Category: Mindfulness

Seven Days of Uninterrupted Mindfulness

Seven Days of Uninterrupted Mindfulness

“It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing.”

This is what I overheard one of my fellow retreatants say to someone on the phone when we were about to depart at the end of a seven-day silent vipassana meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

She summed it up perfectly.

The retreat wasn’t as I’d convinced myself it would be after reading someone else’s account online. But I think I knew all along that my results would vary. A week after returning, I feel very different than I did before going on retreat and am immensely grateful for the experience. I’m sharing my experience to provide a taste of what this kind of meditation retreat is like for anyone who may be interested or curious. Just keep in mind that your results would vary, too!

The Context

I went into it expecting a “mindfulness bootcamp” experience because of the full schedule that began with a 5:15AM bell and ended close to 10PM. And because I wouldn’t be able to read, write, use my camera, or even check the weather forecast on my phone. There would be no contact whatsoever with the outside world so we could observe our minds free from distraction. My impression was that it would be strict and Zen-like, and I dreaded the intensity, although I believed it would be beneficial in ways I couldn’t yet understand and therefore was worth doing.

When I arrived at the retreat center and was trying to find my dorm room in what seemed like a maze of corridors, a young man asked me if it was my first time there and kindly pointed me in the right direction. I asked him if he’d been on retreat there before. He said yes, and I responded, “And you came back?!” He assured me that by the end of the retreat, you don’t want to leave. Before we went into silence that first evening, I heard numerous repeat retreatants talking and started to suspect the experience would be quite different than I’d anticipated.

It wasn’t bootcamp after all. It was more like a weeklong mindfulness learning laboratory. There were nearly 100 of us, and we were well supported by comfortable accommodations, easy access to nature, skillful teachers and staff, and deeply satisfying vegetarian meals. The retreat center has been operating since Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein founded it in 1975. With more than 40 years of experience, they know what they’re doing and do it well. 

At the beginning of the retreat, we took five Buddhist precepts: 

  1. To refrain from killing living beings (including insects)
  2. To refrain from taking what is not given (stealing)
  3. To refrain from all sexual activity
  4. To refrain from false speech (not an issue when you’re in silence)
  5. To refrain from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness.

In addition, we were to observe noble silence and avoid eye contact with other retreatants for the duration of the retreat – even when we ate next to each other in the dining hall and held doors open for one another.

The daily schedule was:

5:15 Wakeup bell
5:45 Sitting meditation in the meditation hall
6:30 Breakfast
7:00 Yogi job (I was a pot washer in the kitchen)
8:15 Sitting/Instructions/Q&As
9:15-12:00 Self-scheduled practice (alternate periods of walking meditation and sitting meditation)
12:00 Lunch (the big meal of the day)
1:30 Walking
2:15 Sitting
3:00 Optional mindful movement (I did yoga on my own during this time)
4:00 Self-scheduled practice (sit/walk)
5:00 Light dinner (soup, fruit, and bread or crackers)
6:15 Sitting
7:00 Walking
7:30 Dharma talk
8:30 Walking
9:00 Lovingkindness dharma reflection/sitting meditation

For the most part, the day alternated between periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation. Walking meditation basically consisted of choosing a space indoors or outdoors where you could walk back and forth about 20 paces with full attention. Imagine what it looked like with so many people walking slowly back and forth all over the grounds! (I laughed to myself, “The zombies are walking!” because that’s what it looked like.) I was glad to learn of a three-mile loop on surrounding country roads for walking as vigorously as we wanted to while maintaining awareness. I did that every day, and it was a highlight of my day.

Every other day, we’d meet for small group interviews with one of the three teachers for an hour during self-scheduled practice time to talk about how our practice was going, ask questions, and receive personal guidance regarding our practice. We weren’t allowed to talk with each other, only with the teacher. 

In my first interview, when I commented on the demanding schedule, the teacher explained that nobody was forcing us to attend every session in the meditation hall. However, they hoped we’d at least attend the morning instructions and the evening dharma talk. In other words, there was some flexibility. We just had to be honest with ourselves about whether we were truly tired and needed to rest or were avoiding practice. I felt relieved to learn that sitting meditation could be done either in the meditation hall, an alternative sitting room, or elsewhere. Sometimes when I didn’t feel like meditating with everyone else, I’d sit alone on the balcony of my dorm adjacent to the woods and listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees. 

So that’s the basic container of the retreat, within which the inner exploration took place. 

The Inner Process

I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation more or less regularly for 25 years. However, meditating for 20-30 minutes a day or in the course of everyday life is one thing. Witnessing what was going on in my mind constantly for a full week in silence is another thing. Throughout the week, practice continued to build, presence deepened, and some issues arose. I’ll describe some of the highlights.

Thoughts inevitably would arise, and the instruction was to notice where my attention was. What am I experiencing right now? The point was to develop the witnessing presence, not to be free from thought (because thinking is what minds do) but to be free from attachment to thought – so as not to be thrown off-balance by craving, aversion, delusion, etc. Most of the thoughts that arose for me during the week could be labeled planningproblem-solving, or counting. (I’d count how many days I’d been on retreat and how many more to go, how many hours I’d been practicing so far that day and how many more to go, the number of meditators in the meditation hall during the dharma talk, etc.).

