Author: susantara

First Day of School

First Day of School

Today was the first day of school with my new crop of (mostly male) kindergartners. By the end of the day, my voice was shot, but I felt mighty tall – something I only experience in my classroom! And so a new year begins.

This year, I’m working with several families I’ve worked with before, and it was heartwarming during our “Meet the Teacher” open house yesterday to hear older siblings up to sixth grade who are former students of mine sit down at the art table and reminisce about kindergarten. They remembered the most surprising things. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall last night listening to them prepare their little brothers and sisters for their first day of kindergarten.

As for me, I reread a couple poems I wrote when my youngest child started kindergarten, to remind myself that – despite all the ways in which early childhood education has changed since then – sending a child to kindergarten is still a big deal for parents. The first poem, “Five,” was written a few months before my son (who is now learning to drive) started kindergarten and originally was published in the March/April 2004 issue of Mothering magazine.

Five

Sacred season of frog pond,
humming and mommy time
appreciates dandelions three-fold
with fistfuls of I-love-you bouquets,
proud salads of tender, hand-picked greens
(despite their bitterness),
and seed fairies blown into the wind.
He digs, snuggles, makes books
(humming all the while),
relentlessly searches for lilacs
to grace the kitchen table.

Budding scientist employs sticks, nets,
stones and containers as tools
of observation and exploration;
young monk sits straight, cultivating
meditative awareness of an anthill.
He plants peach pits,
stops to smell flowers,
cares for salamanders, frogs and insects
yet is fearful of bullfrogs and snakes
(who have no place in this pond).

Five dwells in the realm
of imagination and possibility,
bonds with the living, breathing world.
He creates fairy houses,
constructs the perfect train track,
names the pair of robins who
frequent our yard,
always enjoys a campfire.

Five is precious like a late autumn day
sunny and warm with clear blue sky
when a new season beckons.
Though winter silences the voices
of crickets, birds and frogs,
I beg Six
and school teachers
to spare the sweet songs
he hums throughout the day.

He says, “But I’ll always
be like I am, when I’m six and seven
and eight and nine and ten…
and twenty-eight and—what comes
after twenty-eight?”
Gratefully, I smile
as Five continues counting.

© Susan Meyer 2003

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The next poem was written during his first week of school…when I wasn’t in a punctuating mood.

First Day of School

bit of scarlet in the treetops
bit of silver glistening in my hair
bit of chill in the morning breeze
as a season draws to an end

summer was sprinkled with showers
of anticipatory grief
crying at the drop of a hat
at the thought of him going
to kindergarten

the first day of school
we walked together to his classroom
bypassing the dreaded school bus goodbye
that left a trail of mothers’ tears
all along our road

I handed him off to a woman
with a beautiful smile
who remembered his name
all I needed was the bridge formed
by looking into her eyes
and beseeching her, without words
to please take good care
of this precious boy
who already felt at home

tearlessly I walked away
returned to a quiet house
and cleaned the morning dishes
no small shadows
following me around
asking how to spell words
or begging to go to the library
feeling as if I were missing
an appendage

he bounced off the bus
jubilant about his day
eager to ride the bus in the morning
and sure enough
he was dressed and ready
first thing in the morning
so as not to miss it
he is well attached and ready

along the sidewalk, mothers
wearing tee-shirts and ponytails
push strollers,
nourish hearts, souls, and bodies
without wristwatches

some look tired, expressions
of marathon days, diaper changes,
tantrums, lack of privacy and solitude,
moments of sheer exhaustion
when a poorly timed spill triggers
a full-fledged breakdown

some look serene, expressions
of the perfectly timed kiss
that replenishes and brings you back;
innocent, kind words; new milestones;
gracious belly laughs

how many times have grandmothers
and mothers of older children
babbled to me with that knowing look
about how quickly time passes?
now I have arrived at the other side
of this first crossing
I am one of them

now there is time
to begin where I left off
time to launch a career,
make phone calls and appointments,
think uninterrupted thoughts,
sit down to meditate,
entertain new possibilities

bit of scarlet in the treetops
bit of silver glistening in my hair
bit of chill in the morning breeze
yesterday’s eternal season
has drawn to an end
like a flash of lightning
in the summer sky

© Susan Meyer 2003

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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 (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Narragansett Rocks

Narragansett Rocks

Several people have expressed interest in rock balancing, so I decided to do a separate post on balancing rocks in Narragansett.

My husband and I have very different styles. He is a performer (a professional musician) and doesn’t mind balancing rocks where there are lots of people around to interact with. He tends to create a lot of balances in a short amount of time…and keeps going! And he doesn’t mind working in the intense heat of the midday, summer sun.

