Author: susantara

A Trail through the Autumn Woods

A Trail through the Autumn Woods

The fall foliage in my neck of the woods is at peak now, and over the weekend I took a long afternoon walk along a trail I hadn’t been on in about 12 years. It was an overcast day with occasional, light drizzle, and perhaps that’s why the only people I ran into during the course of more than two hours were a small group of college students, a man walking his dog, and another man jogging. Other than that, it was just the trees and me.

I didn’t intend to walk for long because it was just a stop en route to the grocery store, and I was wearing shoes that weren’t ideal for the terrain. However, after walking at a slow, reverent pace for a quarter mile, I returned to the car to change into my sneakers and retrieve my tripod.

After that, I retraced my steps and kept going all the way to the end of the trail. Mostly I walked with gratitude and awe. But every now and then, I caught my thoughts wandering and realized I was beginning to take the magnificent scenery for granted.

Then I thought about my friend, David, who died this past February. The last time I saw him was last October, on Columbus Day. I wondered if he knew last fall that it would be the last time he’d see autumn’s dazzling display. He must have known; I’m sure he did. Did he appreciate it more fully than ever before, to the point of ecstasy and tears? The drive from his house to ours was nearly an hour long. It was a beautiful fall day, and I imagined he must have enjoyed the colorful foliage the whole way. I remember how full of joy he was that day, marveling about the clouds as we walked out to his car to say goodbye for what would be the last time.

And then, as I walked along the trail, I heard a male voice in my head narrating:

If you knew for sure 
This would be the last autumn of your life,
Would you pay more attention?
Could you bear to take for granted the ground underfoot
Or any single sight sound smell along the way?

Well, can any of us know for sure that we will still be here a year from now? I certainly intend and hope to be, but you never know.

As I continued walking, all of the sights, sounds, and scents became more vivid and extraordinary. I stopped often to smile at and even thank out loud a tiny babbling brook, a leaf waving from a branch, a fallen leaf that caught my eye, and even bright red poison ivy wrapped around the base of a tree.

It was all so astonishingly beautiful. And I was so privileged to be there in the midst of it, in complete solitude, taking it in so fully.

I felt like Frederick, the field mouse in Leo Lionni’s picture book of the same name. While the other field mice were busy gathering provisions for winter, Frederick sat contemplatively and gathered sun rays, colors, and words. The other mice were irritated with him for his apparent laziness; however, when their food supply dwindled that winter, they were nourished and warmed by the poetry he gathered during the colorful autumn days.

I love that story. There is great value in taking time to pause and savor the fleeting majesty of the natural world.

As I kept walking, I began thinking that nothing could improve this moment. And nothing could be more important than drinking in All This.

I began thinking about other important things that I need to do during this life – things I would regret not having made time for when all is said and done. The first thing that came to mind was visiting Letchworth State Park (known as the Grand Canyon of the East) in western New York, which has been on my bucket list for more than 20 years. We had planned to go there over the summer, but our calendar filled up, and my husband suggested that we save the trip for fall. What a great idea! So we are going to take a couple days to do just that. There is no time like the present – for the present is the only moment we are guaranteed!

As I contemplate the passage of time, I realize that we must make time to do the things our soul nudges us to do. We must make time for what brings us true nourishment and joy.

After more than two hours of walking in the woods, I captured nearly 300 images, which I later narrowed down to 38 keepers (which is what I do for fun).

These trees looked just like a watercolor painting!

I never did make it to the grocery store. The journey through the woods ended up being the destination. And I can think of no better way to have spent the afternoon!

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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, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Teaching Compassion

I just learned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be at Emory University this week for talks, teachings, and discussions that will be webcasted live and presumably available to view afterwards, as well. My family and I went to hear him speak at Cornell University in October 2007, and last October I watched webcasts of his speaking engagements throughout New England and Virginia. It was a really uplifting week, and I look forward to more of the same this week!

