Checking my calendar for the week, I see it filled with medical appointments, errands, calling the cable company to fight about the bill, PT for my knees, aerobic exercise for the heart, and mental gymnastics to counter forgetfulness—“Who was, you know, what’s his name’s daughter?”
As with many of us, aging is bringing “issues” that make it tough to do things I did with ease just a few years ago.
As far back as kindergarten, I’ve been driven to shine, to achieve, win the race, be first in class, selected to give the speech or lead the dance. That drive has always been in my bones, but what to do with it now, when I often feel irrelevant? There are fewer opportunities each year to do the creative work I love.
On my last birthday (the number was, as a friend, said, “an outrage”), my sister, Terry, and I planned to spend the day together. We were in Hawaii, where she lives, and she asked if I wanted to start with a two-hour meditation led by Dr. Dean Nelson on Kailua beach–the most beautiful sweep of sand on the island.
I’d been doing spiritual practices for 40 years. I’ve gone to retreats and classes, heard wisdom from countless sources, and been blessed with friendships with spiritual teachers. But a few years ago, I decided it was time to just live it–apply the wisdom moment by moment, rather than attending more teachings. So I’d resisted Terry’s previous invitations to sit with Dr. Dean, but as this birthday loomed, I was feeling downhearted, and thought, why not? “If you don’t like it,” Terry said, “you can just walk on the beach.”
When we arrived, Dr. Dean and friends had set up an open-sided tent on the sand, with cushions, carpets and folding chairs inside.
They did a ceremony to cleanse the space, walking around with a plate of burning incense, chanting and waving the smoke about. I thought of Krishnamurti, the audacious teacher who’d described such ceremonies as “spiritual claptrap.”
Dr. Dean, as he’s called, studied for 12 years with the Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, started teaching meditation 35 years ago, and also works as a chiropractor and healer. Sitting cross-legged before us, he said we would be entering a state of “non-waiting.” Most of our days, he said, we’re continually waiting, thinking about and preparing for the next moment. “Not now,” he said. “We’re just here.”
Listening to his voice, the waves, and the tropical birds, I felt the tension ebbing from my body and peace sinking in, a peace I hadn’t experienced in a while. I stayed the entire two hours, and the rest of the day—lunch, walking, shopping, music—was, in a word, perfect.
I made an appointment with Dean for private “coaching.” When he asked what I wanted support with, I said, “the transition to this time of life, when opportunities have shrunk and, instead of the creative fire I’ve always felt in me, there’s an awkwardness, a lack of ease, a wondering.” I told him that the things that give me joy–being part of my grandchildren’s lives, reading, laughter, and music—“don’t feel like they add up to any kind of purpose.”
Dean listened carefully. “You’re getting ready for your next life.”
I sighed, saying I’m not certain there is a next life. I’ve had intimations that, as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (link) expressed it, “Something continues.” But I hold that as a mystery.
Given it’s a mystery, Dean said, “I would invest in kindness. Compassion. Having more love in my life. It feels good, and it’s a fun way to live.”
I thought of Pascal’s wager. In the 17th century, the philosopher asserted that humans bet with
their lives that either God exists or does not exist. Pascal said the rational person should live as though God exists and there’s some reckoning at the end of one’s life. If this turns out to be true, you’re in good shape, and if it’s not true, there’s nothing lost. But if one behaves as if God does not exist, and loses the bet, there could be trouble.
Dean said another way to view this time is that “you’re preparing for the next stage of this life. Traditionally, this stage is about spirituality.”
Long ago, I’d read that in India, when seekers grow older, they give up their possessions, their home, even their names, in order to let go of as much of the self, of one’s identity, as possible and seek union with the Divine. When I was doing research for Leap! What Will we do with the Rest of our Lives? I spent time in India, volunteering in an orphanage, teaching children, then staying in the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, to see if those might be options for the next stage.