I, on the other hand, prefer to retreat to a more private, picturesque spot and make it a meditation, thinking photographically. My balances are smaller and simpler than his, but I find beauty within the simplicity.

It’s all good.

At Scarborough Beach on our first day of vacation, I wandered off to adjacent Black Point to explore the tidal pools and found the perfect, quiet spot to balance rocks.

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By the time I returned to the beach, Jack had created more balances than I could count and was attracting a lot of attention. Most everyone who walked by stopped to take pictures. As we began to pack up at the end of the day, a boy who appeared to be about 12 years old came along with his mother, siblings (I’m guessing), and a long stick. I watched him wind up, wondering if he’d dare to follow through, and then – smack! – he knocked down one of Jack’s balances. When his mother realized the artist was close by and had witnessed the act of destruction, she apologized and promised her son would put the rocks back like they were. We had to laugh because that wasn’t possible; it takes skill and practice! We’d always wondered who was responsible for knocking down rock balances, and now we had the answer: Boys with sticks!

The next morning, I got up at dawn to experience and photograph the sunrise over the ocean. Then I headed back to Black Point and found three of my five balances still standing on the rim of a tidal pool.

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I walked back to the beach to see which of Jack’s balances lasted through the night.

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On my way back to the car, I stopped to fully savor the waves crashing against the rocks and created a few more simple balances. The sound of crickets accompanied the sound of the waves in a soothing, coastal symphony. The rhythmic sounds and aromatic ocean air, along with the feel of the wind against my skin and the rocks in my hands – all within such a magnificent landscape – was a wonderful sensory experience. To awaken so many senses simultaneously is to feel truly alive!

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Later in the day, we headed to Point Judith to balance more rocks. Here are a couple of mine:

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And here are some of Jack’s. (He created many more balances that were difficult to photograph due to their angle relative to the ocean and sun.)

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Looking toward the lighthouse, we noticed some rock balances and before leaving took a walk to check them out. We were astonished to find easily upwards of 500 rock stacks, balances, and arrangements! I couldn’t capture an image that illustrates the sheer number of balances or the vastness of the area. It was nearly overwhelming to be in the midst of it!

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The next morning, I woke up bright and early and went to the same spot as the previous morning to view the sunrise. Then I walked along the rock jetty opposite the lighthouse and was drawn to a quiet spot to balance rocks as waves crashed against the jetty and onto the beach. I can say without hyperbole that I’ve never felt more in my element than when balancing rocks at sunrise at the ocean in complete solitude (although kayaking and playing piano under the right circumstances come close). I love how simple balances look with waves crashing around them. Something about that really speaks to me of achieving balance within the “full catastrophe” of life, to borrow a phrase from Jon Kabat-Zinn. I played around with the same base rock and different combinations and angles on top.

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Meanwhile, Jack prepared to head to a beach very close to the house where he had balanced lots of rocks the previous day. He found them still standing and noticed kids approaching them to knock them down. However, older people intervened to protect the rocks and thanked him for beautifying their beach with art.

The temporary and vulnerable nature of balanced rocks is part of its appeal, in my opinion, for it mirrors the transitory nature of life. It’s much like a sand mandala that Tibetan Buddhist monks create with great patience, devotion, and attention to detail, only to have it ritualistically destroyed and the sand returned to nature.

Some friends and followers have inquired about how to get started balancing rocks. Balanced stone artist, Peter Juhl, has put together some useful resources, including his book, Center of Gravity: A Guide to the Practice of Rock Balancing, and his Temporary Sculpture website. They are excellent, inspiring starting points.

After publishing this post, I’m heading to my classroom to get set up and am bringing a basket of ocean rocks with me. This year, I intend to introduce my kindergartners to rock balancing, stacking, and arranging!

The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) 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.

Engaging the Magic in Narragansett

Engaging the Magic in Narragansett

So, I ended my last blog post by saying that I planned to have two more adventures before August is over. I didn’t know what they would be but felt they would involve rocks and water. And it turned out my next adventure involved LOTS of rocks and water! How it manifested was truly amazing. Sometimes I am astonished by the ways of the universe and need to write in order to remember that gifts can arise completely expected out of the blue!