I experienced the glorious spaciousness of noticing but not processing thoughts. For the first half of the retreat, thoughts would come, but they weren’t too interesting. When I “brushed them lightly with awareness”, they tended to dissolve swiftly. By day five, I noticed thoughts with more of an emotional charge starting to arise – perhaps in anticipation of returning home. When they did, it was not time to analyze or react to them. It was time to become aware of the emotion, allow it, and notice what it feels like in the body.

For example, one afternoon I was sitting on my bed and noticed the towel hanging on the rack next to my sink. My mom had bought the towel. It reminded me of her, and I remembered what a sweet person she was. Then I felt a wave of grief arise, and tears welled up in my eyes. However, instead of feeding the grief with more sad thoughts, I simply noted, “This is grief,” and noticed where the physical sensations were in my body. Then I watched the grief recede like a wave after it’s crashed on the shore. All things, including grief, are impermanent. They arise and fall away naturally if we don’t feed them.

Early on, I realized how self-conscious I tend to be around other people, even when there’s no interaction. I noticed that awareness of others took me out of presence. When thoughts arose (sometimes after the fact) about how self-consciousness limits me, I practiced noticing them and noting simply and without judgment, “This is how self-consciousness feels. It’s OK.” Then I noticed the sensations in my body and watched “self-consciousness” pass, without forcing or resisting it in any way. It was a welcome alternative to getting carried away by critical self-talk and feeling bad! 

By midweek, it took me a half hour to eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. All week, my definition of multitasking was chewing one bite of food while arranging the next one on my plate…and even that felt like too much. So I’d put down my spoon or fork between bites to be more fully present. It felt so spacious.

I tuned in to how my body felt and what it truly wanted in terms of food (quantity and quality) and movement. During dinner one day, the soup and freshly baked bread were so delicious, and I lingered even more than usual, one mindful bite after another. When my bowl was empty, I became aware of a tension between satisfaction and desire. My body was content and satisfied, but my mind craved more, wanting to prolong the pleasure. As I drank a mug of cinnamon rose tea, I was more aware of the tension than the taste of the tea. However, every slow swallow and the spaces in between sips took me further out of habit/craving/future and back into presence and contentment. I experienced the difference between craving and true hunger

How lovely not to feed the habit of craving, by becoming aware of it! After meals, I’d linger at the table to experience the physical sensation of satisfaction – enoughness – and become more acquainted with it. Just sit with it instead of getting up right away to attend to the next thing. 

Transitions were opportunities for mindfulness, too – such as walking to the dining hall, meditation hall, or back to my room. I played a little game with myself: How far down the hallway will I get before I realize I’m walking?

I began to recognize the first hint of recurring thoughts – like the very first notes of a familiar song. 

I acknowledged that my body is my tool for evolution in this lifetime and provides useful information, such as: This is what yes feels like, and no. This is what hungry feels like, and satisfied. This is what garden variety craving feels like, and deeper aspiration. This is what the tug of habit feels like, and freedom.

I had a lot of dreams during the retreat. Normally, I work with my dreams as a source of inner guidance. However, doing that conflicted with the instructions for vipassana meditation. I asked the guiding teacher during an interview how much attention to give to dreams during the retreat, and she said, “Not much.” When you wake up, you can note that you had a dream and where you feel it in your body, and then keep meditating. So for the duration of the retreat, I let my dreams go and suspended my usual spiritual practices, realizing I could return to them when the retreat was over.

There was a dharma talk every evening addressing various aspects of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been drawn to Buddhism and its practical, rational approach to spiritual development and liberation from suffering. Through the dharma talks, I understood the root of my “abundance blocks” and “poverty mentality” and how deeply ingrained Buddhist ideals of simplicity and modest living are in me. 

I also acknowledged the contrast between vipassana practice and pursuing goals, including the use of tools like vision boards. While immersed in vipassana practice, it felt like Law of Attraction mindset and vision boards reinforce craving and desire, which is accepted in Buddhism to be the cause of suffering. I didn’t let myself think about it much during the week, but it was something I could contemplate after the retreat was over.

At the end of the retreat, after we broke silence, lunch was offered in the dining hall, and I realized the stories and personalities I’d attributed to fellow retreatants were wildly inaccurate! I sat with other 50-somethings and noticed a table of much younger retreatants who seemed to know each other, engaged in lively conversation. There were even couples. I felt a combination of envy and regret arise and wished I could have connected with others who were dedicated to a spiritual path when I was younger.

In my twenties, when I went to meetings of spiritual groups, I was always the youngest, and others would comment on my age, which made me feel uncomfortable and like I didn’t quite fit in. I had a wonderful teacher, who is still my teacher today, but I didn’t have any companions my age “on the path”. Sitting at the middle-aged table, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have been different and how much further I’d have come by now if I’d had more spiritually supportive relationships. Certainly, it’s easier now with the internet. But oh, if only… When I noticed the “if only” thoughts arising, I remembered the words of one of the retreat teachers describing the process of spiritual development: It takes as long as it takes. That’s a gem I’ll hold onto. I can’t be reminded of that enough!

