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Category: Kindness & Compassion

The Magic Mixer

The Magic Mixer

One evening, I was making oatmeal raisin cookies and took my grandmother’s electric hand mixer out of the cabinet. I often use other methods for whipping up a nice, fluffy batter, but sometimes I’m drawn to the mixer. As I used it to beat the cookie batter, my energy shifted. I began to feel what I assumed my grandmother felt when she made cookies for loved ones or whipped mashed potatoes for a holiday meal. The pleasant feeling grew stronger and felt like love and joyful anticipation of being with family. Her energy and love came through the hand mixer so strongly!

Then I felt her presence even stronger behind me, like a hug from behind. It filled me with happiness, and I cried happy tears! She’s been gone for seven years, and I miss her.

Some inherited objects are like conduits of energy, portals into a departed loved one’s heart. That’s why my grandmother’s electric hand mixer survived my epic decluttering event last year. When I held it in my hands to determine what to do with it, I felt her spirit and decided to keep it. I call it the “magic mixer” because, in a way, it brings her back.

There’s something special about a grandmother’s love. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. It tends to feel more purely unconditional than a parent’s love because grandparents tend not to worry so much about things parents lose sleep over. There’s a kind of wisdom and perspective that comes from launching your own children, from which you can view the inevitable challenges and understand that much of what parents worry about is small stuff. Much smaller than parents in the thick of parenting tend to believe. Grandparents can see the bigger picture and assure subsequent generations, “It’s going to be alright. You’ll see.”

What I’m trying to articulate is that, generally speaking, parents can get so caught up in the day-to-day business of raising children that it’s harder to see the forest for the trees. They have lots of balls up in the air and get tired, stressed out, and snappy. The parent-child dynamic tends to be stickier and more controlling than the grandparent one, and to be fair, I didn’t give my grandparents the “attitude” I reserved for my parents! The parental ego can get so tangled up in children’s successes and failures, and even without meaning to, parents can make you feel like you’re not good enough as you are. 

Not so with grandparents, or at least not in my experience. I attended an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talk in Tampa back in the early ’90s, and she asked us to think of one person who gave us absolutely unconditional love. I was in my early 20s, and my grandmother came to mind. Kübler-Ross followed this question by suggesting it’s often a grandparent who’s present to us in such a steady, unwavering way.

That’s how my grandmother was. She was my rock. When I looked in her sparkling, blue eyes, I didn’t see the worry I saw on my parents’ faces. I saw my goodness reflected back to me. I’m sure I gave her plenty to worry about, especially with the divorce when my children were young. But she still came out with reassuring words when my parents weren’t able to, and she made light of their reactions. We had a special bond.

I’m reading a book called Walking To Listen by a young man named Andrew Forsthoefel, who walked 4,000 miles across the United States after graduating from college because he wanted to hear people’s stories and wisdom and understand what it means to be an adult. He was on a quest for guidance and found it, sometimes in the most unlikely people and places. The book falls within my favorite genre: people walking on a quest for personal transformation.

One sentence I read the other night really spoke to me. During his travels through Alabama, he was taken in by a pair of grandparents, and the woman told him about when her mom died. When she remarked to her priest that she felt like an orphan, he replied, “You are not an orphan. You are a matriarch.”

Truly, in any moment, we can choose to focus on what is missing or what we’ve got.

I dreamed of my two-year-old granddaughter the other night. In the dream, she came up to me and exclaimed, “Mama!” (which is what she calls me because she can’t pronounce “grandma” yet) and collapsed in my arms, as if I was her safe place, just as my grandmother’s heart and home were mine. Little Ava needs the purely unconditional, grandmotherly love I can give her. I want to be her rock, like my grandmother was mine. She will need a rock. Don’t we all? Someone to be there for us unconditionally, who reflects our light and believes in us always.

That’s the energy I felt when I used my grandmother’s electric hand mixer. Grandmotherly love, as both a granddaughter and a grandmother. I am new to this grandmother thing, but the love I experienced when using the mixer felt like a form of both guidance and connection. It was like holding a compass in my hand. A compass that points to love.

