Author: susantara

Apricity

Apricity

One of the benefits of mindfulness practice is that we can become aware of how we relate to whatever experiences or emotions arise and interact with them in a way that offers greater freedom and clear-seeing. This applies to the full spectrum of what we experience and feel as human beings.

When I teach mindfulness meditation, it seems like I emphasize applying the skills and tools to the more challenging stuff – unpleasant emotions – in the interest of easing suffering. In last week’s sessions, for example, I focused on mindfulness of shame and humility and how mindfulness offers immunity against what Eckhart Tolle calls the “mental viruses” of our times. Awareness is the first step of freedom.  

However, the unpleasant end of the spectrum is only part of the picture. We can strengthen our capacity to be with what is pleasant, too. To slow down and become still enough to really take in a pleasurable moment. Doing this helps our brain build new neural pathways and balance its hardwired, inherited negativity bias that scans for and overfocuses on danger – whether actual or perceived.

I recently learned of an obsolete, Old English word, apricity, defined as: the warmth of the sun in winter. It instantly became my new favorite word, right up there with neuroplasticity and inspiration.

I’m a great fan of apricity. In fact, I’m enjoying it even as I write this. My standing desk on wheels is positioned right in front of a sunny window, and the sunlight coming through the window is bathing me in warmth. It feels amazing!

Whenever there is sunlight (which hasn’t been often lately), I roll my desk to a sunny window and follow the sun from window to window throughout the day. This is one of my favorite winter delights, and how lovely to finally have a word for it! Why that wonderful word became obsolete is beyond me.

I have a health condition for which I’ve been instructed to apply a warm compress to my eyelids daily. When I let that treatment regimen lapse, I inevitably become aware of its value – when my eyelid becomes inflamed again. It’s just like when your meditation, yoga, exercise, etc. practice lapses, and the absence and contrast make you aware of its benefits. You realize that you feel better when it’s part of your life than when it’s not.

The warm compress treatment is simple enough but feels tedious. The most challenging part is making time for it. The other day, I heated the water and prepared the compress. When I was all set, I saw that my son was on the couch, where I had intended to lie down and do the treatment. So I went on the sunporch and noticed how wonderfully warm the sun felt coming in through the windows. Seemed like a perfect spot to plop down.

I had intended to make time to meditate before doing a live Zoom mindfulness session that day, but the warm compress therapy would cut into that time. And then it occurred to me that I could fit in meditation by incorporating it into the eye treatment and focusing on apricity and warmth in general. Warmth of the compress on my face and apricity on my skin as I lay on my meditation cushion – just like a cat, as my son pointed out.

The practice was simple: When the mind wanders off to thoughts of past or future, or even to thoughts about present conditions, acknowledge the wandering, and guide awareness back to the sensations of warmth. In other words, warmth was my meditation anchor, my home base.

It transformed a somewhat tedious health routine into a meditation practice that was a true joy.

Although the sun is shining brightly today, this rarely has been the case in recent weeks. As my recently completed yearlong river sunrise photography project confirmed, January and February are the months when we in the Northeast tend to see the least sunlight. But eventually the overcast days pass, and the sun comes back out – like today. After a long string of dreary weather days, we appreciate the sunshine and blue sky even more. 

And when the sun isn’t out? We can practice generating our own sunshine. Perhaps go on a treasure hunt, indoors or outdoors, for what gladdens the heart. Kindle gratefulness.

For example, earlier this week when the sky was overcast, I was delighted to rest my eyes on the orchids on my meditation altar and the 11 tiny buds (yes, I counted them) that will blossom in the spring. And my beloved jade plant and the numerous smaller jades I’ve been propagating. The sound of the water fountain in the corner of the room. The plants on the window shelves I created last year that always gladden my heart.

In the absence of apricity, I made a cup of fragrant, herbal tea. I held my mandala mug (my current favorite) in my hands and felt the warmth of the tea – even held the mug to my body to warm more of me. Again, the sensations of warmth were my meditation anchor. When I drank the sun-ripened tea, I consumed sunlight and joy.

So if you need one, consider this your permission slip to switch up your meditation practice and experiment and play with an anchor that generates warmth and joy!


© 2024 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

This Matters

This Matters

Last week, someone commented at the end of one of my Zoom mindfulness programs that whereas having a meditation practice seemed optional in the past, it has become essential. I agreed wholeheartedly and added that we need all hands on deck at this time, being our best, most resourced selves.

