“Results indicate that complete retirement leads to a 5-16 percent increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, a 5-6 percent increase in illness conditions, and 6-9 percent decline in mental health, over an average post-retirement period of six years. Models indicate that the effects tend to operate through lifestyle changes including declines in physical activity and social interactions. The adverse health effects are mitigated if the individual is married and has social support, continues to engage in physical activity post-retirement, or continues to work part-time upon retirement……. Retiring at a later age may lessen or postpone poor health outcomes for older adults, raise well-being, and reduce the utilization of health care services, particularly acute care.”
(Source – The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes – Dhaval Dave, Inas Rashad, Jasmina Spasojevic)
Human beings are wired to remain active throughout their lives. Activity breeds good health, both physical and mental. However, the current social construct forces us to think that the active years of our lives are only till about 50-55 years or at most the age of retirement. Hence, once we reach around 50 years of age, the only thing that hovers on our mind happens to be the retirement date. We wait for the days and months to go by so as to reach the retirement age. Our activities diminish gradually and once we achieve retirement age, we are almost completely inactive. Obviously, this is not true for everyone. There are people who have created exceptions and have worked with vigor all their lives. As I stated towards the beginning – activity ensures better health, the question that stands before us is – ‘How to remain active throughout our lives, till we take the last breath?’ Nay, ‘the question is – How to remain active even after our body is long gone?’
Let’s talk about it. Swami Vivekananda said – ‘This world is a great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.’ So the process starts right from the time we come on this earth, right from the time of our birth. Every day, every moment, we need to prepare ourselves for the great work we are destined to do. That great work doesn’t come with any age-stamp. Your great work is your own and it can be carried out any time in your life, at any age. We are running our own race and there is no competition. As and when the starting pistol shot is fired, we must be strong physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to carry over the task before reaching the finishing line. I will tell you a little story. This is the story of Colonel Sanders, the man who started at 65 and failed 1009 times before succeeding. This is an oft-quoted story but hasn’t yet lost its charm.
Sanders was born in 1890 in Henryville, IN. When he was six years old, his father passed away leaving Sanders to cook and care for his siblings. In seventh grade, he dropped out of school and left home to go work as a farmhand. Already turning into a tough cookie.
At 16, he faked his age to enlist in the United States army. After being honorably discharged a year later, he got hired by the railway as a laborer. However, he got fired for fighting with a coworker. While he worked for the railway, he studied law–until he ruined his legal career by getting into another fight. Sanders was forced to move back in with his mom and get a job selling life insurance. And guess what? He got fired for insubordination. But this guy wouldn’t give up.
In 1920, he founded a ferry boat company. Later, he tried cashing in his ferry boat business to create a lamp manufacturing company only to find out that another company already sold a better version of his lamp. Poor guy couldn’t catch a break.
It wasn’t until age 40 that he began selling chicken dishes in a service station. As he began to advertise his food, an argument with a competitor resulted in a deadly shootout. Four years later, he bought a motel which burned to the ground along with his restaurant. Yet this determined man rebuilt and ran a new motel until World War II forced him to close it down.
Following the war, he tried to franchise his restaurant. His recipe was rejected 1,009 times before anyone accepted it. Sander’s “secret recipe” was coined “Kentucky Fried Chicken”, and quickly became a hit. However, the booming restaurant was crippled when an interstate opened nearby so Sanders sold it and pursued his dream of spreading KFC franchises & hiring KFC workers all across the country.
After years of failures and misfortunes, Sanders finally hit it big. KFC expanded internationally and he sold the company for two million dollars ($15.3 million today). Even today, Sanders remains central in KFC’s branding and his face still appears in their logo. Though he is no longer alive, he is still working for his company through its logo and as an inspiration.
In India, we have a galaxy of examples. While there have been great souls like Adi Shankaracharya and Swami Vivekananda who achieved great things and contributed to the society at a very young age, there have been far greater number of examples of older men and women achieving great feats at an age one can only think of sleeping and eating. Brahmarshi Valmiki, Maharshi Dadhichi, Kapil, Ved Vyasa, we can keep counting for the entire day. So, the next question before us stands as – ‘What made these people achieve so much even when they were old, what kept their intellectual faculties healthy at such an age?’
The answer to the question is the Ashrama Vyavastha that the Indian sages have envisioned. Brahmacharya (25 years)- Grihastha (26-50 years)- Vaanprastha (51-75 years) – Sannyasa (76-100 years). It is presumed that one would live till 100 years.
Brahmacharya is where you lay the foundation stone – the stage of intense learning, Grihashhta is where you complete your worldly obligations by earning and serving your family. Vaanprastha and Sannyasa have been largely misunderstood in our society. They are largely construed to be the years of inactivity. That’s not true. The Vaanprastha ashrama tells you to detach yourself from your immediate family by spirit, spend your time in studying yourself, in introspection, and decide how you can contribute to the society at large. It is the time to start your years of intense activity-contemplation-activity. All the ideas that you couldn’t work out because of your familial obligations and duties in the previous stages of your life, this is the time to carry them out. This is the time where you must be healthy on all aspects of your personality.