Re-Entry to Everyday Life

After doing some photography, I drove home on country roads through small towns, which was perfect. Although I’d considered going grocery shopping on the way home, it felt like that should wait. At the end of the retreat, one of the teachers explained that we were more tender and sensitive than we might realize. It never occurred to me to turn on the radio as I drove for nearly three hours. Doing anything more than driving felt like too much. When I walked into the house, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her house and into Oz for the first time. Everything was so colorful! It was as if I was seeing my home for the first time, through fresh eyes.

I also was technologically challenged. Using my mobile phone felt strange and confusing. It took a couple days before I was at all interested in using my phone or computer or even loading the pictures I’d taken onto my computer. A week later, my relationship with technology still feels much more spacious and less compulsive. I only check my phone a few times a day, and when I receive a notification alert, I might not even look at my phone, but the sound serves as a meditation bell that cues me to tune in and take a mindful moment. I’m loving this new relationship with my phone!

I went grocery shopping the next day but kept it as simple as possible because it felt like sensory overload. I was glad to have a few days before returning to work.

For a few days, I also felt like I didn’t have any kind of protective shell around me. Maybe that’s part of what the teachers meant by being more “sensitive”.

Perhaps the most wonderful shift I’ve experienced is that I haven’t been multitasking, even while driving, eating, or cooking. I’ve tried, for example, to listen to a podcast while preparing a meal, to listen to the radio while driving, and to read an article while brushing my teeth, but I haven’t been able to. It’s still too much! As a result, I’ve been doing less, but what’s fallen off my plate are the more compulsively driven and ultimately unnecessary activities. They don’t seem as important as they did before, so I’m not making myself frazzled by trying to fit them in and over-delivering. This includes activities like posting daily on social media. Less is more. I’m focusing on what’s most important rather than trying to do it all.

I also haven’t been getting ahead of myself. My mind hasn’t been arriving at destinations before my body does. I’ve been noticing that I’m walking instead of focusing on the destination and what I’ll do when I get there. This morning, I noticed a lovely patch of flowers next to a pond and went to my car to get my camera. As I walked to my car and back to the flowers, I was aware of walking and of the other beautiful flowers and sounds along the way, rather than focusing on how excited I was to photograph and later share a beautiful sight. I didn’t even feel excited. I felt alive and present, connected. Similarly, I tend to notice that I’m walking from room to room instead of being caught up in I have to do this, this, and this. That’s very different for me. 

I feel much calmer and more peaceful. 

I still don’t feel as ambitious or passionate as I did prior to the retreat. The idea of having ambitious goals and marketing/promoting my services in any way feels strange. However, one thing I know from observing my mind for an entire week is that this will pass. I’m still re-acclimating to normal life. And perhaps the stillness from the retreat continues to strip away the more compulsive needs to achieve something I’m passionate about so I can be guided by deeper aspiration and more spacious awareness. Less tunnel vision.

However, I’m used to generating motivation from a state of passion, which I have not experienced since I left for retreat. I wonder: Can I still be motivated and productive if I’m not in that high energy state? When I contemplate that question, I see an image of me as a young woman writing poetry at the bottom of an Ithaca waterfall. In my early and mid-20s, I thought I had to be near a waterfall to write poetry. When I moved out of Ithaca the first time, I was worried about not being able to write poetry anymore. However, in time I discovered I could write almost anywhere. 

It wasn’t the waterfall. And perhaps it’s not a particular state of mind. Perhaps my work will be of better quality if it’s not coming from such an intense and driven state of mind. 

With regard to goals, I’ve been considering: What are my heart’s innermost desires? What motivations do my aspirations spring from? Are my goals fueled by altruistic or selfish intentions? Selfish motivations will strengthen craving, which causes suffering, whereas wishing that my success will benefit others brings deeper satisfaction. I’ve been considering my vision board through this lens. I haven’t removed anything from it but am trying to be more aware of the underlying intentions. My sense is that as awareness deepens, false values fall away, and vision boards reflect that. 

I bought a statue of a serene Buddha in seated meditation that I placed outside the window of my workspace. It elevates the energy of the space and serves as a reminder to take mindful pauses or embody mindfulness in my work. 

I have new appreciation for how mindfulness practice balances my personality patterns and the benefits of daily practice. Mindfulness practice helps me to cultivate a more skillful relationship with my thoughts and emotions. It also keeps me in the here-and-now rather than focusing on my to-do list, regrets, mistakes, what’s missing from my life, etc. It generates equanimity and a stillness from which deeper wisdom arises.

Since returning from retreat, I’ve been doing sitting meditation every morning for 30 minutes, followed by walking meditation, and I look forward to it because I realize how it benefits the well-being of myself and others. I consider it a valuable opportunity to become aware of what my mind is up to. It’s absolutely worth getting up earlier to practice sitting, walking, and yoga. I also have been embodying the practice in daily life, for example, by not doing anything else while eating or driving and pausing before selecting/preparing food to consider if it’s habitual craving or what my body really wants. 

