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Category: Mindfulness

The Sanctuary Between Paradoxes

The Sanctuary Between Paradoxes

It’s been two weeks since my last published post, which must be an all-time record! I’ve actually written quite a bit in the interim but felt most of it was too personal and perhaps wouldn’t resonate meaningfully with others. Basically, I’ve been grappling with the Life is Short; Do What You Love philosophy that has fueled me all year long. It feels like an energy that came on strong after being activated by a brush with death and needs to be worked with so it can be integrated gracefully and for the greater good.

I’ve wished I could put life on hold and retreat to a mountaintop for a few months to figure out how to proceed in the wake of my mother’s passing, when it feels as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath me, and there’s nobody looking out for me in a maternal way. The bottom line is that life is short, and I don’t want to die with my magnum opus still locked inside me. That seems to be one of my greatest fears.

On the flip side of Life is Short; Do What You Love is the paradoxical realization that no external outcome is necessary to complete or “fix” me. There is no job, relationship, project, etc. through which to seek fulfillment because true fulfillment is ultimately an inside job. I’ve learned this from experience. It doesn’t mean that any of those efforts are without value but that they are the icing on the cake of personal and spiritual fulfillment. At my core, I already am whole and complete. (And so are you.) I’ve never felt that so strongly. It’s a matter of returning to that core and being receptive to the guidance that arises.

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Resolution of the paradox creeps in silently as an invitation to enter the inner sanctuary and surrender to the mystery. I have been longing to meditate every day, knowing that when I sit on the cushion in front of my altar, behind my desk, or wherever, I will fill with light, rise above the waves of ordinary life, and engage with the present moment from a place of wholeness rather than deprivation or lack. What great pleasure to feel the warmth of the wood stove, inhale the earthy fragrance of incense, and accept the invitation from spirit to sit alone in a quiet, candlelit room and journey to the center of my being!

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Inevitably, I returned to the realization that while trying to integrate Life is Short; Do What You Love in a way that doesn’t upset the entire apple cart, the key is to love what you do. Love – or at least accept – what is. The full catastrophe of human life. Cultivate inner fulfillment by connecting with the present moment, regardless of external factors. When my pain-body (a term coined by Eckhart Tolle) is activated or I find myself in frantic pursuit mode (for example, burning the midnight oil with intense creativity that inevitably leads to exhaustion) and look outside of myself and the present moment for salvation, I feel like a sun that has forgotten her true identity and strength and wanders around at night trying to steal light from the moon (that, of course, only reflects the sun’s light).

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But the soul is patient. It is beyond time, not threatened by it. When you’re in flight from what is, you make your hell worse because you do the exact opposite of accepting and embracing the present moment, which is a portal to infinite possibilities and personal power. It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, thinking she was so far from home and then learning that the whole time she had the power to return in an instant. You can return – again and again and again – and connect with the light.

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Even in my darkest hours of exhaustion and grief, I have discovered that I am able to experience how much larger I am than my feelings – that I can take one conscious, spacious breath and breathe over the top of them. I can put my hand on wherever I feel the tension in my body (usually the solar plexus area), breathe, and be present to it – and become aware of a much larger part of myself at the core of it all. I am grateful for experiences that provide me with the realization of how much more IMMENSE I am than anything I can feel! Who I AM can hold and support all of that. With awareness, there is no need to indulge in suffering and/or distraction for a moment longer. No need to give in to inertia or to be held hostage by emotions. How liberating is that?

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What’s different for me this time around is that there’s no judgment or shame. It’s all feedback. I can see areas in which I’m resisting the present moment and shutting out blessings. It gives me material to work with. As my spiritual teacher advised during a group retreat two weekends ago, I can acknowledge that, while I might not have done this or that thing right or well, I am a being of light. I’ve recalled this advice numerous times, and it’s quite powerful and empowering. You don’t get sucked into spiritual or emotional quicksand.

