Spirituality and Transcendence: how to live the old age

              (Lecture delivered in the SUMMER COURSES of the UPV-EHU –University of the Basque Country–,
in the Course “Meaning and spirituality of life. Taking on new dimensions in the old age paradigms”,
in Miramar Palace, Donostia-San Sebastian, September 13, 2021)

I start these reflections with two biblical sentences and three introductory observations.

“A rich experience is the crown of old people”, says the wise man Ben Sirak in a book written about 160 b.c.e. (Si 25,6).

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom”, says Psalm 90 (Psalm 90, 12).

Three introductory observations about the title: “Spirituality and transcendence: how to live the old age”

1.- “How to live the old age?”, says the title. Perhaps it is too pretentious. I am not here to offer advice or recommendations about how to live the old age, a condition of an increasingly larger group of society to which I belong. What I will tell you, I humbly tell myself, knowing that it’s easier said than done, and yet convinced that old age can be an age of fullness in life, that is, of freedom in the detachment, of fruitful loss. We aim for that, I am sure, although each of us in different ways.

2.- The so-called “spirituality” ultimately consists of that miracle of detachment, which allows us to open ourselves to a new fullness in the midst of increasing losses. “Spirituality” is a very equivocal term. I would translate it as “Living Well” or “Living in Depth” or with “soul”, or “in Deep Human Quality” as old Marià Corbí would say.

3.- The title also says “Spirituality and Transcendence”. Another ambiguity. WHO in its report no. 804 of 1990 (Cancer pain relief and palliative care), after stating that spirituality is a component of integral health, defines it as “those aspects of human life related to experiences that transcend sensory phenomena. It is not the same as religious.” I think that spirituality is, unquestionably, not the same as religion, but it is not clear to me that it should be related to experiences that transcend sensory phenomena. Spiritual experience does not occur beyond the senses but within the senses and thanks to the senses, like loving affection or aesthetic emotion. Transcendence does not refer to a supposedly higher world beyond the universe, or to a Being or supreme divinity or a life beyond this life after death. Transcendence is the bottomless depth of all that is, the vital breath that animates us in this life and beyond the passage, the transit, which we call death.

I will now point out some features of that transcendence in immanence, of this deep vital wisdom, features that may be in some ways more typical and specific of old age.

  1. Time for growth, time for degrowth

Old age is time for degrowth or, rather, for growing while degrowing.

Among so many of our paradoxes we find this one: nobody wants to die young (except for some, too much young people, who want to live but unfortunately they cannot) but nobody –let’s say it so- wants to be old. We are in a bind. One of the major challenges of today is to learn to be old: to accept the losses and to enjoy the benefits of old age. The undoubted burden and undeniable blessing of being old. To accept that we are old and to learn to be so.

Somewhat over 2200 years ago, a wise Jew wrote a small book of just 10 pages without waste which is known as Qohelet. It says, for example: There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die (…), a time to tear down and a time to build (…), a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to seek and a time to lose (…), a time to keep and a time to throw away (…), a time to be quiet and a time to speak” (Qoh 3,1-8). And we could continue saying: a time to grow and a time to degrow, a time to win and a time to lose, a time to acquire and a time to let go, a time to strive and time to rest, a time to learn and a time to forget, a time to care and a time to allow oneself to be cared for, a time of power and a time of not being able…

All those times of one activity and its opposite –apparent contradictions- are typical of each age, but old age is more typically the time to let go, to rest, to shed, to allow others to lead us. The essential learning of life, in all ages, becomes more radical in old age. And the root and the radical of life, that which is most radical and the source of most benefits, is learning to lose, learning to degrow. It is only by degrowth that we can grow in depth, towards the bottom. It is only by learning to lose that we can grow in fullness and freedom without clinging to any form of possession. It is the great demand and the great opportunity of old age: to live more and more with less and less. We are old, but it is time to live. It is time to lose –to lose strength, power, prominance, health – sure, but knowing how to lose is part of knowing how to live more deeply.

Old age is time to live more deeply, more fully, more detached and freely, more serenely and reconciled. For all these reasons, old age is, or should be, the priviledged age to live the spirituality, that is, peacefully accepting loss and degrowth.

It is the great personal challenge of those of us who are old. But to know degrowth to be more is one of the major challenges of society, both locally and globally. Learning the wisdom of living better with less, and sharing what we have, is a great cultural, political, economic and ecological challenge. A spiritual challenge, deep down. It is also a major challenge to offer the old the means to live more fully while increasingly degrowing. We, the old, do not live by bread and comfort alone.

  1. Time of liberation

Traditional hinduism teaches that human life comprises four stages, called ashrama. I present them to you in a free manner:

1) The first 20 years is the first stage: the child is born and grows, becomes an adolescent, develops, acquires capacities; as a young celibate apprentice (Brahmacharya) he or she prepares for the short and complex journey of life.

2) The second stage expands from 20 to 40 years: the young person, already an adult, finds a partner, raises a family, or a society, works and is busy, participating fully in social life, is a leader, is a Grihastha who lives busy in a thousand activities and responsibilities.