I touched base with my long-time guide to discuss the issues that have arisen since being on retreat, and she put my mind at ease and told me that I must have misunderstood something about Buddhism earlier in life that made me think of voluntary poverty as a spiritual ideal. She reminded me that the teachings come from cultures in which spiritual teachers were supported by the community, which is not the case for us. That was something I needed to be reminded of. She also told me she often doesn’t realize what she got from being on retreat until months later. Integration can take time.

In the closing talk, one of the teachers cautioned us not to get attached to our practice always going smoothly. She said there inevitably will be times when we will experience two steps forward and one step back…and that’s OK. A week after returning from retreat, I’m still riding the wave and appreciating the steps forward that have shifted me into greater presence, clarity, spaciousness, and calm. But if I find myself clinging to that, I know what to do. It’s a matter of becoming aware of it and allowing, “This is what I’m experiencing right now.” And then noticing what happens.

Again and again and again.

© 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.

Preparing for Mindfulness Bootcamp

Preparing for Mindfulness Bootcamp

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m preparing to do something I’ve never done before and am feeling a little anxious about. Something that will take me completely out of my comfort zone. 

Soon, I will go on my first seven-day, silent vipassana meditation retreat. It was on my bucket list of “someday” items. However, I wouldn’t have done it so soon if it weren’t a prerequisite for the mindfulness meditation teacher certification program I’m about to embark on. I’ve been on plenty of spiritual retreats in my lifetime: silent retreats, group retreats, and lots of individual retreats. But this one will be different.

For a full week, the day will begin at 5AM and end around 10PM. Until the tail end of the retreat, we will maintain “noble silence”. When I’m not eating meals mindfully in silence, I will alternate between periods of seated and walking meditation. There also will be a daily period of silent, mindful work of some sort and a dharma talk and/or meeting with a teacher. It will be a week of mindfulness bootcamp!

But there’s more…

For the whole week, I will have no access to my camera, phone, or even a journal. I will not be able to write down any ideas, record any insights, or look up any information. I cannot imagine going a week without writing!

Basically, I’ll be removed from all my usual crutches and comforts, with no place to run or hide. Just bare presence and witnessing every move my mind makes. All the mental gymnastics. And there will be nobody to vent to because everyone will be maintaining noble silence.

Spending 20-30 minutes a day in seated and/or walking meditation is one thing. Practicing every waking moment is another ballgame! Sam Harris described this kind of retreat as “extreme sports for the mind”.

I’ve spent the past couple weeks – since getting bumped from the waiting list to the confirmation list – anticipating and coming to terms with what the week will be like. Some people close to me have expressed disbelief about what I’m voluntarily choosing to put myself through. Some have commented that it sounds like I’m already there because I’ve been thinking about it so much. And they’re right, of course.

But no worries: It’s not some kind of cult. It’s totally legit, and the teachers come from a long Buddhist tradition. If you’ve ever heard the story of Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) meditating under the bodhi tree until he became enlightened, it’s more or less inspired by that. 

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect to attain supreme enlightenment during a seven-day retreat and actually am not expecting any particular outcome. I simply realize that some of my habitual thoughts and thought patterns – even ones I considered virtues – cause me to suffer deeply and needlessly, and I know I can do better. I want to do better.

I want to become more intimately acquainted with my mind and be more of a wise conductor and less its slave. I want to understand how my mind manufactures and sustains attitudes, beliefs, and realities that ultimately do not serve me or anyone else, and that don’t support my goals, my vision of who I am and who I can become, or my core values. I want to understand how I can value this and do that and my tendency to react to the behavior and words of others by creating stories, fantasies, and interpretations rather than allowing things simply to be as they are. I want to stop adding fuel to the fire and experience greater stillness and equanimity that will allow me to engage with the world with more inner peace and wisdom and less ego.

For a full week, I’ll have nowhere to hide and will have to face with awareness whatever arises in my mind. I might even get to experience my mind as a peaceful oasis for a while when the mental activity settles down. What an awesome opportunity, huh?

I see mindfulness as a tool that can cut through disempowering, dualistic mental patterns that send me running into all sorts of places for relief and comfort. My hope is that instead of talking myself out of taking action that would serve my goals or engaging in thoughts of unworthiness (one of my go-to fantasies), through greater mindfulness I will be able to acknowledge my mental patterns and not get derailed by them. Or at the very least, it will shorten my recovery time – the time it takes to realize I got carried away by thoughts and feelings and bring myself back. 

THESE are some reasons why I am going on the vipassana retreat. 

It does seem like the retreat has already started, weeks ahead of time. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve already been able to witness the places my mind goes in preparation for this retreat, and that is useful information to better understand how my mind works.