Reawakening to the inner light after wandering in darkness (whether in the form of exhaustion, waves of emotion, or any other kind of forgetting) is the most wonderful homecoming. It’s as if you prepared a nourishing, homemade meal then left the house for a short time. When you open the door and enter your home (i.e. the indwelling light) after being away, the comforting aroma welcomes you instantly. Had you stayed home the whole time, you would have grown accustomed to it and perhaps not have been able to smell and appreciate it at all. It’s as if you have to leave and return in order to experience how lovely and nourishing it really is. Strengthening that return reflex is what mindful awareness is all about. There is such joy in returning to the present moment, which is the only moment we truly have –  the bridge between paradoxes.

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The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. 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.

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
-John Lennon, “Imagine”

I recently spent three days at Omega Institute for the sixth annual Mindfulness and Education Conference: Bringing Mindfulness to Children Grades K-12. I had wanted to attend the conference for the past few years but this year received a full scholarship that finally made it possible. My guess is that about 300 people attended the conference, and it was powerful to gather with that many like-minded educators who value holistic education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. Actually, I’ve never experienced anything like it! I have a few friends online who teach in schools committed to a holistic approach to education, and the college from which I received my master’s degree offers a holistic, student-centered educational experience and a faculty that attracts a diverse and alternative-minded student body. One faculty member literally “wrote the book” (several, actually) on holistic, progressive, and alternative education. It’s been eight years since I completed the program, and it was my last experience of being in community with so many like-minded educators until going to Omega this summer. For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water in the current educational environment and have questioned how much longer I can continue in the profession. I attended the conference hoping to connect with kindred spirits and to be inspired.

Buddha outside Ram Dass Library, Omega Institute

A passion for social-emotional learning brought me to the teaching profession in the first place. After trying to implement the MindUP curriculum in my classroom for the past three years with limited success, I was in need of practical suggestions. Is it possible to implement such a curriculum successfully without support, given the present realities of public education? How do you fit it into an already packed school day?

Keynote speakers included Jack Kornfield, Amishi Jha, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Social-emotional learning expert, Linda Lantieri, also was scheduled to present but was unable to attend due to health issues. I took so many notes at the conference, and there is so much I want to share! I am organizing this post around the ideas that stood out the most for me, indicated in bold. Clicking on the numerous hyperlinks included throughout the text will provide you with a wealth of information about mindfulness in education if you are are interested in learning more about it. I’m also including a list of book recommendations at the end.

The major understandings and inspirations I took away from the conference are as follows:

Mindfulness must be wed with compassion.

It’s not mindfulness unless it’s also heartfulness! Teach children to discover their worth, to value one another, to befriend themselves. Honor them by holding a beam of love and understanding. Teach them not only how to calm their minds and focus their attention but also how to be wise and loving beings.

Mindfulness and compassion training should not be something you’re forced to do but an invitation to well-being. It is a process of paying kind attention. The teaching of mindfulness and compassion is not religious; it promotes the development of universal human values, or what H. H. the Dalai Lama refers to as secular ethics. It is about teaching children and teachers to train their mind, regulate their emotions, and be more loving and compassionate.

Establish the classroom as a place of mindfulness, for tending and befriending ourselves. Consider beginning mindfulness exercises with a bell or a poem. Depending on the needs and energy of the group, there are times when sitting, walking, or heart practices are best.

Trace thoughts and feelings to the body.

Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings must be traced to the body – to where you feel them. One way to practice this with children is to put your hand in the air (where the thoughts are), and trace thoughts down the arm to the part of the body they’re attached to. The first step is to notice the thoughts and track down to the sensations in the body. The next step is to bring self-care to the body. Our body needs so much love and compassion when our head is spinning!

