A few evenings ago, there was a spectacular sunset on the river. From our east-facing side of the river, we tend to experience glorious sunrises and occasionally stunning sunsets, as well.
That evening was one such occasion. Puffy, white clouds reflected clearly by the calm water lured me into my kayak.
I almost didn’t bring my camera. Leaving the house, I assured myself the phone camera would suffice. I wanted to travel lightly and focus on paddling, not photography.
But in a moment of stopping and waiting for traffic to pass before crossing the road, I experienced an intuitive nudge to go back inside and get my camera. And it’s a good thing I followed that voice because 45 minutes later, I floated on a river of awe.
Once again, I realized what a difference a “sacred pause” can make in receiving intuition, inspiration, and wisdom that goes unnoticed when we’re immersed in a cloud of thought.
When I paddled to the other side of the river, the puffy clouds that lured me onto the river were not visible. Unless they left their houses, people living on the east side of the river wouldn’t have known they were there! From that side of the river, I could see a large cloud over our house. (Actually, it was over the hill behind our house.) The clouds to the west were illuminated differently than the clouds to the east. This particular cloud was backlit and outlined with the most beautiful light. The idiom, “Every cloud has a silver lining” came to mind.
From inside our house in the river valley at the bottom of a hill, we wouldn’t have any awareness of it. Similarly, we usually only get a very faint indication of breathtaking sunsets happening at the top of the hill that are visible from the west-facing side of the river.
While floating in my kayak, I thought about how our view of the world is largely determined by where we “live” – literally and figuratively. Which way we face and what portion of the sky we’re exposed to. Residents of one side of the river might have a very different perception of the landscape than those on the other side or up on a hill in either direction. Some might look forward to sunsets instead of sunrises or experience longer periods of sunlight than we do in the valley. We might be totally unaware of what is clearly visible on the other side of the river, and vice versa. The only way to have a wider perspective is to travel to someone else’s yard – perhaps on the other side of the river or up on a hill – and see from their point of view. Then you might understand what it looks like from where they are and how their ideas developed.
I loved living on one side of the river and seeing the sunrise and working up the hill on the other side of the river and catching the sunset…although that usually meant I was working later than I should have been!
Seeing the clouds on the river that evening also brought to mind an experience I had last year when a person of interest enrolled in one of my photography courses. Realizing people in general were more sensitive and angry in the wake of all we’ve been through, I was concerned this person’s presence could be distracting or even triggering for some. The situation the universe pitched my way was an invitation to grow and ended up being deeply transformative for me.
Whereas I had time to prepare, the other participants didn’t. I wanted to be able to manage skillfully whatever dynamics might arise and relate to all participants as human beings, not roles.
During our first session, after talking about some technical stuff, I turned to more inner aspects of photography, which is where the juice is for me. I talked about how nature photography can serve to connect us both with nature and with other people. I explained that I know most of our river neighbors on both sides of the river between the two locks. We river neighbors don’t necessarily share the same views of the world. However, our shared love of the river unites us. We talk affectionately about bald eagles, herons, egrets, loons, swans – and commiserate about the bridge noise. Sometimes a neighbor will even notify me when they see something interesting on the river that could be a photo op.
I feel a deep sense of connection with all of our river neighbors because of this shared experience of living on the river. And the connection even goes beyond the Hudson River. When I talk about living on the Hudson, there’s an instant connection with anyone who’s ever lived on a river.
I love that my river neighbors help me to become aware of what I didn’t see because I was focused on something else. I love seeing what the sky or fog (for example) look like from their perspective when they share pictures. And sensing their appreciation for the river helps me to see their goodness – their inner light – even if we hold different views. Our views are just a small part of who we are as human beings, and it’s important to remember that. Our views and opinions, no matter how strongly held, are not our essence.
The point I was making in the photography course is that the participants were drawn to learning about nature photography because of some kind of caring, longing, or appreciation. We had something in common beneath the surface that brought us together. And months after the course was done, I learned what drew the person of interest to my course and that we had something else in common, on a heart level. No matter how differently my river neighbors or participants in my classes might relate to current events, I’ve learned to look deeper, for our common humanity. Usually, there’s some kind of caring or wounding if you dive down deeper.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow asserted:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each [person’s] life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
It doesn’t mean you do anything different on the outside. You don’t need to move to the other side of the river, so to speak. It’s an inner shift that allows you to perceive someone as a whole person, not an ideology, viewpoint, or role. You won’t lose yourself by adopting a greater perspective unless the ideology or viewpoint forms your identity. If you identify with it, it might feel threatening to see the goodness and integrity of someone on “the other side” of an issue. But we are so much more than our beliefs and conditioning. Who we are at our core has nothing at all to do with that.
The problem isn’t that we hold different views. It’s when an ideology of any sort becomes our identity. Because at that point, we stop perceiving ourselves and others as the complex human beings that we are. Instead, we relate as one ideology to another, which is diminishing and potentially dangerous.
