As my 70th birthday approaches, recent incidents have served to illuminate for me how essential it is to actively configure one’s life as an elder. A blueprint for such structuring exists in Indian tradition in the form of the system of the four ashramas (stages of life), the third of these being known as vanavasa or vanaprastha, words that quite literally mean “forest dweller”. During this phase one would move to a hut in the woods, leaving behind the hurly-burly of the world of the householder, beginning to prepare for death while remaining available to those who might require guidance.
Though I will not be completely retired until the end of 2023, I have for some years now been slowly reducing my public appearances while continuing to interact with friends and family members who request advice and counsel, some of whom have reentered my life after long absences. Earlier this year, for example, I met with a resident of South Bombay whom I last saw 42 years earlier when Vimalananda and Roshni and I attended his wedding, and just a month ago I met a 45-year-old whom I had last seen at his naming ceremony (when he was just a few days out of the womb). He and I strategized how to get his father to sell an unusual island, and after he departed that afternoon, I was left with the feeling of a job well done.
Then at 8:15pm that very evening the doorbell rang. It was the building’s young security guard, asking if I were a doctor and requesting me to walk up one flight of stairs, where the police were breaking down the door of the apartment just above mine. The stench of death had been noticeable all day, and I now realized that the flat was its source. A policeman and I entered, he leading the way with his flashlight since no lights were working, we discussing what we were seeing. Trash was everywhere, one internal door was wired shut, and when we entered the room just above where I normally sleep, there on a sheet, spread-eagled atop a knee-deep stack of ancient newspapers and empty bottles, lay a bloated, naked human body.
The policeman shifted to English to ask, as a legal formality, “Can this man be taken to be dead?” I replied in the affirmative and signed my name and medical registration number to my declaration. It was the most official act that I have performed utilizing my medical license.
A 53-year-old man who had lived in the same flat for most (if not all) of his life in the most densely populated megacity on Earth (estimated 20,000 to 30,000 persons per square kilometer) lay dead long enough to start to decompose. This is blunt testimony to the disconnections that characterize modern life and a sad commentary on the deceased, who had alienated everyone in the building (I never met him in life). He dwelled in an urban forest in an apartment hut but died altogether cut off from society.
The very next day I flew to Coimbatore, where between December 1 & 5 my distinguished co-presenters Rose Baudin, Dr. Claudia Welch, Dr. Ramkumar, and I conducted a very successful “Forest Dweller” retreat at Vaidyagrama, focusing how best to enter and live in vanaprastha in the modern world. The contrast between the desolation that characterized my neighbor’s and the possibilities outlined during the retreat for meaningful, satisfying senior years could not have been starker. And the difference between the two outcomes boils down to a single concept: satsanga, association with individuals who are trying to live uprightly and honorably. Find your peeps and stick with them!
Wishing you a fruitful new year filled with connection and love.