There is a choice in moments like that to lean into grief or gratitude. I could cry because I miss her and feel bad about the way her life ended in a nursing home. Or I could embrace how her spirit connected with me, grandmother to grandmother, and seems to be guiding me in my new role, which she inhabited gracefully for 45 years.

Little Ava. She’s the one who most needs me to reflect her beauty, light, strength, and goodness. I am motivated to be the best I can be not only for myself but also for her. May she see her own reflection through me and how I love her. By loving her unconditionally, may I plant seeds for her to cultivate self-love. Hopefully it won’t take her until she’s 50 to do so (like yours truly), but that’s her path and her business. My part, my responsibility, is to love her…without any strings or conditions. Just love, like my grandmother did for me.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Two Questions

Two Questions

For a while, I’ve felt inspired to write about the topic I’ve been immersed in all year. You could call it  mindful self-compassion.  Or self-love. Or tender loving self-care. I still haven’t settled on a term that feels just right, but I think you get the gist.

Since my mom passed away 3 1/2 years ago, I’ve noticed a loving, motherly voice growing stronger in me. It arises in my heart and reminds me to be kind and true to myself. I’ve been on an intentional journey of self-love for the past 11 months and in that time have learned to be my own best friend and to treat myself the way I would want my children to treat themselves: with kindness and compassion. Whereas I used to have a really strong Inner Critic, in recent years, that gentle, loving, nurturing voice has overshadowed it. It’s not just because my mom passed away. It’s because I’ve set an intention to feel better about myself. Because the old way wasn’t working. Something had to give.

And the great news is that IT DID! I took all the love, kindness and nurturing I’d given to others for so long and turned it on myself, and it has made such a positive difference! I’m eager to share my journey of self-compassion because I realize so many people struggle with it and know from my own experience that it doesn’t have to be that way.

That’s why I was really caught off-guard a couple weeks ago when my Inner Critic paid me a visit. 

One night, I was working on a project that took longer than anticipated and had some late night momentum going. After completing each step in the process, I asked myself if I should go to bed and continue in the morning or push through and get more done. Each time, I chose to keep going, though I knew better. By the time I finished, it was 12:30AM, and I was tired

The next thing I knew, it was 1:15, and I was still awake in bed. 1:30…2:00.

Finally, I realized a familiar tape was playing over and over in my mind. My Inner Critic had slipped in and made herself at home, or as Eckhart Tolle would put it, my pain-body was becoming active after a period of dormancy. It seemed like she had been waiting patiently in the shadows for me to leave the door open unintentionally so she could slip in and feed on my suffering. In a nutshell, here’s what she said:

You have no value and nothing worthwhile to offer.

Your life has been a series of mistakes.

You are unlikeable.

Nobody is interested in anything you have to offer.

You are invisible and forgettable. Nobody notices or remembers you.

It’s not that I totally believed these cruel messages, but I was overtired and didn’t have the energy to defend myself against them. The voice caught me by surprise in the middle of the night, and I just wanted it to stop! But I was too tired to open up my toolbox and be resourceful. Where was that kind and loving voice that didn’t allow the Inner Critic to get through the door? Asleep, apparently.

The next morning, I was still exhausted, vulnerable, and at the mercy of my unwelcome visitor. When the bill for having my son’s car towed from another part of the state came to more than three times what I expected (because I miscalculated the mileage), it was too much. The critical voice became even louder.

I’d already been feeling disheartened because my calendar sales have been down this year. In addition to investing quite a bit of money to produce a beautiful calendar, I paid for a Constant Contact subscription to improve communication with my mailing list subscribers – which seems to have reduced my mailing list by 75% because my heartfelt emails now end up in promotions/spam/junk folders. In addition, creating Facebook promotional ads was exasperating!

