A few evenings ago, there was a spectacular sunset on the river. From our east-facing side of the river, we tend to experience glorious sunrises and occasionally stunning sunsets, as well.
That evening was one such occasion. Puffy, white clouds reflected clearly by the calm water lured me into my kayak.
I almost didn’t bring my camera. Leaving the house, I assured myself the phone camera would suffice. I wanted to travel lightly and focus on paddling, not photography.
But in a moment of stopping and waiting for traffic to pass before crossing the road, I experienced an intuitive nudge to go back inside and get my camera. And it’s a good thing I followed that voice because 45 minutes later, I floated on a river of awe.
Once again, I realized what a difference a “sacred pause” can make in receiving intuition, inspiration, and wisdom that goes unnoticed when we’re immersed in a cloud of thought.
When I paddled to the other side of the river, the puffy clouds that lured me onto the river were not visible. Unless they left their houses, people living on the east side of the river wouldn’t have known they were there! From that side of the river, I could see a large cloud over our house. (Actually, it was over the hill behind our house.) The clouds to the west were illuminated differently than the clouds to the east. This particular cloud was backlit and outlined with the most beautiful light. The idiom, “Every cloud has a silver lining” came to mind.
From inside our house in the river valley at the bottom of a hill, we wouldn’t have any awareness of it. Similarly, we usually only get a very faint indication of breathtaking sunsets happening at the top of the hill that are visible from the west-facing side of the river.
While floating in my kayak, I thought about how our view of the world is largely determined by where we “live” – literally and figuratively. Which way we face and what portion of the sky we’re exposed to. Residents of one side of the river might have a very different perception of the landscape and the cycle of day and night than those on the other side or up on a hill in either direction. Some might look forward to sunsets instead of sunrises and full moonrises or experience longer periods of sunlight than we do in the valley.
And it’s not just the sky canvas. Property on one side of the river might be more prone to flooding than on the other side, or perhaps certain properties on either side. Flood insurance might cost more, and not having flood insurance might make one more anxious during weather events. There are so many, differing factors at play that we might not consider because they’re not our own, personal issues.
We might be totally unaware of what is clearly visible on the other side of the river, and vice versa. The only way to have a wider perspective is to travel to someone else’s yard – perhaps on the other side of the river or up on a hill – and see from their point of view. Then you might understand what it looks like from where they are and how their ideas developed.
I loved living on one side of the river and seeing the sunrise and working up the hill on the other side of the river and catching the sunset…although that usually meant I was working later than I should have been!
Seeing the clouds on the river that evening also brought to mind an experience I had last year when a person of interest enrolled in one of my photography courses. Realizing people in general were more sensitive and angry in the wake of all we’ve been through, I was concerned this person’s presence could be distracting or even triggering for some.
The situation the universe pitched my way was an invitation to grow and ended up being deeply transformative for me. Whereas I had time to prepare, the other participants didn’t. I wanted to be able to manage skillfully whatever dynamics might arise and relate to all participants as human beings, not roles.
During our first session, after talking about some technical stuff, I turned to more inner aspects of photography, which is where the juice is for me. I talked about how nature photography can serve to connect us both with nature and with other people. I explained that I know most of our river neighbors on both sides of the river between the two locks. We river neighbors don’t necessarily share the same views of the world. However, our shared love of the river unites us. We talk affectionately about bald eagles, herons, egrets, loons, swans – and commiserate about the bridge noise. Sometimes a neighbor will even notify me when they see something interesting on the river that could be a photo op.
I feel a deep sense of connection with all of our river neighbors because of this shared experience of living on the river. And the connection even goes beyond the Hudson River. When I talk about living on the Hudson, there’s an instant connection with anyone who’s ever lived on a river.
I love that my river neighbors help me to become aware of what I didn’t see because I was focused on something else. I love seeing what the sky or fog (for example) look like from their perspective when they share pictures. And sensing their appreciation for the river helps me to see their goodness – their inner light – even if we hold different views. Our views are just a small part of who we are as human beings, and it’s important to remember that. Our views and opinions, no matter how strongly held, are not our essence.
The point I was making in the photography course is that the participants were drawn to learning about nature photography because of some kind of caring, longing, or appreciation. We had something in common beneath the surface that brought us together. And months after the course was done, I learned what drew the person of interest to my course and that we had something else in common, on a heart level. No matter how differently my river neighbors or participants in my classes might relate to current events, I’ve learned to look deeper, for our common humanity. Usually, there’s some kind of caring or wounding if you dive down deeper.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow asserted:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each [person’s] life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
It doesn’t mean you do anything different on the outside. You don’t need to move to the other side of the river, so to speak. It’s an inner shift that allows you to perceive someone as a whole person, not an ideology, viewpoint, or role. You won’t lose yourself by adopting a greater perspective unless the ideology or viewpoint forms your identity. If you identify with it, it might feel threatening to see the goodness and integrity of someone on “the other side” of an issue. But we are so much more than our beliefs and conditioning. Who we are at our core has nothing at all to do with that.
