The Missing License Plate

The Missing License Plate

Last month, my twentysomething son was out driving at night on a country road close to home and hit a patch of black ice. He experienced the out-of-control donut movement before taking a wild ride through the ditch. After what he described, I assumed he was stuck in the ditch and was surprised when he told me he was continuing his errands. Especially because he said part of the front of the car was missing.

So this happened at night. He eventually came home, and since it was dark, we decided to take a look in the morning and deal with it then. Of course, I went to bed that night grateful there were no other cars on the road when he spun out, and to still have a son to say goodnight to.

In the morning, my husband came into the house from outside and asked if my son realized his rear license plate was missing. That was news to me and also to my son. My husband couldn’t believe he didn’t get pulled over for a missing license plate – especially when my son said there was a police car right behind him at one point during his travels.

We all went outside and took inventory of the car. Sure enough, a piece was missing from the front driver’s side, and the rear license plate was missing, too.

What to do first? Look for the license plate.

The two of us took a drive in my car to where he went off the road and looked for missing parts. We found the front piece but not the license plate. We also found another set of tracks through the ditch that looked like it had been an even wilder ride. A friend of mine also had an accident in roughly that spot a few years ago involving black ice. 

My son’s tracks came within a yard or two of a telephone pole. While we were taking in the tracks and looking for parts, several cars went by. I was grateful all over again for the outcome being much better than it might have been. I think he was, too.

We drove up and down the road a couple of times in case the license plate didn’t fall off in the ditch. Maybe it was dangling and fell off after he was back on the road. But we didn’t see it anywhere. Did someone take it? Maybe the police?

Back home, we kept looking at the car and the empty spot where the license plate used to be, wondering what had happened to it. Maybe someone brought it to the Department of Motor Vehicles?

There were two things that needed to be done. We needed to have a mechanic survey the damage, and we needed to turn in the one (somewhat mangled) license plate and re-register the car with new plates. After some consideration, we decided to visit the mechanic first.

My son drove the car to the mechanic and stayed as the car was put on the lift and slowly raised above his head. As the car was lifting up, my son was surprised to discover the license plate was still there! It had been there all along! It wasn’t covered by snow or mud. It was there in clear view! 

He texted me a picture of the car with rear license plate intact, and I was astonished. How could it be? All three of us didn’t see that license plate. My husband was the first to notice, and after he shared the news with us, we weren’t able to see the license plate that was right there in front of us. The license plate only became visible to my son when he saw the car literally from a different perspective, and the license plate was at eye level.

The power of suggestion! It blew my mind. 

My husband explained that he was looking for the license plate lower than where it was, and that’s why he didn’t see it. It reminded me of something I experienced with my dad many years ago.

When my parents were alive, they had a ring-toss board from my dad’s childhood on the wall in the family room. They kept their keys on the hooks on that board. One time I was visiting, and my dad was frustrated because he couldn’t find his car key. He was looking all over the house for it. He told me what the key looked like, and I started looking for it, too. I looked at the ring-toss board and found a key that fit the description. The problem was that it was on a different hook than he normally kept it on – I think the next hook over. Because he expected it to be on a specific hook, he didn’t see it on another one. Focused narrowly on that one hook, he couldn’t see the rest of the board.

That brings to mind a Sufi story of the holy jester, Mulla Nasrudin. Someone was walking home one night and found Nasrudin on all fours searching frantically for something under a streetlamp. The passerby asked what he was looking for. He said was looking for his key. The passerby helped him search for it. Eventually, he asked Nasrudin if he had a sense of where he might have dropped the key, and he answered that he lost it inside his house. The passerby wanted to know why, then, he was looking outside for something he lost inside his house. “Because there’s more light out here under the streetlamp,” he replied matter-of-factly.

Kind of a tangent, kind of not. How often do we look outside of ourselves for the answers we’re trying to find and believe what others tell us because it’s easier than searching within ourselves?