October is a great time to be inspired by the Dalai Lama. One of his favorite topics is educating the heart, or “secular ethics in education.” Now that the school year is well underway and the idealism I dusted off over the summer has been shattered by the rigorous realities of the Common Core and more new curricula, it’s time to work with the pieces that are in front of me on the table and try to make the best of them. Their sharp, jagged edges pierce my heart and soul, but I remain hopeful that they will become smoother in time. How exactly that will happen, I don’t know, but they simply must. Right now, I need some inspiration, big-time.

I always appreciate hearing what the Dalai Lama has to say about education. It reminds me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. Sometimes I imagine myself asking him how I can reconcile what I know in my heart to be right and true with the way things are in public education now. His answer (in my mind) always conveys hope.

There has got to be something you can do right now to be part of a solution.

But first, I will provide a little context for my question.

For a couple years, I attempted to implement the Hawn Foundation’s (as in Goldie Hawn) MindUP Curriculum in my kindergarten classroom. It was a personal initiative; nobody else in my school was doing it, but it touched on virtually everything I felt was most important in social-emotional learning and supported my belief that educating the heart must go hand in hand with educating the mind. In a nutshell, the curriculum focuses on improving concentration, reducing stress and anxiety, managing emotions and interpersonal conflicts, choosing optimism and kindness, and developing empathy and resilience. It’s a really beautiful, well researched curriculum. I tried in earnest to implement it until this year. This year, I abandoned it (sadly) because I realize I do not have the resources or time to do it justice. But while still struggling with how to fit social-emotional learning into the curriculum, I was inspired by a panel discussion on “Educating the Heart and Mind” from the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. This was a nearly hour-long discussion between Eckhart Tolle, Sir Ken Robinson, Matt Goldman and Chris Wink from the Blue Man Group, Dan Siegel, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and H.H. the Dalai Lama, moderated by Matthieu Ricard.

During the course of the panel discussion (at the 38:00 mark), Matt Goldman offered:

“Creativity has to be sewn into every single part of the educational process. Social and emotional learning – not a separate subject but part of everything – so that the skills of empathy, the skills of compassion – are all sewn into your literacy and your math and your social studies as strongly as anything.”

This became my new approach: Weave social-emotional learning throughout the curriculum rather than try to fit it into its own block.

But now we have a new obstacle. Teachers all across the state and country are being given new curricula. Tightly scripted curricula. And the curriculum packages seem to be constantly changing as more and “better” options become available from year to year. Even if we are given permission to adapt lessons to some extent, it is very time-consuming to learn a new curriculum. Adapting it takes even more time. After a couple years of implementation, it becomes easier to insert some degree of creativity and personal style into a curriculum. But not the first time around. The first time around, you learn it as you go along and just try to keep your head above water.

So it is within this context that, in my mind, I ask the Dalai Lama how to proceed. Here is the answer that came to me:

The least we can do despite it all – even if there is no time for anything else in the school day and the children won’t get it from the tight, mandated curriculum – is to model kindness and compassion. Every encounter and interaction with students or any other members of the school community is an opportunity to do just that. We can give the gift of compassionate listening and communicating – or a warm smile – to one another.

People handle stress differently, and some handle it better than others. Sometimes we reach our breaking point – the straw that broke the camel’s back – when yet another responsibility or demand is added to our already overflowing plate. And under all that pressure, sometimes we forget to smile and to be kind. To listen. To remember that we are all in this together. Sometimes we need to vent. Sometimes others need to vent to us. And if it comes out looking like anger, remember that it is rarely, if ever, personal. None of us made up these new rules. Everyone is doing his or her best to stay afloat, especially when everything we do is being evaluated and we are all under the microscope – when all we wanted in the first place was to make a positive difference in children’s lives.

It doesn’t take long to help someone who is in a state of anxiety or overwhelm. You don’t need to go immediately into problem-solving or avoid them because you don’t know how to help. Sometimes all people need to bring them back to a state of balance is to know that their feelings are being heard and that someone cares. Even if you can’t solve the problem right then and there, just pausing within an energy field of presence to reflect sincerely and compassionately, “Wow, you’re feeling really overwhelmed,” and “I’m so sorry,” can go a long way. When I feel stressed out and share my feelings with a particular colleague, she often asks (with eye contact and presence), “What can I do to help?” Even if I don’t have an answer to that question, I feel that my feelings are being acknowledged, and that makes a difference.

