When I'm Sixty-Four: Aging Gracefully with a Spiritual Purpose--or Not
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Sunday June 22, is my 64th birthday. Growing up in the 1960s I naturally remember the Beetle’s song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Yeah, after 44 years of bhakti practice those old songs (and ad jingles!) are still floating around in my subconscious mind. This Beetle’s ballad is a love song about staying together despite aging that Paul McCartney wrote at the advanced age of 16. As a person involved in marital and premarital education this is an important topic for me (and my wife of 24 years). When I was 16 I couldn’t even imagine being 25, what to speak of 64! I was an only child with very limited experience with older persons. After living in Berkeley, California for a few years and then moving into the temple, when we went to San Francisco for street sankirtan (group chanting), I was taken back seeing all the old people! Berkeley is a college town and I was hanging out with only the young, and when I moved into the temple, the oldest person was 23
In any case, anticipating my birthday, I thought the subject of aging, suffering, and being 64 would be a good blog topic. Of course, most anything can be grist for the writer’s mill (we usually notice those things we are focused on), but this one was a natural candidate. Thus I wanted to find the words to the Beetle’s song, but before I began my Internet search, my dear friend, Dulal-Chandra Prabhu, sent me the lyrics and wished me a happy birthday. I wished him a happy birthday back, since his birthday is the same as mine—with THE SAME YEAR! How interesting and rare is that—especially among close friends! We celebrated our 60th birthday together, and amidst fun and games, we went around the room to compile a list of shared personality traits and devotional histories. Though we have a number of differences, our wives and friends found an amazing amount of shared traits and experiences.
My general thoughts when writing are to share what I am going through, experiencing, thinking about, or inspired by, in a way that I pray may have relevance to you, my readers. Birth, disease, old age, and death, being shared by all embodied beings, are very rich and important topics. Called the four-fold, or four, miseries of material life, they are listed in the Bhagavad-gita verses (8-12) from the 13th chapter, as part of understanding the process of spiritual knowledge.
Since the soul is eternal and is never born or dies, speaking of these four miseries isn’t considered by devotees to be morbid or a topic to avoid in polite conversation. Of course, that doesn’t mean we aren’t careful about people’s sensitivities. Never the less, our hope is to lesson suffering by sharing spiritual knowledge in a way that can be heard and considered, since ignorance of the soul causes people unnecessary suffering. Applied and realized knowledge is power, but even the theory can be helpful. Additionally, associating with those who are happy through spiritual practice and being balanced human beings is extremely beneficial.
An updated Buddhist saying is appropriate, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Joy is a choice.” While many Eastern traditions including ours accept that the material world by design is full of pain and difficulty, to a large extent whether we are in a suffering condition on account of this fact is primarily due to attitude. And a big part of attitude is the knowledge and assumptions which guide our life. Therefore, transcendental or spiritual knowledge is very helpful in dealing with the ups and downs that are a natural part of living in the material world. We gain hope, peace, and strength through spiritual knowledge and practice (sadhana).
“Even if you are considered to be the most sinful of all sinners, when you are situated in the boat of transcendental knowledge you will be able to cross over the ocean of miseries.” [Bg 4.36] Knowing we are “not the material body,” but an eternal soul is part of our peace and joy, but even more so is that Krishna is our dear-most friend and well-wisher. SP gives the following verse as the ‘peace formula’: “A person in full consciousness of Me, knowing Me to be the ultimate beneficiary of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods, and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attains peace from the pangs of material miseries.” [Bg 5.29] In short Krishna is the Supreme Proprietor, the Supreme Enjoyer, and our Dearest Friend and Support. Our struggle and suffering in life comes from trying to be the Center as the owner, enjoyer, or best friend of the world or others in a world that is constantly changing. Please think about it.
The Krishna conscious, or Gaudiya Vaishnava, philosophy along with my daily spiritual practice and whatever realizations I have are foundational to my happiness and freedom from suffering in dealing with the natural problems of aging and living. We all have bad days or difficult phases, but that shouldn’t be surprising since we, as souls, are in an unnatural condition by living in the foreign, problematic, material atmosphere. Whatever happens, we have to keep chanting, praying, and serving—that is the test for us all. How will we frame life events? Who will we blame, or will we look for the pearl in the irritation, or see that whatever happens to us is meant for our highest good, spiritually?
In the face of reverses, calamities, disappointments, or heartbreaks, we can continue to see Krishna as our supreme shelter and friend in all circumstances. In bhakti, our strength and steadfastness are spiritual and not due to our muscles and intellectual ability. In order for spiritual philosophy and practice to bear the greatest fruits, we require the association of saintly persons from whom we feel the current of spirituality and who inspire us. Additionally we require a life mission, both occupationally and spiritually. Whatever our life situation or ashram, we should be doing our best to see it in a service mood as our offering to God, or in my tradition, for our gurus and Gauranga Mahaprabhu (Shri Chaitanya). We aren’t meant to live just for ourselves, or only our families, without endeavoring for a higher spiritual good to benefit all. Service to God is like watering the root of a tree, or giving food to the stomach--it helps everyone and spiritualizes our lives and families. And who are spiritually is meant to be shared. That is true preaching or outreach and is the mood of Lord Chaitanya and his followers.
Beyond inspiring quotes or the compelling testimony of others, is our own personal experience. Shrila Sanatana Goswami, one of our sastra (scriptural) gurus has mentioned that the ultimate siddhanta (essential conclusion of the scriptures) is our own personal experience. Experience means the realization of bhakti that enthuses and illuminates our life, enabling us to be steady and determined in all circumstances (see SP’s purport to Bg 6.8). Our spiritual practice and saintly association is meant to give us a glimpse and a taste of the divine dimension, ultimately leading us to the highest spiritual obtainment, Krishna prema.
I find much to be grateful for at 64. Knowing my days are numbered helps me to be more focused on my spiritual life, in helping others, and planning those few things that I would like to accomplish before I leave my body behind. Although there are plenty of things in my past I would do differently if I could, the thought of being young and inexperienced again, isn't very appealing. As the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young. However, if we use our youth for the spiritual quest, then it is perfect, especially with experienced guidance. So even foreseeing the inevitability of future births, I am confident I will do better on my bhakti journey. That is my constant prayer. At 64, life is good, and Krishna is so kind!