After the license plate incident, I wondered what else I’m not able to see due to the power of suggestion. What else have I or am I regarding as truth because someone else declared it to be so, and then I couldn’t see otherwise? We get these ideas in our heads, and then they bias our perception. We see the world through the lens of what we believe to be true. And the three of us couldn’t see a license plate that was right there the whole time. Then came the moment when our eyes were more fully open, and we marveled at how we couldn’t see it before.

Happens to me all the time in nature. All of a sudden, something that’s been there all along will catch my attention, and I’ll see it for the first time.

So I’ve been chewing on this ever since, holding my “truths” a little more lightly and bringing an attitude of curiosity. Is there any other way to see this (whatever it is)? It is possible that I’m not seeing the whole picture? That I’m fixating attention in the wrong place?

I do still have my opinions and beliefs. But I’m also willing to be wrong or not completely right. To not judge others who hold conflicting opinions. To be curious about their views. To have as my compass what feels right and peaceful when I dive below the layers of ego to a deeper, more encompassing state of being. Which is why I meditate. Sometimes turning attention inward and sitting quietly with yourself helps you to  find that lost key – or license plate, as the case may be.

© 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 Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Go As a River

Go As a River

As you probably know by now, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master, and activist considered to be a father of mindfulness in the West, passed away more than a week ago. He was 95 years old.

I received the news of his passing and subsequent memorial updates via emails from Plum Village, a global community of mindfulness practice centers and monasteries in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately called Thay by his students).

Often news of deaths are announced, “with a heavy heart” or “with great sadness”. However, the Plum Village email began: “With a deep mindful breath, we announce the passing of our beloved teacher…”

When I saw the email heading announcing his passing, I experienced an emotional reaction that felt like a jolt of sadness in my body. Then I read on and remembered to breathe.

During the memorial week, I spent a lot of time engaged with the comprehensive Plum Village memorial resources, which includes chants, meditations, teachings, readings, songs, calligraphies, photos, and live-streamed videos. Although there were invitations to connect through the Facebook group, I’m on a month-long Facebook fast, so I didn’t partake in that. However, I imagine much deep, inspired sharing took place there throughout the week.

Invitations for the memorial week from the Plum Village website included:

  • Practice sitting and walking meditation together
  • Reflect deeply on the impact Thay’s teachings has upon our lives and on the world as a whole
  • Generate the energy of mindfulness, peace, and compassion in his memory
  • Generate loving gratitude
  • Come back to mindful breathing.

I witnessed via YouTube the daily, memorial events and breathed with the monastic and lay communities gathered to honor him. There were so many chat comments streaming during the live videos, and I felt tapped into and immersed in a global community dedicated to mindfulness, peace, and compassion.

It was a blessing. Like a balm in the midst of the world-as-it-is right now. There is all that topsy-turvy stuff, but there is this, too. How gratifying and enlivening to be part of it.

Honoring Those We’ve Lost

I’ve reflected quite a bit on the losses I’ve grieved in recent years and how my relationship with deceased loved ones has continued to deepen and blossom after their passing. I feel so much more intimately connected with their essence, which is deeper than the shell of personality that has fallen away. 

It seems to me the best way to honor and memorialize our loved ones who are no longer with us physically is to become a little more of what we loved about them. To receive some of their beautiful qualities into our own being and radiate them into the world. Doing so allows their essence to continue being expressed in the world. In this sense, we are their continuation – which is an idea that came up a lot during the memorial week and in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.

We are the continuation of our beloveds’ flowering in this world. The relationship continues on (and can even improve), along with their essence. Realizing this would make the dying process easier for everyone involved. Death does not the end the person or the relationship.

The River of Life

In addition to being an internationally renowned Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh was also a calligrapher and poet. His calligraphies and poems captured the essence of his mindfulness teachings. The Plum Village website offered some of his calligraphies to download, and I was especially drawn to:

  • Go as a river
  • Smile to the cloud in your tea.

I really appreciate the river and nature imagery in his teachings, especially those related to the water cycle, seeing as I’ve lived on the Hudson River for the past 13 years. One thing I’ve learned from talking with others who have lived on a river at some point is that the river becomes part of you and can even form or enrich your spirituality.