After the session ended, I had a little cry. 

There were multiple feelings present at the same time, but the dominant one was gratitude. I silently thanked all of the people and circumstances that helped me to become who I am on this endless journey of awakening. And I felt deep gratitude for being able to serve humanity as a meditation and spiritual teacher/practitioner in these chaotic times and feeling that I’m truly living my purpose. Since the first day of the Covid shutdown, I’ve felt that all my years of spiritual practice and self-development were preparation for these current times we’re living in. There were so many years of preparing and waiting – and doing now feels amazing and empowering, except that I have to acknowledge that the reason behind all of this doing is the magnitude of suffering in the world.

I listened recently to a podcast episode in which the suggestion was made to not be so grandiose in your idea of what your life‘s purpose is. It might be doing one thing, or something that helps even just one person. Hearing this made an impression on me because I’m often so focused on my Big Purpose that I find myself rushing through the mundane tasks of daily life and feeling tense. Especially when life gets busier, which it has been lately. Often, I’m so eager to jump into my work after getting out of bed that things like brushing my teeth and taking a shower – and yes, sometimes even meditating – just seem to be in the way. Because I’ve generated an overly ambitious to-do list, and there are only so many hours in the day.

However, even an activity like preparing a meal and chopping vegetables can be an expression of your life‘s purpose that benefits other human beings.

One afternoon while chopping some greens, I noticed myself wanting the task to be over so I could move on to the next thing I was eager to move on to. Then an idea popped into my head, and I gave it a try. It was a very simple experiment. I simply said to myself: This matters.

With those two words, my body relaxed, my mind came back to the present moment, and my whole being let out a sigh of relief. It felt so much better than rushing!

So I adopted it as an ongoing practice. Every time I catch myself rushing through a task, I remind myself: This matters. It changes everything.

Making food for myself and my family matters.

This footstep on the way to and from the mailbox matters.

Scrubbing this potato matters.

Washing this pot matters.

Emptying the dishwasher and putting dishes away matters.

(There are a lot of kitchen examples here!)

This breath matters.

With this practice, every task that feels mundane becomes a path back home, a mindfulness practice, a crack through which the light of gratefulness enters in. 

Self-nourishing activities matter, too:

Appreciating the fragrance of your body wash, shampoo, lotion, etc. 

Feeling the sensations of lathering or applying them on your skin.

Feeling the pleasant warmth of the shower water.

Being grateful for having warm, flowing water.

Next time you find yourself rushing, give it a try. Notice the difference between mind full and mindful. Acknowledging that whatever we’re doing right now matters is a portal out of the busy, future-focused mind and back into the here and now, where our true power resides. It’s like applying the brakes. We slow down and can enjoy the experience, the sensations, and the gift of this moment in this precious human life. And then we’re more centered and present in our next activity or interaction, which enhances everything we do and benefits everyone we come in contact with.

This matters:

This step

This scoop

This snip

This chop

This stroke

This breath.

It matters because it’s what is happening right now. Allowing it to matter is a game-changer! It is empowering.

So many feel grief-stricken, fearful, and angry in response to the situations of tremendous suffering in other parts of the world. Our hearts want to answer the call to do something to help ease suffering that can feel like too much to bear when we witness it on our screens. Whereas we may feel powerless, truly there is so much we can do, especially when we’re not so grandiose or specific about what matters.

For example, we can become aware of the seeds of war within us and not water them. We can give ourselves the care needed to be properly rested, more centered, and less grouchy and volatile so we can shine our light more fully in this world. We can make peace with someone with whom we have disharmony, even if it’s only in our own mind and heart and the way we see them. We can open our hearts to the suffering on all sides of heated conflicts.

All of this matters.

These are just a few examples, and it’s very deep work. It might feel so small and as if it doesn’t help to ease suffering in areas of the world embroiled in war and conflict. But that’s no excuse for throwing in the towel and getting stuck in a trance of powerlessness, futility, and despair. There are many situations closer to home that would benefit from our caring hearts and deepening wisdom. Perhaps even in our own home. There are also actions you can take politically if you’re inclined, but hopefully from a more centered state of being that draws upon greater wisdom and compassion, which meditation helps us to access. 

