Author: susantara

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
-John Lennon, “Imagine”

I recently spent three days at Omega Institute for the sixth annual Mindfulness and Education Conference: Bringing Mindfulness to Children Grades K-12. I had wanted to attend the conference for the past few years but this year received a full scholarship that finally made it possible. My guess is that about 300 people attended the conference, and it was powerful to gather with that many like-minded educators who value holistic education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. Actually, I’ve never experienced anything like it! I have a few friends online who teach in schools committed to a holistic approach to education, and the college from which I received my master’s degree offers a holistic, student-centered educational experience and a faculty that attracts a diverse and alternative-minded student body. One faculty member literally “wrote the book” (several, actually) on holistic, progressive, and alternative education. It’s been eight years since I completed the program, and it was my last experience of being in community with so many like-minded educators until going to Omega this summer. For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water in the current educational environment and have questioned how much longer I can continue in the profession. I attended the conference hoping to connect with kindred spirits and to be inspired.

Buddha outside Ram Dass Library, Omega Institute

A passion for social-emotional learning brought me to the teaching profession in the first place. After trying to implement the MindUP curriculum in my classroom for the past three years with limited success, I was in need of practical suggestions. Is it possible to implement such a curriculum successfully without support, given the present realities of public education? How do you fit it into an already packed school day?

Keynote speakers included Jack Kornfield, Amishi Jha, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Social-emotional learning expert, Linda Lantieri, also was scheduled to present but was unable to attend due to health issues. I took so many notes at the conference, and there is so much I want to share! I am organizing this post around the ideas that stood out the most for me, indicated in bold. Clicking on the numerous hyperlinks included throughout the text will provide you with a wealth of information about mindfulness in education if you are are interested in learning more about it. I’m also including a list of book recommendations at the end.

The major understandings and inspirations I took away from the conference are as follows:

Mindfulness must be wed with compassion.

It’s not mindfulness unless it’s also heartfulness! Teach children to discover their worth, to value one another, to befriend themselves. Honor them by holding a beam of love and understanding. Teach them not only how to calm their minds and focus their attention but also how to be wise and loving beings.

Mindfulness and compassion training should not be something you’re forced to do but an invitation to well-being. It is a process of paying kind attention. The teaching of mindfulness and compassion is not religious; it promotes the development of universal human values, or what H. H. the Dalai Lama refers to as secular ethics. It is about teaching children and teachers to train their mind, regulate their emotions, and be more loving and compassionate.

Establish the classroom as a place of mindfulness, for tending and befriending ourselves. Consider beginning mindfulness exercises with a bell or a poem. Depending on the needs and energy of the group, there are times when sitting, walking, or heart practices are best.

Trace thoughts and feelings to the body.

Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings must be traced to the body – to where you feel them. One way to practice this with children is to put your hand in the air (where the thoughts are), and trace thoughts down the arm to the part of the body they’re attached to. The first step is to notice the thoughts and track down to the sensations in the body. The next step is to bring self-care to the body. Our body needs so much love and compassion when our head is spinning!

I realized that I tend to live in my head. Since the conference, I have reminded myself to drop down into my body, and it is a powerful practice! I did this once in a doctor’s office when I was in the midst of my “white coat” anxiety habit (in which my body seems to have a mind of its own), and the results were quite profound. Another time, I was awakened during the night by a thunderstorm, and immediately my mind started spinning. It was right after the conference, and my mind was trying to make sense of why I experienced such an emotional response to the conference. (More about that later.) Within a few minutes, my mind had created a tidy theory and was quite pleased to have wrapped it up so nicely. But there still was tension in my body. Then I remembered to sink into my body and practice mindfulness – to feel the sensations and hold them in kindness and compassion. A storm had come along, and I got caught up in a whirlwind of thought for a while, until I remembered and practiced – and quieted my mind. A couple hours later, I was awakened by another clap of thunder, and my immediate response was to practice. It was as if the thunderclap was a meditation bell! I sank down into my body and felt the sensations, thus strengthening that response. And that is what it is all about. Making an analogy between meditation and exercise, one of the speakers at the conference said that each time you bring your mind back is the equivalent of one rep. I love that.

I’ve also found that sometimes it helps to physically touch the place in which I experience the sensation in my body – for example, putting a hand on the solar plexus (where I often feel a stab when I remember my mom has died) or the heart. When I am falling asleep, I sometimes like to rest one hand on the pelvic valley and the other hand on the solar plexus and become aware of the wave of breath between those two areas. It is like ocean waves and is so calming. Likewise, you can teach children to focus on their breath by inviting them to put one hand on their heart and the other on their belly.

Create a safe place.

Establish safety first! Do whatever you can to help a child feel emotionally safe and relaxed and present in their bodies. We must get kids into a place where their parasympathetic nervous system is in control so they can grow and learn. Help them to understand that they are not alone in their suffering – that we are all in the same boat! Help them to see that other children have divorced parents, have felt bullied, have fears, etc. Let them see each others’ beauty and troubles. Teach them of their own goodness and vulnerability. Teach them mindfulness and heartfulness when they’re calm. Young children need to learn what it means to “pay attention.”

Include movement first.

Younger children have so much energy that you need to allow them to release a little through physical movements before asking them to sit and breathe. Include a movement activity before attempting seated mindfulness practice. When kids are antsy throughout the day, do yoga poses.

I find this is also true for myself. It’s always easier for me to do seated practice following yoga or another form of physical exercise.