My first night at the ashram, at dinner, I sat down on the cement floor with a banana leaf in front of me. Devotees came by, scooping rice and unidentifiable mush onto the leaf, and filling my cup with a wan pink liquid. I tried the food but not the wan liquid, then was directed to a large trough where people were washing their banana leaves in gray water. I don’t think this is for me, I thought.
Dean laughed when I told him. “You don’t have to do something like that. You can organize your own way.”
Dean and his wife, Jaynine, are, at this writing, on a six-month retreat in an RV, moving up and down the West Coast of the U.S., camping in wilderness sites, cut off from electronics. They’ve done this for three years, living and working six months in Hawaii, then renting their home to spend six months away. “When our son was no longer at home, we wanted to spend more time in retreat and in nature,” Dean said. “We’re older now, so we need to be comfortable. In the RV, I have my wife, two dogs, we sleep in a queen bed, have a microwave and refrigerator and hot shower. It’s just small.”
Some times it’s challenging, as when they were camped among giant redwoods and it poured rain for two straight weeks. Authorities closed the park because the trees don’t have a deep root system and could crash, Dean said. But they stayed in the RV, deep in the park. “We put up tarps, wore rain suits, and meditated in front of a fire. We’ve gotten pretty good at this.”
They follow a schedule: observing silence from the time they wake up until mid-day, during which they meditate, read, do yoga or other practices. In the afternoon, he said, “there’s always an adventure—hiking, going out on a river in a dinghy or paddle board, or going into town. We try to have no separation between retreat and town. That’s the whole point—to be the same way on the cushion as off the cushion.”
It takes a month to decompress, he said. “Everything slows down. There’s no cell phone coverage or internet. People ask,`How can you do that for so long?’” He gives a sweet laugh. “Twenty years ago we didn’t have this stuff, and now we’re addicted to it.”
By the fourth, fifth, and sixth months, he says, “You just keep getting happier and lighter. Falling in love with the gift of breath, the gift of being alive—this groovy deal we get to do.” He’s found that “your brain likes bliss. Your brain likes silence, and peace.”
Back at home, he says, “Some days you realize there was no time when you were profoundly relaxed, lit up with joy. Maybe you had 30 seconds of it, but many days you don’t even have that.” He shakes his head. “That’s a crazy way of existing.”
He said there’s been a surge in RV sales and rentals as boomers grow older. But this, too, is not for me. I don’t like driving and am not equipped to deal with hookups, plumbing and all manner of mechanical issues. But I love the idea of a retreat in nature.
Dean recommends that, at this stage, when I don’t have what feels like a driving purpose, to make a schedule. “Otherwise you end up spending the day in front of a screen, or frittering and wondering where the time went.” He added, “I knew I needed a schedule or I’d be prone to depression. The schedule is my anchor of sanity.”
I tried this, making a schedule that included meditation, walking, practicing piano, brain training, knee exercises, and connecting with family and friends. But at the end of the day, I’d done only two of the six.
This is a work in progress. I’d love to hear your ideas. Please leave a COMMENT.
Paradise for Rent: Would you like to rent my condo on the Gold Coast of Honolulu, right on the sand?
It’s a wonderful spot for swimming, snorkeling, hiking, water sports, or just cocooning and regenerating. There’s a wide wall of windows that open and stack so the ocean becomes the fourth wall of the place. Day and night you’ll hear the waves and see the water, as if on a boat. Quiet, nourishing, yet a short distance from Waikiki, Diamond Head, and Kailua beach, where Obama vacations. I’ve written a good part of two books here. $120 a night for minimum 25 night stay. Slightly higher for 14-25 days. See PHOTOS HERE, then contact rental agent directly, Ashley Wong, firstname.lastname@example.org (808) 234-4021
IN COLORADO, join us on Saturday, July 15, at 7pm, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love at Deviant Spirits, 2480 49th St., in Boulder. My singing group, Spirit Voices, and Janis Kelly’s band will be performing songs that were hits in 1967. It will be like a block party: dancing, drinks, food. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. For tix and more info, CLICK HERE.
*Thanks to Terrence McNally for the title, Age Against the Machine!