I realized that I tend to live in my head. Since the conference, I have reminded myself to drop down into my body, and it is a powerful practice! I did this once in a doctor’s office when I was in the midst of my “white coat” anxiety habit (in which my body seems to have a mind of its own), and the results were quite profound. Another time, I was awakened during the night by a thunderstorm, and immediately my mind started spinning. It was right after the conference, and my mind was trying to make sense of why I experienced such an emotional response to the conference. (More about that later.) Within a few minutes, my mind had created a tidy theory and was quite pleased to have wrapped it up so nicely. But there still was tension in my body. Then I remembered to sink into my body and practice mindfulness – to feel the sensations and hold them in kindness and compassion. A storm had come along, and I got caught up in a whirlwind of thought for a while, until I remembered and practiced – and quieted my mind. A couple hours later, I was awakened by another clap of thunder, and my immediate response was to practice. It was as if the thunderclap was a meditation bell! I sank down into my body and felt the sensations, thus strengthening that response. And that is what it is all about. Making an analogy between meditation and exercise, one of the speakers at the conference said that each time you bring your mind back is the equivalent of one rep. I love that.

I’ve also found that sometimes it helps to physically touch the place in which I experience the sensation in my body – for example, putting a hand on the solar plexus (where I often feel a stab when I remember my mom has died) or the heart. When I am falling asleep, I sometimes like to rest one hand on the pelvic valley and the other hand on the solar plexus and become aware of the wave of breath between those two areas. It is like ocean waves and is so calming. Likewise, you can teach children to focus on their breath by inviting them to put one hand on their heart and the other on their belly.

Create a safe place.

Establish safety first! Do whatever you can to help a child feel emotionally safe and relaxed and present in their bodies. We must get kids into a place where their parasympathetic nervous system is in control so they can grow and learn. Help them to understand that they are not alone in their suffering – that we are all in the same boat! Help them to see that other children have divorced parents, have felt bullied, have fears, etc. Let them see each others’ beauty and troubles. Teach them of their own goodness and vulnerability. Teach them mindfulness and heartfulness when they’re calm. Young children need to learn what it means to “pay attention.”

Include movement first.

Younger children have so much energy that you need to allow them to release a little through physical movements before asking them to sit and breathe. Include a movement activity before attempting seated mindfulness practice. When kids are antsy throughout the day, do yoga poses.

I find this is also true for myself. It’s always easier for me to do seated practice following yoga or another form of physical exercise.

Begin with yourself.

For years, I have struggled with how to teach focused awareness to a whole group of children – some of whom struggle with attention control or can’t sit still – without any assistance in the classroom. When I try to lead a core practice in mindful awareness, inevitably one or two students will effectively sabotage the whole experience by acting out, seeking attention, etc. For example, in the MindUp curriculum, there is a daily core practice of focused listening (to the sound of a resonant bell) and deep, belly breathing. Each year, I have grown weary of trying to manage behavior throughout mindfulness practice – and abandoned it altogether because the behavior management became so exhausting. But I always was pleasantly surprised when some children later begged to listen to the bell ring because “We haven’t done it in a long time.” They must like how it feels to do the practice, and I don’t want to allow the behavior of a small minority to ruin the experience for the whole!

One of the biggest realizations I brought home from the conference is that if you can’t control anything else in your school environment, the most basic step you can take is to maintain a daily mindfulness practice. Even if I’m teaching in an environment that doesn’t actively embrace the benefits of mindfulness, I can do it in my room, in whatever capacity I can manage. Some years I might be able to do more than others. The first step is for me to practice mindfulness every day. Before school and even during the school day when the kids are out of the room, I can turn off the lights, lock the door, and do it! Do it on my own, deliberately. Make it an individual practice until the cavalry comes. Or if the opportunity arises, link up informally with others who are doing it.

Chris Cullen, cofounder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, offered these priorities to keep in mind:

  1. Be mindful.
  2. Teach mindfully.
  3. Teach mindfulness.

Rather than throw my hands up in frustration because I’m not able to teach mindfulness the way I’d like to, focus on being mindful. That is a great start! And if that’s all I can manage, then that is enough! It is a worthy accomplishment to succeed at that first step. If you’re doing it, you’re doing a good job! Success is not opening the refrigerator or turning on the cell phone!

The missing piece: Caring for teachers

Teachers cannot solve the whole problem of fixing what is wrong with public education. Because we are the ones on the front line, we need to cultivate self-compassion – so we can stay in the job! Someone at the conference said they realized they had to make a choice between changing their mind or leaving their job.