Oftentimes when a student is having a conflict or is telling me a story about something that happened at home, reflecting his or her feelings simply and sincerely – for instance, with a “You must have felt so…” sentence and an appropriate facial expression – is all s/he needs to carry on. The true communication is often much more about feelings than content, and it only takes a couple seconds for a child (or colleague, for that matter) to feel heard and cared for. And that builds relationship. As I have written before, teaching is fundamentally about the relationship between the teacher and the student. That relationship is the vehicle through which education occurs.

We need to remember to listen. It is such a gift! At the most basic level, that means not interrupting.

We need to remember to smile. Not because everything is wonderful and right in our school, but because smiling – despite it all – is an act of kindness and compassion. It also feels good to smile.

Small gestures of kindness and creating an energy field of presence go a long way in improving the atmosphere of a school. Little eyes are always watching, even when we don’t think they are. And little ears are always listening. Children learn so much from who the teacher is and how s/he acts. During a retreat at Omega Institute in June 2012, Eckhart Tolle asserted, “The child observes the parents’ [teacher’s] behavior and absorbs that, and also absorbs their state of consciousness. The child models your state of consciousness so that if you embody presence, then something of that will be absorbed by the child.” That is the unwritten curriculum. And that is the part over which we have some control.

So that is where I will start. Yes, a compassionate curriculum would be even better. But embodying a curriculum of compassion and awareness, to the best of my abilities, is how I will go about educating the heart right now, without waiting for anything else to change.

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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, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Red Lights, Screens, and the Value of Waiting

Red Lights, Screens, and the Value of Waiting

As I mentioned in my last post, I upgraded to a smartphone this week. I’d considered doing this for quite some time but finally went ahead with it because I felt it would improve my communication with my busy teenagers considerably if I had better texting capabilities and could interact with greater mobility and ease. And this definitely is proving to be true. However, one thing I’ve really noticed during the past few days is that having a smartphone with me throughout the day kind of pulls my attention in that direction. The phone is a trap door into a world of possibilities – excessive possibilities – much as the painting, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Picture Gallery in Brussels by David Teniers the Younger depicts. (You can click on the name of the painting to view it.) I noticed that little tug while waiting at a lengthy red light in town. And that little tug made me aware of the values and virtues of knowing how to wait.

Waiting – in line at a grocery store or at a traffic light or doctor’s office or any number of other places – is a wonderful opportunity to awaken from the trance of activity, to still the mind and tune in to our body, the rhythm of the breath, the environment. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests reframing the red traffic light “as a bell of mindfulness, reminding us to return to the present moment.” He continues: “The next time you see a red light, please smile at it and go back to your breathing. ‘Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile'” (p. 33).

When I was growing up, we didn’t have devices to occupy us during long car trips until Walkmans eventually came along. But even then, it was only audio and not the full audiovisual experience. We looked out the window at the scenery. We thought and imagined. We squabbled. We got bored. And I think boredom that comes from uncluttered moments and an uncluttered mind is a gift that our youngest generation is deprived of to some degree. I do hope that today’s children and teenagers will come to know the joy and freedom of unplugging and being present to the world around them, and to their own selves. Growing up in a world of screens – both stationary and handheld – I hope they will achieve a healthy balance between the virtual universe and the living, breathing universe. Connecting children with the wonder and mystery of the latter is important work. We need to help them find that balance.

With camera in hand, I find myself doing a great deal of waiting. I wait for clouds to cover the sun and provide better, more diffused lighting. I wait for people to move out of my viewfinder. I wait for a rainbow to appear when the sun bursts through rainclouds.

I wait for bright yellow goldfinches to return to wilted sunflowers so I can photograph one resting on the backside of a drooped seed head and eating the seeds.