Sometimes it’s the little things we do or say – the presence we give – that remain with someone for years and water seeds of goodness, kindness, hope, and resilience within them. Every small action that brings more love, light, and consciousness into this world matters. So let’s be here where we are, doing what we can, trusting that it matters and is part of our life purpose…and that our small actions ripple farther than we can see. Please don’t discount them.


© 2023 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Welcoming Imperfection

Welcoming Imperfection

I’m fond of saying that October is my favorite color. Usually it is. But this year? Not so much. This year, the colors have been muted for the most part. And not a lot of sunshine, either. Or visible sunrises. I’m glad I embarked on my yearlong sunrise photography project last year instead of this year!

This morning, looking out the window at the same overcast landscape, it occurred to me that this season’s foliage fits the general theme I’ve experienced this year: things not turning out as planned. Surely, there are plenty of exceptions and wonderful surprises – but the things I most looked forward to this year followed this theme.

Being really sick the only time I’ve visited Arizona

Summer vacation plans that fell through – all of them!

My grandson spending the first days of his life in NICU and not knowing yet how much of an impact it will have on his functioning

Not finishing the book I’m writing – over the winter…or the summer

You get the idea.

The reason I’m noticing this theme is because instead of driving around leaf-peeping, I’ve been going through my journal, daily planner, and photography libraries to review each month and harvest its gifts and lessons. This is something I normally do at the end of each month, but this year it didn’t happen because each month seemed to move at warp speed, and there was a lot going on. 

Playing catch-up like this, one thing I’ve noticed is that when I reflect back several months, I have tremendous compassion for the slightly younger version of myself and what she was going through. When events are still fresh or even in-process, reflecting on them can lack the distance that offers this wider perspective. 

Recently, I presented a Gratefulness Gathering on the topic of “Welcoming Imperfection”. I mentioned that sometimes I’ll fast-forward to the end of this life to get perspective on what really matters – and so much that doesn’t. What would future me want most from present-day me as she looks back on her life, knowing how it all turned out? How would she look at the challenges I currently face and where I put my energy? How do I look at Susan from years past, during the duller, more muted times?

When my husband and I were hiking back up from the bottom of Kaaterskill Falls a few weeks ago, we encountered two men we’d talked with earlier. One was struggling and going at a much slower pace than the other, who was up ahead and at one point called back to his companion, “Regretting your life choices?” We found that line pretty funny and agreed we needed to remember it.

Because it rang true. I certainly have regretted some of my life choices! But something that has become very clear to me this year is that getting down on ourselves for choices we made that we wouldn’t make if we had the chance to do it all over again with the benefit of hindsight – is counterproductive. It drains our energy in this present moment, which is where our true power lies.

Our self-punishment doesn’t serve anyone. What if this, too, is “God’s will” – or “part of the path” (however you want to phrase it)? What if our human journey is like a labyrinth rather than a maze, with no wrong turn, and every step we take brings us closer to the center?

Looking back through my planner and journals helps me to remember what was going on that got in the way – of not finishing the book, for example. Things I might forget – the same way you forget how intense childbirth was (at least the way I chose to do it!).

One of the most empowering ways to reflect on our lives is to acknowledge that the choices we made were affected by so many factors, both within and beyond ourselves. And to have compassion for our younger selves, who were doing their best, given what they knew and what was going on at the time. If we can’t remember what was going on, perhaps we can give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that there were reasons why we didn’t do what, in retrospect, we think we should have done – or we didn’t live up to our potential.

What if we needed all of our experiences to learn and grow and awaken in ways that will make our future self at the end of this life grateful for the journey? 

Can we accept and find something to appreciate or even love about the years when the fall foliage isn’t so vibrant and brilliant – when the colors are muted? And the seasons of our own life when we didn’t shine so brightly? When what we looked forward to just didn’t pan out, for whatever reason (including factors beyond our control)?

Can we find something beautiful or worthwhile in what is/was, exactly as it is/was? Instead of feeling we need to Photoshop reality, so to speak. 

If we can bring compassion to ourselves, we’re more able to give real compassion, kindness, and caring to others. And isn’t that what this world needs right now?


© 2023 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Finding Refuge and Power in Times of Fear

Finding Refuge and Power in Times of Fear

This article offers examples of applying mindfulness of emotions in real-life situations, beginning with a personal situation and expanding to local and world-wide situations. It offers practical tools, practices, and inquiries to help you find your center in times of fear.

