A trip down forest paths

A Forest Hermit?

Roughly nine months ago I wrote that If someone looked out into my backyard they could be excused for thinking that I have become somewhat of a literal forest hermit. Actually I dislike yard work and hadn’t gotten around to taming a yard that was left mostly untended for four years. Today I am in a different house with a different yard. It isn’t a forest although it is still not a tamed lawn. I might even be a little less of a hermit!

Forest hermit is also a literal translation of the term vanaprastha at least according to some websites. Others say “way of the forest” would be a better fit which has its own resonances with me. In either case vanaprastha is the name for the third stage of life in the Vedic asrama system. I’m not Hindu (or Taoist for that matter) but I find a lot of practical wisdom and psychology in the philosophical thought of many religions.

The asrama idea says that for those in the highest three castes there are four stages of life; student, householder, forest hermit, and renunciate. The householder stage is the focus on the duties of maintaining a household, raising a family, educating one's children, and leading an active community and family centered social life. At some point, roughly when grandchildren are born, there is a change in role to the third stage focused more on advising, personal development, and withdrawing from some aspects of the world. It sounds a lot like work life and retirement.

Nothing really new or groundbreaking in a sense but interesting because it seems to mimic the FIRE movement in the idea of consciously choosing to shift from a focus on earning wealth to a focus on other aspects of leading a meaningful life prior to the final stage of your life. Some retirement discussions would probably match this with the “go go” and later “go slow” retirement phases but I think that there is a deeper idea. Go go and go slow are descriptive but they aren’t prescriptive. The idea of a forest wanderer (another translation) is that it is prescriptive. One should move to the third stage when your own kids are launched into their own householder stage. It implies a timeframe that isn’t the fetishized early retirement in your 30s of the ERE/MMM crowd but is not holding on until as late as possible attached to earning money and maintaining one’s position in life.

An idealized version might be the mentor trope common in spy movies. Retired. Out of the game and living a good life but not so far out of things that they can’t provide advice and aid. To cast a wide net you could think of Isobel von Schönenberg in Hopscotch, Jean-Pierre in Ronin, and both Donald Fitzroy and Margaret Cahill in The Gray Man. Of course this is the flashy, action movie view but mentorship and service to the community in ways other than purely being a part of the economic machine (with a nod to the fact that we are all part of that engine due to our consumptions at the very least) seem like good goals especially when balanced with the freedom to explore personal development. But let’s not carry the trope too far as it is 50/50 whether the mentor character lives.

Perhaps due to having been a teacher I find myself drawn more to the personal development side of things. Right now mentorship feels very close to what I have stepped away from in 2022 even as some aspects of teaching still maintain their appeal. I’m not religious so perhaps my introspection and musing on the idea of a life well lived and work well done aren’t particularly in line with the ancient Vedic ideals but no matter. As one sets off into one’s own personal forest of the mind it is good to at least examine the paths laid out by others even if you figure that you might go off on a little impromptu cross country travel.

#forestpaths #David #ramblings