The goldfinches are the same colors as the sunflowers that have popped up in abundance all over our yard this year. We didn’t plant a single sunflower; the birds did it for us. And now we have hundreds of sunflower bird feeders as a result. I have been wanting to get this particular shot for weeks but have yet to accomplish it. The trick is to wait quietly for quite some time so the skittish goldfinches don’t notice my presence and feel it’s safe to return to the sunflowers. And in the meantime as I sit, I listen to the crickets and grasshoppers, the grand symphony of late summer, the breeze rustling the leaves of the towering black locust trees lining our yard. When I tap into the environment like that, I feel connected with all the life around me and feel the life energy moving through me. I feel more fully alive.

I don’t want to fill up all the spaces by disappearing into a tunnel of information and chatter. Each moment offers a choice between authenticity and habit, presence and ego, expanding and contracting.

I will return to work in 16 days, and life will become much busier. There will be many professional responsibilities demanding my time and attention both within and outside of my contracted work day that go far beyond actual classroom instruction. But one thing I have really practiced this summer is being more fully present in the present moment. When you’re truly inhabiting the present moment, you realize that there is so much more than this little problem or situation demanding attention; you can access a spaciousness that channels fuller consciousness and wisdom. And that is why I am here now and not burdened by all the things I need to do at the beginning of the school year. I write in my planner when I want to set up my classroom, for instance, and then forget about it. It’ll get done. Put it on a list, and assign it to a certain day or week. No sense bringing anxiety related to what I need to do in the future into this moment. Because this moment is perfect as it is, if I am tuned to the right channel.

And even if I don’t end up getting a picture of a goldfinch on a sunflower, the time spent waiting was not wasted because it was a portal into All This.

And chances are that when the image I’m fixated on doesn’t manifest, I’ll find something else that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t stopped and paused – something that seems to appear out of nowhere and simply fascinates me.

It’s truly wonderful when waiting facilitates awareness and being rather than habitual doing. Actually, it makes all the difference in the world!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Art of Noticing

The Art of Noticing

“A shaft of gold light streams across my field of vision as I stare at the yellow pinewood floor this afternoon. Specks of dust are illuminated, whirling and sparkling, dancing. The chickadee’s song goes into my scalp and down the back of my spine like liquid notes turned into heat. The sun is warming one side of my face.

I am so at peace. There’s nothing more to need or want. Nowhere I’d rather be. The humming of my mind is at rest, like sediment that has settled to the bottom of a glass of water. It’s still, perfect. There’s a warm, deep, calm feeling permeating everywhere.

How could I have missed this pleasure for so many years?”

Citation: Dobisz, Jane (2008). One Hundred Days of Solitude: Losing Myself and Finding Grace on a Zen Retreat. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Most summers, I go kayaking nearly every day and spend some of the time paddling hard and getting exercise and the rest of the time slowing down and noticing with intensity. At times, I look for something in particular, such as a great blue heron or bald eagle. I know what kind of tree the bald eagles favor and scan the branches and leaves ever so carefully. Other times, I just keep my senses alert and receptive, curious about what hidden treasures may be revealed.

Since my river time is greatly reduced this year, I’ve found a new sanctuary in a nearby park. I especially enjoy retreating to the labyrinth, which is surrounded by flowers of all shapes and colors. Every time I go there, I expect to notice something new – perhaps a new kind of flower blooming, a different kind of butterfly, or the sunlight passing through a flower at just the right angle.

The labyrinth is a magical place. After walking through the threshold, I focus my attention on my footsteps, making it a walking meditation. At the beginning, some thoughts enter my mind, and I try to let them pass like clouds in the sky above me. As I proceed along the winding path, I usually begin to notice sounds. Today it was birdsong and crickets. And I really connect with the flowers and flower energy, too. Whether I’m listening, seeing, or focusing on my footsteps, one thing I’m not doing is thinking. Thinking cannot occur when you’re listening, seeing, or noticing deeply. And that is why the labyrinth is such a magical place for me. I become absorbed in pure sensory awareness and am released from the tyranny of the chattering mind for a while. It is wonderful.

Blessings and beauty reveal themselves as I walk the labyrinth, and when I exit through the threshold, I’m never the same as I was when I entered. I feel more peaceful, serene, harmonious, aware.