Begin with yourself.

For years, I have struggled with how to teach focused awareness to a whole group of children – some of whom struggle with attention control or can’t sit still – without any assistance in the classroom. When I try to lead a core practice in mindful awareness, inevitably one or two students will effectively sabotage the whole experience by acting out, seeking attention, etc. For example, in the MindUp curriculum, there is a daily core practice of focused listening (to the sound of a resonant bell) and deep, belly breathing. Each year, I have grown weary of trying to manage behavior throughout mindfulness practice – and abandoned it altogether because the behavior management became so exhausting. But I always was pleasantly surprised when some children later begged to listen to the bell ring because “We haven’t done it in a long time.” They must like how it feels to do the practice, and I don’t want to allow the behavior of a small minority to ruin the experience for the whole!

One of the biggest realizations I brought home from the conference is that if you can’t control anything else in your school environment, the most basic step you can take is to maintain a daily mindfulness practice. Even if I’m teaching in an environment that doesn’t actively embrace the benefits of mindfulness, I can do it in my room, in whatever capacity I can manage. Some years I might be able to do more than others. The first step is for me to practice mindfulness every day. Before school and even during the school day when the kids are out of the room, I can turn off the lights, lock the door, and do it! Do it on my own, deliberately. Make it an individual practice until the cavalry comes. Or if the opportunity arises, link up informally with others who are doing it.

Chris Cullen, cofounder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, offered these priorities to keep in mind:

  1. Be mindful.
  2. Teach mindfully.
  3. Teach mindfulness.

Rather than throw my hands up in frustration because I’m not able to teach mindfulness the way I’d like to, focus on being mindful. That is a great start! And if that’s all I can manage, then that is enough! It is a worthy accomplishment to succeed at that first step. If you’re doing it, you’re doing a good job! Success is not opening the refrigerator or turning on the cell phone!

The missing piece: Caring for teachers

Teachers cannot solve the whole problem of fixing what is wrong with public education. Because we are the ones on the front line, we need to cultivate self-compassion – so we can stay in the job! Someone at the conference said they realized they had to make a choice between changing their mind or leaving their job.

Our schools aren’t failing. Our kids aren’t failing. Our schools are failing our teachers. The missing piece is taking care of our teachers. When you’re doing your best in an impossible situation with an impossible workload and your professionalism is questioned when you act with deep integrity on behalf of children, and your core values are not reflected anywhere in the curriculum, and you don’t feel supported or valued, how can you create a safe space for children? Our schools are filled with burned out, stressed out teachers who are expected to do more with less each year. Children absorb the teacher’s energy and ultimately are the ones losing out despite the teacher’s most sincere and heartfelt efforts. The teacher’s state of consciousness is the unwritten curriculum.

If our schools fail to care adequately for teachers, it is essential that teachers practice self-care. It is so much more satisfying and empowering than being a victim and squandering precious time and energy by complaining and feeling bad. That is precisely how I became serious about nature photography. I challenged myself to connect with beauty every single day. It was a way for me to unwind and re-attune after an exhausting day at work and often occurred during a walk (for physical exercise is also essential to mental health). Now I’ve added some quiet time for seated meditation, for I find that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my day. It clears my mind, weeds the garden of my senses, and is time well spent. It’s so easy to get caught up in the endless stream of work during the school year, but it is essential to learn how to put work aside and take time to care for ourselves and enjoy our families. It sounds so basic, but with the extra demands put on teachers now, the need for self-care becomes more urgent than ever.

Keynote and Breakout Presentations

Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga (The School Yoga Project) encouraged us to be our students’ superhero and to have a plan for when we’re not feeling like a superhero – a song, breath work, etc. Everything is harder when you’re exhausted, so give everyone time to relax during the school day. She asserted that children make their own experiences and meaning when you slow down and leave lots of space. There’s no need to process everything! Allow some experiences to simply be. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, stay connected to your kids! That is the most important thing.

Her program is based on five elements:

  1. Connect – with the world around us, to other people, and to our own inner experience
  2. Breathe – nose to belly breathing
  3. Move – joyful experience
  4. Focus – teach how to pay attention, mindfulness activities
  5. Relax – guided visualization or storytelling but also quiet time.

She emphasized that the relaxation element is crucial and makes everything else you do during the day more potent.

Cofounders of the Holistic Life Foundation (Mindful Moment Program), Andy Gonzalez, Atman Smith, and Ali Smith, described how they use guided visualization, yoga asanas, breathing, movement, chair-based exercises, games, and student leaders in their work with schools. They underscored the mentoring component (in which older kids help younger kids) and the use of students leading their peers through mindfulness exercises. In order to become a leader, a child must model good behavior. An added benefit is that kids go home and naturally teach their parents (and probably their dolls and stuffed animals, too)!

Daniel Rechtschaffen, who facilitated the whole conference, led us through a “popcorn thoughts” activity from his book, The Way of Mindful Education. It is a great exercise for elementary school-aged children. Explain that your mind makes thoughts like a popcorn maker makes popcorn. Instruct children to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Whenever a thought comes into their mind, they raise their hand (like a popcorn kernel popping) and let it fall as the thought falls away.

Amishi Jha‘s presentations were energetic and engaging and truly wonderful, but I don’t want to get into the neuroscience of attention here and encourage you to visit her website and/or the website of Dan Siegel (who wasn’t at the conference but is a major researcher).