Opening your heart to the goodness of someone who seems different from you also doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the effects of the personality. As I’m sure we’ve all learned from experience, some personalities can be very destructive and damaging. They’ll drain your energy if you let them.
Focusing on the goodness and losing sight of the harsh realities of certain personalities can make us vulnerable to being mistreated by them…unless we also see and value and want to protect our own goodness and integrity. My recovery from an abusive situation focused not on demonizing the other person but on acknowledging my own worth, looking deeply into why I became so invested in caring about them, and practicing better self-care. Whenever they come to mind now, I wish them well and carry on. Or as the Jimmy Buffet song goes: Breathe in, breathe out, move on.
Listening to the Voice
An experience I had yesterday morning seems somehow related to all of this.
There’s a deck of inspirational cards displayed in our kitchen. There are hundreds of cards in the collection, and every month, I count out enough for each day of that month. So every day, there’s a different card displayed.
Before going to bed the other night, I looked at that day’s card. A Rumi quote was printed on it:
There is a voice that doesn’t use words.Listen.
When I woke up in the morning, I opened up the Insight Timer app to do a guided meditation. Every day, a new quote appears when you open up that app, and what quote do you think came up that morning? That same Rumi quote! So I paid attention and took it to heart.
A little later that morning while editing photos, I found myself singing Olivia Newton-John’s song, Have You Never Been Mellow. I hadn’t heard that song in – well, I can’t even remember the last time! My association with the song was from my childhood, when it was released on vinyl. My dad was a fan and had the album. I loved listening to my parents’ records when I was in elementary school. That album was one I played and danced around to.
So there I was editing photos and singing the refrain, over and over. And then I felt a presence behind me, wrapping around me. It felt like my dad.
The Rumi quote came to mind, and I stopped editing photos and became present to the energy. Then I heard my dad’s voice inside me, offering loving advice. He wanted me to set myself free from the way I was thinking about money – his way. And he gave me permission to do so. Then he said: You’ve been walking around with my voice in your head for too long. Let it go. I couldn’t see the whole picture when I had a body that got in the way. You focus on what really matters. Let go of the rest. It’s your life, not anybody else’s.
I was in tears because it was very powerful to hear this message coming from my father’s energy. I’m in the process of decluttering my parents’ belongings from my storage unit. But I was torn between having a yard sale and donating the stuff. I imagined my dad would have tried to sell it first rather than give it away. Obviously, my parents had no use for it anymore. However, I felt I should honor the value they placed on their possessions. And that was holding me back. So the message was deeply meaningful and liberating.
What really stood out was the part about having a body that gets in the way of seeing the whole picture. It’s like not being able to see the whole sky from where we are in the river valley. We can only see a portion of it, and it might look very different from what our neighbors across the river or anywhere else in the world can see. We might have hills or mountains obstructing our view. Or the limitations of our physical senses. Or the beliefs we’ve had conditioned into us or otherwise adopted as truth.
The late Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers six mantras of true love. The sixth one is: “Darling, you are only partly right.” This could be uttered in response to praise, criticism, or viewpoints from your inner voice or from someone else. It also can be applied when we are glorifying or devaluing someone else or otherwise creating an idea of them based on where they stand in relation to what we hold dear.
Instead of relating to someone as an idea we have about them, is it possible to allow ourselves to relate to them as actual human beings inhabiting this river of life and experiencing emotions, delusions, pressures, and suffering, just as we do? Maybe a different flavor, but the same basic experience. The experience of clouds passing through the sky of awareness and obscuring the light of our true nature.
Another Rumi quote comes to mind:
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
That is the challenge and the invitation I’m weaving from all of these experiences. Can we wish for all beings to be well, happy, and free from suffering – even those on the “other side”? It doesn’t mean enabling or turning a blind eye to injustice and suffering. It means first tending to and developing our own hearts. Then bringing a wise and loving heart into our relationships with others.
With actual people, not ideas of them.
I never would have imagined pictures of clouds would have led to all of these words, but there you go.
Last week, I spent a morning at the park with my six-year-old granddaughter who loves to explore nature. When we make a list of what we’ll do when we’re together, her first choice is always to take a walk at a park and go exploring.
This time, she was especially interested in sampling the mineral springs and interacting with the ducks. But I also drew her attention to the stump of an old willow tree that had new life growing from it. I’ve been observing the “baby willow” for the past year. (Or maybe two years? Seems I always have to add an extra year due to the Covid time warp.)
When we got up close to the tree stump, we were surprised to find a female duck waddling inside of it. Then we realized she was there because she had a nest tucked away inside a nook!
I photographed the nest quickly and respectfully then moved along, to give her privacy. My granddaughter already was off and running in the direction of more ducks to quack with.