This probably sounds really boring, but it’s the stuff I wake up fretting about in the middle of the night. I felt like I’d been doing everything I should be doing, and it just wasn’t working. That disempowered attitude, combined with inadequate rest, set the table for a visit from my Inner Critic.

Contrast that to the prior weekend: I woke up Sunday morning determined to take good care of myself but didn’t get any exercise before I had to go to work. I drove to work wondering why I didn’t make time for self-care. Was I on a mission of self-sabotage? I wondered. But I was well rested and assured myself that although I can’t do anything about how I spent my time that morning, I’d do my best going forward because it feels bad when I let myself down, and I don’t want to feel bad. In other words, when the Inner Critic knocked, I met her at the door, told her I wasn’t interested in what she had to offer, and sent her away.

I didn’t invite her in and let her drain my energy and convince me of my unworthiness. Didn’t go there at all because I realized it’s counterproductive and had the energy to choose a better response. During my half-hour lunch break, I put on my sneakers and got fresh air and a vigorous walk. And it felt amazing because there were so many other things I could have done with that time, and I chose the best thing of all. 

Recalling the previous weekend’s experience was enough to remind me that I could disengage my attention from the rude visitor and ask: What is the best thing I can do right now? Then I dried my tears and somehow mustered up the energy to deliver my greeting cards, calendars, and a few framed photos to a totally awesome shop that expressed interest in them. Because I remembered how good it felt to do the best thing I could do, and I wanted to feel that way again. 

The following night, I went to bed earlier but woke up again in the middle of the night to that awful voice. This time, I was a little more rested and challenged my Inner Critic by asking: Is that really true?

Um, no. Unequivocally NO.

There was nothing left to say. With that answer, I escorted my uninvited guest to the door. Soon I was snuggled under a blanket of peace and fell asleep.

What is the best thing I can do right now? 

Is that really true?

These questions can cut through all the woe-is-me, I’m-a-loser nonsense and bring your focus back to the present moment, which is where your power lies. As I see it, the only reason to revisit the past is to learn from it (with an attitude of curiosity, not self-judgment) or to reframe it and create a new, more empowering story. 

The visit from my Inner Critic was an occasion to set aside the shoulds. Instead of pressuring myself to write a blog post, for example, I took walks and baths because those activities ultimately were more important and nourishing and helped me find my way back to my center. When I’m not adequately rested, I don’t have the strength to defend myself effectively from the Inner Critic. At such times, the best I can do is to assure myself that I will be stronger after I’ve had some good sleep. I realized, once again, the importance of getting plenty of rest because I don’t like feeling so defenseless! I want to feel good!

Once I had a couple nights of good sleep, I felt like my empowered, self-compassionate self again. I woke up and, standing at the river’s edge, photographed the sunrise. I greeted the rising sun as if it were a great teacher I was excited and grateful to meet. Each morning, we receive the gift of a new day, a fresh slate, and that is no small thing.

I stood at the riverside and promised to allow it to be its own, unique day and not superimpose any of yesterday‘s patterns on it. Allow it to unfold as it is, and with gratitude, give to this new day the best possible, rested and resourceful, version of myself.

© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

A Radical Idea

A Radical Idea

I was all set to put the finishing touches on a different blog post this morning when – BAM! – another idea came into my head, so I rolled with it. Or it rolled me (which is more what it felt like)! So here goes…

Going through my photos last night, I rediscovered pictures from my stay at Omega Institute a few years ago, including the inspirational designs (above) I came across on the path to the meditation chapel. 

You don’t need to ‘better’ yourself…You are perfect already.” -Gangaji

How does it feel to read these words? Do they challenge everything you’ve been taught to believe about yourself? Can you dare to believe them? 

Dear one, can you afford not to?

The words remind me of a few lines from a poem I “happened” to open up to this morning in one of my favorite books, The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master (translations by Daniel Ladinsky):

Your life within God’s arms,
Your dance within God’s 
Arms
Is already
Perfect.

