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by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Friday, March 10, 2023

By David Osborn, Master Herbalist, Medical Astrologer, Holistic Health Educator

This blog posting is a philosophical reflection on the various stages of life according to Greek Medicine, with a particular emphasis on retirement and Old Age.

Life is an ongoing journey, and one constant is change, however we may want to deny it or pretend that it doesn’t exist.  And so, I have decided to embark on what may very well be the final stage of my life’s journey – in this life, at least.  For those of us who believe in reincarnation, or metempsychosis – the Transmigration of Souls, as the ancient Greeks called it, Life goes on, and each lifetime is a gateway or springboard to the next; in other words, we never stop learning, growing and evolving.  Notice how I capitalized Life, to denote that I am talking about something that transcends individual lifetimes.  Anyway, the life stage I am now embarking on is that which is popularly called retirement – often called the Golden Years.  Although many may feel that this is probably the worst or most glaring example of a euphemism that there is, I personally feel that every stage or phase of life has its own intrinsic beauty, as well as its own inherent drawbacks.

Take youth, for example, which is probably the life stage that is most idolized and glorified in our modern world.  I vividly remember an herb patient I had many years ago, who was facing her fifties, I believe.  She put the modern idolization of youth very well when she complained how “everything today is hot, young and fast!”  On the other side of the coin, a wise philosopher once opined as to what a shame it was that youth was wasted on the young.  How true!  When we are young, we feel like we have a boundless reserve of youth and vitality, and so, we set out to enjoy it as much as we can – often in activities and pursuits that are not that healthy, and which begin to squander the vitality and wellbeing that we have, unnoticeably at first, but with gradually increasing negative consequences later on.  Perhaps all of us have been guilty of such squandering when we ourselves were young, to a greater or lesser extent, although some of us have really gone overboard, or gone to extremes in that department!  We are taught that certain profligate pursuits are “really living it up” when this is, to a very great extent, an illusion that is pushed or marketed to us by the commercial and advertising powers that be.

From the perspective of Greek Medicine, the life stage of youth is inherently Sanguine in nature, with the great virtues of the Sanguine nature being optimism, confidence and positivity, as well as sociability and a gregarious, outgoing nature.  Yet each of these beauties or virtues of youth has its perversion or shadow side.  Youthful confidence and optimism can be a bit too cocky or self assured, or it can be quite naïve and inexperienced as well.  The shadow side of youthful sociability and gregariousness can be caving to or being dominated by peer pressure, even to the extent that one becomes its slave.  The youthful Sanguine years are also the growing years in which one grows and matures not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.  Just think – the young infant comes into this world totally empty, or at least as empty and unformed as he or she will ever be in this lifetime, and from then on, it is learn, learn, learn.  Youth is dominated by epic struggles to learn, grow, achieve and find oneself, and what one will be professionally in this lifetime.  From the perspective of reincarnation, when we first incarnate and come into this life, we are faced with a huge learning curve, and this is the way that it is for us in every lifetime.  There are lingering or subliminal Soul memories, to be sure, but these have to be educated, or brought out, and latent gifts and talents discovered and developed.

Youth is followed by adulthood, which is, hopefully at least, a phase of life when you have finally prepared yourself for a good profession or mission in life, and are now ready to put the life skills that you have acquired during the youthful learning period to practical use.  This is what the ancient Greeks called Praxis, or Practice – using what you know in order to be useful or helpful to others, or to make your way in the world.  For many people, that means climbing the career ladder, or, if you have joined a company, enterprise or other organization, working your way from the bottom up.  The problem here, as I see it, is letting raw ambition eclipse a genuine and sincere desire to help and serve others, or letting one’s own ego or self aggrandizement get in the way of a clear, objective view of things.  This is a phase of life in which you pull out all the stops, take it on, and are the most active and engaged with the world, and not surprisingly, young adulthood is seen as the most fiery, Choleric phase of life in Greek Medicine.  Duties, responsibilities, and the tremendous stresses they can generate can be really crushing here.