Last weekend, it rained one morning, and once the rain stopped, I felt compelled to go to the park. When I got there, I was drawn to a patch of lilies and entered “the zone” in which my sense of sight was heightened. Eckhart Tolle would call it “entering the Now.” It is that place of no-thinking, just sensory awareness. I noticed a tiny green tree frog inside a yellow lily.

I immediately fell in love with this little frog who gazed at the center of the lily as if in awe. I imagined myself as only an inch long and realized what a fascinating sight the center of that flower must be!

Or the center of an echinacea flower, vibrantly colorful and otherworldly with countless tiny green spears and larger orange ones that gradate into red at the tips. How could bees and butterflies resist such a spectacular sight?

Walking on the peninsula trail between the river and the canal, I was struck by how beautiful leaves and berries looked with the sunlight shining through them.

Inside the labyrinth, I watched a giant swallowtail butterfly fluttering its wings at lightning speed as it touched down on one flower after another.

What I am describing is fascination. Fascination with the little things that tend to go unnoticed. And fascination with larger things that are often tarnished with opinion and mental commentary.

Today, I returned to the park and once again found a tree frog nestled inside a lily.

Here is a closer view:

That tiny frog looked so calm, almost as if s/he was meditating or praying. “Life is good,” thought the little green tree frog nestled protectively inside a glorious pastel universe!

Then I walked the labyrinth. There weren’t any new flowers calling to me, so I focused on my footsteps and on sounds. And then all of a sudden, I noticed the shadows cast by grass and small plants on the slate tiles of the labyrinth!

How exquisite! Each slate tile had become a piece of art as the sun and adjacent plants interacted with it! I have walked this labyrinth countless times. Why hadn’t I ever noticed this before?

Because there is always something new to notice.

This opens up a whole new creative world! And that’s what I love about not thinking: Possibilities emerge all of a sudden. It’s as if the guard at the gate is asleep, and creative ideas can slip right in.

Beauty truly is everywhere when the mental commentary subsides. And this is true outside of the labyrinth, as well.

Since my last post, the PCB dredging barges moved even closer, and one is currently anchored right in front of our house with four more right behind it. I have had months to come to terms with this, and since I can’t do anything about it, I figure I might as well be fascinated, just like I was with the tree frog in the lily and the butterfly on the echninacea.

The lights at night are actually quite beautiful reflected on the water, if you don’t think about why they’re there.

Fascination is a much more pleasurable manner of traveling through life than grumping and groaning or believing we know all there is to know about the world around us. Life takes on a whole new dimension when we allow people, places, things, living creatures, etc. to surprise us, in a good way!

“Attention is an alchemy
That turns dullness to beauty
And anxiety to ease.”
-Steve Taylor

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Under the July Full Moon

Sat on the dock last night without a camera because in this case words come closer to describing the sublime perfection of the moment…

Moonlit Symphony

Mint forest has been cut
back to make room
for lavender, the sweet
leaves plucked
for tomorrow’s use, and
Now the full moon
and not having anywhere to
Be in the morning
lure me to the dock, where
waves lap softly against
the shore, melodic tinkling
of liquid wind chimes,
middle voice.
Invisible breeze passes
through foliage turning trees
into soft rustling tambourine bass
as buzz of night-singing insects
become egg shakers gliding
along the top this gently
percussive evening.

The round moon swims slowly,
steadily through a sea
of illuminated clouds until it
rests, floating
in an ocean of dark blue,
luminous and full.

Reflections of moonlight
on the wavy surface below
shimmer like fireflies along with
thousands perhaps millions of real
fireflies flickering in the yard,
becoming stars in the sky:
So many kinds of light!

Glowing moon moves
perceptibly between the first
two of five parallel power lines;
since I first sat down, it has floated
twenty degrees along
its celestial arc, touches
the first finish line (like a number
on a clock) and continues on.
All is well in my world. All Is
Thank you thank You Thank You.

Heading back to the house,
make no mistake: That tree
is singing. I stop, feeling rooted
and still and Listen then
Ask: What am I?
The answer comes in tree-song;
I understand.

Listen, says the night,
to the moonlit symphony.
Come out and sit for a while
In deep blue, luminous
Perfection.

© Susan Meyer 2013

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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