It’s been a very cold month here on the Hudson, and I’ve watched the river transform with the arctic temperatures. The frozen parts have expanded further from shore on both sides of the river. However, in front of our house there is still a channel of water flowing visibly down the center, uncovered by ice and snow. Today it’s deep blue, reflecting the clear, blue sky. 

Looking out the window, I see flowing water, snow, ice, clouds. As the sun rose this morning, there was peach fog, as well. So many manifestations of the water cycle, which is my favorite metaphor of the our cycle of birth, life, and death. 

Thich Nhat Hanh offered a lovely “Story of a River” that resonates deeply with this “river girl”. Here is an exquisite musical meditation of the poem, along with the written text.

Returning to the Breath

During the memorial and funeral services, the commentator reminded us gently to return to the breath. It’s there, like a thread (I see it as a red thread) that runs through our entire life. We lose it as we get immersed in daily life but can find it again in any moment. It’s a lifeline that brings us back to something deeper and more spacious than our personal and collective dramas and the stream of non-stop thinking.

How often are we aware that we are breathing? How often do we actually enjoy it? 

I use the Mindfulness Bell in the Plum Village app to remind me to stop and pay attention to my breathing throughout the day. Each time the bell rings (I have it set for every 20 minutes), I become still and take three deep, conscious breaths. I’m grateful for the Mindfulness Bell practice inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.

He described a mindful breath as “the treat you get to enjoy” when you attend fully to your in-breath and out-breath and offered several gathas, or verses, to accompany breath awareness. For example:

Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

There are many breathing verses found in the body of his work, that can help us to practice present moment awareness with the breath.

He also taught the art of mindful living, which is bringing mindfulness “off the cushion” and into daily life, to become more aware of what you are doing from moment to moment. In this way, mindfulness is not something you have to try to fit into your life. Instead, you remember to bring mindful, loving awareness to what you are doing, whether it’s brushing your teeth or having a conversation. This helps us cultivate joy and gratitude.

Witnessing Cremation

Although it’s not common practice in our society, I showed up for two cremations: my mother’s and my father’s. Both times I was alone. Nobody else was interested in attending the cremation and probably thought I was out of my mind to even ask permission to do so. But the funeral director didn’t bat an eyelash and made arrangements with me about where and when to meet so I could follow the hearse (both times) to the crematory in Bennington. Which looked like a garage attached to the back of a funeral home. (Very different from the imposing mausoleum and crematory I used to walk by every day when I worked at Syracuse University.)

I was invited to push my mother’s cardboard casket into the crematory retort and then push the button to start the flames. After that, I wasn’t invited to stay and didn’t think to ask if I could. I was told when to return. For a while, I sat in my car in the parking lot next to the crematory, visualizing my mother’s body dissolving into light and any impurities or negative karma being transformed and purified into wisdom.

Then I walked around Bennington for hours, alone. I gravitated to a river that runs through town. Later, I walked past a children’s clothing shop with a pretty dress in the window and burst into tears because it’s a shop my mother would have loved. It was surreal walking around an unfamiliar town by myself while my mother’s body burned. I felt sad and lonely. Eventually, I picked up her cremains and drove for an hour back home.

For my father’s cremation, I pushed his cardboard casket into the crematory retort, pushed the button, and then was invited to stay as long as I wanted and to come and go as I wished. I was alone, but it was very meaningful to be there. I was not with my dad when he took his final breath, and being present for his cremation was an opportunity to show up for him and reflect on my life with him and our relationship. After a long while, when it felt complete, I left the crematory and took a walk and a drive. I ended up at the poet, Robert Frost’s, grave, which I didn’t even know was in the cemetery I was drawn to magnetically. Then I received the call to pick up his cremains and returned home.

My two cremation experiences were in stark contrast with Thich Nhat Hanh’s very public cremation and cremation rituals in other countries. It was profound to witness his funeral procession and cremation along with a global sangha. A sea of monastics sat and breathed, chanted, did walking meditation, and listened to poems and songs shared in his honor as the fire burned. They sat and held space the entire time – from one day into the next.

It was a beautiful, albeit somber, shared experience. The commentator reminded us to put our palms together and follow our breath in certain, poignant moments. Which is good advice for life in general.