It didn’t seem like the willow stump treasures made much of an impression on her. But it wasn’t long before she made a new friend, who was sitting with his mom at the edge of the pond also observing the ducks. When they went off exploring together, the first thing she wanted to show him was the willow stump secrets.
The mama duck wasn’t there when they returned, so they went inside the trunk for a closer look as the boy’s mom and I tried to catch up to them. From my vantage point, they seemed to be steeped in a moment of awe and wonder.
It’s funny: I won’t run to the grocery store to fetch a missing ingredient, and I tend not to head into town to run just a single errand. This is one of the ways in which my life has changed since the pandemic began. I keep a running list of errands, groceries, etc. and try to check them off in as few trips as possible.
It’s an opportunity to practice patience, improvisation, and creativity. It’s a little game I play, and I play it because I find it worthwhile. Plus, it’s good for the planet to limit the amount of driving I do.
However, if I wake up inspired with a photography idea, it’s a whole different story. Off I go, whether or not any errands can be tacked on.
That’s exactly what happened after looking through the images I took at the park when I was with my granddaughter. The composition of one in particular felt a little off. It would have had greater depth, context, and meaning had I shifted my lens a little higher.
Before I knew it, I was back at the park with camera and three lenses in tow. After recomposing the image I went there for, I lingered for a while, experimenting with “seeing and being”. Zooming in and out. Being still and planted like a tree, taking in the landscape visually, emotionally, and artistically.
I returned to the willow stump and discovered a second nest of eggs inside another nook—with a mama duck sitting on them!
It was a beautiful, Sunday (May Day) morning, and the park was fairly busy. That meant I had to wait for people to move out of my camera frame when I couldn’t hide them behind trees. Such moments are great opportunities to practice mindfulness and patience. (When you have a mindfulness practice, moments of waiting take on new possibilities.)
I watched many people stop to take a closer look at the huge willow stump and the baby willow growing from it, without ever noticing the camouflaged secrets nestled inside.
Observing & Reflecting
I also waited to make some wider landscape images and ended up waiting for quite some time for the wider space to clear. While waiting, I observed families with young children enjoying the park together and remembered when I was raising my children. Back then, I was almost never alone. I often had one in the backpack and the other in the stroller. My children and I were together 24/7. It felt like that’s how life would always be. I had a poem on the refrigerator reminding me that there would be time later for what I wasn’t able to do while immersed in the important work of mothering young children.
That time arrived eventually. I pursued interests and career paths, always learning and growing…and with a lot more time to myself. And so there I was a couple decades later, standing alone with my camera in the park on a picture-perfect May Day morning.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the young children running around chasing the ducks would grow up. What would their lives be like? What challenges would these families encounter?
There was one little girl and her dad who stayed within my frame for a long time because the little girl was so fascinated by the ducks. She chased them, and after they moved away from her, she ran around a tree instead. Then she explored every square foot of earth, or so it seemed from where I stood. The little girl had a lot of energy. Her dad allowed her to explore while hanging back yet remaining present. I enjoyed watching their body language and considered composing a picture in which his caring posture was part of the landscape, but it felt voyeuristic. The mom was ahead of them pushing an empty stroller with a slightly older, less energetic child at her side. It seemed the dad was on daughter duty, giving the mom a bit of a break.
I imagined that two days prior, my granddaughter and I had looked much like this father and daughter, only older. But the same basic idea.
As I observed the dad and daughter from across the stream, a male duck waddled into the willow stump, as if to check on the mama duck and make sure everything was okay. A few minutes later, he waddled back out and into the adjacent stream where a few colorful, male ducks cleverly drew people’s attention away from the willow stump. I presumed he was the daddy duck.
Interestingly, when I looked at my images later, I zoomed way in and noticed the word “mate” right there in the nest. I hadn’t noticed it at the time, for I was too far away. It appeared to be part of a longer word that was folded, with “mate” being the only part visible. I became fascinated and intrigued by this image—which I thought of as Mother Nature’s oracle card for the day.
All week, I was drawn like a magnet to my images of these duck mamas-to-be. A number of situations arose that were out of my control, in my personal life and in the world, and I felt vulnerable. For example, I received a massive car repair bill and wondered if I was being taken advantage of. I listed some items for sale on Marketplace and encountered stealthy scammers whom fortunately I was a step ahead of. My bank had to send me a new debit card because my card somehow had been compromised. Stuff like that. Family stuff.
One of the messages I receive from the mama duck images is that caring is a quiet and often unnoticed, but ever-present and natural force in the world. It’s not loud and showy like those who seek personal gain through taking advantage of, controlling, manipulating, putting down, and objectifying others for whatever reason.
Be wise and discerning. And don’t give up hope, for caring abounds in this world, even now. It just doesn’t tend to draw attention to itself or make headlines, for that’s not what it seeks. Caring always finds a way.
