Sunday, 25 October 2020

The Forest Dweller

We are all ageing. If we are fortunate, each of us will pass through young adulthood into middle and old age; and yet our culture is strangely silent about these typical life-passages. The idea of a 'midlife crisis' is the closest our society comes to acknowledging the transitions that most of us experience in some form. Unfortunately, our stereotypes about midlife often seem to trivialise its challenges rather than offering any useful guidance for navigating them.

Without any cultural signposts to guide us through the transition from the first to the second half of life, we may experience it as a frightening rupture, instead of an anticipated stage of maturation and opportunity. 

Many other cultures do provide maps to guide people through the major transitions of life, and they can offer useful insights for those of us who are seeking to make sense of our own life passages.

Hindu culture has a tradition of four main life stages or ashramas; the student (brahmacharya),  householder (grihastha), forest dweller (vanaprastha), and wandering ascetic (sannyasa).

The tasks and values of each ashrama are very different. The student stage is focused on learning and self-discipline, and householders must devote themselves to earning a living and their many responsibilities for family and community. Traditionally, around the age of fifty, or when the first grandchild is born, the forest dweller stage begins.

The forest dweller's priorities are different to those of the householder. The householder was preoccupied with the responsibilities of work, family, and the struggle for material security. The forest dweller begins a gradual process of withdrawing from practical responsibilities in order to prioritise the inward work of reflection and contemplation, as well as mentoring the younger generation.

This transition from the householder to forest dweller stage corresponds to what the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life) calls the 'further journey' into the second half of our lives. He describes the task of the first half as establishing a 'container' for our lives - a home, family, relationships, an occupation and a sense of our place in the world. Of course for too many people the struggle simply to survive, to provide for themselves or their families, is unrelenting and never reaches a place of stability. But from a Hindu point of view, even if a person has managed to accomplish all these things, the most important tasks of life have not yet begun. The attainment of a home, a family, career, financial security, all of these, as good as they are, are only a preparation for the most crucial stages still to come.

When I reached the age of 40 I knew I needed a drastic change. With my characteristic tendency to go to extremes, this took the form of moving with my family to live in Zimbabwe, managing a rural development charity that was in acute financial crisis, in a country that had recently endured economic collapse, hyperinflation and famine.

Perhaps predictably this didn’t go that well for me, although our children had many valuable experiences. After returning to the UK I found, to my bewilderment, that I could no longer face the kind of managerial work I was doing before. I had become almost phobic about the life of meetings, offices and deadlines. Instead, I developed a passionate interest in working on the land. I retrained as an organic farmer and worked for several years on community food growing projects. 

Dramatic shifts like this are a common pattern as people move into midlife. Many people discover a desire to change career or to explore different sides of themselves, especially those skills or capacities they have neglected in the first half of life. 

These are signs of a transition to the second half of life, and the invitation to the forest dweller stage. Western culture recognises only the values of the first half of life, especially physical beauty, energy, status and achievement, and most of us try to cling onto these for as long as possible. Beyond youthful adulthood, ageing is usually thought of as an inevitable process of decline and deterioration. But the forest dweller stage has its own unique challenges and rewards.

Midlife can be an invitation to lay down some of the exhausting preoccupations of the householder life, and to begin to explore the quite different values of the forest dweller. The forest dweller stage opens opportunities for greater attention to the quieter and deeper satisfactions of everyday life. By withdrawing some of the time and energy previously invested in outward struggles and obligations, we can appreciate the simpler pleasures of time spent with friends and loved ones, of reflection, beauty and creativity.

The forest dweller stage does not usually involve a sudden renunciation of all practical commitments and responsibilities. Most people at midlife will continue to work and have responsibilities for family members and their communities. But there may be a turning of attention toward the inward work that has almost always been crowded out by the many obligations of the householder life.

For some this might mean reducing their hours of paid work, or changing to a less responsible or demanding job. People who have been very focused on achievement and recognition may find that these become less all-consuming goals. Instead of continuing to chase success they may be able to accept the place where they have arrived in life. 