Roar

About two weeks ago, I roared at my husband in a way I’d never roared before. We had just gotten off the phone with a life insurance agent. He could tell I was upset, and I told him I’m digesting the new information and feeling really emotional – and need to take a walk and take care of my feelings.

That would have been a good time to put the conversation on pause, but the next word that came out of his mouth elicited the roar. I actually surprised myself. It wasn’t a high-pitched expression of anger or frustration. It was lower-pitched and came from my center. I felt like a mountain – a solid, grounded mountain – rather than as if I were losing my footing (and mind) in tumultuous waves of emotion. It wasn’t time to engage or problem-solve. It was time to get some space, to absorb the new information and relate to my feelings in a way that would allow me to reengage in a more productive way. 

We went to our separate corners for a time-out, and I took that walk and looked deeply into what was going on inside me. I reflected on why I reacted as I did to the phone conversation, through walking meditation and the RAIN practice I mention frequently in my mindfulness meditation classes. I felt grateful for those tools.

Refuge

The previous day, our area made international headlines again for the wrong reason. About ten miles away, a young girl went missing from a state park campground. She could have been anybody’s daughter, granddaughter, sister, or cousin.

People in my area were not okay. This was way too close to home. It didn’t feel safe to walk alone in nature. Parents were tightening the safety reins. There were lots of prayers and people showing up to help and support the family however they could. You could feel the tension in the air. 

I retreated to a nearby park, to walk the labyrinth and tend to my feelings following the failed life insurance conversation. 

There was a brand new harvest goddess overlooking the labyrinth, that a group of volunteers had created over the weekend. I got up close and gazed at her in awe. The local garden club tended beautiful flower gardens all around the labyrinth, to delight both people and pollinators. The garden club worked hard to care for the earth and create a place of beauty. Even the labyrinth itself was a product of great caring, kindness, and generosity. Within sight of the labyrinth was a wonderful fairy garden provocation and some incredible fairy houses to inspire creativity. A little free library. A new reading area in which chairs were fashioned from logs.

The whole park was created through many years of caring, kindness, generosity, and community. As I walked the labyrinth, I took in all of this goodness.

Words from (Mister) Fred Rogers came to mind: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Evidence of helpers was all around me. The labyrinth was a place of refuge.

Being grounded in gratitude resourced me and put more space around the feelings. It allowed me to take a closer look at what was bothering me, without becoming identified with the feelings. I knew they were visitors that would come and go. 

RAIN begins with Recognizing what emotional visitor is present. Although the roar might have sounded angry, it wasn’t Anger that was present. It was Fear. So I walked with fear, Allowing it to be there. Then I Investigated its nature. I became curious about what Fear wanted me to know and asked questions, such as: Is what I’m believing really true? Am I sure? Are there any other possibilities? (How often do we confuse partial truths with the whole truth, and create a lot of problems for ourselves and others?) Then I gave the hurting part the Nurturing it needed: kind words, reassurance, and loving touch (hand on the heart).

I went back home feeling a lot better, able to re-engage with my husband.

Relief

Fortunately, the missing girl was found alive the following evening, and we breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief.

That evening, I talked with a close friend living out-of-state and told her about how the life insurance conversation went south. After we were done talking about that, she asked about the missing girl and what it’s been like around here.

That’s when I realized the common thread of the two incidents was fear. If the life insurance conversation had taken place at another time, I probably wouldn’t have felt so emotional. But I was already on-edge from the local event, which compounded any other fears that arose and awakened what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body, that feeds on conflict and emotionality.

Fear can be a highly contagious virus that gets in the way of clear-seeing and blocks us from our natural wisdom, intuition, and guidance. I did not want it to be in the driver’s seat.

Release

The next day, I felt drawn to return to a place I’d explored recently for the first time: the Adirondack Labyrinth. The labyrinth itself was awe-inspiring, and the energy there was very high-vibe. After walking the labyrinth the first time, I took a deep dive into the website and learned about how it came to be – and was truly inspired and even more in awe.

This time, my husband came with me. It was a perfect autumn day, and the late afternoon sun was low in the sky, illuminating the colorful, autumn foliage surrounding the labyrinth. We had the labyrinth to ourselves. I didn’t know if my husband would be interested in walking it, but I wanted to make it a meditation. Before walking, I sent my intention and a prayer for guidance and insight into the center.

