© Daniela Volpari
In my late 20s, I was organising a loan with my bank in London. My account manager, who looked barely out of his teens, asked me if I had a pension. I said I didn't, to which he replied in panic, ‘Blimey! You should have started one ten years ago.’
In Hinduism, the spiritual tradition says that the ‘natural’ journey of life from the cradle to the grave is split into four Ashramas (stages); the Student (celibate, controlled, sober, learning from a Guru), the Householder (married, professional, children, community), Semi-Retirement (gradual detachment, religious practice, pilgrimages), and the Renouncer (detached, peacefully shedding the body, being at one with the Divine). This description of the spiritual life (‘spiritual’ in whichever tradition or culture seen as a crucial aspect of how we find meaning and purpose) seems totally at odds with the idea of the Western education I've had, where I've been encouraged to have a stable job, save for a pension and measure my achievements according to the material ‘comforts’ I accumulate, so that I can retire and grow old with ease.
My experience, however, is not only that all four of the above stages are lived simultaneously, because the idea of time is an illusion, but that both perspectives are narratives we create in order to have certainty, even though the reality of life gives us no certainty. Most secular and spiritual traditions teach us to believe that life is a journey, in which we are necessarily walking forward, one step and then the next, implying there is learning and progression implicit along the way. Yet how many of these traditions postulate some form of a defined and set narrative? For example, The Four Ashramas of Hinduism, The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, The Ten Commandments, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and so on. While all of these paths have been communicated from the intent of wise teachers, the problem is when people latch onto the narrative without experimenting with or embodying the practice of that wisdom.
Appropriating narratives is not bad. In fact, stories, myths and legends have been told for millennia of the gods, humans, animals and nature. Stories are an innate part of our communication with ourselves, with others, and with the world around us. The question is whether the narratives we believe are useful for our learning and growth, or not. Many of my peers (around the mid-forties), for example, imagine they've done the hard slog of studying for a degree in order to get a professional job in their early 20s. Then, via promotions, the career ladder, etc., people become so attached to the money they earn and having a certain lifestyle this income enables, that when faced with the challenge of a career transition, it seems an impossible hurdle. In the modern world, where the concept of a ‘job for life’ simply does not exist, we all understand that change is part of the game. Learning a new skill or profession takes resources and time. So why, at forty, do we not value the investment necessary to study again?
At a conservative estimate, I am currently in my third career — having started in architecture, moved into business management and management development, and then into massage therapy and life coaching. When I decided that I also wanted to be a part-time writer and finally write that novel I've always dreamed about, in January 2010, I got serious about doing the work of training and improving my writing skills, which is still a work in progress. There is no less commitment or learning or practice involved than when I did my degree (which takes between 3–5 years).
The challenge of learning is not about how old we are (when we say it's too late to change career, or I'll have to be an apprentice again, or I have to think about my children first). It is about an attitude to learning. We will reach retirement and feel secure in the knowledge that we'll have a consistent income and standard of living for the rest of their lives (depending on how much we planned and saved for a pension). We imagine that there will be an abundance of time for all the creative hobbies and activities we did not engage in for the forty years or so of our working lives. Yet, how many retirees, in truth, keep learning and engaging in new experiences?
Of course, we do not need to wait until we are old or retired in order to engage with our divine/creative nature. Sometimes, we get reminders, events that occur in our lives when we have an insight, a sharp clarity about our purpose or our true passion. Such events are like lightning bolts that shake us out of the mundane day-to-day activities we usually perform on automatic. It can often be a close relative or friend who gets cancer or another serious illness, or a partner/parent who unexpectedly dies. And these moments bring us face to face with our mortality. I recently met a young man who had cancer a couple of years ago. He talked about his experience of having this clarity, about what he needed to do with his life should he be fortunate enough to come through the operation and recovery phase. Two years on, however, he has retreated into his fear again, ‘waiting’ for his life to happen.
In a way, we have to let go of the past, to ‘un-remember’ history and our age, because there is no predefined method for living life in the context and conditions we face with each new day that has never existed before. So why not get married at 80, start a new career at 60, or follow the path of the wandering ascetic at 20? We have no idea when we will die, so why not listen to your dream and make it happen, little by little. The most important lesson I've learned about creating my dream is to be patient. An idea occurs in a flash; its formation and manifestation occurs in time and space, which works at a different and slower rhythm. And in the meantime, my job is to be responsible and do the work that is necessary each day, with a feeling of joy and abundance and appreciation. I've also noticed that when I hold too tight to a vision, method, steps, goals, etc., I too feel like a tightly sprung grenade about to blow; I allow no room for movement, for vulnerability, for a sense of humour. What is useful to remember is that I am engaging with the uncertainty of life, which is actually a pre-cursor to changing the current narrative to a more inspiring and useful one.
Close your eyes for a few moments and listen to that part of you (usually that first thought that somehow slips away barely noticed) before it became moulded by education and career aspirations and material accumulation? What do you love to do that makes you feel alive? Then, take a leap of faith, a risk to live your story!