This summer, the river that runs by my front door has been my refuge.
On the river, everything is so normal and predictable. It could be any summer. The sun and moon rise and set on schedule and travel the path they always do, undistracted by human drama. Birds sing. The water lilies open and close at the same time each day.
I speak insights and words of gratitude into my online journal through my phone (set to airplane kayak mode), and herons and eagles have an uncanny knack of appearing suddenly out of nowhere and flying overhead as if to underscore certain especially resonant and relevant inspirations. The other night, I was on the river doing this under the moonlight, and instead of a heron or eagle, it was a shooting star that appeared like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that had brought me to tears of homecoming.
It’s downright magical and sacred on the river.
This stretch of the Hudson River is the church I attend almost daily. It’s been keeping me balanced and centered as 2020 continues to carve its unpredictable and uncharted course through human and personal history. It’s taught me how to stay and to deepen my connection with the life around me. When I teach meditation classes, I use the phrase “on and off the [meditation] cushion.” But out here, “on and off the river” carries the same meaning.
There is a small spot on the riverside nearby just large enough for a family or small group of friends to enjoy the river and launch kayaks. It’s been getting a lot of use this summer, which is great. However, people often leave behind their garbage. It’s been happening more noticeably this year than in the past.
One day, I paddled by this spot and was disgusted and saddened by the sight of trash piling up. It fit a basic theme of selfishness that was pissing me off. So of course that’s what I saw. A narrative arose in my head about people who feel entitled to leave behind their garbage in the name of personal freedom. I saw selfishness, irresponsibility, a lack of caring and concern for others and the earth.
I paddled away feeling irked. And separate from and somehow better than the people who left behind their trash. But it didn’t feel right. As I paddled on, I asked myself how far down the river I was going to carry these feelings and assumptions.
The great thing about having a regular meditation practice is that I can catch myself sooner when my mind goes over to the dark side. And once you realize what’s happening inside your head, it opens up a field of spaciousness in which the heart can speak.
I realized that just as people can do better with cleaning up after themselves, I can do better than judging them.
So I paddled along with a prayer in my heart:
May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that causes us to do harm. May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that leads us to exclude others from our heart.
That felt better because I was back in connection with my fellow humans.
Our human struggles and the demons we wrestle with are universal, even though they may look different on the surface. We get triggered, addicted, distracted, stuck. We fall short, miss the mark, make mistakes. It is the human condition.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when we stop blaming others and making them wrong and instead take an honest look at ourselves and our reactions, we become empowered. Because the one and only person we can change is you-know-who. When we shift the way we look at something, new possibilities can come to light. We can find a better way to hold a situation so we can see expanded possibilities and take some kind of positive action.
Opportunities for Caring
If we explore a little deeper, we’ll likely find that underneath our anger, indignation, and judgment is some kind of caring. The light of love, kindness, and compassion wants to shine forth, but the ego tends to obstruct it when things aren’t the way it thinks they should be.
The caring in me resonated with ideas such as putting a small sign at the spot on the river inviting people to enjoy it and to remember to carry out their trash. Maybe leaving a box of bags in case they didn’t think to bring their own. Or putting on some gloves and cleaning up the spot myself. We can see an opportunity to be of service and shine our light instead of another opportunity to disconnect our hearts. Instead of just photographing and griping, I can bring a bag and be part of a solution. I can share my images and ideas and be part of a productive dialogue.
The great news is that before I had a chance to do that, someone else had come along and cleaned it up! Another caring heart.
I’ve paddled by the littered spot on the river many times since and started reflecting on how it is connected with the other things we find unacceptable in our world, in our lives, and in ourselves. Might they, too, be opportunities to shine more light and love?
I’m thinking of issues participants (mostly female) in my mindfulness meditation courses bring up – that often resonate with me, too. I find it so beautiful when one person voices something they’re struggling with and others reassure them that they understand and that they’re not alone. Which is the truth. So often, we feel alone in our struggles, as if nobody would understand. Or maybe (God forbid!) they’d judge us. But we’re never alone. Our struggles really aren’t that special!
For example, instead of seeing weight gain as moving in the wrong direction or being unacceptable, could it be an opportunity to love your body more, not only when it meets your expectations but also when it doesn’t? With practice and intention, might feelings of disappointment or disgust cue you to take a breath and beam love to the parts – of your body, your life, your world, your past – you deem unacceptable?