I’ve already noticed that when I’m mindful of my thoughts and simply witness and label them rather than indulge them, I don’t get hooked and feel calmer. I don’t get carried away by whatever thought-stream arises. So much of my mental activity is neither useful nor necessary. It just fills the spaces. There’s no time like the present for some thought decluttering! Spring cleaning for the mind that starts with taking a good look at what’s in there.

I’m confident that “mindfulness bootcamp” will be beneficial. And if I can gain more insight into my own mind and how to work with it rather than be at its mercy, then I can help others to better understand and work with theirs.

Soon, I will give up all my comforts for a week to experience greater freedom. I will deal with it and get through it, one breath and one step at a time. And when it’s over, I’ll let you know how it turned out!

© 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.

The Morning Thought Game

The Morning Thought Game

I’ve been playing a little game with myself every morning. It’s a thought game, and the object is to select a thought to begin the day as you would select an outfit from your closet. A thought that is empowering, hopeful, positive – perhaps one of appreciation or gratitude. A thought that makes you feel good and starts the day with positive momentum.

If the thought you wake up thinking about isn’t like that – if it is disempowering, anxiety-provoking, or doesn’t make you feel good – you can play the game, too. Notice how the thought feels, and put the disempowering thought away, as you would put clothes back into your closet when they don’t feel quite right. Then select a different one.

Is the sun shining this morning? Do you hear birds singing? Does it feel like spring is in the air? Is your bed nice and comfortable? You could start right there.

You could even have a positive affirmation or inspirational quote near your bed that you see when you wake up in case you need a go-to good thought, like a favorite, comfortable outfit you can rely on to feel good in. I have a few affirmations surrounding my bed. There are two on the door, and on each side of the bed there is a candle with a positive affirmation wrapped around it. The messages placed around my bed are very intentional.

What kind of thought doesn’t work in this game? Any thought that is somehow constricting or binding or restricts your breathing, preventing you from getting a nice, deep, full breath. Any thought that doesn’t feel right, doesn’t make you feel like who you want to be, or makes you feel self-conscious. Any thought that doesn’t support your sense of who you are at your best and who you are becoming. Thoughts that are unflattering and don’t make you feel beautiful and worthy. Thoughts that might work for others but don’t feel right for you perhaps because they are not compatible with your energy or vibration (kind of like how different colors work better for different people).

Choosing your thoughts in the morning really is so much like deciding what you want to wear. You could even set a thought out the night before so you don’t have to think about it in the morning. It’s just there. You can plant a thought in your mind before you fall asleep – something you feel grateful for, perhaps. That’s why writing in my gratitude journal is the last thing I do before getting into bed at night. You could even leave a note to yourself next to your bed to remind you of a positive, empowering thought to think when you wake up.

Consider how you might arrange your bedroom so it’s a pleasurable experience to wake up in it. This includes the artwork on the walls, the color of the walls, having a totally clutter-free bedroom, nice pillows, and a comfortable mattress. The first thing you see when you wake up can set the tone for the day, so consider: If it were a metaphor, what might it represent? If it’s something with a negative association, can you move the object or change the way you see it so it has a more positive meaning?

If you keep your phone near your bed, perhaps because you use it as an alarm, you could put it in airplane mode so you’re not inundated by emails or social media notifications when you first wake up. Give yourself some time to check in with yourself first and generate friendly thoughts so your first thoughts of the day are on your terms!

I love my bed so much that my go-to thought is how grateful I am to have such a comfortable bed. If I find myself thinking a negative or otherwise disempowering thought when I wake up, I can start thinking about how comfortable I am in my bed and how appreciative I am to have it. It’s like taking an outfit out of the closet and realizing it’s not the one you really want, then putting it back and taking out one that feels like yessss!

Playing this game can become a morning habit. When you tune in to the gratitude or feel-good channel, it sets in motion a flow of gratitude and good feelings. And when you can get a wave of positive thoughts and feelings going in the morning, it’s a wonderful way to start the day that can give you some immunity against negativity. See how long you can ride that wave!

© 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.

Floatation Restoration (Part Two)

Floatation Restoration (Part Two)

It’s been a while since I’ve written about floating in a float tank (after my first experience back in April). Seven months later, I have several floats under my belt and derive so many benefits from floating that I want to write about it again! (Before proceeding, you might want to click HERE to read my previous article so you know what I’m talking about in the first place.)

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Assuming you now know what a float tank is, I won’t go into any greater detail than to say it’s a sensory deprivation tank that is filled with about ten inches of heavily salted water that makes you completely buoyant without having to do anything whatsoever to stay afloat. There’s a dim light inside the tank that you can leave on if you want to, but I don’t see any point in doing so because I always float with my eyes closed – and you wouldn’t want a drop of very salty water to fall into your eyes if any condensation accumulates on the ceiling.  You step inside the tank, close the door (or keep it slightly propped with a towel if it helps you feel more comfortable), turn off the light (if you want to), and float effortlessly on your back. And then your journey in dark and silent nothingness begins!

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Though people’s float tank experiences differ, there are some themes that have been quite consistent for me before, during, and after floating. Oftentimes before floating, I feel flustered because there’s so much I feel I need to do. There’s just not enough time for everything I want and “need” to do, and I feel a great deal of pressure to accomplish it all. It feels so important.