3) At 40 –that was in those days…- he or she is already free from family and societal responsibilities, and enters the third stage, up to age of 60: he or she retires, becomes a hermit (Vanaprastha), practices silence, travels to his or her inner and deepest self, to the depth of everything, becoming one with the Mystery and the Presence and the Whole in each part, beyond all categories of interiority or exteriority.

4) Finally, after 60, he can access the ultimate freedom that he is capable of, frees himself or herself from all aspirations, successes or failures, from his self-tie and all other ties, abandons everything –home, family, properties- and becomes a renounciate (Sannyasi), a vagabond walker, without a roof of a place of his own; death will meet him or her in any turn of the way, but will find him with nothing of his own and one with all, so that nothing will be able to down him, he will go by himself to the full shapeless being or to Life which does not begin or end.

It is not my intention to present these four stages as a valid and applicable model for today, stages that originally referred to males of the Brahmin caste, so the majority of the people did not even have the opportunity to go through the four stages and thus be free. Which is the young person today who at age 20 can have a reasonable job, an adequate home, be economically autonomous, engage into a stable relatioship and have a family if both so desire? Which is the adult person who at age 40 is free from all responsibilities or can dedicate himself or herself to meditation at 60?

It is unthinkable to apply the ideal model of the Hindu tradition, and I doubt it is desirable. But the challenge is there, and so are the questions about our civilization. The world has changed a lot in these 2000 years, and look at how much it has changed in just the last 200, from the start of the industrial revolution up to the postindustrial era in which we live now. Many things have changed for good, but it is not at all certain that the global balance of development is positive for common life: very large numbers of young people between 20 and 40 years-of-age, better prepared than ever, are being excluded from society, with no adequate job or home of their own; the balances of the planet, community of living beings, are being broken down. Could it be that more progress brings more oppression? Where is our species Homo sapiens going, so incredibly capable and terribly contradictory, because that which enables him to do more good than ever is what causes wounds and personal and planetary misfortunes?

We need the wisdom both from the East and the West. The wisdom of the truly human liberating progress. What do we need progress for if it is not liberating?

Spirituality is about personal and political liberation, and that is valid for all life stages. But I return to the traditional Hindu wisdom, to the bottom of its teaching beyond the literal details. Its deep intuition is valid today as it was before: old age as the time of a difficult but necessary and possible radical liberation. This is true, both yesterday and today.

An age arrives –I wish it were so for everybody- when we are free from many family and social responsibilities, competitiveness, professional responsibilities, stressful prominence and projects for the future. But after being free from those burdens –in the best of cases- others appear: health ailments, loss of physical strength, social irrelevance, being alone, the proximity of death… It is the moment of the great liberation, time to be free from everything and from oneself, time to renounce to projects, success and earnings, time to learn to lose or, better said, to be more with less, to gain by losing. Illness and death are severe and radical bonds that old age brings, but whoever accesses the root of his or her being is also freed from them, nothing can bind him for he has nothing.

To get to that point one has to work at it all his life. That liberation is not improvised in old age. But, once we reach old age, free from many burdens, it would be a good idea to dedicate more effort to that inner journey that will liberate us more deeply.

  1. Time of detachment

Deep liberation requires detachment. Detachment is the key word of all wisdom traditions. To learn to live is to detach oneself from successes and failures, from what we did achieve and from what we did fail, from projects and prominence, from what we gained and from what we lost. In short, from our own ego.

The Bhagavad Gita (3rd century b.c.e.) is one of the texts that better summarizes Hindu wisdom and also the most popular and most read. The key to liberation, to peace and happiness, it says, is detachment. For instance, in chapter II we read:

            “Because action, oh Dhananjaya, is much inferior to selfless action; it seeks refuge in an attitude of detachment. Unfortunate are those who seek the fruit of their actions (49). Oh Partha, when a man sets aside all desires of his mind and rejoices only in Atman, then he is called man of stable wisdom (55). The person who is not disturbed by griefs and does not crave for pleasure, who is free from attachment, fear and anger, that person is call an ascetic of steady wisdom (56). One who remains unattached everywhere, is neither delighted by good fortune nor saddened by tribulation, the wisdom of that man is stable (57)”.

And in chapter VI: “For he who has conquered oneself and remains perfectly calm, his mind is calm in the cold and in the heat, in pleasure and in pain, in honor and dishonor (7). The Yogi who is satisfied by wisdom and knowledge, is firm as a rock, master of his senses and for whom a piece of land, a stone or gold are the same, possesses the Yoga (8). He who considers equal good-doers, friends and foes, unknown persons, indifferent and ally, as well as the saint and the sinful is regarded as superior (9). Just as a lamp in a windless place does not flicker, so the disciplined mind of a Yogi seeks union with the Atman (19). Such state of severance from union with pain is known as Yoga. One should practice this Yoga with firm resolution and endless fervor” (23).

