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Buddhistdoor View: Rethinking Retirement

Tsering Drolkar, an 82-year-old nun from the Dorje Dzong Nunnery in Zanskar, State of Jammu and Kashmir, India

Retirement is often presented as the beginning of freedom, the chance to pursue leisure. For spiritual practitioners, it is seen as an opportunity to spend more time doing formal practice. From this perspective, retirement is a good thing. Yet recent coverage on retirement (be it in the media or academic journals) attests to a more complex picture for those who have been fortunate enough to enjoy their working life. Of course, the degrees of satisfaction vary—some are lucky enough to have experienced their careers as a calling or vocation, whilst others simply stumbled into an interesting job and kept going. Damien Keown, a pioneer of Buddhist ethics in the West, enjoyed a bit of both. His tenure as the first professor of Buddhist ethics at Goldsmith’s University was surely a calling. Nevertheless, when asked during a lecture he gave at The University of Hong Kong in 2010 why he chose Buddhist Studies as a career, he joked that after so many years spent studying the subject, he had no choice but to try because he was no good at anything else.

Retirees who are fortunate enough to like their jobs, therefore, might not welcome their last day of work. Economic concerns aside, they may experience a loss of workplace community, networking, and belonging. More profound is the erosion of the “work” identity, which contemporary culture has imposed on most adults in industrialized societies. No longer does work or productivity just provide economic security—it is often the basis for creating our very sense of identity and meaning. But of course, in some ways it is understandable to infuse work with meaning, since today we spend more time working than at home or with family than ever before.

There is a dangerous assumption here, and that is the idea that one must do things to flourish or be at peace with oneself. The narrative, echoed by many companies even out of the workplace when marketing an attractive product, is simple: you are what you do. As many of us can corroborate, “What do you do?” is often the first question we’re asked at dinner meetings or social gatherings. We conflate what we do with who we are to others. The implication is that what we do must define us, and if we don’t do anything, we are boring at best and nothing at worst.

Buddhism and the other great religions teach people that there is a reality beyond conventional expectations. Buddhism asks that we serve all sentient beings with compassion and wisdom while walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. But this religious call to work towards enlightenment is quite different from doing something to achieve a sense of purpose. In the light of spiritual insight, our identities are exposed as fluid, non-solid, and ultimately unreal. Yet the repetitive, habitual actions and social importance attached to work make it a crucial component of our “being,” hence the difficulty of disentangling our understanding of identity from work.  

Common practical advice consists of useful tips like developing hobbies that are emotionally meaningful, intellectually nourishing, and physically nurturing. Charitable activities and volunteering are also sound activities to maintain a sense of peace with oneself post-retirement. But at the deeper level, as with so much in Buddhist practice, the most effective resolution is a change in perspective. In contrast to other schools of thought, Buddhism celebrates the challenge to self-identification as the dissolution of an illusion. Retirement in a Buddhist sense does not only mean from work—it also means retiring from reification and solidity. This invites a radical reconsideration of what we consider to be “meaningful.” Do we define ourselves by our careers or by activities we are good at or enjoy? If we are already trying our best to let go of everything, why can’t we let go of defining ourselves?

Transmission: three generations of practitioners at Bodhgaya, 2002

Making peace with “identity insecurity” is initially unpleasant, but to look deeply into this insecurity is to understand Buddhism’s ancient critique of the illusion of self. We can be at a loss when our institutional belonging and sense of identity are terminated. When we start to sense this happening, we feel ourselves standing at a terrifying precipice about to jump and lose something dearer to us than even the job we loved, the home we built, or the prestige or wealth we won. We’re unable to see that the precipice is not an abyss of despair, but part of the open sky—complete existential freedom in non-self (anatman).

That is why socializing with “good friends” (kalyanamitra) who can support us at this critical time is extremely important. A community of fellow practitioners and teachers that provides encouragement in our practice is a true post-retirement blessing. The kalyanamitra is the one who pushes us off our imaginary precipice, only to find ourselves soaring into the sky on the “two wings” of wisdom and compassion.

Olivier Adam is a member of Dharma Eye–The Buddhist Photographer Collective. To learn more about Dharma Eye and Olivier’s work as a photographer, visit Dharma Eye.

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