Young adulthood is seen by many to be the prime of life, or life’s peak hour, and perhaps it is.  This is followed by what is usually called Middle Age, which is often delineated as being in one’s forties, fifties and even sixties, although many would feel that this final decade belongs to Old Age.  Perhaps the first half of it would be in the Middle Age category, since the most common retirement age for many, if not most of us, is sixty-five.  This is also the phase of life that is pejoratively referred to as being “over the hill”, but I wouldn’t be so pessimistic.  Sure, one doesn’t have all the youthful health and vitality one once had, but hopefully, one has now acquired enough wisdom and life experience to be able to atone for one’s youthful mistakes and excesses, and enjoy the life and health one still possesses.  Traditionally, Middle Age has also been called Maturity, with maturity, and exactly what it is or signifies, being a rather elusive entity, or hard to pin down.  Again, hopefully, one has matured and mellowed out like fine wine, and no longer has the brash, rough around the edges feel of youth.

Middle Age, or Maturity, is also, in the classical view, that stage of life in which a serious, philosophical study of life dawns.  As one goes “over the hill”, so to speak, one is no longer so intimately involved in life – in other words, one can step back a bit and gain some objectivity and perspective on it all.  Many see this as the dawning of wisdom, and for this reason, the old philosophers have often said that that one doesn’t really begin living until after age forty.  This philosophical study and appreciation of life is a hallmark of the Melancholic Temperament, according to Greek Medicine – a temperament that has indeed gotten a bad rap in being associated with depression and a gloomy, morose outlook on life.  Sure, a dawning realization of the transitory nature of life, youth and health is a sobering thing, but it need not make one depressed.  To quote the Chinese oracle, the I Ching: Do not complain about this fact; enjoy the good fortune you still possess.  To quote another favorite line of mine from the I Ching that is in the same vein:  In the light of the setting sun, men either beat the pot and sing or loudly bewail the approach of old age.  Misfortune. – I Ching, Hexagram 30, Third Line.  In other words, both approaches to the transitory nature of life are mistaken and unbalanced.  One should take it all in stride, with a sense of dignity and, above all – Maturity.

And finally, we get to the final stage of life, which is that of Old Age – AKA the Golden Years.  The myriad physical challenges, handicaps and drawbacks of Old Age are only too apparent; what is there on the positive side of the ledger in the way of redeeming virtues that have all too often been passed over by our modern world in its overriding obsession with “hot, young and fast”?  As someone who is now in that stage of life and is experiencing it firsthand, let me tell you.  What has struck me the most about this stage of life is an amazing ability to savor and appreciate life’s simple pleasures that resonates to the very core of one’s being.  This almost makes a mockery of youth’s vain and frenetic efforts to “live it up” and take in as much of life as one can – often indiscriminately, with deleterious effects on one’s overall state of health and wellbeing.  And this leads us directly to another beauty or virtue of Old Age that has been treasured by most traditional societies the world over: the unparalleled wisdom of Old Age.  Old Age is also, or traditionally has been, like Middle Age, a life phase of personal study and self edification, but in Old Age, this quest is increasingly turned inwards, towards the eternal spiritual verities of Life – note again the capitalization of Life.

Such are the four stages or seasons of life, in the traditional view of Greek Medicine: the Spring of Youth; the Summer of Young Adulthood, or life’s peak years; the Autumn of Maturity or Middle Age; and the Winter of Old Age.  For more details on this, please refer to my page on the Greek Medicine Wheel in the Basic Principles section of this website.  This basic seasonal orientation toward the stages of life is something that also transcends cultures, or the divide between East and West.  In Japanese, adolescence is often referred to as Shi Shyun Ki, or, “the period of life in which one thinks about Spring”, with “Spring” being a poetic code word for one’s amorous nature and inclinations.  Accordingly, the Japanese word for a prostitute is Bai Shyun, or someone who sells Spring.  As a wheel with four spokes or quadrants, each stage of life is opposed or counterbalanced by its complementary opposite, with the sober, philosophical reflection of Maturity or Middle Age acting as a counterbalance to the frenetic abandon of youth, and the quiescence of Old Age serving to temper or counterbalance the intense activity and involvement of Young Adulthood.