The most poignant part of the conference for me was a guided visualization led by Jack Kornfield. Up until this time, I was interested but not emotionally vested in the conference. After a very tough school year, I was at the end of my rope, unsure about returning to my job in the fall. I’d even revised my resume and applied for a non-teaching position right before leaving for the conference. But I was open to inspiration and miracles. Jack Kornfield invited us to see ourselves in the toughest situation we’ve experienced at work. In the middle of it, there is a knock on the door, and a luminous figure (for me it was H. H. the Dalai Lama) enters my body and takes over managing the situation while I witness it as an invisible presence. A while later, he goes back to the door and on his way out gives me a gift and whispers some words. To my great surprise, somewhere in the middle of the visualization I realized that, lurking below my residual feelings about my most awful experience, there is still a pulse in my teacher body. I was very surprised to discover this! We took a short break, during which I retreated to my room to release some tears. When we returned, I looked into Jack Kornfield’s eyes and told him that I’m a teacher who was this close to not going back for another year but realized during the visualization that there is still a heartbeat. He held his hands to his heart, expressed gratitude, and held my hands in his. From this point forward, I was fully engaged!

On the final day of the conference, there was a panel discussion of administrators and teachers who have put mindfulness into practice in their own schools. Here are some examples of what some schools – both independent and public – are doing to promote a deep culture of mindfulness and compassion:

  • Whole school participates in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course
  • Create a breathe room – a quiet, inviting space you can drop into anytime during the day
  • Mindfulness as a special class, like music, art, and P.E. (Oh, how I love this idea! I want that job!)
  • Every teacher receives chimes and a copy of Linda Lantieri’s book on cultivating inner resilience
  • Begin faculty meetings with a couple minutes of mindful breathing, or lead them in a moment of mindfulness.
  • Faculty gratitude circles: Reflect on what you are grateful for that happened in the last week, and send out intentions for next week
  • Yoga class for teachers
  • Offer stress reduction workshops for families.

I love the idea of a breathe room! But paring it down to something simpler, you could establish a breathing space in a classroom. I have a single-person “Quiet Tent” in a quiet corner of my classroom right next to my desk (which is my private, quiet space). I’ve always allowed children who need some quiet space to retreat to the Quiet Tent when they need to. However, it also could be a place for mindful breathing once I teach them how to do it.

Someone else spoke of bringing children into nature as an important part of mindfulness. Read them some stories or poems (perhaps Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry) to open their eyes. Then invite them to write or draw. As a photographer, I might show them an image I captured and ask them to consider why I took the picture. What drew me to that image? Where is the beauty? How did it speak to me?

Pond outside the Sanctuary at Omega Institute

There was a teacher from Manhattan’s independent Blue School on the panel. I had learned of Blue School from a panel discussion during the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit that included two founding members of the Blue Man Group. The school looks like this dreamer’s dream come true! The Blue School teacher described a joyful, holistic environment that includes singing bowls, singing lullabies, yoga poses, art, breathing, and children leading breathing. She spoke of so much goodness that I couldn’t write it all down! The school also has a mindfulness blog, and parents drop in for mindfulness on Friday afternoons. Wow.

The general consensus was that mindfulness programs did not encounter anticipated resistance but spread with joy – though it’s best to take the time to grow them slowly. One panelist suggested starting in kindergarten by training kindergarten teachers and then filtering it up. They also emphasized the idea of teachers practicing together. Even if there aren’t any school-wide mindfulness or yoga classes for faculty and staff, a small group of colleagues could meet and practice mindful breathing for ten minutes before school, to set the tone for the day. It’s much like having a workout partner. You are less likely to skip your exercise if there is someone else to whom you are accountable. Similarly, if your school does not have a room devoted to mindfulness, you can cultivate an environment or create a space in your own room. If all else fails, simply maintaining your own mindfulness practice makes a big difference!

If you do encounter resistance in implementing a mindfulness program, there is a lot of neuroscience data to back it up. Dan Siegel’s book, Brainstorm, is a good resource. You also can emphasize that you’re not stealing time from the rest of the school day curriculum but are replacing pieces that don’t work with what does work, and you are educating children to take care of themselves. Furthermore, you can ask families to notice that their children are coming home more relaxed.

Closing

At the end of the conference, we were guided to reflect on the ways in which we were inspired and what we need as we go back into the world and return to our classrooms. My greatest inspiration was discovering that there is a heart inside me still beating to teach in ways that allow me to:

  • Reflect to others their own inner beauty and help them to love themselves
  • Open the hearts and minds of others to the beauty and interconnectedness of nature
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the light that shines through nature and people – the essence that shines through the forms and connects us all.

My needs are to practice myself and to feel valued in my work environment. I could begin by sharing with anyone who might be interested what I have learned from the conference and through my own experience. Perhaps I am mistaken in assuming nobody would be interested. You never know until you try! (Postscript: Two days after publishing this article, I received a bulk email from a teacher at my school who wants to offer a yoga class once or twice a week so colleagues can practice together!)

As I prepare to return to my classroom in a few weeks, I will bring with me an excerpt from a poem entitled “School Prayer” by Diane Ackerman, which Jack Kornfield quoted. I intend to post it in a prominent spot and read it daily:

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

Book Recommendations

The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tchaikovsky Catharsis

Tchaikovsky Catharsis

I had no idea that Tchaikovsky could take me to the places I went to tonight under the stars at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) with the Philadelphia Orchestra! The venue is a beautiful, open-air amphitheater that also happens to be where my mother spent a 34-year career. It wasn’t the first time I went there since she died two and a half months ago. However, it was, by far, the most emotionally powerful!