(Please don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. If “God” doesn’t work for you, feel free to substitute a word that does. There are so many choices.)

Just imagine if THIS were your truth instead of feeling you’re not good enough right now as you are or beating yourself up – which is not productive and is a surefire way to block access to your true strength and power. Some people are afraid that if they believe they are already “perfect” (If perfect is too much of a stretch, perhaps magnificent will do?), they won’t be motivated to improve themselves and will be crippled by inertia. But that’s not at all how I see it.

The other night, I thought about my almost-two-year-old granddaughter and wished her life weren’t so challenging. Then I reminded myself what my spiritual director has told me countless times: I don’t know what anyone else’s soul has come here to learn or experience. Maybe everything is exactly as it should be for her to learn and grow the way her soul wants to in this lifetime. Perhaps the experiences she’s having are exactly what she needs, and I can trust her path while loving her unconditionally and supporting her to the best of my ability (which includes having healthy boundaries, which is something I’m working on…).

Then I thought of others I know who came into this world with a brilliant mind and so many talents. So much potential, so many gifts. And mental health challenges that might include anything from run-of-the-mill personality quirks to serious illness and/or addiction. Perhaps the contrast is exactly what we need in order to grow and learn on a spiritual level. Perhaps reconciling it is our path. Perhaps it’s not about trying to do better or accomplish more or live up to some “great potential” or standard you feel you’re constantly falling short of. Perhaps it’s more about the qualities that can be developed as a result of your gifts intersecting with your challenges. Humility might be part of your path. Or loving yourself for who you are rather than who you think you should be. Dropping all the shoulds and embracing the magnificence that you already are, that is intact and undefiled by anything you have experienced or done in the world. 
 
I have brought two babies into this world and have witnessed firsthand the magnificence/perfection that is our unconditioned state. It is always there, waiting for us to return to it (even if it involves doing some bushwhacking). To rediscover it. To let it find us. To embrace it. To say YES, this is what I am, regardless of what anyone has convinced me otherwise.
 
Imagine the weight we put down when we dare to believe we are a unique, perfectly flawed expression of the Life Force that connects us all, warts, scars, and all. It frees us to improve on the perfection that we already are and experience more of our boundless nature.
 
THAT is what comes to mind when I look at the inspirational designs I photographed at Omega. It’s about believing in someone who faces challenges I can’t even imagine living with and keeps falling down and getting back up again with greater humility. Believing in myself when I wobble off-center and feel like a hopeless misfit. Believing we are inherently good at the core and can choose to access our innate goodness and power rather than cut ourselves off by believing we’re flawed, deficient, broken, and hopeless. Of course we are flawed, along with everyone else, and that’s part of our perfection as human beings! We are as we were created to be, so let’s make the best of it and see what we can do and be when we release ourselves from the bondage of negative self-thought!
 
© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
A Dragonfly Story

A Dragonfly Story

I was on the front porch this afternoon doing some work when I happened to look up and notice a dragonfly just outside one of the windows. It made me smile because I have a special place in my heart for dragonflies.

But it didn’t fly away or land. It just kind of hovered outside the window. As I watched it, the hovering seemed rather unnatural and odd. I began to suspect it was caught in a spider web and got up to take a closer look.

Then I noticed the dragonfly begin to spin fast and also noticed a tiny spider a few inches above it spinning its arms like a masterful puppeteer. (Honestly, it reminded me of Voldemort in Harry Potter.) Clearly, this dragonfly was in a deathtrap and in the process of being bound, paralyzed, and eventually having the life sucked out of it by the hungry predator it was now powerless against.

Well, with all due respect to spiders and their fantastic webs, this was not going to happen on my watch! I was not about to stay put and watch a beautiful dragonfly become a lifeless shell of its former, dazzling self. No siree!

Not knowing if it was too late, I grabbed a long object (since the web was higher than I could reach), bolted outside and batted at the web until the dragonfly became detached from the spider and the web.