I lit incense and candles and breathed throughout the whole procession. I was touched by the loveliness of the procession itself and the lush greenery along the route through the monastery grounds. I wondered what it was like for the photographers there and anticipated many incredible images.

When the procession switched from walking to driving, I stood in front of the TV screen, as if I were one of the many bystanders along the route in Vietnam. I felt part of a global community.

My son was home when I watched the funeral procession to the cremation site and the cremation itself. He had plans to be out of town, but the weather kept him home. At times, he sat with me, asked questions, and listened to anything I wanted to share about how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings helped to form my mindfulness practice and aspiration to teach mindfulness meditation. He was in and out of the room and after a while sat down and asked me how I sense witnessing this will change me.

Great question. I aspire to be a deeper expression of mindfulness, peace, and compassion.

That night, a bitter cold wind howled outside, shaking the trees and the house. I fed logs to the wood stove in the living room as a sacred fire burned on the other side of the planet. The time difference was exactly 12 hours. In Vietnam, it was morning as the cremation began, and the weather was warm and sunny, in stark contrast to our frigid, blustery night.

Just like the community-witnessed cremation was in stark contrast to my solo experiences holding space for my parents’ cremations…which could have been beautiful experiences of sharing, reflecting, storytelling, appreciation, and mindfulness if anyone else had joined me. If our culture wasn’t so standoffish, let-the-professionals-take-care-of-it when it comes to death rituals.

Another answer to my son’s question arose a couple days later: Thich Nhat Hanh’s funeral services and memorial resources have awakened in me new ideas for how we might honor and memorialize deceased loved ones (on a much, much, much smaller scale), beyond the traditional funeral services and obituaries. 

Prioritizing Community

I’ve spent the month of January envisioning the new year, becoming clear about what’s most important to me and what wants to be expressed through me. Both a five-day, solo retreat at Light on the Hill Retreat Center and Thich Nhat Hanh’s memorial week took place during my envisioning time and truly enriched the process.

Spiritually-supportive community and friendships came out right at the top of my list of what’s important. It became clear to me that trying to do so much on my own isn’t the way forward. I’m inviting more collaboration and community into my life. 

By the end of the memorial week, I had chosen my inspired word for the year: Connect.

I aspire to have more connection and community in my life that values nature, befriending the planet, and cultivating mindfulness, peace, and compassion. I had plenty of spiritual community for a few years, when I participated simultaneously in the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach and the Hidden Treasure program at Light on the Hill. 

While involved in those programs, I also sat with a local dharma group weekly for a while (until it resumed meeting in-person again during the pandemic). As both programs wound down and I had begun teaching mindfulness meditation, I began sitting with another local sangha (spiritual community) in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. My commitments often conflicted with the weekly sits, so I let that go for quite a while. However, realizing how important it is for me to be part of a local sangha and resonating so much with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I returned two weeks ago.

That was the day before he passed away. What auspicious timing! The universe nodding yes.

Reflecting on Intention

I often invite participants in my mindfulness meditation programs to bring to mind what drew them to the session and to having a meditation practice. In other words, what’s your Big Why?

Remembering this can really benefit your practice and motivate you to practice when you might not feel like it.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing inspired me to remember what and who inspired me to begin meditating so many years ago. He was one of my earliest influences, whom I discovered more than 30 years ago. My spiritual mentor (who is the spiritual director at Light on the Hill) gave his book, Being Peace, to me as a wedding present in the early 90s. I appreciated his emphasis on sitting beautifully, as if on top of a lotus flower, and mindfulness being a source of happiness. Very different from the image of a whack of the Zen master’s stick bringing you back to the here-and-now when your posture slacks! 

Throughout the past week, I revisited his books, including several children’s books, that were written in practical, accessible language. These books have been part of my personal library for many, many years. Opening them feels like connecting with an old and very wise friend on the path.

It reminds me that we are participating in a conversation that began before we were born and will continue after we are gone. 

And how blessed we are to be part of it.