It took a few minutes to clear my mind of thoughts such as wondering if anyone else would show up while I was walking the labyrinth and noticing how hot it was. When I noticed I was caught in a thought or story, I returned to each footstep with a simple mantra: Here.

Becoming more present, I felt guided to give my fears to Mother Earth with every footstep that touches the ground. I’ve been walking labyrinths for decades and can’t recall ever walking in this way. I’ve done plenty of “kissing the ground” with each footstep but not releasing fear deep down into the earth. Fear and lack.

It worked really well. My mind became clear and open, and I began to hear whispers from deep within:

Fear is a diminishing energy.

Don’t make decisions guided by fear.

Don’t take a single footstep forward in fear.

I realized that the actions I had been telling myself I needed to take after the life insurance conversation were completely fear-based. There is another way – a path that opens when I trust my deeper knowing and follow my inner guidance. Fear blocks that channel of wisdom and inspiration.

On the way back out of the labyrinth, I felt light and joyful. Feeling eager to move forward, I walked faster, even skipped and twirled. I felt like dancing! I knew what is not my path – whatever fear wanted me to. I also knew what felt like a full-bodied YES – do this instead.

The fruits of my meditation practice became clear: If I meditate every day, this awareness is possible every day. I could find my bearings in joy and trust my inner nature, and build immunity to the fear virus.

Release fear to Mother Earth – or sense it evaporating into the vast sky. Put it on a leaf, and give it to the river. There are many ways to release what doesn’t serve and make space for what seeks to be expressed through me.

I adopted some new mantras:

I choose actions aligned with my future, not my past.

I release and compost what doesn’t help me to evolve.

When we release fear and a sense of lack or not-enoughness (or whatever comes up for you), every footstep can bring us back home to HERE – which is true freedom. That is my intention: To be HERE and NOW, where the light of inspiration and insight can reach me without clouds of fear blocking it. HERE and NOW – or in other words, presence – is where our true power lies.

HERE is spacious and open and not complicated by past accomplishments and failures, or worries about the future. It is where there is freedom from the patterns, where we can be inspired anew. Every footstep and every breath is a portal back to the here-and-now when the mind has wandered off. Sometimes we need to focus our energies on certain tasks, projects, or whatever is going on. But we can bring the sense of presence into even that, and thereby enrich it, expand the possibilities, and not get too identified with what is not aligned with our true nature (which isn’t fear). We can shake off the dust of conditioning and fear and ego, and find freedom and freshness. 

Empower

Not long after the local news story resolved, a much more large-scale story of conflict and violence erupted in the Middle East. I get my news mostly from printed sources rather than television or video, and even just reading about the human suffering on both sides felt like too much. 

The other day, I took a walk with my nearly four-month-old grandson in the stroller. After he fell asleep, I began thinking of the suffering of parents, grandparents, babies, and children in the Middle East. Looking at my sleeping grandson’s peaceful face, their suffering again was too much to bear. They were just like me, just like him, just like us.

What to do about it? Feeling powerless to help ease suffering in the world only deepens our own suffering. What can we do instead of getting stuck in powerlessness, heartache, and fear?

On one end of the continuum, we can resist, deny, blame, and numb ourselves to “what is”. On the other end, we can indulge, sustain, and get hooked in the trance of intense feelings. But there is a middle way, of caring for and learning from our visiting emotions. As the late Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh taught, our suffering can be a mindfulness bell. We can look deeply into the nature and causes of our suffering, and find the path to freedom. Then whatever actions we take will be motivated by something much wiser and more clear-sighted than fear.