I often do this during self-Reiki and chakra work. It’s a beautiful practice, and it really is a practice that you do again and again. As your capacity for mindful awareness increases, those familiar feelings of shame can cue love, compassion, acceptance, and even appreciation! And the kind of love that inspires you to give your body/life/world what it most deeply thirsts for instead of what is merely habitual. Without beating yourself up – because you realize punishment is neither a necessary nor effective path to well-being.
Might anxiety or white coat syndrome be an opportunity to bring more love and kindness to yourself, and to be less judgmental? To listen to what your body is saying when it gets your attention through a sympathetic fight-or-flight response, instead of trying to whip it into submission? Instead of creating more tension and dissatisfaction through resistance?
Blame and disconnection.
“I’m right, and you’re wrong.
Regrets and mistakes of all kinds.
What do you see in a heap of garbage on the side of the road? When you look in the mirror? When you take in community and world news? When you communicate with someone who doesn’t see the world as you do?
Can we learn to hold what we repel in a different, more spacious way so new, more empowering and caring possibilities can arise? Can we include them in our circle of lovingkindness so they can awaken our natural wisdom and compassion instead of keeping us rigid and stuck?
Yes, we can. Held the right way, the demons we wrestle become allies that help us to evolve. To love better.
There’s a spot on the Hudson River I paddle to almost every day. It’s my quiet place of solitude. It’s just large enough to pull my kayak onto and do some walking meditation, back and forth for 15 to 20 paces.
This is a new spot for me. Normally, I wouldn’t linger in this part of the river because it’s fairly narrow. If a motorboat comes zipping by, there’s no escaping the wake. However, this year there hasn’t been much boat traffic on our stretch of the river between locks 5 and 6 – presumably due to section closures in the canal lock system. Works for me! It’s been the best summer for kayaking in the 12 years we’ve lived on the mighty Hudson.
And that’s all good because this summer, I’m practicing staying. I’d love to visit the ocean or the waterfalls in Ithaca, but staying close to home is a worthwhile experiment. I don’t see it as deprivation or a loss of freedom but as a gateway to greater freedom. I’m learning to stay where I am and more fully appreciate what’s right here. This learning to stay practice deepens gratitude, presence, and creativity.
Needless to say, I’m getting to know this tiny, rocky sliver of a “beach” intimately.
This weekend, my attention was drawn to dragonfly exuviae (exoskeletons) attached to the rocky wall I walked alongside. The exuviae were well camouflaged and hidden in plain sight. But after I noticed the first, I noticed several more. I see them all the time on lily pads and blades of river grass, but I was able to examine the ones on the rocky wall more closely and became fascinated.
I noticed the opening out of which the dragonflies emerged and imagined the newborn dragonflies resting on their exuviae as they got used to their new dragonfly bodies and wings. Wings! Their winged bodies were trapped inside these shells.
Photography is and always has been a spiritual practice for me. The images I’m drawn to reflect and offer insights into the questions I carry. I often think of them as mirrors that reveal something about myself and the world around me.
The dragonfly exuviae carried some kind of insight or message – I could just feel it – although I couldn’t pinpoint it at the time. And anyway, that’s not what walking meditation is about. Be present now. Analyze later.
But I smiled whenever a dragonfly zipped by.
Later that day, when I looked at the images I captured, I sensed dragonfly exuviae offered metaphors for this season of molting and transformation and growing wings and not holding myself back by clinging to what is merely familiar. After all, I resigned from one of my part-time library jobs this week, to put more attention where I’m feeling called. Even though I loved that job, my co-workers, and many of the patrons.
But things have changed. Since March, I’ve been providing mindfulness meditation courses for library patrons, continuously. At the beginning of this year, I never would have imagined my library work could transform into that. It was a dream come true. But as the library moves toward reopening more fully, I realized that I’d rather continue delivering mindfulness programming as a contractor than wipe down public computers as an employee in the “new normal”.
Dragonflies molt many times during their lives, and each time is a new beginning, a new chapter. So I saw the exuviae as a reflection of this new chapter.
But then something happened last night that brought up challenging emotions. I took a walk along the river at the park this morning and was triggered by an interaction with a couple I passed on the trail. When I realized we wouldn’t be able to keep the recommended six feet of distance between us, I put on my mask and offered a cheery “Good morning!” as I passed them. They ignored me completely, and I felt sad about the lack of civility. Normally, I’d be able to let it go, but I was still carrying sadness from last night and therefore was more sensitive.
