Tuesday, October 18, 2011


"Nothing, however right, is right when carried too far." Christmas Humphreys, Walk On!
"The movement of the Way is a return." Tao Te Ching.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Could you talk about the 4th stage of the Hindu Four Stages of Life? Have you thought about dying?  Do you have a fear of death? Have you ever had a near death experience? Will you have a typical burial?  Have you thought about cremation and spreading your ashes somewhere?"  

In a recent interview (Callaloo, summer 2010), I was asked by Geffrey Davis to reflect upon my retirement from teaching after thirty-five years in the classroom. In order to address his question, I described the Hindu "Four Stages or Seasons of Life," the last one being "old age" (winter) when "we retire from the worldliness of the world to devote ourselves exclusively to matters of the spirit, to knowledge (vidya), and preparation for death." I would place the emphasis on withdrawing from the "worldliness" of the world of desires, duties, and the necessary compromises a spiritual person must make in the secular, professional and social worlds in order to broadly and selflessly serve others and what is of primary interest to them. After spending a lifetime of being so devoted---to honoring one's parents and teachers, serving family, friends, students, colleagues, one's profession(s), community, and even strangers---after decades of being "in the world but not of it," as one biblical reference says, in the sense that one has dutifully done one's best to follow an often demanding spiritual path in the social world, I think there is great wisdom in "letting go" of the work appropriate for one's youth and middle-age, and moving on to a final stage (or season) that has its own proper exigencies for this particular stage of life.

As an aside (or footnote), I must say that I remember well August Wilson sharing with me his fantasy of finishing his ten-play cycle and telling the world he was retiring. Then, when the reporters went away, the phone stopped ringing, and he vanished from public view, August planned on sitting on his Capitol Hill porch reading piles of books he never had time to get to, playing with his young daughter, and writing without interruption or distraction for a decade. When that ten years ended, he said, he planned to emerge from seclusion like Eugene O'Neill after his decade away from the spotlight, and with plays that would be as powerful and enduring as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He also hoped to write a novel. But, as we know, he did not live long enough to do any of that, and died at age 60, just at the beginning of life's final season.
"Preparing for death" is a phrasing that probably jolts the American (or Western) mind, because we are socially conditioned to be attached to and cling to life at any cost. That has never been the case for me. (And I've never forgotten that in one of Plato's Dialogues he states that philosophy is preparation for death.) I've probably thought about my inevitable death every day since my late teens, starting around age 19. (I wrote lots of bad poems at that age on this subject.) As a matter of fact, as a young black man living through the violent 1960s, I was rather surprised when my twentieth birthday came around and I was still alive and healthy. (Not incarcerated, crippled by gunfire, damaged by drugs, or taken out by racism as so many young black men I knew at the time were.) I've lived every day of life since my teens as if it might be my last day, and with a kind of dogged determination (a characteristic I no doubt inherited from my father) to fulfill before drawing my last breath my worldly duties and responsibilities to others and as a creator compelled to work in many areas of expression. 
As I mentioned in a previous post, I've regarded life as a black man in the Western world, and especially America, as being much like a tour of duty in a foreign land. (I really do like that image.) I didn't see myself as being there to play or to party. Only to do the job(s) I was given to do. And, mercifully, the day must eventually come when one is discharged from that soldiering on day after day, night after night---usually at the beginning of life's winter season. (That is one way to define "emeritus.") Have I ever had a near death experience? The answer is, yes. In high school I loved swimming. But once I almost drowned---and was saved at the last moment by another student. (I saw my whole life flash before my eyes. That really does happen, or at least it happened to me. But at age 17, there really wasn't much for me to see of life's passage, which I found amusing.) Do I fear death? Not at all. I've always seen it, metaphorically, as a chance to finally rest eternally after a long, long day of labor. My intention, of course, is to be cremated and my ashes strewn at sea.
There are Hindu and Buddhist ways of discussing this fourth stage of life, but also Taoist ways as well. Since my teens when I first read Lao tzu's Tao Te Ching ("The Way of Life"), I've regularly thought about and have a great affection for Verse #9 in that venerable, old text:
To hold and fill a cup to overflowing
     Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword-edge to its very sharpest, 
    And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall,
    You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honor and wealth
    Is to cause one's own downfall.
Withdraw as soon as your work is done.
Such is Heaven's Way. (Italics mine.)
          And consider these lines from Verse #16:
All things come into being,
And I see thereby their return.
All things flourish,
But each one returns to its root.
This return to its root means tranquility.
It is called returning to destiny.
To return to destiny is called the eternal (Tao).
         These lines, too, from Verse #30, have been with me for a long time:
The good man's purpose once attained,
He stops at that;
He will not press for victory.
His point once made, he does not boast,
Or celebrate the goal he gained.
So I see this fourth stage as a "return" to and deepening of spiritual (and creative) practice, unconditionally and without compromise. It is, I believe, a period we all deserve after a lifetime of service and should look forward to. In his own way, I think August Wilson was looking forward after completing his ten-play cycle to such a period of reflection, renewal, "taking stock," putting one's affairs in order, a period of freedom from the world's unending demands, and a revitalizing "return" to one's creative and spiritual roots after sojourning for decades through the obstacle course called Samsara.

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