I also saw the duck mamas-to-be doing their best to create a nest of safety and caring in a bustling, unpredictable environment.
Despite our deepest intentions, we can’t always keep our children safe. We can’t transfer our experience and wisdom to them. We can’t direct the course of their life or prevent them from suffering. That’s not our responsibility, it’s not the point, and we only suffer more when we try. But we always can care and be there for them. We can listen deeply without sharing our unsolicited advice, opinions, or concerns—or at least that’s what I’m practicing right now.
My experience of motherhood has not been anything like I imagined and envisioned it would be when I was pregnant with my first child. At times, it’s been pretty brutal, and I swear I signed up for the accelerated learning plan here on Schoolroom Earth! It’s certainly been a path of deep compassion, humility, and surrender. My children have been and continue to be my greatest teachers.
The space between our expectations/desires and reality is a breeding ground for suffering. Thank goodness for my meditation practice and time spent in nature, is all I can say! They help me to let go of the stories of what life is/isn’t or should/shouldn’t be and find balance and inner spaciousness, many times a day when challenges arise.
So there I was alone at the park with my camera, waiting for the scene to be people-free, watching children chasing ducks and interacting with their families. Feeling my feet on the ground, feeling into my body, aware of my breathing, receiving impressions of the environment through my senses, and feeling connected with the life around me. Wondering what these young families will go through as the children grow up and what challenges they face now.
Realizing many other families have had or will have similar experiences—that my experience isn’t unique—has grown my compassion tremendously. There is so much I would have passed judgment on prior to experiencing what I have in this messy, human life.
I don’t normally spend time in nature with my camera in busy places. However, that Sunday morning visit to the park presented a whole new invitation beyond practicing mindfulness and patience in those moments of waiting. It was an opportunity to practice lovingkindness, as well.
Lovingkindness, or metta, is a practice of wishing others well and cultivating caring. All of the people and families who passed through my camera frame were opportunities to send more lovingkindness into the world. Humankind is struggling now, and I silently wished the passersby:
May you be well.
May you be kind to each other.
May you enjoy this beautiful day.
May you live with ease.
May you be free from suffering.
May you know that you are loved.
Generating lovingkindness made the waiting times much more enjoyable. By the time I left the park, I felt more connected to all the life around me. Not just the ducks.
I woke up this morning to a fairly ambitious agenda and after settling into the day, got to work.
Eventually, I looked up from the computer screen and noticed the movement and the vivid blues of the river landscape outside the windows. The flowing river is the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning. Windows and mirrors throughout the house offer glimpses of the river as I move between rooms during the day. My desk in the corner of the sunroom provides a front-row view.
I never know what will come flowing down the river from one moment to the next. Sometimes it’s a poem, and all of a sudden writing it down takes precedence over everything else.
Being With Nature
This morning, sky and river are so blue:
Clouds and waves flowing as if
Carried by conveyor belts.
The sun shines in the sky,
Sprinkles down handfuls of sparkles
To dance on the water
With contagious laughter.
Right now, it makes no sense
To be indoors staring at a screen.
It is time for a break.
Look out a window. Give attention,
Receive something in return
Without trying. Let the mind rest.
Allow the heart and inner senses
To take over for a little while.
Follow the impulse to go outside
And caress the earth, one footstep
At a time, free from any destination
Other than true presence and relationship.
Become aware of the messengers—
Hawk, robin, loon—whoever appears.
Listen to the invitation.
How are you being asked to show up?
And can you say yes?
Just as we are restored and inspired
By the embrace of the natural world,
So, too, does Nature delight in the kiss
Of human eyes, ears, feet, tender touch.
The interplay of sunlight or water
On bare skin, wind in hair,
Footsteps on the earth,
Have you sensed the merriment
Of wind playing with your hair
And how the notes change across
Moments and conditions and differ
From the songs of wind chimes
And willow trees?
Have you experienced the rhythm
Of flowers swaying in the breeze
And how the very same rhythm
Moves through you, beneath the surface?
Go outside. It is time to celebrate,
To whisper or dance or sing: I am here, Love.
Last month, my twentysomething son was out driving at night on a country road close to home and hit a patch of black ice. He experienced the out-of-control donut movement before taking a wild ride through the ditch. After what he described, I assumed he was stuck in the ditch and was surprised when he told me he was continuing his errands. Especially because he said part of the front of the car was missing.
So this happened at night. He eventually came home, and since it was dark, we decided to take a look in the morning and deal with it then. Of course, I went to bed that night grateful there were no other cars on the road when he spun out, and to still have a son to say goodnight to.
In the morning, my husband came into the house from outside and asked if my son realized his rear license plate was missing. That was news to me and also to my son. My husband couldn’t believe he didn’t get pulled over for a missing license plate – especially when my son said there was a police car right behind him at one point during his travels.
