Age Against the Machine

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.

CLICK HERE to watch video

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

Blaise Pascal

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, (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!






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18 thoughts on “Age Against the Machine

  1. Hyman Cooper

    I am flittering away my time as I write this response..there has to be more..but what..I empathise in your troubles and journey.It is hard to look deep inside and know? what to do.
    Still searching
    I hope WE can find the answer

  2. Bobbie Malone


    Bill and I are having a wonderful time with this part of our lives. He still hosts Back to the Country each Wednesday morning on our local community radio station, WORT FM; he’s revising Country Music USA for its 50th anniversary edition (2018), and working on a new book on string band revival. We still play (mandolin and guitar duet singing of old time country music) with a couple of other musicians at our favorite coffeehouse every couple of months or so and other venues as they come up. I just published last fall Lois Lenski: Storycatcher, a biography of my favorite childhood author and am working on a couple of articles on local Madison topics; I am involved weekly in two very exciting women’s groups with dynamic women I wouldn’t otherwise know that focus on art, politics, and textile creation (I am a stitcher and quilter, but others do other things); I edit weekly with mostly minority kids at the Simpson Street Free Press, helping them produce articles for their online and print newspaper. We see our NYC grandchild whenever possible, but otherwise love our lives too much even to leave very long in winter. It may not suit everyone, and that doesn’t mean that weeks aren’t dotted with appointments which, as my mom would call them, “birthday-related” issues, but we are so grateful for such fulfilling days and nights. Those nights involve reading aloud to each other and dancing around the den when weather is too inclement for walking.

  3. Roberta Reinfeld

    So so much of what you have said and where you are in life resonates with me. Too much actually. Would love to say a lot more, but not in this venue. We actually took a class together way many years ago with Reb Tirzah , and I remember being in your lovely rental home. I used to have your email address but can’t find it. I tried to reply to one of your emails when a doctor friend of yours was going to be in town but was never sure it got through to you. If you send me your email I’d be happy to share in greater depth.
    Be well,

  4. Dr.Barbra Rubin

    I am at the same stage of life as you. I live in the midst of a busy city, West Hollywood, which I love.

    I get many moments of joy, more moments of peace and serenity,and ,recently, 8 days of pure bliss. I had just returned from 3 relaxing days in Ventura.
    I attributed the long bout of bliss to the great joy I have in being at home in my small space. (927 Sq.feet.)
    I’ve been meditating since 1969. Ram Dass is my teacher.

    The happiest I have ever been in my life is the past 20 years of living alone. That may be key for me. I know it is a great luxury to be able to live alone in this world and I am deeply grateful.

  5. Tricia Bauman

    Aloha, Sara,
    So nice to hear from you!
    I recently had an experience that has been life changing – has elevated me to a constant state of bliss.
    All the things that had previously concerned me, many shared in your most recent blog, have evaporated. Colors are brighter, friendships stronger, I see and feel joy everywhere, in everything and I don’t anticipate that will change. I encourage you to research OWA, One World Academy, in India. I was fortunate to attend a seminar called “Being Limitless”, taught by a faculty member from OWA, and offered here in Honolulu.
    For me it has been dramatic and life changing in the most significant way. Not only am I more in tune with this beautiful nature-filled world in which I live (albeit Oahu is gorgeous, but I was so caught up in the pressures of working two jobs, dealing with aging, taking care of my marriage, kids, grandkids & bills, I had lost sight of much of what is all around me – and glorious beyond words!), but I function in a space where my creativity is at an all time high. Something about an intelligence that is only available in the higher levels of consciousness. Anyway, research and enjoy!
    Mahalo & Namaste!

  6. Louise Caplan

    Sara, I love your blog. Always so thoughtful and thought-provoking. This recent blog entry really spoke to me. I had a stressful management-level job for many years after earning my MBA, and retired last year. Some days I feel so lost, with “nothing to do,” after being so scheduled all those years. I need a meaningful purpose, and helping out with grandkids, taking classes, and running errands doesn’t quite do it. I belong to a women’s group where we discuss these types of issues (it’s called a “Renewment” group, originally started by two women from UCLA). It’s interesting to me that many of the women in my group don’t miss having a purpose, and don’t feel “guilty” about watching TV during the day or having nothing to show for the day. In some ways I envy them.

    Creating a schedule sounds like a good start, as you mentioned in your blog. I just feel there has to be more to it. I was at Berkeley during the Free Speech movement and felt so alive and present at that time. Now I’m not sure what I’m even passionate about…especially given the current political climate. Thanks for starting this discussion!

  7. Janice

    Sara, did you write this blog for me personally? I kept getting deep ahas. Starting with the medical appointments, since I am at this miserable moment doing prep for a colonoscopy tomorrow. And “non-waiting” … I’ve been in a hyper waiting mode for the last couple of months, since sending off a novel to my agent. I can’t wait to experience non-waiting! During the lull, I’ve been doing a number things I’ve wanted to do for months—brushing up on French, spending more time with friends—but I have been feeling just what you wrote: what’s missing is a sense of purpose and meaning. Which will come back if/when I hear from my agent with notes on the book. Still, this feels like a rehearsal for aging. Thanks for your searching and wisdom.