Photo

My daughter, husband, and his brother’s family of three visiting from Colorado sat on the sloped lawn with me. I was in a reverent mood and expected a level of decorum around me that honored my mom’s spirit and life work. How wonderful it was to be there as the sun set behind the amphitheater, following a sun shower that painted a rainbow across the sky (pictured, below, over the building in which my mom worked).

rainbow

It was the first time I was at SPAC with my daughter since my mom died, and it felt so right to be there with her. She understood completely where my head and heart were at, for hers were in the same place. It also was a special night because my sister was with our dad, sitting in my parents’ seats inside the amphitheater. (It also was my sister’s first time at SPAC since our mom died, and the rainbow pictured above greeted her.)

The first half of the program included Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, featuring Montenegrin guitarist, Milos Karadaglic. During the piece, the sky was dark, and crickets chirped in the distance. It occurred to me that my mom would have loved the performance because she was so passionate about guitar. It also occurred to me that, although my mom’s spirit is always in the air at SPAC, if any evening could pull her away from the formless realm back to SPAC, it would be tonight – for my dad, my sister (who isn’t “into” orchestra), my daughter, and I all were there. That was a first! The only one missing was our middle sibling who lives out of the area. During a guitar solo, my daughter and I started sniffling at the same time, for we both realized the significance of us all being there on this particular evening.

During intermission, my daughter and I went down to the amphitheater to find my dad and sister and talked with them and a couple of my mom’s friends until intermission was over. We stood in the same spot in which I dreamed of my mother smiling and walking by as I spoke with a few people during the first dream I had of her following her death. It just so happened that’s where we ran into one another.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74, Pathetique – the composer’s final, completed symphony. It was composed in 1893, the year he died, and premiered nine days before his death in October.  I was getting a little tired but appreciated my surroundings with all my senses. I imagined my mom sitting inside with my dad in their special seats, dressed impeccably. As the symphony played, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to conjure images in my mind – of a ballroom filled with women in gowns and men in suits, dancing, in pursuit of love. I was so glad to be at SPAC and reflected on why I had rejected so many of my mother’s invitations to attend classical performances in recent years. The first time I attended a performance this summer with one of her former coworkers, I ran into my dad, who couldn’t believe I was there because I “hate ballet.” Well, that was never the case, but apparently it was the impression I gave. I think expressing disinterest toward the ballet and orchestra was just another way to push back against my mom and cultivate a separate identity. Sometimes, when something means so much to a person, it becomes more about the relationship than whether or not you actually enjoy the event to which you’ve been invited.

Now that she’s gone, that boundary no longer exists. I can go to the orchestra and enjoy it! I wished my mom could know that.

I continued to savor listening to live orchestra in a setting infused with my mom’s spirit. During the unconventional Adagio lamentoso finale, I opened my eyes and let images of the SPAC grounds at night and all the summers I spent there flood my heart and mind. And then I became aware of another presence. My own spirit was there, too: The little girl given the special honor of accompanying her parents to the ballet or orchestra rather than staying home with the babysitter. The young pianist who dreamed of someday being a soloist with the orchestra. The elementary school student with the biggest crush on her music teachers – one of whom worked at SPAC during the summer. (How thrilling it was to see her and other teacher friends who were ushers and gate attendants!) The adolescent who anticipated the thrill of meeting the performers backstage after the show. Back then, SPAC was my summer universe, and there were so many people there who were so familiar and influential in my life – people brought together by a mutual appreciation of the arts.

It was like a SPAC-based life review that also included a memory of bringing my young children to an orchestra performance that ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with cannons). When the walkway lights were turned up at the beginning of intermission, my son (who was about five years old at the time), stood up and started walking up the walkway, exclaiming with delight, “I loved it!” – an unforgettable response to his first orchestra experience.

All of a sudden, I was with all of the old, familiar faces again, along with my mom and the ghost of my many, younger selves. I felt deeply grateful for all the time I spent at SPAC growing up. The symphony’s slow, mournful finale brought out all these memories and feelings as if by some kind of musical magic. I began weeping silently but uncontrollably. I’ve never cried like that in a public place, but I suppose it was bound to happen sometime at SPAC, and why not below the trees and stars, with crickets accompanying Tchaikovsky and so many people who loved my mom in the audience? It was a safe place to cry – spacious and fortunately quite dark! But the tears were not of sadness. Not at all! They were of the most profound gratitude. I sent out a sincere prayer – Thank you, Mom – to greet her wherever she is, and hoped my deep gratitude would bless her soul.

After we all went our separate ways, the tears continued to flow all the way home as an impossibly huge, 3/4 waning gibbous moon floated into the sky up ahead.

Postscript: I didn’t read the program notes until a full 24 hours after the concert, after I finished writing this piece. I found it interesting that Tchaikovsky wrote that he “wept profusely” as he composed the symphony in his mind!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Finding Beauty at Omega

Finding Beauty at Omega

I just returned from a truly nourishing and inspiring Mindfulness in Education conference at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, thanks to a full scholarship funded by the 1440 Foundation. I will write about the conference itself in one or more separate posts. But for now, I want to share the beauty of the campus – for it, too, was inspiring.