Let’s now take a closer look at Old Age, shall we?  In the traditional Hindu view of life, there are four Ashramas, or life stages / objectives, with the final one being Moksha, which is spiritual liberation from this world, or its transcendence.  The Western equivalent of this would be what we call retirement, but rather than being a simple abandonment towards decline and degeneration, there should ideally also be an inner spiritual process going on, which escapes many who are in this life stage, and that is the process of gradually detaching one’s Soul or inner being from this world in order to finally leave it with a sense of spiritual peace, balance and composure.  This reminds me of a certain shared living situation I was in several years back, in which I realized that I had gotten into an abusive relationship with this roommate, who acted like an intimidating tyrant.  I realized that the only way that I would be able to successfully extricate myself from this situation would be to slowly detach myself from it in a systematic and progressive manner.  My efforts at detachment paid off, and when I finally left, I left him crying on his bed like a helpless baby.  Reincarnationally speaking, this could be seen as preparing oneself to depart this life and meet the next one in a state of inner balance and equilibrium, which is, karmically speaking, the best way to go.

Astrologically speaking, the cycle of the twelve houses of the horoscope represent twelve consecutive stages or phases of life.  From this perspective, the Twelfth House, being the final house, represents the final stage of life – that which the Hindus call Moksha – which is spiritual liberation and transcendence of this world.  When I was a young boy living in Taiwan, not long after I found out what death was, I went through a series of intense spiritual experiences that I call Meditations on Life and Death.  I would lie in my bed at night before going off to sleep, gazing at the ceiling and thinking to myself, “You’re gonna die someday!”  At some future moment, essentially no different than the present moment, you won’t even be here in a physical body.  Heck – you might not even exist at all!  After coming to this chilling realization, my life would telescope down into nothingness as I gazed at the ceiling and all of a sudden I would find myself floating out of my body in an OOBE, or Out of Body Experience.  It was so terrifying – life seemed to be nothing but a crazy roller coaster ride, with oneself being strapped in tight, and the final, inescapable destination being death.  Well now, in this final life stage of Old Age, I am beginning to loosen the straps that held me in to that roller coaster; hopefully, I will do so in a way that maintains my inner sense of spiritual equilibrium and detachment.  Such has been the great existential intensity of my Scorpio Ascendant, but this is one of the cards I was dealt in this life, with the great and overriding commandment being:  Deal with it.

Retirement is, of course, the Western version of the whole Hindu concept of Moksha, although not quite so spiritual in focus.  Nevertheless, it is still a retirement or retreat from the world, and whatever one did within it – which usually means one’s workaday job or profession.  At this juncture, at 70, almost 71 years of age, I have decided to retire my acupuncture license.  I feel that it is no longer a good fit for me – for who I really am, and what I really do, anyway.  When I first went to acupuncture school, I went to learn herbal medicine; at that time, there were three primary healthcare providers in the state of California: Medical Doctors, or MDs; Chiropractors, or DCs; and Licensed Acupuncturists, or L.Ac.s, with only the last one having any formal training in herbal medicine as part of the standard educational curriculum.  Since then, I have branched out and done other things in terms of natural healing: Ayurveda, Herbal Medicine, Medical Astrology, and so on, which have led to the creation of this website.  Although I am retiring my acupuncture license, I will still be doing Medical Astrology consultations through this website, as well as sharing my healing journey with you all via this site.

But what about the monumental physical challenges of Old Age and the aging process?  How does one best handle them?  In my professional experience as a Medical Astrologer, and as an herbalist and natural healer, I can tell you that there is great variation among different individuals as to how they view and relate to their bodies.  What is most apparent, perhaps, is that some people are more health conscious, whereas others much less so, but this only begins to scratch the surface of the myriad ways in which different individuals can relate to their bodies.  Suffice it to say that, for most people at least, adjusting to Old Age will require a major attitude adjustment as to how they relate to their bodies; and that there are two basic attitudes one can take towards this attitude adjustment: either one can resent it or one can welcome and accept it.  A successful change of attitude towards one’s body in Old Age is basically dependent on two things: patience, acceptance and self love; and objectivity and detachment.