The forest dweller also has important gifts to offer their community. Younger people may begin to turn to them for advice or support. Because the forest dweller is less invested in a competitive struggle for their own advancement, they can be more available to others. They can put their experience and maturity to use by sharing them with the generation that is still in the thick of the challenges and dilemmas of the householder life.

But increasingly the focus of the forest dweller's life may become what the Anglican contemplative Maggie Ross calls 'the work of silence'. This is her term for all of those practices that enable us to deepen our relationship with the inward source of life. Whether through traditional religious practices, or other creative, contemplative or ritual activity, the forest dweller's life may come to be increasingly centred on 
the unfolding activity of the Spirit within them.

By turning the focus of their energy and attention towards 'the work of silence', the forest dweller can discover new possibilities for a way of being in the world that is rooted in silence and open to mystery - an attentive and receptive stance that Ross calls 'beholding'. 
"The work of silence is so simple, yet to go against the grain of society and the culture is very difficult. But it is worth the effort: the work of silence and the way of being in the world that is beholding provide stability and even joy in a disintegrating world. People who undertake to live like this become beacons, islands of safety where others can find a refuge. The resonances of silence permeate the world around them, whether they are aware of them or not."
Do you recognise this description of the 'forest dweller' stage in your own life? What have you learned about the transition to the second half of life?


  1. Thank you for this, Craig.

    I'm slowly learning to be less judgmental, of other people and also (though I find this more difficult sometimes) of myself, though in no way does this mean I'm giving up on moral judgment and discernment generally.

    I seem to remember Maggie Ross writing somewhere on her blog that as she grows older (and she's a good deal older than me) she becomes more conscious of judgment, yes, here it is: "memories that arise from unfathomable depths, humiliating events in which you did or were done to, events you have not thought about for decades. They are unrelenting. They have to be faced." She writes that a Tibetan nun advised her, 'Ask yourself why you need to cling to them.'

    Why indeed? Sometimes it seems to me as if, whenever I judge someone harshly, a memory rises to the surface, not necessarily straight away, of an occasion when I acted or thought or desired similarly myself. I don't remember this happening so often when I was younger. Maybe I had some mental mechanism for maintaining cognitive dissonance which is mercifully starting to break down as I advance into later life. So, I can clearly learn from these memories, even if I need then to let them go.

    Alan Paxton

    1. Thanks for this Alan. I think the need to revisit memories, to learn from them and to re-evaluate past behaviour and events, may be an important part of the work of midlife. Rather than 'clinging' to the past (which seems to be a rather dismissive characterisation), this may be a fruitful part of our maturation, as you describe in relation to how memory can teach us about our own judgements of others.
      In Friendship,

  2. Dziękuję, Craig, odnajduję dużo z tego, o czym piszesz, na mojej osobistej drodze. Dziękuję.
    Krzysztof z Polski

  3. Thank you for this Craig. In general I think we ( in the uk) don't take enough account of the role our life stage has in informing opinions and it is really helpful to hear about the ashramas. I do think that the talk of mid life in your piece is somewhat gendered in that it makes no mention of menopause which is significant in many ways. For many women this transition stage is associated also with care of elderly parents as well as care for grand children. I do not mean to take issue with the piece but perhaps to encourage consideration of these perspectives. Thanks, Lisa Hoyle.

  4. That's me! After I turned 40 I started working 4, then 3 days per week. Since my husband died in March I've turned my home into a resource for the local mutual aid group - convening meetings and catering for participants. I've also used my skills and knowledge more for this project than probably any other voluntary role I've had before. During this time I've been very conscious that I'm older and more resourced than other folks in the group and feel a rightness in the position I've found myself in of providing support. Now I'm at home alone most of the time due to Covid and widowhood and so experiencing a more extensive silence and stillness than I have before and I think this is making me more effective in the actions I take.

  5. Thank you, Craig. (The link to Maggie Ross's book is incorrect.)

  6. Thank you Craig, this is wonderful. I recognise some of this, even though I am still very much engaged in full-time work. I've come into Quaker membership this month, and there are definitely "forest-dweller" aspects of this. A very short piece of writing about this is here:


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)