I truly believe that all feelings have positive intention. Instead of pushing unpleasant feelings away, we can acknowledge and allow them and welcome them as messengers and teachers. We can pause to feel our feelings and discover what kind of wisdom they offer.
A little voice in me told me to stop at a quiet, secluded spot up ahead and sit on the bench by the river to be present to the feelings. So I did.
Hello, Grief. What can I learn from you today? What do you have to say?
I felt the energy of sadness and grief in my chest and rested my hands there tenderly. Then I noticed an image coming to mind with increasing clarity, like watching pictures develop from the old Polaroid instant cameras. The image took the shape and color of a heart. Then it broke open just like the dragonfly exuviae, and a winged, dragonfly-like being emerged from it. The dragonfly started flying around, light and unfettered by the gravity of the world. A shimmering teacher of transformation.
And a voice spoke: You are so much more than this. So much more than this challenge – which you will rise to, and which will pass. So much more than the feelings that arise. You are part of something much greater.
As I watched the dragonfly fly around in my mind’s eye, an answer came to me about some options I have. The energy in my chest subsided. I had a plan.
And then I understood more of the wisdom inherent in the image of the exuviae on the rock wall: When the world breaks my heart, maybe it’s okay because something new and more evolved is hatching from it and will show me the way, if I take the time to lean in and listen.
Take a look at your photo library or Instagram page. What images were you drawn to, and what feelings, associations, insights, etc. do they call forth? What is it you’re seeking as you go about living in this world? What is life putting in your path as a mirror or messenger so you may better understand yourself and your relationship to the world?
You can watch a time-lapse of a dragonfly breaking out of its exuviae HERE.
I’ve been asking myself some important questions lately and wondering how others would answer them. For example:
What matters most to you?
And how do you connect with it?
What consistently matters most to me is: Presence, Connection, Compassion, and Gratitude.
I connect with these qualities on a daily basis by doing walking meditation in the labyrinth, which is my sanctuary. It’s the only reason why I leave the house and has become my favorite daily ritual. It’s a meditation practice from which insights arise, and it’s really supporting me during this time of staying home during the pandemic.
After more than a month of staying home, I’ve made a series of five “labyrinth time” videos, complete with lots of uplifting birdsong. Is it a meditation? Meditation instruction? A poem? All of the above? I don’t know what to call it. All I know is that it’s real and tender and honest. (So much so that sometimes I feel shy about sharing.) These are videos for quiet moments.
Here’s what’s going on: As I walk the labyrinth, I stop periodically to dictate insights into a Google doc on my phone. Then I put my phone back in my pocket, return to presence, and start walking again. At the end of my walking meditation, before leaving the labyrinth, I record myself reading the insights and reflections out loud, accompanied by all the natural sounds. I also take pictures either before or after walking the labyrinth. This video series is my own personal chronicle of where I draw strength from during this time of deep uncertainty.
What you’re hearing is an unfiltered narration of what arises in my mind when I’m immersed in moving meditation in nature and feeling present and connected. The themes center around being intimate with what is and shifting out of expectation, desire, and thought patterns and back into presence. Repeatedly. With compassion.
And you can see the changes the natural world goes through as the weeks pass. Even as our normal routines remain collectively altered, nature keeps doing what it always does at this time of year: renewing, growing, blooming. The natural world is a steadfast background and an anchor of presence we can return to again and again.
I’m taking a few moments to reach out from my working home retreat (a.k.a. sheltering in place) to write about a topic that has been at the forefront of my mind since all this went down:
At the beginning of the month, I stepped into a new role I’d been preparing for, for quite some time: teaching a mindfulness meditation course. The first class session took place in-person and was attended by 17 women. By the second class – a week later – things had begun to change rapidly, and we weren’t able to meet face-to-face. Already familiar with Zoom video conferencing, I moved the course to that platform without missing a beat, and it’s how we conducted our three remaining class sessions. This week, I began teaching a second mindfulness course. And now a third is in the works!
Needless to say, I’ve been busy…because it’s a really good time to begin/return to/deepen a meditation practice!
As the participants in my courses report, mindfulness meditation provides real, practical benefits for navigating our lives as we adjust to new, constantly changing information and circumstances. It’s gratifying to be able to offer skills that help people to be more resilient and emotionally healthy during these challenging times when we’re experiencing so much anxiety, grief, and other strong emotions.