© 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 Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Let It Flow, Let It Go

Let It Flow, Let It Go

This morning, with temperatures barely out of the single digits, I felt called to the riverside. The river was beginning to freeze, and I was transfixed by the juxtaposition between parts that were frozen solid in place and parts that were still fluid and flowing. 

More than a week ago, I shipped my camera off for repairs. My husband is letting me borrow his camera for the time being. It took a few days before I picked it up because, well, it’s not my camera. But I can’t resist photographing the river as it begins to freeze, so I headed outside with the less familiar camera.

I must have stood at the river’s edge for a good half-hour photographing, filming, and observing the freezing river. A few minutes into the first video, I noticed that a long chain of ice plates, stretched as far as I could see, had stopped flowing. Several minutes later, it began flowing again. A little closer to shore, there was buildup of the delicate ice plates and a sound that’s music to my ears, similar to a crackling fire as the moving ice plates came in contact with stationary masses.

I happened to be there at just the right time and filmed it all. It was amazing and extraordinary.

However, when I transferred the video to my computer, my expectations were quickly deflated. It turns out I had the camera on autofocus instead of manual focus, and the autofocus completely ruined the videos. Every few seconds, you could hear the sound of the camera refocusing, and the focus kept blurring and shifting around. Like autocorrect, autofocus doesn’t always get it right and sometimes gets it horribly wrong.

When I complained to my husband, he quipped, “Didn’t you talk about this in a photography class?”

Not what I wanted to hear in that moment. although he was right. In more than one class, I stressed the importance of taking a moment to pause and check your camera settings. Instead of jumping right in and allowing emotional excitement, or in this case cold weather, to distract you from drawing on your knowledge base. 

Grrrrrrrrr. I did not pause to check the settings, and this was a basic one. It was another live-and-learn moment.

There are two things I’m quite certain I won’t do again, after learning the hard way in recent weeks:

  • Make a nature video on that camera with autofocus on
  • Begin a guided meditation on Zoom without first asking participants if they can hear me. 

But I digress.

Jack’s comment, though irritating at first, helped me to see the humor, stop blaming the camera, and name what was present: frustration and disappointment.

It’s kind of magical when you name your feelings. It puts some space around them so you’re not completely identified with or overcome by them. Instead, you can be in relationship with them.

The space allows another voice to come through. A voice that says: I will try again throughout the day or tomorrow morning. At least I don’t have to drive far for this. It’s right in front of my house. 

However, I noticed the uncomfortable, physical energy of disappointment was still present in my body.

That’s when I remembered what was going through my mind as I watched the freezing river flow. Right there in the moment, the sight brought to mind the importance of letting feelings flow. Let it flow, let it go were the exact words that came to mind.

I recalled how surprised I was when the long chain of ice plates came to a standstill. I hoped they would start moving again. When they did start moving several minutes later, I felt a sense of relief. I also recalled that it was more satisfying to witness the flowing parts of the river than the ones that were frozen solid and not moving.

Like emotions themselves, impressions you receive from nature can be data about your state of being. Like looking into a mirror. Outer nature reflects inner nature, as inner nature is drawn to certain details in outer nature.

I allowed my body to move as it wanted, to move the emotional energy along, like the ice parade flowing along the river. It seemed to help.

So no, I did not make a satisfying video this morning. They were all duds, thanks to autofocus being on. Maybe I’ll have another chance tomorrow morning. Maybe I won’t. (As the sun sets this evening, the river appears significantly more frozen than it was this morning, so I’m not feeling hopeful.) But nature revealed something useful to me this morning, for which I feel grateful. 

I was there at the moment the flow stopped and when it started again. I witnessed it and found meaning in it. The video didn’t come out as anticipated, but I received something of value from simply being there and observing it. 

Even if I hadn’t walked away with a reminder to let emotions flow rather than get stuck, simply being on the riverside taking in the remarkable sight and sound would have been enough. A moment of pausing and being present.

Another message I received from being outdoors this morning:

There is beauty in the world. Get away from your screens, and go outside. The beauty you seek is seeking you. Go find it.

And so I went back to the river’s edge and took a few more pictures with the unfamiliar camera. After first checking and adjusting the settings, of course.

Because: live and learn.

© 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 Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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