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is a non-profit educational retreat center located on 200 hilly acres in the Hudson Valley. Inspired by Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, it was founded in 1977 and is devoted to “awakening the best in the human spirit” through workshops, conferences, retreats, and online learning. A stream runs through the center of campus, and there are around 100 buildings, including a main hall, dining hall, cafe, bookstore, sanctuary, wellness center, yoga and movement spaces, cabin-like accommodations, and the Ram Dass Library (shaped like a lotus blossom). The use of cell phones is strongly discouraged in public areas, and I only noticed one person talking on a phone during my three days there.

The Sanctuary was my favorite area – my anchor – to which I returned repeatedly. Here is the entrance.

There is a tiny waterfall about halfway up the the winding stairs that lead to the Sanctuary. The waterfall is surrounded by space that invites creativity. Here are two arrangements that greeted me.

They set my own creative gears in motion.

There also was a basket of colorful, glittery word rocks – an invitation to play!

And play, I did! Although the mosquitoes made it very challenging to balance rocks, I did the best I could.

Here is one very simple balance that remained intact a full day later, despite a morning of torrential downpours. It’s the one that didn’t topple even though the acorn fell from its little perch (perhaps to be closer to the oak leaf?), and the “evolve” rock shifted off center.

Spirit-infused art is all over the place, including some tucked away surprises and others that are impossible to miss. Outside the Sanctuary is a large bell with a mandala composed of moss and other natural objects at the bottom of the stand.

It reminded me of the natural materials (“provocations”) teachers in Reggio Emilia schools put out for their students’ inquiry and exploration.

There are many calming Buddha statues around campus, including this lovely stone planter at the entrance to the garden (with a twin on the other side of the path).

One that’s easier to miss is located amidst pine trees in a small meditation garden at the center of the dorm area where I stayed. I love the interplay of spirit, art, and nature.

Here’s another one that’s tucked away near the heart of campus.

Arrangements such as these remind me to take a deep breath and return to my center. They invite peace and calm.

I was delighted to discover the classical style labyrinth located directly at the center of campus.

Perhaps my favorite image of all was what I found at the center of the labyrinth. It is customary to walk a labyrinth with some sort of purpose in mind. A person often will carry a small object to leave at the center, symbolic of letting go or some kind of intention. I found this collection of offerings fascinating.

Here’s a closer view (that doesn’t show the red lighter resting behind the coffee cup):

Looking at the offerings brought home the realization that nobody is ever alone in his or her suffering. We’re all in this game of life together.

Inspired by the spirit- and nature-infused art at Omega, I returned home enthusiastic about creating calming, centering spaces around our house. By the end of summer, I intend to transform our cluttered little home into a sanctuary. It is my August project. The truth is: We already have all the elements for creating such spaces. It’s a matter of utilizing them – and remembering to notice them in the first place! There’s nothing further to obtain. We just need to notice and enter into the space.

My husband and I have noted that our yard seems to read our minds and give us what we desire. This morning, I went outside to look at the morning glories that are popping up around the yard and found this:

It looked to me like a perfect frame for a mandala – so I ran with that idea!

Pausing for an art break, I realized that most of the items on my to-do list ultimately weren’t that important in the first place. I was putting too much pressure on myself to get things done! That’s part of the beauty of the creative process for me. It pushes a reset button and helps me to simplify my life.

I love being in places that inspire creativity!

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited.
Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Blueprints and Dragonflies

Blueprints and Dragonflies

I’m a little more than halfway through the book, Testimony of Light by Helen Greaves, which was recommended to me recently as an excellent text in the “near-death” genre. It is an authenticated account from the 1960s of two nuns who communicated telepathically while they were alive and continued to do so after one of them passed on. It resonates with the other books I’ve read in the genre, and I have been working my way through it by reading small chunks and allowing the ideas to settle in my mind when I’m kayaking or sleeping.

Sometimes I’m out on the water immersed in thought or some kind of pursuit (which often involves an elusive heron). Then I catch myself and am amused by the attempts of my little mind to make sense of the Big Picture – for I sense that the truth of our existence is beyond human comprehension. Our sensory organs and conditioned minds can only handle so much Light.

Today I set out looking for herons but fell in love with a small turtle basking in the sun. Then I returned to my pursuit of herons but dropped that agenda after a short time when I realized the “heron paparazzi” state of mind prevented me from entering stillness. Sometimes it’s grace that brings us back into presence (for instance, coming upon a turtle basking in the sun), and sometimes it’s awareness of mental activity (much like realizing within a dream that we are dreaming).

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Then I rested in stillness, knowing there was nothing more important at that time than floating and filling with bliss. I wanted to stay there all day!

 

While floating, an idea from Testimony of Light entered my awareness regarding the existence of a Divine Blueprint for the work we set out to accomplish in our lifetime – and how it compares with the actual map of our human life when all is said and done. Every cell of my being seems to vibrate with a burning desire to attune to and follow my Divine Blueprint. I want to get down to business and do the work I intended to do. I’ve never felt it so strongly! Since returning from my recent retreat, the energy has been incredible! It’s blown open the door of my self-imposed prison and called, “Follow me!” And I am.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how far off course I’ve strayed by allowing myself to be driven by fear or a desire to please others. That method of traveling seems like taking a detour. Taking the long way home is not a failure. Nor is getting lost. There are times in life when we feel lost, especially when familiar markers are removed from the landscape of our journey. But what’s wonderful about realizing you’re lost is that you make an effort to dust off the map and find your way. Such times are opportunities to get back on course! Intuition is a useful navigational tool for realizing you’re lost and finding your way. It is my compass.