We all went outside and took inventory of the car. Sure enough, a piece was missing from the front driver’s side, and the rear license plate was missing, too.
What to do first? Look for the license plate.
The two of us took a drive in my car to where he went off the road and looked for missing parts. We found the front piece but not the license plate. We also found another set of tracks through the ditch that looked like it had been an even wilder ride. A friend of mine also had an accident in roughly that spot a few years ago involving black ice.
My son’s tracks came within a yard or two of a telephone pole. While we were taking in the tracks and looking for parts, several cars went by. I was grateful all over again for the outcome being much better than it might have been. I think he was, too.
We drove up and down the road a couple of times in case the license plate didn’t fall off in the ditch. Maybe it was dangling and fell off after he was back on the road. But we didn’t see it anywhere. Did someone take it? Maybe the police?
Back home, we kept looking at the car and the empty spot where the license plate used to be, wondering what had happened to it. Maybe someone brought it to the Department of Motor Vehicles?
There were two things that needed to be done. We needed to have a mechanic survey the damage, and we needed to turn in the one (somewhat mangled) license plate and re-register the car with new plates. After some consideration, we decided to visit the mechanic first.
My son drove the car to the mechanic and stayed as the car was put on the lift and slowly raised above his head. As the car was lifting up, my son was surprised to discover the license plate was still there! It had been there all along! It wasn’t covered by snow or mud. It was there in clear view!
He texted me a picture of the car with rear license plate intact, and I was astonished. How could it be? All three of us didn’t see that license plate. My husband was the first to notice, and after he shared the news with us, we weren’t able to see the license plate that was right there in front of us. The license plate only became visible to my son when he saw the car literally from a different perspective, and the license plate was at eye level.
The power of suggestion! It blew my mind.
My husband explained that he was looking for the license plate lower than where it was, and that’s why he didn’t see it. It reminded me of something I experienced with my dad many years ago.
When my parents were alive, they had a ring-toss board from my dad’s childhood on the wall in the family room. They kept their keys on the hooks on that board. One time I was visiting, and my dad was frustrated because he couldn’t find his car key. He was looking all over the house for it. He told me what the key looked like, and I started looking for it, too. I looked at the ring-toss board and found a key that fit the description. The problem was that it was on a different hook than he normally kept it on – I think the next hook over. Because he expected it to be on a specific hook, he didn’t see it on another one. Focused narrowly on that one hook, he couldn’t see the rest of the board.
That brings to mind a Sufi story of the holy jester, Mulla Nasrudin. Someone was walking home one night and found Nasrudin on all fours searching frantically for something under a streetlamp. The passerby asked what he was looking for. He said was looking for his key. The passerby helped him search for it. Eventually, he asked Nasrudin if he had a sense of where he might have dropped the key, and he answered that he lost it inside his house. The passerby wanted to know why, then, he was looking outside for something he lost inside his house. “Because there’s more light out here under the streetlamp,” he replied matter-of-factly.
Kind of a tangent, kind of not. How often do we look outside of ourselves for the answers we’re trying to find and believe what others tell us because it’s easier than searching within ourselves?
After the license plate incident, I wondered what else I’m not able to see due to the power of suggestion. What else have I or am I regarding as truth because someone else declared it to be so, and then I couldn’t see otherwise? We get these ideas in our heads, and then they bias our perception. We see the world through the lens of what we believe to be true. And the three of us couldn’t see a license plate that was right there the whole time. Then came the moment when our eyes were more fully open, and we marveled at how we couldn’t see it before.
Happens to me all the time in nature. All of a sudden, something that’s been there all along will catch my attention, and I’ll see it for the first time.
So I’ve been chewing on this ever since, holding my “truths” a little more lightly and bringing an attitude of curiosity. Is there any other way to see this (whatever it is)? It is possible that I’m not seeing the whole picture? That I’m fixating attention in the wrong place?
I do still have my opinions and beliefs. But I’m also willing to be wrong or not completely right. To not judge others who hold conflicting opinions. To be curious about their views. To have as my compass what feels right and peaceful when I dive below the layers of ego to a deeper, more encompassing state of being. Which is why I meditate. Sometimes turning attention inward and sitting quietly with yourself helps you to find that lost key – or license plate, as the case may be.
As you probably know by now, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master, and activist considered to be a father of mindfulness in the West, passed away more than a week ago. He was 95 years old.
I received the news of his passing and subsequent memorial updates via emails from Plum Village, a global community of mindfulness practice centers and monasteries in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately called Thay by his students).
Often news of deaths are announced, “with a heavy heart” or “with great sadness”. However, the Plum Village email began: “With a deep mindful breath, we announce the passing of our beloved teacher…”
When I saw the email heading announcing his passing, I experienced an emotional reaction that felt like a jolt of sadness in my body. Then I read on and remembered to breathe.