While pushing my sleeping grandson in his stroller, I created an action plan for resourcing in times of fear:

  • Take refuge in gratitude (for example, how fortunate I am to be with my grandson walking in this peaceful, safe neighborhood where everyone smiles and says hi).
  • Send lovingkindness to those who are suffering.
  • Breathe in gratitude, breathe out lovingkindness.
  • Do what we can to bring more kindness into the world. Do or say something that offers evidence to others that, despite whatever else is going on, there is a lot of goodness in the world. So many people who care and want to help.
  • Seek goodness, to counteract the brain’s negativity bias. Find examples of people doing the right thing. Pause to really take in the goodness – of other people, the natural world, or wherever you find it.
  • Meditate daily. Make time for stillness, to more clearly access our natural wisdom and compassion that gets blocked by our busy lives and too much thinking. Even a few mindful breaths counts!
  • Do what nourishes and brings us back to our center (for example, make a meal, take a walk, get a good night’s sleep, have a cup of tea, look at the sky). Give yourself permission to do what nourishes and resources you, even when others in the world are suffering. Failing to resource ourselves doesn’t ease their suffering – it only drains us, leaving us less able to show up as our best self for whatever life serves up.
  • Acknowledge that this is a world of contrast. What can we learn from the contrast and conflict in our world? What is life calling forth from us?

We might not be able to stop the violence, division, and hatred in the world. But there is much we can do to usher more kindness and compassion into the world. We must not allow our kindness, compassion, and caring to be closed down by fear or anger or whatever other intense emotional reaction is activated. We need all hands on deck at this time, being the best we can be. The world needs our goodness, is calling for it.

In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner states that the research shows the number one place where we experience awe is in “moral beauty”. Witnessing people helping others or expressing kindness, courage, generosity, and strength inclines us to do more of the same. We can set in motion a ripple of moral beauty even by doing small things.

For instance, when I was filling up my water jugs at the spring the same day I was with my grandson, one of the other people there asked a young man if he had a spigot. He said yes and then added in a dejected tone, “…barely.” I pointed to the slow spigot and asked if it was his. It was. Then I offered to switch spigots with him. He had two very large containers, and I only had a few smaller ones left to fill. His eyes lit up, and he smiled and thanked me. When I was about to fill up my last jar, he offered to let me use the faster spigot. It seemed like he wanted to do something to repay the kindness. His energy seemed different, lighter. I imagined that maybe he was saddened by current events, and even a small act of kindness could restore his faith in humanity and the existence of goodness in the world.

More than anything else, I want to be part of a wave of positive energy.

We might not be able to resolve conflicts in the world – or even in our own community or family. But we can begin within and notice how we contribute to disharmony and conflict in the world by being easily irritated or quick to anger, etc. We can make a practice of noticing and questioning the stories behind unhelpful habits, thoughts, feelings, and reactions when they arise. Looking deeply, we can set ourselves free!

Mindfulness isn’t something we just practice when we sit in meditation. We can bring it off the meditation cushion and into our lives, to wherever suffering is present and to whatever gets in the way of us being present. In this sense, the obstacles become the path! They are bells of mindfulness.

How can I express kindness, generosity, caring, love?

How can I be helpful?

These are important questions because that’s what this world needs right now – more mindful people and awake hearts. There is always something you can do. Be open to opportunities as if you’re on a treasure hunt.

Do what you can, and trust that it matters. And maybe take a moment to imagine how many unknown others around the world are doing the same and also wanting to be part of a wave of goodness. Think of when “the wave” is set in motion in a sports stadium. It’s time to do the wave and to be the wave. And keep it going.


© 2023 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Lewis Pugh’s Historic Hudson River Swim

Lewis Pugh’s Historic Hudson River Swim

The river sings many songs to those who are willing to listen. Sometimes it’s a song of impermanence. Sometimes surprise or awe. Or history. Or interconnection. Sometimes it’s uncertainty – for you never know what will come down the river from moment to moment.

I remember one summer day in 2018 when I was kayaking and saw something puzzling up ahead in the distance, heading downriver towards me. I couldn’t make out what it was. It looked different than any boat I’d ever seen and only grew more curious as it came closer. After paddling by what turned out to be a rustic houseboat, I learned it was a loose replica of a shantyboat built by U.C. Santa Cruz art lecturer, Wes Modes’ crew out of mostly recycled and repurposed materials. The boat was traveling down the Hudson River as part of his project, A Secret History of American River People. Modes and crew were collecting stories from the people living in communities along the river. It was a story boat – and the most memorable human-made creation I’d ever seen come down the river.

That day, the river sang a song of wonder, along with the value of being prepared – for I encountered the story boat without a camera.

The river is my greatest teacher and muse. After 15 years of living on the riverside, I have come to realize that I am passionately in love with the Hudson River. When you fall in love with a river, you realize that everything is connected to it. And you want to protect it.