When it comes to patience, acceptance and self love, one needs to stop and just think how tirelessly your body has been serving you your whole lifetime, and how mercilessly you have driven it, and the incredible demands you have made on it, often without thinking about it.  Old Age is a time to stop taking your body for granted, to spend some quality time with it and give it the care and nurturing that it so justly deserves after all these years.  One author on natural healing put it this way:  The great wonder is not that our bodies break down and get sick, but that they hold up for as long as they do, considering all the punishment and abuse we heap upon it.  The physical strain and demands of exercise, no matter how moderate or gentle, need to be complemented by yoga and stretching in order to maintain sufficient mobility and flexibility, for example.  And hydration, or drinking enough water and fluids, has to be engaged in more consciously and proactively.  Heck – even sleep may not come as naturally as it once did, with even that needing some work and conscious effort, too.  When it comes to taking care of the body, one yoga master once told his disciple, “Give the dog a bone!”, meaning that yes, one does need to take care of the body, but one shouldn’t get overly attached to it.  But on the other side of the coin, how many of us have let such an attitude degenerate into callous neglect?

The other side of the question when it comes to relating to the body as one ages is that of detachment and objectivity.  Although this may be scoffed at by those of you who are skeptics when it comes to religion and spirituality, one of the inner realizations that dawns on one as one ages is that:  I am not this body.  One ages, and the body goes through so many changes as we progress through life, but there is one thing within us that remains the same: that inner I AM presence that always was, still is, and forever shall be – the indwelling Soul.  I AM THAT I AM –this is essentially the same Presence that spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and that which we were created in the image of according to the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.  Sure, the body ages, and gets more prone to pathology as it does, but we need to get more detached from it so we can see these aging changes with more clarity and objectivity – which is often the first step we need to take in dealing with them.  I am not this body – but still, it is your vehicle on hat Native Americans have called your Earth Walk, and it behooves you to do your best to keep all its parts in sound working order until the very end of that walk.

Back when I was a student at the Ayurvedic Institute, I had a landlady who was a heavy chain smoker, who was also very sedentary and ate a lot of fast food – not exactly a recipe for a long and healthy life, is it?  She would come to me with a long, sad face after the latest medical report she received from her doctors telling me how afraid she was of getting cancer or some other terrible degenerative or terminal disease.  And what I would always tell her was that the laws of health are nothing but the universal Laws of Nature as applied to the human body, and that these universal natural laws are as inescapable as the Law of Gravity.  One can’t throw an apple up into the air and be surprised when it falls down; neither can we neglect the laws of good health and not expect to pay the price, I told her.  These natural laws weren’t designed to target or victimize her, I told her – they were designed for all.  In the creation account in Genesis, after each step or day of creation, God declares His creation to be good.  Implicitly, what this means is as good as possible for all concerned, because in this conditional, dualistic world of ours, nothing can be totally, absolutely perfect.

“It’s just the Law of Nature – and the Nature of Law!” was an impromptu song that my father would lead us children in singing when we were kids.  You have to accept the universal Laws of Nature, and how they apply to, and manifest in, our bodies, and at no life stage is this more important than in Old Age.  Thankfulness and gratitude are definitely in order as one thanks one’s body for all it has done for us throughout our long life, but a cheerful, objective acceptance of the fact that we must follow these natural laws until our dying day is also indicated as the other half of the equation.  The whole process of detachment that I spoke of earlier on in this article has both an inner spiritual as well as an outer physical component, and hopefully, one can maintain sufficient balance, equilibrium and composure, both physically and spiritually, as one nears the end of one’s Earth Walk.  And how one makes that final transition of death is all important in deciding how we continue onward in the evolutionary journey of Life.