But perhaps in the grand scheme, the journey is more like a labyrinth with one winding path to the center. During times when we are driven by fear or other distractions, perhaps we just slow down and progress along the path in our own rhythm. Perhaps, despite periods of inertia, we’re never truly lost.

How interesting that when I entertained this thought, a dog came to the water’s edge and started barking at me. It reminded me of a story of a dog traveling to a particular town:

His journey was a very long one, taking two or three days as a rule, and yet he arrived before sunset of the same day. The dogs of that town were all surprised to see him so soon.

“Yes, it was a very long journey,” the dog said, “but I attribute my speed to the kindness and help of my fellow dogs. Since I left home, whenever I felt tired and tried to stop a moment to rest, four or five would run up and bark at me and want to bite me. So I had to run on without staying to rest in that place, or to search for food. And so it went on at every place I came to, until in the end I have arrived here at my destination.”

Citation: Khan, Hazrat Inayat (1991). Tales. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications.

As far as others are concerned, I can’t even begin to judge another human being’s path through life! It’s hard enough to discern and navigate my own!

There were so many dragonflies darting around on glistening, iridescent wings as I contemplated Divine Blueprints. So much life energy all around!

At one point, I experienced a moment of clarity from which a question – no, perhaps it was more like a prayer – bloomed like a lotus in my heart. And in that instant, a dragonfly landed on my arm for the first time all day. We remained completely still for quite some time regarding each other (or so it seemed), and I felt myself being drawn into dragonfly energy, as if it were the answer to my prayer, pollinating the lotus in my heart.

 

Then I felt it was time to paddle back home and engage with my to-do list. I focused on the sounds around me – a form of mindfulness meditation – and followed the sound back home.

But this wonderful energy remains, and I follow my intuition from one “yes” to another. It is an amazing feeling – this movement that has broken the spell of inertia.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On Retreat: A Most Incredible Journey

On Retreat: A Most Incredible Journey

I just returned from a three-day/three-night, solitary Healing Retreat at Light on the Hill Retreat Center. (To read about a previous retreat experience I had at Light on the Hill, click HERE.)

Spiritual retreat is a powerful, transformational process. Removed from the usual distractions and energies, the process deepens each day. Going on retreat was my most urgent summer priority. After all the intensity of the past school year, including my mother’s illness and death, I am a different person. The old ways no longer work. As often happens following a brush with death, life took on a greater urgency, and I felt a desperate need to integrate my new awareness and find my true North – for life is short, and I have wanderlust. I felt like someone ready to embark on a new journey on a boat that is tied to shore and slamming repeatedly against the rocks. Surely, the ropes served a purpose in the past, but now they need to be untied so I can sail to new harbors.

Day One

I arrived at Light on the Hill late in the afternoon and until the next morning was on my own to ease into the energy and solitude of the Meadow Cottage and surrounding environment. I eagerly anticipated the July “supermoon” that soon would illuminate the sky. I hadn’t planned to be on retreat during the full moon; it just worked out that way. As it turned out, in addition to my guide, Alice, my retreat experience was facilitated quite dramatically by the moon and the weather.

Once settled in, I considered my intention to find my true North and sat down with a book of Hafiz poems. Trusting that I would open to exactly the page I needed to read, I nonetheless was surprised to open to a poem about a “golden compass,” excerpted below:

I am a Golden Compass – 
Watch me whirl.

To the east and to the west
To the north and to the south,
In all directions I will true your course
Toward laughter and unity.

Watch me whirl into nothingness
Your fears and darkness – 
Just keep tossing them onto my golden plate.

My only duty that now remains
To this world

Is from every direction
To forever serve you wine and
Hope

Source: The Small Table of Time and Spacefrom The Subject Tonight is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz (versions by Daniel Ladinsky), Pumpkin House, 1996, p. 38-39)

I took a walk as the sun sank in the forest.

As the moonrise drew nearer, I headed to one of the two Chartres-style labyrinths on the property. As I walked the labyrinth, I noticed an orange glow in the window of the cupola of the adjacent Stillpoint Sanctuary chapel.

Ten minutes later, I spotted the full, orange supermoon floating above the treetops.

 

I continued to walk the eleven-circuit labyrinth as the moon lifted higher in the sky, savoring each step and knowing I would remember this experience for a long time. By the time I arrived at the center, it was quite dark. There was a pile of stones and some offerings people had left, and I knelt on the ground and balanced the moonlit stones. I barely could see them and balanced them by feeling their weight in my hands. There was one large and bulky rock that I probably wouldn’t have been able to balance so easily if I had relied more on my eyes. Fireflies glowed all around as I walked the path back out of the labyrinth. I heard something rustle in the adjacent woods and felt a little frightened but maintained my slow, deliberate pace. Then an owl hooted the same rhythmic pattern over and over. I kept walking, delighted by the fireflies and moonlight and a little nervous about what lurked close by that I couldn’t see.

The environment and your emotional responses are all feedback and data when you’re on retreat. Everything seems to mirror and guide your inner process.

I returned to the cottage and fell asleep, serenaded by what sounded like hundreds of frogs croaking and making plucked rubber band sounds as the moon began its journey across the meadow, illuminating my dreams.

Day Two

In the morning, I met with my guide for an hour and a half and received some practices to work with until meeting with her the following morning.