During the memorial week, I spent a lot of time engaged with the comprehensive Plum Village memorial resources, which includes chants, meditations, teachings, readings, songs, calligraphies, photos, and live-streamed videos. Although there were invitations to connect through the Facebook group, I’m on a month-long Facebook fast, so I didn’t partake in that. However, I imagine much deep, inspired sharing took place there throughout the week.
Invitations for the memorial week from the Plum Village website included:
Practice sitting and walking meditation together
Reflect deeply on the impact Thay’s teachings has upon our lives and on the world as a whole
Generate the energy of mindfulness, peace, and compassion in his memory
Generate loving gratitude
Come back to mindful breathing.
I witnessed via YouTube the daily, memorial events and breathed with the monastic and lay communities gathered to honor him. There were so many chat comments streaming during the live videos, and I felt tapped into and immersed in a global community dedicated to mindfulness, peace, and compassion.
It was a blessing. Like a balm in the midst of the world-as-it-is right now. There is all that topsy-turvy stuff, but there is this, too. How gratifying and enlivening to be part of it.
Honoring Those We’ve Lost
I’ve reflected quite a bit on the losses I’ve grieved in recent years and how my relationship with deceased loved ones has continued to deepen and blossom after their passing. I feel so much more intimately connected with their essence, which is deeper than the shell of personality that has fallen away.
It seems to me the best way to honor and memorialize our loved ones who are no longer with us physically is to become a little more of what we loved about them. To receive some of their beautiful qualities into our own being and radiate them into the world. Doing so allows their essence to continue being expressed in the world. In this sense, we are their continuation – which is an idea that came up a lot during the memorial week and in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.
We are the continuation of our beloveds’ flowering in this world. The relationship continues on (and can even improve), along with their essence. Realizing this would make the dying process easier for everyone involved. Death does not the end the person or the relationship.
The River of Life
In addition to being an internationally renowned Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh was also a calligrapher and poet. His calligraphies and poems captured the essence of his mindfulness teachings. The Plum Village website offered some of his calligraphies to download, and I was especially drawn to:
Go as a river
Smile to the cloud in your tea.
I really appreciate the river and nature imagery in his teachings, especially those related to the water cycle, seeing as I’ve lived on the Hudson River for the past 13 years. One thing I’ve learned from talking with others who have lived on a river at some point is that the river becomes part of you and can even form or enrich your spirituality.
It’s been a very cold month here on the Hudson, and I’ve watched the river transform with the arctic temperatures. The frozen parts have expanded further from shore on both sides of the river. However, in front of our house there is still a channel of water flowing visibly down the center, uncovered by ice and snow. Today it’s deep blue, reflecting the clear, blue sky.
Looking out the window, I see flowing water, snow, ice, clouds. As the sun rose this morning, there was peach fog, as well. So many manifestations of the water cycle, which is my favorite metaphor of the our cycle of birth, life, and death.
Thich Nhat Hanh offered a lovely “Story of a River” that resonates deeply with this “river girl”. Here is an exquisite musical meditation of the poem, along with the written text.
Returning to the Breath
During the memorial and funeral services, the commentator reminded us gently to return to the breath. It’s there, like a thread (I see it as a red thread) that runs through our entire life. We lose it as we get immersed in daily life but can find it again in any moment. It’s a lifeline that brings us back to something deeper and more spacious than our personal and collective dramas and the stream of non-stop thinking.
How often are we aware that we are breathing? How often do we actually enjoy it?
I use the Mindfulness Bell in the Plum Village app to remind me to stop and pay attention to my breathing throughout the day. Each time the bell rings (I have it set for every 20 minutes), I become still and take three deep, conscious breaths. I’m grateful for the Mindfulness Bell practice inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.
He described a mindful breath as “the treat you get to enjoy” when you attend fully to your in-breath and out-breath and offered several gathas, or verses, to accompany breath awareness. For example:
Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.
There are many breathing verses found in the body of his work, that can help us to practice present moment awareness with the breath.
He also taught the art of mindful living, which is bringing mindfulness “off the cushion” and into daily life, to become more aware of what you are doing from moment to moment. In this way, mindfulness is not something you have to try to fit into your life. Instead, you remember to bring mindful, loving awareness to what you are doing, whether it’s brushing your teeth or having a conversation. This helps us cultivate joy and gratitude.
Although it’s not common practice in our society, I showed up for two cremations: my mother’s and my father’s. Both times I was alone. Nobody else was interested in attending the cremation and probably thought I was out of my mind to even ask permission to do so. But the funeral director didn’t bat an eyelash and made arrangements with me about where and when to meet so I could follow the hearse (both times) to the crematory in Bennington. Which looked like a garage attached to the back of a funeral home. (Very different from the imposing mausoleum and crematory I used to walk by every day when I worked at Syracuse University.)
