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Swapping Idols for Vanaprastha

“The first ashrama is brahmacharya, the period of youth and young adulthood dedicated to learning. The second is grihastha, when a person builds a career, accumulates wealth, and maintains a family. This second stage seems fairly straightforward and uncontroversial, but in this stage the Hindu philosophers find one of life’s most common traps: People become attached to its earthly rewards—money, power, sex, prestige—and thus try to make this stage last a lifetime. Sound familiar? This is another description of being stuck on the fluid intelligence curve, chasing Aquinas’s four idols—money, power, pleasure, and honor—that lead to self-objectification, but that never satisfy.
To break the attachment to these idols requires movement to a new stage of life, with a new set of skills—spiritual skills. The change can be painful, Acharya said, like becoming an adult for a second time. And it means letting go of things that defined us in the eyes of the world. In other words, we have to move beyond the worldly rewards to experience transition and find wisdom in a new ashrama—and so defeat the scourge of attachments. That ordinarily occurs, if we are diligent, around age fifty.
And that new stage? It is called vanaprastha, which comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.” This is the stage at which we purposively begin to pull back from our old personal and professional duties, becoming more and more devoted to spirituality and deep wisdom, crystallized intelligence, teaching, and faith.” — Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength

Arthur C. Brooks seems to be everywhere at the moment, bouncing between podcast interviews like mad as he hits the circuit to discuss his latest book with Oprah Winfrey. I’m a step behind that book, still lingering with the one he published last year quoted from above. But based on the interviews I’ve listened to, it feels like the themes from one book flow right into the next. That I’m lingering so long on the transition from fluid intelligence to crystallized intelligence tells you all you need to know about my own particular stage of life.

Books are stepping stones. The path I’ve been on in my reading leads me from one book to the next, and one interview with the author to the next, which points out more source material to dive into, and so on. Life is about growth and becoming. How we cross the stream depends very much on the stones we land upon, and where they lead us next. At some point in our lives (if we reach awareness) it feels natural to stop chasing idols and begin finding wisdom.

So here we are, figuring out this journey to becoming what’s next for us. The ashramas listed above are one clear indicator that nothing we’re sorting through is unique to us, it’s a human condition of growth and change and reconciliation with the entire process. Writing surely helps, but do does reading and seeking out the perspectives of those who have gone there before us. This is the time in my life when diving deeply into spirituality and wisdom feels like the natural next step. Apparently I’m moving into vanaprastha, with the urge to walk out into the forest but still carrying the obligations of that stage of earthly rewards, grihastha. How about you?

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