Our schools aren’t failing. Our kids aren’t failing. Our schools are failing our teachers. The missing piece is taking care of our teachers. When you’re doing your best in an impossible situation with an impossible workload and your professionalism is questioned when you act with deep integrity on behalf of children, and your core values are not reflected anywhere in the curriculum, and you don’t feel supported or valued, how can you create a safe space for children? Our schools are filled with burned out, stressed out teachers who are expected to do more with less each year. Children absorb the teacher’s energy and ultimately are the ones losing out despite the teacher’s most sincere and heartfelt efforts. The teacher’s state of consciousness is the unwritten curriculum.

If our schools fail to care adequately for teachers, it is essential that teachers practice self-care. It is so much more satisfying and empowering than being a victim and squandering precious time and energy by complaining and feeling bad. That is precisely how I became serious about nature photography. I challenged myself to connect with beauty every single day. It was a way for me to unwind and re-attune after an exhausting day at work and often occurred during a walk (for physical exercise is also essential to mental health). Now I’ve added some quiet time for seated meditation, for I find that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my day. It clears my mind, weeds the garden of my senses, and is time well spent. It’s so easy to get caught up in the endless stream of work during the school year, but it is essential to learn how to put work aside and take time to care for ourselves and enjoy our families. It sounds so basic, but with the extra demands put on teachers now, the need for self-care becomes more urgent than ever.

Keynote and Breakout Presentations

Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga (The School Yoga Project) encouraged us to be our students’ superhero and to have a plan for when we’re not feeling like a superhero – a song, breath work, etc. Everything is harder when you’re exhausted, so give everyone time to relax during the school day. She asserted that children make their own experiences and meaning when you slow down and leave lots of space. There’s no need to process everything! Allow some experiences to simply be. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, stay connected to your kids! That is the most important thing.

Her program is based on five elements:

  1. Connect – with the world around us, to other people, and to our own inner experience
  2. Breathe – nose to belly breathing
  3. Move – joyful experience
  4. Focus – teach how to pay attention, mindfulness activities
  5. Relax – guided visualization or storytelling but also quiet time.

She emphasized that the relaxation element is crucial and makes everything else you do during the day more potent.

Cofounders of the Holistic Life Foundation (Mindful Moment Program), Andy Gonzalez, Atman Smith, and Ali Smith, described how they use guided visualization, yoga asanas, breathing, movement, chair-based exercises, games, and student leaders in their work with schools. They underscored the mentoring component (in which older kids help younger kids) and the use of students leading their peers through mindfulness exercises. In order to become a leader, a child must model good behavior. An added benefit is that kids go home and naturally teach their parents (and probably their dolls and stuffed animals, too)!

Daniel Rechtschaffen, who facilitated the whole conference, led us through a “popcorn thoughts” activity from his book, The Way of Mindful Education. It is a great exercise for elementary school-aged children. Explain that your mind makes thoughts like a popcorn maker makes popcorn. Instruct children to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Whenever a thought comes into their mind, they raise their hand (like a popcorn kernel popping) and let it fall as the thought falls away.

Amishi Jha‘s presentations were energetic and engaging and truly wonderful, but I don’t want to get into the neuroscience of attention here and encourage you to visit her website and/or the website of Dan Siegel (who wasn’t at the conference but is a major researcher).

The most poignant part of the conference for me was a guided visualization led by Jack Kornfield. Up until this time, I was interested but not emotionally vested in the conference. After a very tough school year, I was at the end of my rope, unsure about returning to my job in the fall. I’d even revised my resume and applied for a non-teaching position right before leaving for the conference. But I was open to inspiration and miracles. Jack Kornfield invited us to see ourselves in the toughest situation we’ve experienced at work. In the middle of it, there is a knock on the door, and a luminous figure (for me it was H. H. the Dalai Lama) enters my body and takes over managing the situation while I witness it as an invisible presence. A while later, he goes back to the door and on his way out gives me a gift and whispers some words. To my great surprise, somewhere in the middle of the visualization I realized that, lurking below my residual feelings about my most awful experience, there is still a pulse in my teacher body. I was very surprised to discover this! We took a short break, during which I retreated to my room to release some tears. When we returned, I looked into Jack Kornfield’s eyes and told him that I’m a teacher who was this close to not going back for another year but realized during the visualization that there is still a heartbeat. He held his hands to his heart, expressed gratitude, and held my hands in his. From this point forward, I was fully engaged!

