Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 665  Finding Meaning and Purpose

This is retirement talk. I’m Del Lowery. This is the second in a two part series concerning finding meaning and purpose in life. Last episode started with a story about visiting Charles Darwins house.This week begins with a conversation that took place in  Katmandu, Nepal.


"We are finished", Swami Dahrmiyoti said.

"What do you mean we are finished? That's enlightenment?" I asked. He nodded his head in agreement, smiled and said, “yes”. I didn’t believe him. I asked again. And he responded the same way. There I was in Kathmandu with a Hindu/Buhdist Guru telling me I was enlightened. How could that be? I was 39 years old and had taught philosophy for perhaps 15 years. I thought his telling me that was a pretty big thing. Eventually I found out what he meant by “enlightenment”. That changed the picture.

I was staying at the Vajra Hotel in the heart of the city. I was on an Earthwatch Expedition that was studying the rhesus monkeys of Syambue, an ancient religious temple at the top of a tall hill surrounded by forest which was itself surrounded by the city. The temple used to be on the edge of the city. But over time the city grew around the temple, forest and monkeys. This was a study to observe how the monkeys had adapted to the changing environment and human pressure. My intent was to help study this relationship between monkeys and people living in close proximity. It ended up that I didn’t spend much time with the monkeys.

The hotel proprietor insisted that I be given a room next to the hotel library where the venerable Swami Dahrmiyoti lived. He slept on the wooden floor in the library using books for a pillow. He had no possessions. He took food once a day in a sort of "restaurant" in the city. He dressed in the traditional white flowing wrap. He had long, flowing white hair and a long white beard and deep sunk dark eyes. He looked every inch a swami. He sat cross legged on a straight backed chair and silently stared out the window for days.

I asked lots of questions of the librarian; Tsering, a Tibetan who had walked over the Himalayan Mountains into Nepal to escape the invading Chinese. One hot after-noon after she had left I and the Swami were the only ones in the library. The Swami cleared his throat and spoke. “You ask many questions”. I thought God himself had spoken. He had this deep and serious voice. Thus began a short but intense relationship between the good Swami and myself.

 It is easy to always think that the truth lies somewhere far off; out of town, in another state, country, continent or another time. I suppose that is what drew me to the house of Charles Darwin in England. That is what lured me away from my childhood thoughts. College professors and many great books had expanded my interests. Darwin and scientific study had thrown an illuminating light on much of our life. But could it be that the oriental religions held some secret answer to philosophical and religious questions? Perhaps. Just perhaps. 

The grass always looks greener over the fence. The distance and difference in culture held an allure. The mystics of the East might have answers. They looked at life differently. They had a different view point. I was in Nepal and very excited to be talking to a Brahmin Sadhu.

Swami guided me from book to book. He would point to passages and say, `Read”. It lead  nowhere. I would ask more questions and the process would be repeated. He smiled at my questions. His dark eyes danced. Days faded into weeks. Questions continued until in exasperation I exploded one day. I was tired of the books and I wanted to know about enlightenment.  I thought that if I explained my present philosophical view of life he might be better able to guide me. I launched into an existential explanation of my present state of mind.

I talked of Darwin and evolution and then moved into Nietzsche and the need to affirm life on a personal basis; the need to create oneself or affirm one's own existence; the need to be aware of the absurdity of life and yet embrace it, to “love your rock” as described in the myth of Sisyphus.  When I finished…that’s when the swami smiled and said, “We are finished’.

At first I didn’t understand him and asked, “What do you mean? Do you mean that - that is Enlightenment?” His smiled widened and he nodded his head. That’s the moment my quest ended.

I sat there in disbelief. And then before I could ask any more questions Swami said, “Now it is time for me to show you my Katmandu”.  He was implementing the old saying: Now it is time to chop wood and carry water. I assumed that my philosophical explanation was right on target. I thought the existentialist had nailed it. My quest was over. I was just amazed. For this was the end of a journey. It worked for me and it still does. But, I was probably wrong.

Only later did I figure out what the good swami may have been really saying, or what he was saying enlightenment meant. In that ‘heat of the moment explanation’  I had taken a position. I understood it, believed it, and accepted it. That was all there was to it. Nothing more. Perhaps it isn't the existentialist that have the key. The answer may depend on what works for each of us. What we think we know. What gives meaning to our life. What allows us to move on. Function. Wakeup and go about the process of living. What works for us.   

Retirement is like that. Life is like that. It isn’t that you grow Dahlias, write the great American novel, or build a better boat. The questions to answer are:  Does it work for you? Are you committed? Do you understand what you are doing with your life and why?

 That’s what I took from the Swami. Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps the existentialist are the only ones who have it figured out. But I laid all of those questions concerning meaning and purpose behind that day and have not looked back.  Time to chop wood and carry water.

This is Retirement Talk.

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