In today’s class, we discussed ways in which we can integrate mindfulness practice into daily life. Not just formal meditation “on the cushion” but ways we can pause for presence throughout the day. The possibilities are endless.
For example, any moments of waiting are invitations to mindfulness:
waiting in traffic/at red lights/in line (if you still go out)
waiting for websites to load
waiting for food to heat up
waiting on hold to talk to someone
waiting for your gas tank to fill
waiting for a video conference to begin.
Virtually any activity can be an opportunity to take a mindful pause and awaken a more spacious quality of presence. My new favorite is:
Hand-Washing to Awaken Awareness
In the 20 or so seconds you spend washing your hands, you can shift out of your head and whatever story is going on inside it and into presence. You can become aware of what is happening here and now: the sensation of soap lathering, the stream of warm water on your skin, the fragrance of the soap. It’s actually quite a lovely experience when you direct your attention to it.
At times, I’ve noticed myself feeling impatient and wanting the 20 seconds to be over so I can get on with what’s next. This was especially true on days when my workload was heavier. Over the course of the past couple weeks, I’ve trained myself to allow hand-washing to cue presence. As a result, hand-washing breaks have become much more pleasant. They bring me back to what is actually happening in the moment. It might be the sensations described above, the movements of the breath, or simply being aware of the energy in the feet or body as a whole while standing at the sink.
Hand-washing can ground you in the moment and in your body. And what’s wonderful about that is: It gets you out of your head and whatever trance you were in. It liberates you from the prison and tunnel-vision of thought. It’s like waking up from a dream.
Hand-Washing to Awaken the Heart
In my classes, I teach about the two wings of mindfulness that work together like the two wings of a bird: awareness and compassion. Awareness is a clear seeing of what is present here and now. Feeling the sensations of the soap and water and the energy/aliveness in your body (feet, hands, etc.) are examples of awareness. The other wing, compassion, is bringing a loving care to the moment.
Hand-washing also can be a cue for practicing lovingkindness, and here’s how: As you wash your hands, you can be aware of the greater intention behind hand-washing. By this, I mean something beyond any sense of fear that might be present. Caring for your own well-being and the well-being of others. You might send yourself caring wishes by thinking silently (or even singing out loud) phrases such as:
May I be well and healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be peaceful and at ease.
You can bring to mind someone you care about and send them well wishes, too (which is sometimes easier than sending them to yourself):
May you be well and healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and at ease.
You could even expand your lovingkindness to the whole planet:
May all beings be well and healthy. May all beings be safe and protected. May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
So as you wash your hands, you remember your wish for yourself and others to be well. This awakens the heart and generates a sense of connection, even when we can’t be with those we care about. Many people have been expressing grief over not being able to hug their parents or children, and this practice offers a different, more spacious kind of hug. You can imagine your dear one’s face smiling as you send them well-wishes while washing your hands.
Mindful Moments Matter
A new study by researchers from Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth shows that short moments of mindfulness can have profound effects on regulating emotional intensity. In other words, practicing mindfulness throughout the day counts. It’s not just about taking time out of your day to practice formal, seated meditation for months on end (though I highly recommend it if you can do it, as it deepens your practice). You can reap benefits of mindfulness practice much sooner than that, in the moment, when you switch to that channel.
Each time you wash your hands, you can consider whether an awareness or compassion practice feels most right at the moment. It gives more meaning to this activity we do so many times a day. It also liberates you from your active mind that’s so often either focused on the past (regret, grief, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, etc.) and so rarely inhabits the present moment – which is the only moment we ever have and where all our power resides.
Returning to the present moment several times a day is an empowering practice that adds up through the course of a day, a week, a month, a year. Each time you bring yourself back from the trance of thought is like doing one rep that strengthens the muscles of awareness or compassion and deepens those neural pathways back “home”. It allows you to wake up from the dream and rest in a quality of consciousness that can hold everything that arises, like the ocean holds all the waves.
The other day at work, I wanted to make some tea. We used to have an electric tea kettle in the staff lounge that took less than two minutes to bring water to a boil. It was just enough time to dash into the bathroom. Come out, the water’s ready, and back to work I’d go with a steaming cup of rooibos chai in hand.
However, the kettle has been missing for quite some time. I’m not a fan of microwaving water, so fortunately we also have a range in the lounge. Thing is: It takes a lot longer. A good ten minutes.