I was invited to push my mother’s cardboard casket into the crematory retort and then push the button to start the flames. After that, I wasn’t invited to stay and didn’t think to ask if I could. I was told when to return. For a while, I sat in my car in the parking lot next to the crematory, visualizing my mother’s body dissolving into light and any impurities or negative karma being transformed and purified into wisdom.
Then I walked around Bennington for hours, alone. I gravitated to a river that runs through town. Later, I walked past a children’s clothing shop with a pretty dress in the window and burst into tears because it’s a shop my mother would have loved. It was surreal walking around an unfamiliar town by myself while my mother’s body burned. I felt sad and lonely. Eventually, I picked up her cremains and drove for an hour back home.
For my father’s cremation, I pushed his cardboard casket into the crematory retort, pushed the button, and then was invited to stay as long as I wanted and to come and go as I wished. I was alone, but it was very meaningful to be there. I was not with my dad when he took his final breath, and being present for his cremation was an opportunity to show up for him and reflect on my life with him and our relationship. After a long while, when it felt complete, I left the crematory and took a walk and a drive. I ended up at the poet, Robert Frost’s, grave, which I didn’t even know was in the cemetery I was drawn to magnetically. Then I received the call to pick up his cremains and returned home.
My two cremation experiences were in stark contrast with Thich Nhat Hanh’s very public cremation and cremation rituals in other countries. It was profound to witness his funeral procession and cremation along with a global sangha. A sea of monastics sat and breathed, chanted, did walking meditation, and listened to poems and songs shared in his honor as the fire burned. They sat and held space the entire time – from one day into the next.
It was a beautiful, albeit somber, shared experience. The commentator reminded us to put our palms together and follow our breath in certain, poignant moments. Which is good advice for life in general.
I lit incense and candles and breathed throughout the whole procession. I was touched by the loveliness of the procession itself and the lush greenery along the route through the monastery grounds. I wondered what it was like for the photographers there and anticipated many incredible images.
When the procession switched from walking to driving, I stood in front of the TV screen, as if I were one of the many bystanders along the route in Vietnam. I felt part of a global community.
My son was home when I watched the funeral procession to the cremation site and the cremation itself. He had plans to be out of town, but the weather kept him home. At times, he sat with me, asked questions, and listened to anything I wanted to share about how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings helped to form my mindfulness practice and aspiration to teach mindfulness meditation. He was in and out of the room and after a while sat down and asked me how I sense witnessing this will change me.
Great question. I aspire to be a deeper expression of mindfulness, peace, and compassion.
That night, a bitter cold wind howled outside, shaking the trees and the house. I fed logs to the wood stove in the living room as a sacred fire burned on the other side of the planet. The time difference was exactly 12 hours. In Vietnam, it was morning as the cremation began, and the weather was warm and sunny, in stark contrast to our frigid, blustery night.
Just like the community-witnessed cremation was in stark contrast to my solo experiences holding space for my parents’ cremations…which could have been beautiful experiences of sharing, reflecting, storytelling, appreciation, and mindfulness if anyone else had joined me. If our culture wasn’t so standoffish, let-the-professionals-take-care-of-it when it comes to death rituals.
Another answer to my son’s question arose a couple days later: Thich Nhat Hanh’s funeral services and memorial resources have awakened in me new ideas for how we might honor and memorialize deceased loved ones (on a much, much, much smaller scale), beyond the traditional funeral services and obituaries.
I’ve spent the month of January envisioning the new year, becoming clear about what’s most important to me and what wants to be expressed through me. Both a five-day, solo retreat at Light on the Hill Retreat Center and Thich Nhat Hanh’s memorial week took place during my envisioning time and truly enriched the process.
Spiritually-supportive community and friendships came out right at the top of my list of what’s important. It became clear to me that trying to do so much on my own isn’t the way forward. I’m inviting more collaboration and community into my life.
By the end of the memorial week, I had chosen my inspired word for the year: Connect.
I aspire to have more connection and community in my life that values nature, befriending the planet, and cultivating mindfulness, peace, and compassion. I had plenty of spiritual community for a few years, when I participated simultaneously in the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach and the Hidden Treasure program at Light on the Hill.
While involved in those programs, I also sat with a local dharma group weekly for a while (until it resumed meeting in-person again during the pandemic). As both programs wound down and I had begun teaching mindfulness meditation, I began sitting with another local sangha (spiritual community) in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. My commitments often conflicted with the weekly sits, so I let that go for quite a while. However, realizing how important it is for me to be part of a local sangha and resonating so much with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I returned two weeks ago.
That was the day before he passed away. What auspicious timing! The universe nodding yes.
Reflecting on Intention
I often invite participants in my mindfulness meditation programs to bring to mind what drew them to the session and to having a meditation practice. In other words, what’s your Big Why?