  8. Ira Becker

    I wish there was more concerning:
    “Dean listened carefully. “You’re getting ready for your next life.””

    Also, I’m waiting to hear what you finally come up with as principles to live by that are satisfying, in the face of aging and of not having a particular purpose.

  9. Mimi Mindel

    Hi sara
    My grandson is going to Colorado boulder in the fall and I hope to visit. Will keep you posted. Love your blog. Hugs mimi

  10. Marta Vago

    Aging sucks and I have to find new ways to deal with it every day. I appreciate your upbeat approach to dealing with it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the essence of the day-to-day realities of dealing with aging. And, I’m saying this as some who is healthier and more fit than most people I know who are my age. Sorry. It’s just the way I feel.

  11. Anne Turley

    At 63, after 7 years of living as a gypsy, I moved back to my house in LA. I do yoga and swim. Joined a group that hikes with dogs. Another group tha goes to movies. Started a twice monthly writing group. I could do so much more each day. But also enjoy my quiet and being time. After being a television and film editor at high paced high pressured jobs, I had to reinvent myself once again. I think we have to keep doing that throughout our lives, or we wither and die. I go to physical therapy and a psychotherapist as well to stay in gear. I have the privilege of doing only things I love. Life is wonderful.

  12. Brad W.

    Lovely! Our concerns are eerily similar (plus my knees are AWFUL, too!). As I get older, I opt more and more for days of quiet purposefulness (IF POSSIBLE WITH TEENAGERS). I think, too, that when you get around 50-ish you have had lots of successes and failures, you are thoroughly over the silly ways of the world, and you discern the outlines and limitations of this lifespan, this identity — and the limitations of reality. And, frankly, at a certain point, unhappiness over what I can’t control is too exhausting, and would hurl me off the wagon.

    I get mad at myself when I think there are mountains out there too late for me to climb. At the same time, instead of flinging myself in every direction, I know who I am (???) and what I am good at. When I focus on that, I draw on a lot more peace and I find that though my range of action may be limited, I am getting much deeper, finding more in the work. In the end, given the short life expectancies in my family, I feel that I am playing with house money.

    I feel grateful astonishment at being alive each morn . . . which usually lasts until about 10:30 a.m. It’s getting later each day, though!

  13. Gail D Storey

    Sara, this post resonates deeply with me, thank you so much!! Like you, Porter and I can’t picture ourselves dealing with an RV for the reasons you mention, but we’re on our third summer self-directed retreat adventure. After two summers completing our hike of the Continental Divide Trail, we’re now on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from the border of Mexico to Banff, Canada (with Porter mountain biking and me hiking while acting as support with driving and logistics. Since beginning the trip on May 8, we’ve increasingly developed a schedule such as the one you mention and Dean and Jaynine advocate, with a lovely combination of solitude in wilderness, meditation, hiking/biking, and navigating the moves from town to town while living in open-hearted awareness. (Thanks also for the heads-up about your Hawaii house, we’re keeping that for future reference.)

  14. Roz Ross

    Hi Sara, We have known each other for more than 60 years. I’ve just had my birthday day 2 weeks ago and on August 1st I am starting the last last phrase with a new job. I will be working for Cedars Sinai as an operations manager in the Valley. I can’t imagine not working. I have been traveling at least two large trips a year all over the world with Doreen Sussman Bricked. She says she knows you from Berkely. We have been good friends and our boyfriends don’t want to travel anymore. I enjoy reading you blogs and wish you the best for the future. Fondly, To a Ellman Ross

  15. Linda Newton

    Thanks, Sara, for expressing so well exactly what I’m experiencing. I’ve been president of a community organization for two years with one more to go. What I was learning during the first year I was able to use in the second. But now as I approach my third year, I can see I don’t have the energy and focus I had had in the first year and a half. It should have gotten easier, right? You know exactly why it didn’t.

    Linda Pupos Newton

  16. sandy price

    Your words are useful and I know stimulate a lot of thought for people at this stage of life. So, what I’m about to say may seem wrong-headed and even ungrateful, but as I read your words today, I could not help thinking about the state of our economy and how many are suffering. So many people do not have the luxury of getting into an RV, or in any way checking out to refocus. Many of those who are in that boat are also at this same stage of life. Tired, empty, confused but if they stop struggling, will sink. No bliss or joy there. Just sheer exhaustion.

  17. Beverly Kai

    I moved to Honolulu over 30 yrs ago as a permanent retreat from Silicon Valley. It worked, although the idea of a schedule is a good one as I age. I recommend Sara pack a backpack and just wander from place to place at the budget level of educated professionals from all over the world. And not try to be first among them. Just listen for a year or so. Three months here and there……….I did this and found an island in the South China Sea…….
    Beverly in Honolulu

  18. Greg

    Hi Sara, sounds like you need to get trikin’
    Join the trike revolution! Low and slow is the way we go. ?

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