On the final day of the conference, there was a panel discussion of administrators and teachers who have put mindfulness into practice in their own schools. Here are some examples of what some schools – both independent and public – are doing to promote a deep culture of mindfulness and compassion:

  • Whole school participates in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course
  • Create a breathe room – a quiet, inviting space you can drop into anytime during the day
  • Mindfulness as a special class, like music, art, and P.E. (Oh, how I love this idea! I want that job!)
  • Every teacher receives chimes and a copy of Linda Lantieri’s book on cultivating inner resilience
  • Begin faculty meetings with a couple minutes of mindful breathing, or lead them in a moment of mindfulness.
  • Faculty gratitude circles: Reflect on what you are grateful for that happened in the last week, and send out intentions for next week
  • Yoga class for teachers
  • Offer stress reduction workshops for families.

I love the idea of a breathe room! But paring it down to something simpler, you could establish a breathing space in a classroom. I have a single-person “Quiet Tent” in a quiet corner of my classroom right next to my desk (which is my private, quiet space). I’ve always allowed children who need some quiet space to retreat to the Quiet Tent when they need to. However, it also could be a place for mindful breathing once I teach them how to do it.

Someone else spoke of bringing children into nature as an important part of mindfulness. Read them some stories or poems (perhaps Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry) to open their eyes. Then invite them to write or draw. As a photographer, I might show them an image I captured and ask them to consider why I took the picture. What drew me to that image? Where is the beauty? How did it speak to me?

Pond outside the Sanctuary at Omega Institute

There was a teacher from Manhattan’s independent Blue School on the panel. I had learned of Blue School from a panel discussion during the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit that included two founding members of the Blue Man Group. The school looks like this dreamer’s dream come true! The Blue School teacher described a joyful, holistic environment that includes singing bowls, singing lullabies, yoga poses, art, breathing, and children leading breathing. She spoke of so much goodness that I couldn’t write it all down! The school also has a mindfulness blog, and parents drop in for mindfulness on Friday afternoons. Wow.

The general consensus was that mindfulness programs did not encounter anticipated resistance but spread with joy – though it’s best to take the time to grow them slowly. One panelist suggested starting in kindergarten by training kindergarten teachers and then filtering it up. They also emphasized the idea of teachers practicing together. Even if there aren’t any school-wide mindfulness or yoga classes for faculty and staff, a small group of colleagues could meet and practice mindful breathing for ten minutes before school, to set the tone for the day. It’s much like having a workout partner. You are less likely to skip your exercise if there is someone else to whom you are accountable. Similarly, if your school does not have a room devoted to mindfulness, you can cultivate an environment or create a space in your own room. If all else fails, simply maintaining your own mindfulness practice makes a big difference!

If you do encounter resistance in implementing a mindfulness program, there is a lot of neuroscience data to back it up. Dan Siegel’s book, Brainstorm, is a good resource. You also can emphasize that you’re not stealing time from the rest of the school day curriculum but are replacing pieces that don’t work with what does work, and you are educating children to take care of themselves. Furthermore, you can ask families to notice that their children are coming home more relaxed.

Closing

At the end of the conference, we were guided to reflect on the ways in which we were inspired and what we need as we go back into the world and return to our classrooms. My greatest inspiration was discovering that there is a heart inside me still beating to teach in ways that allow me to:

  • Reflect to others their own inner beauty and help them to love themselves
  • Open the hearts and minds of others to the beauty and interconnectedness of nature
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the light that shines through nature and people – the essence that shines through the forms and connects us all.