Remembering this can really benefit your practice and motivate you to practice when you might not feel like it.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing inspired me to remember what and who inspired me to begin meditating so many years ago. He was one of my earliest influences, whom I discovered more than 30 years ago. My spiritual mentor (who is the spiritual director at Light on the Hill) gave his book, Being Peace, to me as a wedding present in the early 90s. I appreciated his emphasis on sitting beautifully, as if on top of a lotus flower, and mindfulness being a source of happiness. Very different from the image of a whack of the Zen master’s stick bringing you back to the here-and-now when your posture slacks!
Throughout the past week, I revisited his books, including several children’s books, that were written in practical, accessible language. These books have been part of my personal library for many, many years. Opening them feels like connecting with an old and very wise friend on the path.
It reminds me that we are participating in a conversation that began before we were born and will continue after we are gone.
This morning, with temperatures barely out of the single digits, I felt called to the riverside. The river was beginning to freeze, and I was transfixed by the juxtaposition between parts that were frozen solid in place and parts that were still fluid and flowing.
More than a week ago, I shipped my camera off for repairs. My husband is letting me borrow his camera for the time being. It took a few days before I picked it up because, well, it’s not my camera. But I can’t resist photographing the river as it begins to freeze, so I headed outside with the less familiar camera.
I must have stood at the river’s edge for a good half-hour photographing, filming, and observing the freezing river. A few minutes into the first video, I noticed that a long chain of ice plates, stretched as far as I could see, had stopped flowing. Several minutes later, it began flowing again. A little closer to shore, there was buildup of the delicate ice plates and a sound that’s music to my ears, similar to a crackling fire as the moving ice plates came in contact with stationary masses.
I happened to be there at just the right time and filmed it all. It was amazing and extraordinary.
However, when I transferred the video to my computer, my expectations were quickly deflated. It turns out I had the camera on autofocus instead of manual focus, and the autofocus completely ruined the videos. Every few seconds, you could hear the sound of the camera refocusing, and the focus kept blurring and shifting around. Like autocorrect, autofocus doesn’t always get it right and sometimes gets it horribly wrong.
When I complained to my husband, he quipped, “Didn’t you talk about this in a photography class?”
Not what I wanted to hear in that moment. although he was right. In more than one class, I stressed the importance of taking a moment to pause and check your camera settings. Instead of jumping right in and allowing emotional excitement, or in this case cold weather, to distract you from drawing on your knowledge base.
Grrrrrrrrr. I did not pause to check the settings, and this was a basic one. It was another live-and-learn moment.
There are two things I’m quite certain I won’t do again, after learning the hard way in recent weeks:
Make a nature video on that camera with autofocus on
Begin a guided meditation on Zoom without first asking participants if they can hear me.
But I digress.
Jack’s comment, though irritating at first, helped me to see the humor, stop blaming the camera, and name what was present: frustration and disappointment.
It’s kind of magical when you name your feelings. It puts some space around them so you’re not completely identified with or overcome by them. Instead, you can be in relationship with them.
The space allows another voice to come through. A voice that says: I will try again throughout the day or tomorrow morning. At least I don’t have to drive far for this. It’s right in front of my house.
However, I noticed the uncomfortable, physical energy of disappointment was still present in my body.
That’s when I remembered what was going through my mind as I watched the freezing river flow. Right there in the moment, the sight brought to mind the importance of letting feelings flow. Let it flow, let it go were the exact words that came to mind.
I recalled how surprised I was when the long chain of ice plates came to a standstill. I hoped they would start moving again. When they did start moving several minutes later, I felt a sense of relief. I also recalled that it was more satisfying to witness the flowing parts of the river than the ones that were frozen solid and not moving.
Like emotions themselves, impressions you receive from nature can be data about your state of being. Like looking into a mirror. Outer nature reflects inner nature, as inner nature is drawn to certain details in outer nature.
I allowed my body to move as it wanted, to move the emotional energy along, like the ice parade flowing along the river. It seemed to help.
So no, I did not make a satisfying video this morning. They were all duds, thanks to autofocus being on. Maybe I’ll have another chance tomorrow morning. Maybe I won’t. (As the sun sets this evening, the river appears significantly more frozen than it was this morning, so I’m not feeling hopeful.) But nature revealed something useful to me this morning, for which I feel grateful.
I was there at the moment the flow stopped and when it started again. I witnessed it and found meaning in it. The video didn’t come out as anticipated, but I received something of value from simply being there and observing it.
Even if I hadn’t walked away with a reminder to let emotions flow rather than get stuck, simply being on the riverside taking in the remarkable sight and sound would have been enough. A moment of pausing and being present.
Another message I received from being outdoors this morning:
There is beauty in the world. Get away from your screens, and go outside. The beauty you seek is seeking you. Go find it.
And so I went back to the river’s edge and took a few more pictures with the unfamiliar camera. After first checking and adjusting the settings, of course.