On my break, I decided to make some tea and stood by the stove waiting for the water to boil. It was a great opportunity for a mindful moment, as are all kinds of waiting situations. In fact, I’ve come to really appreciate waiting at stop lights, in line, etc. Waiting is an invitation to pause and be present. To practice mindfulness.
How can you be more mindful while waiting? Here are several of my favorite go-to practices:
Bring awareness to your feet. Feel them touching the ground. Notice the energy in your feet and hands.
Bring that awareness through the rest of your body, and do a quick body scan. Notice where you are holding tension in your body. Breathe some love into those areas, to release the tension. If you can’t release all of it, send compassion to yourself, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.
Take a few deep breaths, with full awareness. You might direct your breath to a spot just below your navel, and follow the whole circuit of your breath. Feel it enter your nostrils and caress the back of your throat. Notice your chest and belly float up and down as the breath enters and leaves your body. Then breathe normally with the same awareness, allowing your breath to be exactly as it is.
Look out the window, and notice what is going on in the natural world. Simply watch. At the same time, you also could be aware of the energy in your body and the sensation of your feet making contact with the floor.
If you practice Reiki, do some self-Reiki. If you don’t know Reiki, perhaps place a hand on your heart (or other area that calls for attention), and notice the heat and energy where your hand rests lightly on your body. Imagine light entering the top of your head and traveling through your arm and hand and into that part of your body. Feel love and light being channeled through your hands.
Send love and light, or lovingkindness, to someone. Perhaps someone else waiting in line or traffic or someone who is on your mind. Instead of worrying or focusing on negative thoughts, send love and light. Acknowledge that, like you, this person wants to be happy and free.
Do a little yoga or stretching. Notice how your body wants to move and which muscles want to be stretched, and allow yourself to move in that way.
All of these are ways to transform moments of waiting into opportunities for presence and connection. They are portals that bring you out of busy mind and into presence. Presence connects you with the world around you and puts more spaciousness around your thoughts and reactivity. It literally brings you back to your senses and restores balance and calm. It’s like pushing a reset button.
With practice, moments of waiting become cues for mindfulness, lovingkindness, and mindful self-compassion. A lovely, nourishing habit develops, and new neural pathways are formed. Little, mindful moments practiced regularly truly can transform your life. Presence is such a lovely gift to give yourself and everyone you interact with. It makes a difference.
I’m walking the labyrinth this morning and noticing dewdrops on blades of grass as they catch the light of the rising sun. Patches of dewdrops are visible only from certain angles. Otherwise, they are present but unseen. It’s an interplay that depends on where you and the object are in relation to each other and to the sun. Timing is also a factor because of the dewdrops’ transitory nature.
I recognized this immediately as my daily metaphor. Nature is a mirror that helps me to make more sense of the ambitious curriculum of Schoolroom Earth.
I can tell the labyrinth received some TLC recently, probably yesterday. It was neat and tidy and perfect for walking. Feeling appreciative, I stood at the end of the willow branch threshold and didn’t step into the labyrinth until I arrived fully in the space and could feel my feet on the ground, hear the sounds, and feel the breeze on my skin. Ground, sound, around.
As I walk, I notice the shadow pictures on the recycled slate steps of the labyrinth and think of all the different images that went unnoticed until I looked in a new way, and they became visible. Then I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed them before.
Isn’t that just how it works, though? You’re blind to certain realities until you’re in the right place and ready to see them. Visually and otherwise. Even when they are right there in front of you and had been all along.
All of a sudden, in one moment, breath, or footstep, it seems so obvious, and you can’t unsee the thing. I remember the day I first noticed the shadow pictures. It was like a new world opened up, and from then on, they were plain as day. Then I started noticing other kinds of shadow pictures. It was a new, expanded way of perceiving the world.
Sometimes other people can help us open our eyes. For example, one of my photographer friends shared a picture of geese floating on colorful, autumn reflections. Her image spoke to me and planted the seed of longing to notice and photograph the interaction of birds and reflections. Sharing her perspective made me aware of a new possibility.
Shadow pictures, others, self: It’s all the same. When the blinders finally come off, you see (and then can’t unsee) things that previously passed under the radar. We evolve by becoming aware of blind spots and expanding our field of vision and awareness. Sometimes it happens when there is a pressing need and we’re actively seeking a new perspective, and sometimes it happens when everything lines up just right. And when it does, there’s no value in regretting that you hadn’t seen it sooner. For whatever reason, you weren’t ready.
Just be glad you finally did, and go on from there.