The binding process had only just begun, and I saw that there weren’t many sticky threads attached to the dragonfly yet. So I picked it up and brought it inside to inspect it. There were bits of sticky web and binding threads caught on its delicate wings and legs, and I began to remove them ever so carefully, knowing not to touch its fragile wings.

The dragonfly stayed with me for about a half hour as I tended to it and gave it all the love I could. Every now and then, it flew away only to drop to the ground because there were still some threads attached that restricted its movement. Eventually, I managed to get the last bits of spider web off, and the dragonfly flew out of sight.

This little creature must not have realized how close it was to danger. Then it got caught in the web that at first sight probably didn’t look so dangerous. It got too close, got stuck, and couldn’t break free. It must have been terrified when it realized how sticky the web was and how powerless it was against it! And then the very hungry and merciless spider sprang into action. At that point, I imagine the weak dragonfly gave up hope that it ever could break free from the situation and probably thought: What’s the useI’ll never be that brisk, shimmering being again. 

But even in your bleakest moment, you never know who’s looking out for you – who will step in and act on your behalf and watch over you as you recover from the trauma and clear the sticky debris from your wings…because even though you are a tiny dragonfly, YOU MATTER.

The point is: Don’t give up. Even when the situation seems hopeless, and all odds seem to be against you, somebody just might be looking out for you, ready to take action to help you get your wings untangled from the web that seemed so impossible to release yourself from. You might even have a guardian angel working behind the scenes, perhaps in response to a loved one’s prayers for divine intercession. I don’t know how these things work, only that the dragonfly wasn’t paying close enough attention and ended up in the web, and I happened to notice at just the right time.

I often wonder if trees experience time the same way humans do. If so, I imagine being rooted in one place for such a long time would feel like eternity! But I suspect time moves more quickly for trees and probably more slowly for dragonflies, whose lifetimes are so brief compared to humans. That half hour in my care (not to mention the time it was caught in the web) might have felt like years to the dragonfly. Perhaps it felt like a very long time for it to recover from its brush with death in the spider web and rid its wings and legs of the sticky debris so it could once again fly right. Perhaps it required patience – the trying, the falling, the humility of it all, and having to give it a little more time before trying again.

I like to think that when it finally did fly off – perhaps back to its dragonfly family – it did so a little wiser as a result of what it had experienced, with greater knowledge of the nature of spider webs, what to look out for, and how to avoid them in the future. Perhaps the dragonfly flew off with a renewed sense of purpose, a better understanding of its strengths and resources, and a realization that there is goodness in the world and that it is loved deeply.

Thank you, my little dragonfly friend, for giving me this parable. I hope you are zipping around again, feeling loved, and sharing your survival story with all your dragonfly friends. And I’ll share it with mine because it is a story of hope, and I know quite a few people who could use a little of that right now.

© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Mother’s Day Anyway

Mother’s Day Anyway

I did not intend to write a Mother’s Day post. I meant to write about ferns, which I fell in love with all over again this week. However, when I walked the labyrinth this morning, I realized that ferns will have to wait.

Tomorrow will be my first Mother’s Day without my mom, and I wanted to pretend it’s just another day. Skip it. I made it through the week with my kindergartners. A substitute teacher read them a Mother’s Day story, and my classroom volunteer took the lead in helping the children put together a Mother’s Day gift. She bought all the supplies and planted flowers in terra cotta pots they decorated with Sharpies. She is an angel.

While walking the labyrinth this morning, it occurred to me that the best way to remember and honor my mom on Mother’s Day is to be the person she raised me to be. The person virtually every mother tries to raise her child to be. Simply put: A good human being.

There is a big difference between being and doing. My mom and I were forever at odds when it came to doing – the more superficial layer that made us appear to be so different. Being is who we are at the core, and it is where we are much more alike than we are different. It is the manner in which we travel rather than what we do along the way.

As a mom, I know from personal experience what mothers want for their children and how forgiving they are. Our moms don’t want us to suffer or have a difficult life. They want us to thrive.