My needs are to practice myself and to feel valued in my work environment. I could begin by sharing with anyone who might be interested what I have learned from the conference and through my own experience. Perhaps I am mistaken in assuming nobody would be interested. You never know until you try! (Postscript: Two days after publishing this article, I received a bulk email from a teacher at my school who wants to offer a yoga class once or twice a week so colleagues can practice together!)

As I prepare to return to my classroom in a few weeks, I will bring with me an excerpt from a poem entitled “School Prayer” by Diane Ackerman, which Jack Kornfield quoted. I intend to post it in a prominent spot and read it daily:

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

Book Recommendations

The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. 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.

Opportunities for Practice

Opportunities for Practice

This morning, my husband woke me with the following words: “I know you want to get some sleep, but you might want to look out the window. It’s one of those mornings.” And it certainly was. Within minutes, I was walking through a frosted world waiting for the sun to burst through the clouds and play with the ice crystals that formed from last night’s fog.

It took an hour and a half before the rising sun intersected with a patch of blue sky, but I was determined to be there and ready when it happened. I had plenty of time to walk around and consider the scenery and angles I wanted to photograph.

It was a cold morning, and at times I wished the clouds would hurry up and move out of the way. But then I’d take a deep breath and remind myself that this is a perfect opportunity to practice. To meditate.

After decades of practicing on and off, I have come to understand meditation quite simply as the act of bringing awareness back from the thinking mind to the spaciousness of the present moment. You catch yourself again and again, bring your mind back, and work on strengthening that response so it becomes more instinctive and immediate. Meditative awareness offers freedom from the tyranny of thought.

I couldn’t do anything to speed up the clouds, so I had some choices, as we all do:

  • Give up and go home
  • Be agitated and discontented with the present moment while waiting for it to change
  • Embrace the moment, and love what’s already here.

 

 

You can complain about life not meeting your expectations, about all the misery in the world, about the present moment not being as you want it to be. Or you can find something to love, here and now. You can have a peaceful, joyful heart despite it all.

I have had a lot of opportunity for practice lately. When the house is still at night or I’m alone without any distractions, my parents’ suffering often arises in my mind. I think about how very unfair it is that such good, kind people can receive such cruel blows from life. Pancreatic cancer sucks. My mom is worn out and in pain much of the time. She hasn’t been able to do the things she loves. I realize the importance of acknowledging, allowing, and releasing grief, and I know from experience that grief is hard, physical work.

But this will not stop me from searching for beauty. From spending more than two hours outdoors on a frosty morning waiting for the moment when the light finally shines through and transforms the world into a luminous wonderland. Kahlil Gibran’s words from The Prophet resonate: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” In fact, the sorrow only fuels my desire to find and share joy and beauty.

Grief is energy that feels like a wave crashing through me. But I’m realizing that grief is not the same thing as sorrow. Grief is physical. Tears flow. Like shells and stones that wash up as waves crash against the shore, grief often gives rise to sadness and sorrow – which can be perpetuated by the egoic, thinking mind. Once the wave of grief energy passes, I can choose whether to focus on thoughts of deprivation or gratitude. I can feel sadness for my mom’s suffering and for everything her cancer is stealing from us. I can continue to think sad thoughts for as long as I want. But those thoughts will not change her situation. They will only keep me awake at night and leave me feeling tired the next day – and less present and able to do the things that will make a difference. So instead of feeding the sorrow, I’ve found that once the grief wave passes through, I can breathe into my heart center and transform grief into gratitude. Gratitude for having such loving parents who have helped me to become who I am today. Gratitude for having awakened to how amazing and beautiful my parents are while there is still time to repay their love and kindness and enjoy their company.

It’s all the same: Impatience for the sun to shine, grieving my mother’s illness, etc., etc., etc. It’s all an opportunity to practice returning to the spaciousness of the present moment and discovering the gifts waiting to be noticed and received.