Usually, what comes down the river is a surprise—including wildlife, such as the occasional swan or loon sighting. Sometimes, though, you have advance notice. Within the past month, a fleet of what seemed like hundreds of kayaks came by. When I saw the first kayakers approaching, it dawned on me that there was a Paddling the Canal event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Champlain Canal. Somehow, it had slipped my mind! I grabbed my camera and positioned myself on the bank. It was like watching a colorful river parade. I took lots of pictures and even made a video. The positive vibes were contagious.

Even more recently, I learned that ocean advocate and British-South African endurance swimmer extraordinaire, Lewis Pugh, would be swimming the entire 315-mile length of the Hudson River from mid-August to mid-September. He plans to arrive in New York City in time for the United Nations General Assembly Week and Climate Week NYC 2023 and the U.N. Secretary General’s Climate Ambition Summit.

Pugh has done some incredible endurance swims to draw attention to fragile ecosystems – including across the North Pole (only possible due to the melting of the Arctic Sea ice) and across a glacial lake on Mount Everest – the highest swim in the world. He was the first person to swim the length of the British Channel, as well as the first person to do long-distance swimming in all five oceans. Notably, after his swim through the polluted River Thames, his teeth were loose in his gums! He is the United Nations Patron of the Oceans and was chosen as the 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. His endurance swimming accomplishments, which began at age 17 (he’s 53 now), are utterly mind-boggling – and the pictures of them jaw-dropping. 

Upon completing his Hudson River Swim, he won’t be the first person to have swam the entire length – Christopher Swain did so in 2004. However, he will be the first to swim unassisted, without a wetsuit and fins. Pugh is making his way down the river in just a Speedo, cap, and goggles.

The Lewis Pugh Hudson River swim through our area was something I didn’t want to miss. He was swimming to highlight the interdependence of river and ocean health and to promote restoring, protecting, and respecting our rivers. Earlier this month, I completed my yearlong river sunrise photography project and felt a sense of kinship with anyone else undertaking a river project. 

Pugh swam through our area yesterday. I went kayaking when he was expected to swim through our quiet stretch of river, in hopes of seeing him on the water. However, after two hours, I hadn’t seen a single sign and became enraptured with a great white egret. Did I miss him, or was he running behind schedule? I paddled back home and couldn’t have been inside the house for more than ten minutes before I saw a bright green, double kayak alongside a swimmer coming down the middle of the river. It was him!

I bolted to the riverside with camera in tow and cheered him on. He was swimming on the other side of the kayak, so I couldn’t get pictures from my spot on the bank. I jumped in my kayak, to get a better view – feeling like kayaking paparazzi. 

After a few minutes, I returned home and drove to the park down the road, where he was headed.

A small group of supporters gathered on the dock just before the lock, where we were told he would come out of the water (since he can’t swim through the locks) for a lunchtime meet-and-greet. After a few minutes, the green kayak was spotted in the distance, to everyone’s excitement. Before climbing out of the water, someone asked him how the water felt. He smiled and exclaimed, “Nice and warm!” 

Pugh made his way to the pavilion, where he started eating lunch, and I sat down and talked with him. I was carrying a camera with a large lens, and he asked if I was from the press. I replied, “No – I’m from the river!” Surprisingly, there weren’t any reporters present, despite a number of them been contacted. I introduced myself by telling him I had just completed a river project that was the opposite of what he is doing – since I stayed in one spot for a whole year photographing river sunrises, and he is navigating the entire length of the river. As someone passionately in love with the river, I expressed deep gratitude for his efforts to advocate for rivers and oceans.

He wondered why the beautiful park was so quiet and remarked that if it were in England, there would be lots of people enjoying it. 

One of the team members kayaking alongside him asked me if I had seen the bald eagle near the dam when I was in my kayak. I hadn’t because I was focused on them – but I photographed them seeing the eagle. (See slideshow, below.)

A few other locals gathered in the pavilion, along with members of Pugh’s small crew, and the conversation was fascinating. We ended up talking for about an hour. There was quite a bit of conversation around Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the Falkland Islands, and Pugh’s 2017 swim in South Georgia and how hard it is to get to that remote location.