But inside the float tank, the sense of urgency and pressure melts away and doesn’t matter. There’s nothing so critical that I should allow it to disturb my repose, and I’m able to let go of any anxiety and urgency around my to-do list. Floating in a sensory deprivation tank puts everything into perspective, and my attitude softens into: Just do what you can do! It’s not the end of the world if I don’t get everything done that I think I need to do today.  I’m able to see the small stuff for what it is, and much unnecessary activity falls away. Then I emerge feeling ever so calm and aware of what I really do need to prioritize (i.e. purging my living space!). It’s like pushing a supreme reset button in there. You come out with a clearer sense of what’s important, liberated from what was weighing on you when you went in. You emerge completely reset. Or at least that’s my experience!

Inside the float tank, I find that no thoughts are compelling. I’m simply not interested in thought! I feel like a cell with an impermeable membrane that nothing of this world can penetrate. Thoughts don’t carry any kind of emotional charge when I’m in there. They arise. But they’re not interesting. And they go away. It’s incredibly refreshing! It’s like blowing soap bubbles. They float in the air for a few seconds and then gently pop, and – poof! – there’s no more bubble. It simply disappeared.

Instead of fixating on thought, I focus on the sensation of relaxation and effortless suspension, without anything solid underneath me (which is something you really don’t experience any other time).

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Out of the tank, I try to practice 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day. For the first five minutes, I focus on my breath. The next five minutes, I expand my focus to physical sensations. Then listening. Then thoughts. Then all of the above. Being in the float tank for 90 minutes is very much like an hour and a half of mindfulness meditation. Inside the tank, there is no sound except for my deep, steady breathing (which is quite audible), so mindful breathing and listening are completely intertwined. That’s what I focus on the whole time (because with my ears immersed in the water, my breathing is quite loud), along with the sensation of complete relaxation. And I get deeply relaxed in there. I am talking about serious theta brainwaves!

It’s incredible to have no interest whatsoever in thinking! I keep returning to the sound of my breath – which is very slow, rhythmic, and calming – and to the sheer sensation of complete relaxation and suspension. Floating is the only time I experience that, and it’s what I want to focus on in the tank. It really is incredible. I feel the energy in my inner body. I’m not aware of my physical boundaries. I feel so light, and nothing physical matters or even registers. (There’s no gravity, temperature, or sensory input to process. Can you imagine that?) Everything, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes, is completely relaxed. Immersing myself in that sensation of extreme and complete relaxation is really all I want to notice or attend to in there. It’s all that seems to matter. Sheer presence devoid of sensory input.

My experiences in the float tank pose the question: Who am I removed from everything else? Who I am is energy and peace.

Here’s an example of the difference between my post-float and ordinary consciousness: After floating, I turn my phone back on and see that there are text messages and notifications from social media. But there’s barely even a hint of curiosity or interest around that. I’m not looking for communications or information to enhance my life in any way or to add anything to my reality because I am absolutely complete right now. I don’t need anything at all – from anybody. There’s really no need to check my phone in the first place. Nothing can contribute to my experience right now. It’s awesome to feel absolutely complete, fulfilled, and tranquil.

I really appreciate the sensory deprived environment because I am quite sensitive to sensory overload in general. I don’t have a TV and find it extremely jarring when the television is on when I’m away from home. The same is true when I go to a mainstream movie theater and have to sit through pre-show entertainment and trailers. It’s too loud and over the top! I also experience sensory overload in shopping malls and at crowded places and events. And forget bars! I can’t handle anything about that environment and have avoided them my entire life! Even when I taught kindergarten and spent the day steeped in the energy of a classroom of active, young children, I needed to lock my door, turn off the lights, and decompress/meditate next to my soothing water fountain when they were out of the room, to recharge my batteries for the rest of the day.  For me, the quieter and simpler the environment, the more at ease I feel. So I am totally in my element in a float tank.

From my experience, it seems the state of mind you bring into that float tank shapes your experience. There was only one time when I didn’t have a pleasant float. It was in late May heading into the weekend of the anniversary of my mom’s death. I was in a great deal of emotional pain at that time, fraught with raw grief, and the sensory deprived environment just made me more aware of the illusion of separation between me and everything else. It was the exact opposite of what I’ve experienced every other time I floated and was only because I was in such a fragile state of mind at the time. In the tank, I experienced the urge to be connected to the living world and couldn’t handle being alone. I turned on the light at one point just to feel anchored to something instead of surrendering to the usually deep and fulfilling nothingness of the tank environment.