While waiting for the sun to shine this morning, I found so much beauty when I decided to take a look around and expand my awareness beyond waiting and focusing on what was missing from the moment. The same can also be done when a loved one has a serious illness. Every moment is an opportunity to live and love more fully. Every moment offers a gift.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. 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 (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Daily Miracles

Daily Miracles

“Give us our daily miracle. And forgive us if we are not always capable of recognizing it.” -Paulo Coelho, Manuscript Found in Accra

Do you realize how close you are to a miracle?

I truly believe that every day offers us a miracle, a magic moment that changes everything, awakens us, and offers new possibilities.

Paulo Coelho writes a lot about such moments, and in Manuscript Found in Accra, he defines a miracle as “…something that suddenly fills our hearts with Love.”

I search for miracles every day. They are easy to miss. But missing them doesn’t mean they never happened.

Perhaps the miracle was to be found in the impulse ignored to turn in a certain direction or to strike up a conversation with a certain person. Perhaps we were too tired, in too much of a hurry, or preoccupied with our own thoughts and dramas.

Do you remember the 3D stereogram images that were popular about 20 years ago? You stare at the two-dimensional, patterned image with the right focus and all of a sudden enter into a three-dimensional image that, until then, was impossible to perceive. That’s how it can be with magic moments. With a little practice, you might just find your heart steeped in gratitude most of the time. With gratitude, beauty (love) is more inclined to reveal itself, and you can find it just about anywhere.

On a rainy day, the miracle might be found in the rippled puddle that you normally would pass by without taking notice. That’s where I found it today, during the short walk to my car at the end of the work day.

Sometimes you will discover it if you turn around and look behind you, crouch down close to the ground, slow down, step off the trail, take in the details of a single thing, or listen wholeheartedly to the person next to you.

If you tune in to the miracle channel, you will find them everywhere and be transformed. At least that’s been my experience.

Yesterday morning was dark and dreary. By the time I arrived at work, there wasn’t so much as a hint of the sun, which has been rising a little later every morning. Witnessing the sunrise makes a substantial difference in the quality of my day. Filling with light first thing in the morning is a powerful way to start a day (although when the sun doesn’t shine, we can go within and make our own light). By the time I got home from work, however, the sun was shining, and I took a walk with my husband. As we walked, I stopped to photograph landscapes and trees I’d photographed numerous times before. I stopped yet again, knowing they are always a little different.

After snapping a few shots, I commented to my husband that I still hadn’t encountered the magic moment of the day. But I knew I would. And I did. I’m a sucker for sunlit leaves, and the auburn-toned oak leaves seemed to be on fire with grace around a birch tree. It was their moment to shine, and I got to witness it.

Sometimes I feel called by a tree or flower, and when I approach it, it gives me an offering. I feel its energy and my interconnection with it. I might look at it from different angles, until love bursts through.

Sometimes one leaf playing with sunlight at just the right angle can make all the difference in the world if it speaks to your soul. I waited for 15 minutes for the sun to emerge from behind the clouds in order to capture the image below, which had revealed itself briefly moments before the clouds covered the sun.

Over the weekend, I watched part of Eckhart Tolle’s June 2012 retreat at Omega Institute and was struck by something he said about when he lived in London after going through a profound shift in consciousness. After the shift, he felt so peaceful and perceived everything around him as so lovely, though he didn’t know why. A Zen monk told him that, “Zen is really about the cessation of the thinking mind,” and it occurred to Eckhart that since the shift, he hadn’t been thinking as much; there were “vast spaces of no thought, of just perception.” When Eckhart was finding the world so intensely beautiful, he was not thinking. He was liberated from the tyranny of thought.

That is something I can really relate to these days. When I go outside, I can’t help but be amazed and astonished at the beauty in the natural world. It is everywhere!

Even walking from my car to my classroom in the morning, I am dazzled by leaves and berries clinging to trees, reflections in puddles, birds in flight. Every little thing seems to be filled with incredible energy and beauty. It feels so peaceful and good. And during those moments, there is an absence of thought. Love enters in.

I live for those moments.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Trail through the Autumn Woods

A Trail through the Autumn Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These trees looked just like a watercolor painting!

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

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Red Lights, Screens, and the Value of Waiting

Red Lights, Screens, and the Value of Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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