I know my mom would want me to be happy, kind, and hopeful about the future. She’d want me to be gracious and to bring light to this world.

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Spend more time with family.

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Keep company with people who are good to me.

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Work hard but also relax and have fun.

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She would want me to do what I love

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…and to continue growing and cultivating new interests and friendships.

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She’d want me to have a smile for everyone I meet – and that is probably the biggest and easiest thing I can do to carry on her essence because it comes naturally to me.

My mom modeled all of these qualities to me for nearly 50 years, so I have had a good teacher.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama often describes his mother as extremely warmhearted, kind, and gentle and considers her his earliest teacher of compassion. He explains that when we are babies, our survival is completely dependent on our mothers, and therefore we learn warmheartedness and compassion from them. He advises parents to give children maximum love and affection so they may develop these qualities. Some mothers are kinder and gentler than others, and I was fortunate to have an extraordinarily nurturing mom who made you feel like the most important, wonderful person in the world. This didn’t only apply to her own children but to everyone with whom she interacted. That is how many people describe her. Being raised by such a loving, nurturing mother not only helped me develop those qualities but also served as the basis of my belief in a benevolent and forgiving Universal Life Force.

After walking the labyrinth, I went to my dad’s house, where my mom’s tulips were in full bloom. Her gardens look so lovely this year, and I spent quite a while walking around the yard photographing them.

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How wonderful that her flowers continue to come up in the spring even after she has departed from this earth. The flowers represent ways in which my mother made the world more beautiful – acts of kindness that carry on.

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The dainty lilies of the valley caught my attention. No flower transports me back to childhood like lilies of the valley. They grew at the edge of our yard right next to the swing set when I was young and emitted such a sweet fragrance that must have combined with leisurely hours of play to produce a sweet, indelible memory. I used to imagine that if you shook them gently, lilies of the valley would tinkle like little fairy bells.

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Upon spotting the lilies of the valley, I had a mental image of a few lily of the valley sprigs on the kitchen windowsill inside a miniature vase I got from a trip to Hawaii. I remembered how fragrant the mini bouquet smelled when I walked by and knew that if my mom were still alive, she’d clip a few lilies of the valley and put them in that little vase with the broken handle to brighten up the kitchen. So that’s what I did!

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Sometimes we parents are surprised when our children don’t recall experiences that we believed would make a big enough impression to be remembered. But sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that become planted deep inside us and grow into lifelong memories. Tiny but comforting gestures. As a mother, I find hope and comfort in that.

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As much as I have wanted to just wish Mother’s Day away, it happened anyway – a day early. And it seems my mom even made an appearance! As my dad and I drove past the local recreational field,  a car was backing into the road from the parking lot just as we went by. It was my mom, in her car (the same one in which we were driving)! I exclaimed, “There’s Mom!” It was so matter-of-fact, but when I was alone afterward, it hit me: Perhaps she has been trying to get through to my dad, but he needs some help to notice? Several friends have claimed they have seen her, but this was the first time I saw either her or her twin with an identical car! There’s more to this story because of the context in which it took place, but I’ll just leave it at that.

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Last night I went through pictures of my mom to send to someone who is making a video about the hospice house in which she died, and I came across pictures of her and my grandmother together. They both died within 3 1/2 years. Each was the epitome of kindness. Until recently, I was able to lean on them for the nurturing that nobody else in this world can provide. But now they’re gone, and I am the matriarch even though I don’t feel ready to step into that role. I didn’t see it coming so soon! It is a role I will need to grow into, and I hope everyone will be patient with me. I’ll get better at it as time goes on.

Fortunately, my mother and grandmother provided me with nearly 50 years of role-modeling, and every time I act with kindness and compassion, I feel their spirits being channeled through me. And thus, their legacy lives on.

Although many tears have been shed today, I realize I’m not alone walking this twisting, turning path of grief. And that does bring some solace. My heart is with everyone else who is missing his or her mom on Mother’s Day.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. 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.

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.

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