Turning 72: the Fourth Stage of Life

The Indian teachings recognize four distinct stages of life, the last beginning at age 72. This is a time when people often withdraw from outward activities and devote themselves more completely to God through seclusion and meditation. The following story tells of one woman’s journey into the fourth stage.

Thirty years ago, I put my life in God’s hands when I prayed, “Just get me out of this crisis and I will give you my life.” In the years that followed I eventually was led to Yogananda and Ananda.

A yearning to know God

Turning 65 was a tumultuous time in my life. I was yearning to know God on a deeper level and concerned about coming to the end of my life without having made much spiritual progress. I kept praying and eventually decided to leave the Ananda colony in Seattle, where my husband and I were serving as ministers, and return to California where we had previously lived.

We moved to the Ananda Sacramento colony thinking that my husband could finish the book he was writing and I could focus more on my inner life. But we arrived the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There was a need for our energies in the colony and we became more outwardly engaged than ever.

As much as I enjoyed the outward service, I couldn’t rid myself of the desire to spend more time in an inward way. I sometimes found myself in meditation sobbing from the yearning to know God more deeply.

Guidance from a dream

Then, a year ago, I had a dream that proved to be an important turning point. In the dream I saw myself come to the “end of the road.” I was walking along and the road suddenly ended! Following this was a scene where I was sitting on the edge of a canyon in lotus posture receiving instruction. It seemed that God wanted me to meditate more and focus on stillness.

After some months I began to feel a strong urge to go to India. I had twice been to India on pilgrimages, the last one ten years before. The older I get the less I enjoy the long airplane trip, but suddenly the effort to get there did not seem important. The urge to be in the Himalayas and near the Ganges was much more compelling.

Gyandevi Fuller, an Ananda friend and a seasoned Indian traveler, made all the arrangements and, with my husband’s blessings, she and I went off on our journey together. From the time the plane left San Francisco, I felt wonderfully calm and joyful.

The Valley of Flowers

After landing in New Delhi, we went by taxi to the Rishikesh area where we began a ten-day journey in the Himalayas. Our destination was the Valley of Flowers near Tibet, at an altitude of 12,500 feet. En route we visited many holy sites, including the Badrinath temple, one of the four most sacred sites in the Himalayas.

Dressed in many layers against the rain, we started our trek to the Valley of Flowers by mountain pony, climbing steep paths, sometimes with gigantic steps carved in the rocks, and exchanging greetings with countless other pilgrims. After an overnight rest, we set out on foot for the last three and a half kilometers.

It was a challenging climb for the “elders,” but the young guide and porters helped us ford waterfalls and skirt rocks and boulders from landslides. At different altitudes along the way we had stopped to get acclimatized, and the altitude never bothered me. In fact, I started feeling better and better, younger and younger. Aches and pains in my “old bones” seemed to disappear.

In the movie “Lost Horizons” there is a place called Shangri-La where people don’t age. I felt I had found it.

The Valley of Flowers is a state park with no roads, no telephones, no buildings, and no people, except for a few on the trail. It is pristine nature– majestic peaks, waterfalls all around, and a wide, wide meadow of flowering vegetation.

An answer to my prayer

Even before reaching the park I could feel something special and blessed in the atmosphere. The purity and clarity of the beauty were like stepping into the astral world. Meditating there, I felt totally in God’s hands with the huge white-capped Himalayas, like guardian sentinels, all around us.

There is a holy vibration that permeates India, born of thousands of years of souls communing with God. This, together with the tremendous power of God’s creativity in the magnificent mountains and turbulent rivers, drew me deeply into God’s presence.

This trip was so different from my other visits to India in that I was tuning into the vibration that is India. Perhaps my sadhana had deepened in the intervening ten years and I was now more sensitive. Throughout my trip, I found myself spontaneously waking up at four in the morning and meditating more deeply than ever before.

Meditating by the Ganges

By the time we reached the Rishikesh area, Gyandevi and I were ready to stay in one place. We stayed at the ashram of Vanamali and her cousin, Mohan, who are Krishna devotees. Both have visited Ananda in California and Assisi, and have many Ananda friends. At the ashram I had ample time for seclusion, spiritual study, and meditating by the Ganges.

A year and a half earlier, Swami Kriyananda had advised me to make more time for meditation and seclusion. Two of the swamis I met in Rishikesh, including Swami Jnanananda, whom Swami Kriyananda knew in the 1950’s, also encouraged these new directions.

When we said goodbye to Vanamali and Mohan, and the little ashram community, I realized that after our six-week stay, India with all her color, religious festivals, cows, dirt, noise, bells, conch music, beautiful people, stillness in the midst of din, and most of all the lovely vibration of Ma Ganga — had become a part of us.

India changed my life

That vibration lingers in me still. It has changed my life. When I returned, I no longer had the desire to be involved in the many outward activities that had happily engaged me before. I am waking up at 4AM, meditating more deeply, spending more time in spiritual study, and have set aside one week a month for seclusion.

In ancient India, people at 72 often retired to the forest. I turn 72 this year. Right now the forest is a little apartment in the Ananda Sacramento Community. My husband spends most of his time in a separate apartment across the way, working on his book. Our lives are still entwined — we take walks and have meals together several times a week — but I have much more time for spiritual study, meditation and seclusion.

I do not know what the future will bring. In the meantime, my present life is an exploration, an inward listening, and a surrendering to what my deepest Self is trying to say.

JoAn Janakidevi Steinmetz, a longtime Ananda member, currently serves as a Lightbearer at Ananda Sacramento.

The Essence of Clarity

Sharing the Teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda


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