[Published in FDI, http://fdi.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/cms/index.php ]

Key Perspectives: Stages of Life; The Four stages; Aspects of Learning

Stages of Life

Most of us, young or old, are proud of our youthfulness.  The young man flaunts it and the old man says proudly that he is “young in spirit”.  But what is there to be proud of in being young, especially in chronological terms? Each stage of life, youth, middle age and the old, has its own unique beauty and spreads its fragrance when it is lived with the right attitude, values and behaviour appropriate to that stage.  Each stage provides unique experiences and opportunities for learning, growth and contribution to the society.  So the old man who wants to be young or imitates youthful behaviour or the young man who indulges in an extravagant display of his youthfulness, both lack maturity.

The wise men of old were aware of this truth of life.  The Chinese sage, Lao-tse, said it in simple words: “Live according to your age”.  The ancient Indian mind had this concept of four stages of life: student, householder, contemplative and the renunciate.  They said each stage has its unique dharma, which means intrinsic nature and law, and has to be lived according to its dharma.  They did not give any special importance to youth.  They are aware that all these stages of life are of equal importance for the growth and wellbeing of the individual and the collectivity.  For example, a community that gives too much importance to youth, like some western nations tends to relegate its senior citizens to the old age homes as unproductive people.  As a result, the community loses the wisdom and experience of its senior citizens for building the society and the nation.  This Indian concept has important implication for a deeper understanding of the different facets of learning.

The Four stages

Let us first try to understand this Indian concept as it is perceived by the ancient Indian mind.  A human being begins his life as a student.  He learns the art and science of living under the personal guidance of a wise mentor.  He acquires the knowledge and skill not merely for a job or a profession, but for leading a healthy and wholesome life which will steer him progressively towards his spiritual destiny.  In the next stage he marries and becomes the householder.  He applies whatever he has learnt as a student for the practical conduct and organization of his individual and communal life and the fulfillment of his social responsibilities.

In the third stage he gradually withdraws from worldly activities and responsibilities and spends his time more and more in contemplation on the deeper truths and higher aims of life.  He may enter into a forest or hermitage or remain in society as a wise mentor to the younger members of the community.  We must note here that in ancient India, the sage and contemplative in the hermitage never shut himself off from the society.  He was a source of higher knowledge and wisdom for the community.  The secular leaders of the society like the king, householder and the scholar constantly visited the hermitages, listened respectfully to the guidance and advice of the hermits and benefited by their spiritual wisdom.

In the last stage, when he acquires sufficient inner freedom from all worldly desires and attachment, he becomes a free soul.  He is no longer bound by any worldly responsibilities.  He lives according to the inner guidance of his spiritual self.

This is the Indian conception of the four stages of life.  Let us now examine this Indian concept in the context of learning.

Aspects of Learning

When we look at this concept of four stages in a deeper psychological perspective, we can discern four basic aspects of learning: Knowledge, Application, Contemplation and Freedom.  But in the context of learning they are not stages but four aspects, which has to be put into practice simultaneously.  Knowledge, conceptual or experiential, is the foundation of learning.  But knowledge is sterile without Application.  Knowledge has to be constantly applied for personal growth and for a progressive evolution and wellbeing of the larger life of which we are a part, not only interms of efficiency, productivity and prosperity, but also interms of higher values like truth, beauty, quality, goodness, harmony and unity.  And to grow in knowledge requires deep Contemplation or Meditation.  The nearest and the most immediate object of contemplation is our own self.  We have to constantly look into our self and learn more and more about our own being and consciousness.  There is here a vast ocean to be explored because, at present, most of us live in a small fringe and surface of our consciousness.  As we grow in this self-knowledge we will find that the real key to most of the knowledge, solutions or competencies we are seeking from outside, is within us.  The other object of contemplation is the life around us and life as a whole.  The learner has to constantly contemplate on the deeper and higher truths, laws, aims, values and purpose of life.

The range of contemplation have to embrace the whole of life and also the specific activity, profession or segment of life in which he functions.  For example, a scientist has to contemplate on the higher meaning and purpose of science in the larger context of human development.  The role model for a scientist is Albert Einstein, who always viewed science not in terms of his narrow specialization of physics, but in the light of a wider humanistic, philosophical and spiritual vision.  Similarly a business leader has to reserve sometime for contemplating on the purpose, vision, values and the future direction of his business.  He must also contemplate on how to serve his stakeholders, especially the employees, customer and the community, better and better.  The leaders of global business have to contemplate on the role and purpose of business in the evolutionary destiny of humanity.  This wider contemplation makes the mind receptive to the universal mind and as a result opens it to new ideas.

However there are many types and stages of contemplation.  According to Indian yogic traditions there are four types of contemplation.  The first one is a thinking meditation of the kind we have described earlier.  The second type is a concentrated focusing on the essence of a single idea.  The third type is a silent meditation, or in other words to keep the mind silent, passive and receptive to whatever intuition or inspiration which comes from above.  The fourth form of meditation is to keep an alert, objective, non-judgemental attention or observation on all the inner movement of the mind like thoughts, feelings, motives and impulse and also on the events, objects, people and activities of the outer world.  For creative living and continuous learning we have to learn all these four forms contemplation.

The fourth aspect of learning is Freedom.  This may not be apparent at first glance.  How can freedom be part of learning?  There are two forms of freedom which can enhance learning.  First is an outer life which is free from excessive rules, restrictions and taboos with an environment that encourages people to take initiative, experiment, think, imagine and learn through mistakes and failures.  The other forms of freedom is the inner freedom from attachment to fixed dogmas, opinions and viewpoints and the things of the past and present.  These are some of the major mental obstacles to creative thinking.  We cannot progress in knowledge if our mind is inwardly attached to these obstacles.

These are the four facets of learning.  As we have said earlier, for effective learning we have to simultaneous put into practice all these four facets of learning.

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