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But that experience provided me with some insight about what it must be like to die – which was totally relevant to the anniversary of my mom’s death and re-experiencing the days and hours leading up to it. I remember thinking that when you die, you want to be in a place of resolution. You don’t want to have unfinished business or deep, dark secrets festering inside because something like that could make it really hard to let go. I recall when my grandfather was dying and kept repeating an agitated cycle in which he looked up at the ceiling, exclaimed his (still living) sister’s name, and stated with urgency, “I’ve got to get out of here!” It seemed there was something important he needed to tell his sister before he could give in to the process and die a peaceful death. I advised my mom and uncle to contact her and see if she could talk with him on the phone. They were unable to reach her, told him so, and asked if they could convey a message for him. After hearing that, he fell silent. The cycle stopped, and he died a couple of hours later. I always wondered what was so important that caused him to fixate on her during the final hours of his life. Was their last interaction discordant? Did he need her forgiveness? Did he have information he needed to share with her? Was he worried about her? He took that mystery with him to the grave, but one thing was certain: Something related to her was getting in the way of him being at peace.

My takeaway is that when everything is stripped away from us – and death is a process of stripping away everything we think we are and believe we need until we’re left with just our core essence – where you are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually is what matters. I imagine it can be terrifying if you’re not in a place of acceptance. You don’t want to get to the end when you’re leaving this life and think that you’re not a “good” person or didn’t live a “good” life, or worry about loved ones. You want to go out with a sense of integrity, reconciliation, and peace. When that stripping away happens, you cannot hide from yourself. Your world becomes progressively smaller, and you enter a cocooning process that seems similar to being in a float tank. There are so many distractions in this world that allow you to hide. But there are no distractions in the float tank. My May float signaled that my emotional “pain body” was so strong that I couldn’t let go and access deeper layers of consciousness that day.

Having no distractions and connecting with deeper layers of consciousness is something I absolutely love about the float tank. Removed from sensory input, the daily stress and all the other dust that has accumulated at the surface dissolves, allowing me to go deeper, like an astronaut floating in the vast universe of inner space. It is an experience of incredible lightness, even in complete darkness. Even when I float on cloudy days, after leaving the float spa, I feel like I’m shining like a sun – because it seems light is what I am at my core when all else is removed. It’s what I find in the deep nothingness.

In the tank, there’s just me, the steady rhythm of my breath, the incredible sensation of relaxation and suspension, and freedom from thought, emotions, and any sense of urgency. It is tremendously therapeutic, relaxing, and simply awesome.

© 2015 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor 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 New Day

A New Day

Today is a new day, and thank goodness for that! Yesterday was the first day of school, and I did not expect it to hit me so hard. Summer vacation is over, the tourists have gone home, and the locals have returned from their beach getaways. School buses are back on the road, and my Facebook feed is filled with first day of school photos. It is time to return to business-as-usual. And that’s the issue! There was a rhythm to my life as a teacher that has been broken, and not returning to it made me feel as if there was no ground beneath me, nothing to support me. A sleep deficit didn’t help.

I felt like a train wreck! Days like that come and go. And we can learn so much from them if we face them head on rather than flee from the discomfort.

Waves of emotion kept coming at me yesterday, and they were huge – and hurt when they hit! They knocked me off balance and dragged me under, and it felt as if I wouldn’t be able to come back up for air. But eventually the wave subsided, and I floated back up to the surface and could breathe again.

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And then another wave would come along sooner or later. So working with the waves became my practice. More specifically, I practiced remaining in the present moment with bare attention, without attaching any labels, storylines, interpretations, wishful fantasies, or romantic longings to whatever arose. It’s not reality that is a problem; it’s what we add to it! If we’re not mindful, we can wander into a very destructive place – a downward spiral that leads to a place we don’t want to go. I can think of a thousand better ways to channel my energy, imagination, and creativity! Why go there?

It reminded me so much of being in labor and working with the contractions, which were more intense than anything I’d ever experienced. The biggest lesson I took away from my childbirth experiences was to breathe into each contraction as it comes along and stay focused on just that. Don’t think about how many more contractions I would have to deal with or evaluate whether I was doing a good job or how much progress I was or wasn’t making. Don’t wish to be anyone else in the room. Instead, remain in the present moment, the wellspring of strength and power.

How wonderful to realize that we can set it all aside, push the reset button, and return to bare presence. It’s basic meditation instruction.

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Granted, it’s much harder to do that when your energy is low. Some days you just have to set all expectations aside and be gentle with yourself. Don’t board those fancy trains of thought and imagination that take you to dramatic places. Stay in the present, where you can hear the rich and rhythmic sounds of a late summer day, be enraptured by the geometry of morning glories and the brilliant design of airborne seeds, and engage opportunities that present themselves (or at least realize that opportunities do exist). Focus on the basics, like getting enough rest. And remember that this, too, shall pass. You’re just having a bad day, and your thinking is a bit delusional as a result.

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So that was my practice yesterday. And I learned a lot.

I was reminded of the importance of self-compassion and self-love and that the very first step is to get enough sleep.

I learned that you have to be that quality you most desire from others. Mine it from within. If you want to be nurtured, start by nurturing – yourself and others!

I learned to turn inward for salvation and not lean so much on this world that shifts constantly, like a kaleidoscope. It’s great to have people to reach out to. But they aren’t always available. So why not realize that the answers and the compass we need for this human journey are all inside of us – and lean into our own heart center and source of strength, which is more enduring and always available? Ultimately, everything we need is there.  And the natural world and its larger rhythms and cycles can be a great source of healing, as well.

Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom emotionally to realize status quo is not working, and to jolt you into awakening and discovering a new way to proceed. The road less traveled. But there’s a tollbooth on it, and the toll required is to leave behind whatever weighs you down and doesn’t serve you. This includes the stories we cling to.

I learned that the feelings that seem so threatening and overwhelming – like tidal waves that threaten to pull us under – are invitations to grow. All the information we need is within those feelings, if we can lean into them and not run away from them. Every single wave that comes along is an opportunity to become stronger and more skilled – at feeling the waves crash over us, letting go of our baggage, keeping or regaining our balance, and then seeing the gifts the waves leave behind in the sand.

When you’re learning and practicing this right there in the water, such insights can make all the difference in the world and save you from drowning. It’s interesting how, as I get older, insights that seem so simplistic on the surface take on new meaning and depth.

Yesterday, I felt expendable and forlorn. Today I feel free and open to possibility. And that makes me smile. Thank goodness for a restorative night of good sleep and the gift of a new day. A day when I once again can notice and appreciate tiny wonders, such as the sunrise and its reflection on the river, captured in beads of dew on a spider web.

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The reality is that, although the rhythm of my life as a teacher has been disrupted, who I am at my core has not been touched. And I am still part of a larger rhythm of the natural world and the cycle of humankind. So I am neither lost nor broken, even on difficult days. And neither are you.

© 2015 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor 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.

Through Day-Blooms and Beads of Dew

Through Day-Blooms and Beads of Dew

This morning, I didn’t start off in an ideal state of mind. I was consumed by thought and longed for circumstances to be different. I’m in the midst of making a major life change, and some days it takes more work than others to pull up the weeds of doubt and cultivate the faith necessary to “advance confidently in the direction of [my] dreams and endeavor to live the life which [I have] imagined,” as described by Henry David Thoreau.

I went outside to get my sneakers from the car so I could take a walk. The daisies and spearmint leaves were still covered with dew, and the chicory and daylilies were opening, for it was their day to bloom – their one day to open up and offer their vivid colors to the world, to attract pollinators and play a starring role in the circle of life. It’s the day they’ve been preparing for, the day they for which they were created. Daylilies take full advantage of their day in the sun by remaining in bloom for the duration, whereas delicate chicory flowers close around mid-day when the sun is most intense.

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I stopped in my tracks to listen to the advice the day-blooming flowers offered about making the most of a brief existence. They said:

Quick! Dry your eyes!
There’s so much living to do.
Get to it!
The day is young,
and the day is short.
Wake up and engage it.
Don’t waste a moment
Wallowing in longing or regret.
You have this one day to work with
the material of Here and Now
So make the most of it.

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How interesting that the Chinese name for the daylily, xuan-cao, can be translated as “forget-worry herb” or “the plant of forgetfulness” because it was believed to alleviate worries by causing one to forget. When I stopped to connect with the essence of the daylilies, I forgot mine!

Then delicate beads of dew clinging to the leaves of weeds commanded my attention. Their existence as a single bead of dew is even briefer than a chicory bloom. If you sleep in or rush past, you’ll miss them and never know they were there in the first place.

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For about a half hour, I was transfixed by beads of dew on common weeds and captured 80 thoughtfully composed images in all. It was my morning meditation.

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If someone were to walk by and see me gazing intently with my camera pointed at a patch of ordinary, green weeds, they’d probably consider it a bit odd. But if you were to look closer, you’d see the beads of dew clinging to the edges of the leaves and perhaps would find poetry in the shapes, contours, patterns, and reflections.

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Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, explains that making the present moment the focal point of attention produces a shift in consciousness from conditioned to unconditioned awareness. Even something as small as a bead of dew on the edge of a leaf can transport you from an unconscious, habitual state of mind to spacious presence and stillness. It can bring you back to the present moment and free you from the tyranny of the incessantly chattering monkey mind.

“And then you notice a miraculous thing… You see aliveness and beauty around you that you didn’t see before. When you are in that aware presence, a deeper intelligence begins to operate in your life.”   -Eckhart Tolle

That deeper intelligence is where the juice is. It’s where life really flows. Tapping into that is like entering an alchemical dimension.

As a Four on the Enneagram, my default programming tends toward romanticized thinking and idealization of what is not available here and now. Transformation for someone like me involves releasing wasteful fantasies and romantic longings and connecting with what is here right now and allowing presence and gratitude to arise. Presence and gratitude are potent elixirs for an alchemical life.

Instead of lamenting over what feels unattainable right now or feeling anxious about the future, through my half hour with the blooming flowers and dewdrops I was able to become conscious of the present moment, connect with what is, and do what I love most (photography). As I see it, that is making the most of the moment at hand and following the advice of the daylilies. It is a first step in the direction of engaging the magic and transformed the quality of my energy.

And it doesn’t have to take a half hour. Awareness can arise in an instant when we pause to connect with the life that surrounds us.

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© 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.

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