About the Author :
Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.
The other day, I asked a recently retired friend what I thought was an obvious question: now that you have retired, what next? What are you going to do with the rest of your life?
He started like most of us do. “I’ll probably take on some consulting assignments,” he said. “Sit on some boards, play golf, the usual,” he said. Later that evening, lubricated by food, drink and conversation, he said, “You know, the truth is that I am not sure what I am going to do. I’ve been working full blast for so long that I feel, frankly, a little daunted by the thought of retirement.”
Transitions are scary, particularly retirement, which signals the end of an era. But…. What if retirement were viewed as an opportunity—as a time to do what you really want to do. Which leads to the question that is the title of this piece: what does your soul want?
I don’t mean it in some new-age drum-beating hemp-chewing way, but in the way that our Upanishads described, analysed, dissected and tried to comprehend this idea of soul or “atma.” Our philosophical texts asked big questions. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here on earth?
These are questions for the ages; questions that every religion attempts to answer. At the same time, these are urgent, immediate questions that each of us contend with every single day. We look at the mirror in the middle of a bad week and think, “What the heck am I doing?” We quit jobs, start companies, get divorced, marry, and have kids. Each milestone is a transition point, a loose space where we take stock and wonder if we are on the right path towards…what? Enlightenment? Finding a purpose? Finding our calling?
For those of us in our fifties, sixties or seventies, these questions play out in important ways. We have reached a certain level of success with jobs and perhaps retired from its intensity. Family life too is somewhat stable with the kids grown and gone. We have the luxury of financial and material comfort. So we can—finally—contemplate the second half of our lives, and do what we want. The problem is that most of us don’t really know what we want. We have been so busy providing for families and our careers, that this question barely enters our consciousness.
Recently, I have been reading a bunch of self-improvement books, most of them suggested by cousins and friends in their fifties. I read each of them in the hope of answering the question I posed. You see, I too am not sure of what my soul wants. I like what I do for a living but I have done it for a long time. So I have been contemplating a change, now that I have the luxury of middle-age and monetary security. The problem is that I don’t know what I would do next. Would I volunteer? Would I take up painting? Would I pursue my dream of photography? How now to make sense of my life?
There are a lot of books about finding purpose in life, finding meaning—both by westerners and by Indian gurus such as Sadhguru, B.K.Shivani, and Gaur Gopal Das. They all offer hope. Reading them, we think, will help us lead better lives. Not true, and I say this as someone who has devoured self-help books all her life.
Reading self-help books is a great feel-good exercise. Most of us can incorporate one or two “hacks” from these books that will help us attain our goals, whether it is saving time or reducing anxiety. But true change will come, not by parroting the practices that these books advocate but by undergoing the pain of growth. We can practice gratitude, have an abundance mindset, visualise that our headaches vanish, connect with our subconscious, repeat affirmations (“Every day in every way, I am getting better and better” is the classic line coined by Frenchman Emile Coue), and connect with shamans and spirit guides. All of these will nudge us in positive directions. But finding what your soul wants involves introspection, meditation, and prayer, all of which leads to a certain sort of connection—with your self and with the greater self—what you may call the cosmos and what our ancients called the connection between the “jivatma and the paramatma.” Speaking to the soul involves transcendence.
I have decided to begin this conversation with my soul. I have no idea how to do it so I have decided to do all of the above. I will read spiritual self-help books and try to adopt their strategies. I will use apps and hacks to help cultivate good habits. But more than anything these days, I am trying really hard to introspect—to take walks without the smartphone, to meditate before bed and chant the mantras my mother taught me. I am not after any grand pronouncement from my soul—leave the house and retreat to the forest, start a company, become a college professor. I just want to become true (or truer) to myself rather than live for society, family or kids like I have been doing so far. These will involve small changes—not attending the obligatory family wedding that I detest, going on more hikes because I like being in nature, cutting off time-wasting activities, staying away from toxic situations or people– things like that. I am trying to listen—to cues from the universe and from within—for guidance about the most important question confronting me.
How now do I live the rest of my life? What does my soul want?