At this point, we are encountered with a question. The average retirement age is 60, how do we start our Vaanprastha at 50 as told by scriptures? This is a problem with our mindset. It is our own failing that we wait till 60. We allow our body and mind to weaken over a period of time and after retirement are unable to serve the society and work for ourselves. Even if you do not want to take a voluntary retirement from your job, you must start your Vaanprastha process at the age of 50 so that by the time you take a retirement at 60, you are no longer lying in bed throughout the day. You must gain financial independence. That’s the secret. If you haven’t constructed a mechanism to secure your every day food without having to ask your children and give back to the society by the age of 50, you are getting late and by 60, you will have nothing to do apart from taking care of your grandchildren and complaining of various kinds of aches and ailments in your body.
I must be having amongst my readers a teacher, an engineer, a doctor, a civil servant, or maybe even a writer. We have to understand what makes us stop after the retirement from our job. Something that we have been doing for the last 40 years or so, why does it have to stop only because we no longer have a 9 to 5 job? There can be various reasons. The primary reason according to my understanding is the lack of spiritual strength. Let’s be honest to ourselves. Most of us turn into lazy, sulking old humans because of the monotony and rigor of the job every day. That we have been doing it for the last 40 years in the same fashion adds to the monotony and the excitement dies as we spend more years at our job. When you hear a senior fellow at work telling a fresh graduate who has just joined the company that the idea the young man has proposed can’t be worked out, and it is too idealistic, understand that it is not always the wisdom of the older man that is speaking. Most of the times, it is his bored and tired muscles that are speaking. That has to stop. You must not get bored at what you are doing. According to my understanding, there are following ways to achieve this –
- Change you style. Learn new ideas and methods from the outside world. Implement them at your workplace and your daily life. This will keep you busy and excited about the job at hand.
- If this doesn’t work for you, it is better to quit your current job and try your hand at something new. You must gain financial freedom to effect this one. If you are dependent on your son/daughter for your daily food, your mobility is dictated by them and your creative freedom is curtailed. Save money for yourself while you go about taking care of your family members all your life. I’m sure you have a good son or a caring daughter but good and bad are two sides of the same coin and you never know which way the coin sits once you have tossed it up. There are external circumstances involved, always!
For both the measures pointed above, one needs a strong will power, discipline to carry out tasks, and forbearance to embrace failure. To develop a strong will power, to nurture discipline, and to have the skill to soak in failure and spring back stronger every time are the fruits of a spiritual life. You will see these powers in people of great spiritual strength. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam embraced death while speaking to a gathering of students and professors at IIM Shillong. He was about 83 years old then. We must take inspiration from such people. It was the great spiritual power that he possessed that made him contribute to the society he lived in till his last breath. Mahatma Gandhi was about 73 years old when he initiated the Quit India Movement. Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in literature when he was 52 years old. How is it done? Sheer spiritual power. This spiritual power can be inculcated at any stage of our lives. So if you think it is too late for you to accept a spiritual way of life, you are wrong. Start today and you will see tremendous change in yourself. You will feel happier, laced with energy all the time and pumped up with daunting courage to even crumble the mountains.
Now, by spirituality, I don’t mean the dogmas and daily rituals. According to me, spirituality is just a sense of identification with your spirit, a belief that you are not merely this mind-body complex and you can achieve anything you set your mind to. To understand that our real identity has infinite potential and possibilities and to labor continuously and consistently to liquidate that potential is spirituality. A beautiful elaboration on the subject has been provided by Swami Vivekananda in his address at the Home of Truth, Los Angeles, California. The address was aptly titled ‘Hints on Practical Spirituality’. This address is critical to the understanding of spirituality and the power of spirit. The concluding remarks in this address read thus –
“The greatest help to spiritual life is meditation (Dhyâna). In meditation we divest ourselves of all material conditions and feel our divine nature. We do not depend upon any external help in meditation. The touch of the soul can paint the brightest colour even in the dingiest places; it can cast a fragrance over the vilest thing; it can make the wicked divine — and all enmity, all selfishness is effaced. The less the thought of the body, the better. For it is the body that drags us down. It is attachment, identification, which makes us miserable. That is the secret: To think that I am the spirit and not the body, and that the whole of this universe with all its relations, with all its good and all its evil, is but as a series of paintings — scenes on a canvas — of which I am the witness.”
The method is to keep working, keep contributing. If you are a plumber, you must enable at least 20 more people every year in the skill-set of plumbing after you have entered Vaanprastha. If you are a teacher, you must enable 20 more young teachers in the best methods of teaching every year. If you are a Doctor, you must help 20 more students every year to become Doctors. If you are a tailor, you must enable 20 more people in the craft of tailoring every year. That will do the trick. You will lend your hand in developing an ideal society. The knowledge that you have gained in all the years of relentless work and experimentation must not go burn in flames with your body. It is your moral and societal duty to find out rightful heirs to your treasures of knowledge and wisdom and leave behind a lasting legacy. That will keep your brain and body healthy till your last breath.
Before you enter Sannyasa, you must elevate yourself spiritually to the plane of a Sannyasi by yoga and renunciation. The whole world is a family to a Sannyasi. The world is also a zero, a null for a Sannyasi. Knowing that and keeping that in conscience, a Sannyasi achieves great feats for humanity and keeps working even after his death. That’s where we all have to reach one day.
Mark Twain had said – “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
We have one last question for ourselves. Are we prepared to die at any time? Will you die contented with your life? If your answer is No, then you have not lived your life completely. Stop hibernating, go out in the world, live your life and achieve what you were born to achieve, no matter how old you are.