I followed a path through the woods back to the cottage and wasn’t a happy camper because I didn’t have proper footwear, clothing, or bug repellent for the woods. I was worried about ticks (hello again, fear) and ended up taking a longer route to avoid tall brush. I wandered from the trail briefly when I was probably at the closest point to the cottage and was hot, tired, thirsty, and grumpy. I felt lost but knew I’d eventually find my way and get back “home,” just not as quickly as I would have liked to since I opted for the longer, “safer” route. When I came out at last on the road, I heard these words in my mind:

When you are done being pissed at the world,
We are here (and always have been)
To help you find your way.

After regrouping at the cottage, I returned to the labyrinth and found the stones still balanced at the center.

 

I walked the labyrinth and balanced more stones – nothing special, but it reminded me of how drawn I am to balancing stones!

After walking the labyrinth, I retreated to Stillpoint Sanctuary, a chapel for prayer and meditation.

The view of the cupola above where I was seated looked like an octagonal mandala.

I had no energy at all in the afternoon, which is normal for the first full day on retreat. Every muscle in my body felt heavy and hard to move. I took a nap, listened to the rustling of wind in the leaves, did some practices, and savored the dinner that Alice’s husband, Larry, delivered in a basket. Then more practices. And some crying – until I realized:

I don’t have to fix anything.
I don’t have to fix anyone.
I don’t have to fix myself.
All is well.

It occurred to me that life isn’t so draining when you get rid of the “shoulds.” Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves and complicate life unnecessarily?

I waited for the moonrise with two darting dragonflies and a meadow of fireflies. I could hear firecrackers in the distance and the chirping of a single cricket. The sky was very dark by the time the moon floated above the the treetops and began its journey across the meadow. What a lovely night!

Day Three

This is the day when you go really deep on retreat. I woke in the morning from a dream in which I was absolutely livid. I met with my guide for another healing session. After two sunny days, the sky was overcast with rain in the forecast, and the first thing she told me was that the weather one encounters on retreat is exactly what is needed to help the process along. We did some guided imagery and addressed my fear, and I received more practices and materials to work with. I experienced healing around my existential crisis that manifested in lingering questions and regrets about my mom’s final days on earth. I understood that other people and forces larger than myself were involved and that I was not in control of the process, despite my ego wanting to be.

I realized that my true North was obvious and that my next step was to reestablish a daily meditation, yoga, and exercise discipline. These practices were abandoned when life became intense, and I realized that I need them more than ever to help me navigate through life from one harbor to the next. They are my rudder. I felt certain that guidance will come if I ask for it, practice daily, and keep my senses open.

With my guide’s help, I realized that I am in a time of transition, sometimes called “the valley of not knowing.” This is a place that by and large is not valued by society, although it is essential for growth and requires patience. It is like a cocoon – the state of dissolution (disillusion?) in between a caterpillar and a butterfly. This is what it feels like to me:

To consume without knowing what I hunger for,
Not content to be a creature of craving.

There is a big difference between what feeds the soul and the mindless clinging and craving of the ego.

It began raining as soon as my healing session was over and rained all day for the most part. I took advantage of a brief interlude without rain and attempted to walk the labyrinth. No sooner had I reached the center, and the downpour resumed, so I returned to the cottage. The weather drew me more deeply inward. As I worked with the practices and materials given to me, I realized that even in the unlikely event that nothing further transpired on my retreat, it already was successful in that I:

  • Discovered my true North
  • Understood that this transitional “valley” has value and is essential for growth
  • Experienced a sense of certainty and an inner shift from which I gave myself permission from deep within (not just in my head) to let go of that which no longer sustains me

I felt profoundly peaceful.

When the rain seemed to die down late in the afternoon, I turned on my phone (which I had been instructed to turn off for the duration of the retreat) to check the hourly weather forecast and determine whether another trip to the labyrinth was feasible. However, an alarm sounded, and a message appeared: “A tornado warning is in effect for your area. Seek shelter immediately!”

So much for my peaceful state of mind!

I had experienced a devastating tornado while living in Florida back when my children were very young. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. When you are huddled in the laundry room with your young family not knowing whether or not the tornado already has gone by, you realize that Mother Nature is in control and that anytime you believed you were, you were mistaken!

I jumped into action, assessed my environment, and determined the best place to seek shelter. The clouds were dark and threatening. Surrounded by couch cushions, I kept my phone on to receive further updates. I remembered that when I had finished packing the car to leave for retreat, my husband – who loves to tease me about my fear of tornadoes – asked if I had packed my helmet. Haha – no, I didn’t. My heart was pounding, and I felt a familiar sensation of fear in my body. Ideally, I would “go into” the fear and investigate it, but my mind was like a chattering monkey. I was not meditating or being mindful while taking shelter and waiting for the storm to pass. (It turns out there was a small tornado in the neighboring town that was headed in my direction but changed its course.) Once again, forces larger than myself were in control. I couldn’t change the weather around me, only the atmosphere within me. And that’s a pretty big deal, actually.

Once the sky appeared safe and the tornado warning had expired, it occurred to me that my ability to perceive beauty in the world was all fine and good – and has uplifted me through some very challenging times. However, I need to cultivate mindfulness and meditative awareness that equips me to work with the stubborn weed of fear so I am not immobilized or derailed by it. I need to practice daily so that when storms come I am ready. That was a very powerful lesson. It also made me think of the book of Mary Oliver poetry that I have misplaced and cannot find anywhere. Perhaps at this time I do not need to read about the beauty of this earth, for that comes so easily to me and reinforces everything I already perceive. Perhaps instead I need to learn to work with my fear, like those lines from the Hafiz poem:

Watch me whirl into nothingness
Your fears and darkness – 
Just keep tossing them onto my golden plate.

