apply your hard-earned skills and experience to improving the welfare of others. It is helpful to do this with others when possible, even if you have differences. You may remember my saying over and over that from a spiritual perspective, the purpose of work is the purification of character: reducing self-will and rubbing off the angles and corners of personality that keep us separate from others and lock us up in our own private ego-prison.
I read that the number of people who live alone in this country is growing rapidly. It’s a very disturbing sign. I am of the opinion that it is much better to be with difficult people than to be alone. It is by living and working with others in harmony that we learn to respect differences and gradually dissolve the sense of separateness that makes one feel isolated and unwanted.
These two disciplines too are closely related to what goes into our consciousness. At any age, what we think is highly susceptible to the influence of those around us, but in the second half of life it is particularly easy to spend time idly with people whose talk and tastes detract from the higher image we are trying to cultivate. Choose your company carefully and, if you possibly can, come to a Blue Mountain Center retreat.
Finally, the second half of life is the perfect time to cultivate the company of saints and sages of scriptures of all religions, to strengthen your faith in your highest ideals and bring them to life in your character, conduct, and consciousness.
“All that we are,” the Buddha says, “is the result of what we have thought.” In all these ways, you can use each day to fill your mind with purifying thoughts, building an inner life that will shine brighter and brighter as the physical body declines.