He listened to a few members of the park’s board of directors and others talk about local history – many tidbits I didn’t know about (or perhaps had forgotten), including why the park was named Hudson Crossing and a nearby house that still has several cannonballs lodged in the walls from the Revolutionary War. Later in the conversation, the owner of that house joined us and confirmed the stories. There were stories of wars and field hospitals, ghosts, General Burgoyne setting the whole area on fire in his retreat, and the German Baroness, Frederika Charlotte Riedesel. We also talked about the PCB dredging and river wildlife that has returned, including bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, and egrets.

Here we were: a small group of Americans talking about the Revolutionary War in a spot where it actually took place, with a British swimmer passing through to promote health of the oceans and rivers that connect us and support all life. In this brief meeting, stories of local history intersected with a much larger story.

I experienced Pugh as softly well-spoken with a calm, centered presence and characteristically British sense of humor.

He mentioned that he encountered a snapping turtle during the day’s swim and said he’d rather go head-on with a great white shark than a snapping turtle any day.

He talked about growing up in a military hospital and as a five-year-old accompanying his father, a military surgeon, on rounds. He said what made the biggest impression on him were the amputees from both the First and Second World Wars.

Interestingly, part of his medical protocol for long swim sessions is to take Pepto-Bismol both pre- and post-swim.

Gifts of local maple syrup, pickles, and cookies were proudly and enthusiastically offered to Pugh and his team. 

Participating in the conversation, I couldn’t help but marvel at the thought of all the stories he hears as he stops in communities along the river – similar to the story boat from five years ago. Honestly, it was one of the best days I’ve ever experienced in Schuylerville! The interaction prompted me to reflect on how little I’ve explored the river I’m so in love with and made me want to accompany Pugh and team down the river, to hear more river stories.

I attempted to do that today, but my timing was off. I arrived about two minutes too late to see him get out of the water at a park in Stillwater, and returned about two minutes too late to see him start swimming again after taking a mid-day nap in between two five-mile stretches. But while he was resting in the van, I enjoyed more conversation with a couple of local Riverkeepers.

I’d like to show up to support Pugh as he makes his way down the river toward Albany this week, if my teaching schedule and weather permit. I love the thrill of a photography challenge and the welcoming energy of his crew. But if the only photos I end up getting are the ones I took yesterday, I’ll still be satisfied. I can’t imagine any other image having more personal meaning than the one featured, above.

In that image, he’s swimming past the processing site from the PCBs Superfund dredging project, which is in the background. Ten years ago, this spot was the epicenter of the project, bustling with huge barges traveling back and forth, hauling PCB-contaminated soil expunged from the riverbed, to the processing facility. (See images contrasting then and now in slideshow below.) Pugh is swimming for healthy rivers, and photographing him in this spot speaks powerfully to me.

To express what I saw in my mind, I made a composite image (also in slideshow below) of a photo of him swimming through this spot and a photo of the dredging operations in the same spot ten years prior.

The actual photo of him swimming through this spot was a case in which I was at the same time behind (where I feel most comfortable) and in front of the camera. There’s a picture on the Lewis Pugh Foundation Hudson Swim website from yesterday’s adventure (Day 13 – August 25) that shows those gathered to greet him in Schuylerville, including yours truly.

Pugh’s swim through our area has been tremendously inspiring. Whether or not I continue to follow him down the river this week, he has ignited in me a longing to explore more of the river that is so dear to my heart. I’m truly grateful to have met this extraordinary human being. If I have a chance to talk with him again, I’d like to ask him what his mind is like when he’s swimming. As a longtime meditation practitioner and teacher, it’s what I’ve been wondering about most since meeting with him yesterday – and would be a very different conversation.

I imagine it would be equally fascinating to hear stories from the different river communities and the different kinds of questions he’s asked – and answers given – as he makes his way from the Adirondack high peaks to New York City. And his insights and impressions of different parts of the river.

In addition to Pugh’s website and his foundation’s website, there is a New York Times article about his Hudson River Swim, and his Facebook feed is updated frequently with informative, awareness-raising posts and videos. There are also numerous posts on my old blog about the PCB dredging as it was taking place.

So many different kinds of articles could be written about Pugh’s Hudson River swim, from disparate perspectives. This is just my small contribution to a much larger conversation that I intend to be more involved in. It feels like meeting Pugh and following his journey already has watered many seeds in me and will have a profound and lasting effect. I can’t help but wonder how the hearts and minds of others up and down the river are being pollinated as he proceeds along the mighty Hudson toward his destination.


© 2023 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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