What a precious opportunity for transformation.

I also realized that taking shelter was very much like being in a cocoon, not knowing what was next. And what was next? The birds chirped merrily, the stream bubbled along, the mist rose gracefully, the lovely fragrance of milkweed drifted through the air, and the sun shone from behind the trees making the wet leaves and needles sparkle with light. Such wondrous peace. My world was wrapped in a mist blanket of peace and love.

And then this:

 

Jaw-dropping beauty, lovelier than anything I could have imagined. Naturally, I had to go exploring.

Here is a view of the pyramid at the top of Inner Light Lodge, where my husband and I were married.

And here is a spectacular view from the back of Inner Light Lodge, of the surrounding hills and the mist rising all around.

 
 

I returned to a dark cottage, lit a gas lantern, and resumed my practices. After completing one guided visualization, something in me seemed to have shifted. I realized (really realized, not just “knew”) that I am the daughter of Life. The birds, trees, and everything that is alive are my brothers and sisters – including my human parents. I cannot be orphaned, nor abandoned, for I am the daughter of Life and carry within me a divine inheritance. I have all that I need.

At that moment, I was able to let go of my mom. I wouldn’t need to ask her to visit me or prove to me that she exists beyond death. Although I had told her I was letting her go as she was dying – and really meant it at the time – it was different now. I was releasing her to be wherever she needed to be. She did not need to hover around earth to take care of me. I am a daughter of Life, and she is a fellow traveler. I needed to break the ropes and let her fly, light and untethered.

That night, the nearly full moon floated into the sky and shone through the skylight above my bed. I fell asleep listening to the frogs and the bubbling stream. And I had the Most Incredible Dream Ever. It was the most prolonged, joyful, and poignant dream of contact with my mom that I have had since she died. It was long and detailed, and I won’t go into it here, other than to say that she communicated very strongly through various objects. There was dialogue and gratitude and humor and so much love. By the end of the dream, I felt jubilant and exclaimed that life continues after death and that I have absolute proof of this now! The feeling continued when I woke up at 3:26 a.m. with tears of joy in my eyes as I wrote down the dream.

I got out of bed and climbed down the ladder, lit a candle and a stick of rose incense, and sat with the moon and this bliss. I began to sing a Sufi song that I hadn’t sung in a good 20 years. Sometimes I had to whisper the words because crying made singing impossible. I sang it four times, and by the fourth time, my voice was strong and sweet. I felt that I was singing for my mom. And then I sang her favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” four times, exactly the same way – belting it out strongly the fourth time. I felt she was harmonizing along with me.

I sat gazing at the meadow, which was filled with white, moonlit mist, thick and dreamy. It was like a dynamic stage. The moon had traveled about 3/4 of the way across the meadow, and I watched the clouds pass in front of it and noticed that some clouds couldn’t obscure the light at all. The stream bubbled louder near me and softer down below in the distance – soothing, gentle, white noise. Then an owl punctuated the stillness with the same haunting call I’d heard in the labyrinth. A single cricket chirped. The world was quiet but for these sounds. The eastern sky began to soften and glow, but not from moonlight. The birds were sleeping, but not for long. I was filled with gratitude and wrapped in love, beauty, and awe.

What a powerful lesson I had learned about letting go. When I was able to let go of my mom, she came to me in a dream. Let go, and then something profound will come to you because you have cleared space for the unexpected to enter in.

Eventually, I went to bed as the birds awakened with the distant call of one. Then another sang merrily and energetically. Before long, there was a dawn chorus of bird prayer-song heralding a new day. Before falling asleep, I set an intention to awaken in time to see the sunrise.

Day Four

Two hours later, I awoke to a lovely mist all around.

 
 

I headed down the road to the labyrinth

…and walked the labyrinth as the mist floated lightly through the air and lifted into a blue sky.

Even after the previous day’s stormy weather, a few stones remained balanced, and that made me smile. There’s something deeply gratifying about balance.

 

I met briefly with my guide and then continued working with more practices and materials before packing up and heading home, feeling very satisfied with my retreat experience. On the way down the hill, I realized that I don’t need to hold on to anything that has outlived its purpose in order to please anyone else, including my parents. I thought about my mom and felt certain that if I could speak with her after all she has been through (i.e. physical death), she would not advise me to cling fearfully to habits and situations from which my soul has withdrawn – but rather to withdraw my energy and go forth toward the places that engage and feed my soul. For life is short, and letting go in big and small ways throughout life is essential practice for our own inevitable death. And for living our life dynamically and magnificently.

Bless the dried up places, and let them go with gratitude for the gifts they have given us on our journey through life.

In any situation, what’s the worst that can happen? You can die. (Or maybe even worse, not live?) But guess what? Everybody is going to die eventually. And I believe that our life on earth is a precious opportunity for transformation. So break those ropes of fear, and live your life!

 

Or in the words of the 15th century mystic poet, Kabir:

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive,
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think…and think…while you are alive.
What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think
ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten – 
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.

Source: The Kabir Book: Forty-four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir (versions by Robert Bly), Beacon Press, 1977, p. 24-25

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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