He who becomes one with his true Self, his own deep being (this is the meaning of “Yoga” or union), detaches or liberates himself from his restless and unhappy ego, the delusional ego with its successes and failures, ambitions and fears, its philias and phobias. And he who detaches himself from all that is untrue, focuses and unites in his true deep being, realizes himself fully, and is happy. Jesus of Nazareth said the same with another image: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will keep it” (Mt 16,25). Whoever clings to his ego loses his being or his life. Whoever detaches himself from his ego keeps his being or his life. To learn to live it is necessary to learn to die.

It is easy to say that, you will tell me. And I say that, too. “Being happy is simple, the difficult thing is being simple”. But it is not a matter of strong will power. It is a matter of relaxing our eagerness, letting our being flow, letting everything come and go, without rejecting or withholding it, also letting suffering visit us often, only the inevitable suffering, without submitting or rebelling. Old age is perhaps the proper age for radical detachment and, therefore, for the full realization of our being. It is the age in which, like the ship leaving the port, we can lift our anchor and go for the high sea, for the Ocean is our port.

  1. Time of silence

We live in a maelstrom of noise. The word, the images, the claims, the messages, the information flood us as never before in the history of humanity. We know more than ever, but we are incapable of discerning and processing what we see and hear. Everything changes incessantly, without giving us time to look or to think. We live in a daze. Increasing acceleration, the primacy of production, the competitiveness of everybody against everybody else, the universal turmoil –with traffic, the stock market and the social networks are its most plastic image- suffocate the life of humanity and of the entire nature. Internal and external noise stiffle us.

Spirituality is silence: no only or in the first place physical silence, but the silencing of mental and emotional noise. And ever more, the deep silence of the being, which is not solitude, but on the contrary, deep communion with our deep being, which is also the deep being of all beings. We communicate thoroughly in the silence of being, because in it the fragil and beautiful call of our neighbor is revealed to us. All beings become neighbors in the silence.

I invite myself and invite you to dive into silence. Old age is a priviledged time to practice the deep silence of being, in spite of the maelstrom that also traps us. We can take some time to stop and be quiet. To listen to the silent music that emanates from everything, in the solitude of our room, in the street noises or in the middle of a field. We can take some time to get rid of our haste, to contemplate calmly, to look and love simply, perhaps in silence, the passers-by, or to meditate or to practice silent attention, or to have a peaceful conversation, or to listen to music, or to enjoy a piece of fruit or a biscuit or a cup of coffee, or to leisurely inform us about what is happening in the world with its lies and truths.

That is spirituality. It is not a matter of beliefs, temples and prayers, but to penetrate through the senses beyond the senses, in that original, primordially serene silence that sustains all that is. And if a simple prayer or the silence of a temple is of any help, do not hesitate to use it. But other practices will likewise help others to dive into the same deep silence of the naked Being, or in the same universal liberating communion.

  1. Time of breathing and a respite

This summarizes all that I have said. Old age is, should be and could be a time of respite. A time of calm, of deep tranquility, of peace. A time of breathing and of a respite. But the older we get, aren’t we closer to losing our vital breath, to stopping breathing for ever? I would rather say that we are closer to uniting our breath with the eternal and universal breath, closer to having our vital breath merging with the Vital Breath in capital letters which has no beginning or end. I look at the cosmos, infinite and eternal, held by that mysterious, deep and universal energy, vital breath. We were born from that and with it we will merge again like a drop of water in the sea.

And notice that Spirituality (which comes from spirit), inspire, respiration and respite have the same root sp. It is also the same root from which space comes. In Latin and the romance languages the root sp is also found in the words for “breathe in” and “breathe out”. Linguists say that the indoeuropean root sp means precisely amplitude, width, spaciousness.

Thus, ultimately, spirituality is that: spirit or vital energy, wide vital space. Or respiration (inspire or taking in vital breath, and letting it out). We all need to respire, a respite, more than ever. Religions (with their creeds, codes and cults) are not essential, but respiration is. When life becomes pure competitiveness with ourselves and others, when we live out of breath and restless in a crazy run, when the solid religious and cultural frameworks of yesteryear have fallen and and the comfortable certainties are lost, the need to respire is the more obvious. We need spirituality, with religion or without religion, but beyond religion.

We all need a respite, vital breath. And as years go by and respiration becomes short and faltering, and we gradually encounter our ultimate limits, we old people need respite more than anybody else. The profound respite or the profound peace of our being.

Old age is a time conducive to live in peace: with our past, with our failures, with the wounds that we suffered and caused. In peace with our family environment, in which abound entrenched conflicts, small or large grudges, unhealed resentments that we need to heal to live in peace. In peace with the world of today, despite its tragedies and threats. In peace with nature, for which we behave as its enemies.

The Dao De Jin, reference text of Taoist wisdom, attributed to the legendary wise man Laozi, teaches since over 2000 years ago:

A good person does not like to argue,
whoever likes to argue is not a good person.

 A wise person is not an erudite,
an erudite is not a wise person.

 A wise person does not accumulate: the more he helps others,
the more he has;
the more he gives, the fuller he is

Here you have the Way to Heaven:
do good and do not do harm.
Here you have the Way of the Wise person:
do what you have to do and do not compete (chapter 81, end of the book).

(Translated by Mertxe Renobales Scheifler)