The problem isn’t that we hold different views. It’s when an ideology of any sort becomes our identity. Because at that point, we stop perceiving ourselves and others as the complex human beings that we are. Instead, we relate as one ideology to another, which is diminishing and potentially dangerous.
Opening your heart to the goodness of someone who seems different from you also doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the effects of the personality. As I’m sure we’ve all learned from experience, some personalities can be very destructive and damaging. They’ll drain your energy if you let them.
Focusing on the goodness and losing sight of the harsh realities of certain personalities can make us vulnerable to being mistreated by them…unless we also see and value and want to protect our own goodness and integrity. My recovery from an abusive situation focused not on demonizing the other person but on acknowledging my own worth, looking deeply into why I became so invested in caring about them, and practicing better self-care. Whenever they come to mind now, I wish them well and carry on. Or as the Jimmy Buffet song goes: Breathe in, breathe out, move on.
Listening to the Voice
An experience I had yesterday morning seems somehow related to all of this.
There’s a deck of inspirational cards displayed in our kitchen. There are hundreds of cards in the collection, and every month, I count out enough for each day of that month. So every day, there’s a different card displayed.
Before going to bed the other night, I looked at that day’s card. A Rumi quote was printed on it:
There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.
When I woke up in the morning, I opened up the Insight Timer app to do a guided meditation. Every day, a new quote appears when you open up that app, and what quote do you think came up that morning? That same Rumi quote! So I paid attention and took it to heart.
A little later that morning while editing photos, I found myself singing Olivia Newton-John’s song, Have You Never Been Mellow. I hadn’t heard that song in – well, I can’t even remember the last time! My association with the song was from my childhood, when it was released on vinyl. My dad was a fan and had the album. I loved listening to my parents’ records when I was in elementary school. That album was one I played and danced around to.
So there I was editing photos and singing the refrain, over and over. And then I felt a presence behind me, wrapping around me. It felt like my dad.
The Rumi quote came to mind, and I stopped editing photos and became present to the energy. Then I heard my dad’s voice inside me, offering loving advice. He wanted me to set myself free from the way I was thinking about money – his way. And he gave me permission to do so. Then he said: You’ve been walking around with my voice in your head for too long. Let it go. I couldn’t see the whole picture when I had a body that got in the way. You focus on what really matters. Let go of the rest. It’s your life, not anybody else’s.
I was in tears because it was very powerful to hear this message coming from my father’s energy. I’m in the process of decluttering my parents’ belongings from my storage unit. But I was torn between having a yard sale and donating the stuff. I imagined my dad would have tried to sell it first rather than give it away. Obviously, my parents had no use for it anymore. However, I felt I should honor the value they placed on their possessions. And that was holding me back. So the message was deeply meaningful and liberating.
What really stood out was the part about having a body that gets in the way of seeing the whole picture. It’s like not being able to see the whole sky from where we are in the river valley. We can only see a portion of it, and it might look very different from what our neighbors across the river or anywhere else in the world can see. We might have hills or mountains obstructing our view. Or the limitations of our physical senses. Or the beliefs we’ve had conditioned into us or otherwise adopted as truth.
The late Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers six mantras of true love. The sixth one is: “Darling, you are only partly right.” This could be uttered in response to praise, criticism, or viewpoints from your inner voice or from someone else. It also can be applied when we glorify or devalue someone else or otherwise create an idea of them based on where they stand in relation to what we hold dear.
Instead of relating to someone as an idea we have about them, is it possible to allow ourselves to relate to them as actual human beings inhabiting this river of life and experiencing emotions, delusions, pressures, and suffering, just as we do? Maybe a different flavor, but the same basic experience. The experience of clouds passing through the sky of awareness and obscuring the light of our true nature.
Another Rumi quote comes to mind:
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
That is the challenge and the invitation I’m weaving from all of these experiences. Can we wish for all beings to be well, happy, and free from suffering – even those on the “other side”? It doesn’t mean enabling or turning a blind eye to injustice and suffering. It means first tending to and developing our own hearts. Then bringing a wise and loving heart into our relationships with others.
With actual people, not ideas of them.
I never would have imagined pictures of clouds would have led to all of these words, but there you go.
© 2022 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.