My husband and I had been talking about him taking a couple days off from his summer job so we could go to the ocean. We were thinking we’d go to Rhode Island like we did last year and probably get a hotel room for a night so we could have two beach days. It was the day before we had planned to go away, and he still hadn’t requested the time off. And I hadn’t looked into making a hotel reservation because I wasn’t sure we’d actually go ahead with it. Last year we went on the spur of the moment during early August when there weren’t as many things clamoring for my attention as there are a week before a new school year begins. Now it was the end of summer, I hadn’t had a paycheck since June, and my son needed running shoes for cross country, among other expenses. Perhaps it would be better to save money by staying home.

But I really wanted to get to the ocean.

I told my son I’d take him to get running shoes that afternoon, and on the way to pick him up, I received the most exciting news that felt like an answer to a prayer! My husband was at his summer job, and his boss asked him if he wanted to take a break and help himself to some food. Although he was hungry, he wasn’t interested in what was offered and decided to stay put. He then asked his boss for a couple days off so we could go to the ocean and explained that we don’t have any specific plans but would figure out something, as we did last year. Instantly, a friend of mine pulled up on her bike and talked with my husband’s boss. She and my husband recognized each other and began talking. He told her we were planning to go to Rhode Island the following day and had to make plans for a place to stay. It turns out she and her family rented a big beach house for the month that would be vacant for the exact same days that we wanted to be in Rhode Island. Next thing I knew, I received a text from my friend saying that we had a place to stay on Great Island in Narragansett! I couldn’t believe it!

That is what I call “engaging the magic.” Had my husband taken a break to get food, he wouldn’t have crossed paths with my friend, and the invitation wouldn’t have manifested. How perfect is that?

We were so excited that we left a few hours after he got home from work and arrived at our destination at 12:30 a.m. Even though it was dark outside, I could feel the salty air as we drove along and were surrounded almost entirely by water. I felt like Goldilocks exploring the house to decide which bed I liked best – and fell asleep promptly!

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Needless to say, we had the best time in Narragansett. The house was incredible. The location was unbelievable. The weather was perfect. I took more than 700 pictures.

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We spent three afternoons balancing rocks on the beach at Scarborough Beach, Black Point, Point Judith, and other locations. I will write about that in a separate post.

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While packing up after our first afternoon on Scarborough Beach, we ran into an older couple – both native Rhode Islanders. The woman was walking along picking up sponges that had been deposited on the beach by high tide, and she taught me what to look for and how to dry them so they can be used for painting. This was another gift because I love to paint with sponges!

The next morning, I got up at 5:30 a.m. and headed to Point Judith to catch a glorious sunrise.

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Later, we went out for breakfast and then stopped into a store owned by a couple of rock balancers. Before we left, I noticed sand dollars in the display case and asked the man if he sells them. Sand dollars always remind me of my grandfather, who died when I was 17. He wintered in Florida and brought me back a sand dollar along with a story about sand dollars. The store owner replied that he doesn’t sell them, but one day a man came along and gave him a bunch. My husband took notice and exclaimed that he saw a big bucket of sand dollars from the balcony where we ate breakfast overlooking the seaport. We found the bucket, and a fisherman walking by said we could have as many as we wanted because they’d been sitting there for a month. So I added sand dollars to my collection of ocean treasures and gifts from the universe.

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After another afternoon balancing rocks on a beach adjacent to Point Judith Lighthouse, we decided to cook up a meal of vegetables (that we brought from our own garden) and fresh sea scallops. When we stopped at a seafood market along the harbor, we happened to be the lucky customers and received fresh scallops and swordfish for free! It was another matter of perfect timing – showing up on the right day at the right time. And the meal was delicious! We savored it on the upstairs deck while watching the sun set.

The next morning, I woke up at 5:30 again and headed back to Point Judith for another pastel dream of a sunrise.

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Then I retreated to a quiet spot on the rocks at Camp Cronin for some simple, solitary, sunrise rock balancing. I can’t remember ever feeling more in my element!

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We spent our last afternoon (Wednesday) in Narragansett at Camp Cronin/Point Judith Lighthouse. The older couple we met on the beach two days prior had told us there would be really big waves on Wednesday because of a hurricane somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, and this was the case. The wind made rock balancing challenging, and I opted to sit on the rocks near where I had balanced rocks that morning and appreciate it with all my senses, for we would have to return home soon.

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If my husband were writing, his account would differ from mine, for we did a fair amount of exploring on our own. He engaged with the locals more than I did – even when he balanced rocks. It was easy to find our way around, and of course we also enjoyed our time together. The trip was magical from start to finish, and we were filled to the brim with gratitude. It’s so exciting to find new places to love and to be so in the flow! I returned home inspired deeply by people’s generosity and the goodness that can transpire when you open up and engage with life.

The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) 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.

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.

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