Journal

On Retreat

On Retreat

“We are here to find that dimension within ourselves that is deeper than thought.”  -Eckhart Tolle

It’s a school vacation week, and I spent a few days on a solitary, spiritual retreat in a cabin on a hill in Van Etten, New York at a retreat center aptly named Light on the Hill. I have been visiting Light on the Hill since 1990, which was around the time it began, and have done so much deep, transformative work there that I feel “all my changes are there.” My husband and I even got married there. It is a very special place, run by a very special couple, Alice and Larry. 

I met Alice when she was a religious studies professor at Ithaca College. I enrolled in her Introduction to World Religions course and was so drawn to her energy and teachings that I took a course with her every semester. As her student, I recall Alice talking about her dream to operate a retreat center and how perfect it was that the man she was soon to marry owned some land. As she eased into retiring from academia, she and Larry were busy behind the scenes building their shared dream. To see how it has grown and blossomed since those early days is truly astonishing and inspiring.

Alice and I have remained in contact all these years. She became my guide in the Sufi tradition, she and Larry officiated at both of my weddings, and she assisted me during the homebirth of my son. I could go on and on about the important role(s) Alice has played in my life, but the purpose of this post is to describe the retreat process as I have experienced it at Light on the Hill.

I feel called to Light on the Hill when I am at a crossroads or in the “valley of unknowing” and seek clarity and direction. I embarked on this week’s retreat with a specific intention in mind. During the course of a retreat, one is drawn more deeply in touch with the divine Self each day.

To prepare for the retreat, I intuitively withdrew from technology for a full day before leaving. The four-hour drive to Light on the Hill (which included an out-of-the-way stop at my favorite waterfall in Ithaca) provided further preparation and a rare opportunity to photograph Ithaca Falls without anyone else around.

From Ithaca, it’s about a half-hour drive along country roads. Light on the Hill is located a mile up a dirt road that climbs a hill, taking you away from the distractions of ordinary life. And then you go even deeper as you drive slowly along the narrow road to the cottage. 

By the time you arrive, you have a sense of being nestled deeply and protectively in the sacred space on the hill. Such peace.

I stayed in the Meadow Cottage, which is also where my husband and I spent our wedding night. Over the years, I have stayed in every cottage and hut on the land. Prior to this week, I had experienced Light on the Hill during every season except spring.

There is no electricity in the Meadow Cottage, but it is heated and very comfortable. There is a kitchen, bathroom, and living room downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs. The sofa downstairs also converts to a bed. The refrigerator and heat run on propane. There is a gas stove in the kitchen, and you turn on a generator for a hot shower and to flush the toilet.

The windows and sliding glass door open to a picturesque view of the meadow and distant hills. The sounds of spring were all around.

Here is the view from the windows by the table:

In the past, I have gone on fully guided retreats as well as unguided retreats. This time, I chose a partially guided retreat, which means that Alice visited the cottage to sit with me once (rather than twice) each day. She is highly intuitive and brings practices that she discerns will facilitate spiritual attunement and growth. I received some guided meditations on CD and inspiring conversations and teachings on cassette tape (with battery-operated players), along with some handwritten instructions for practices and a few quotes to contemplate. 

I spent the next 24 hours (until meeting with Alice again and receiving new practices) engaging with the meditations and practices, doing some yoga/movement, and taking walks.


Walking, meditating, resting, moving, dreaming – it’s all part of the process. Slowed down and removed from the usual distractions, I find that I intuitively know what to do, what to eat, etc. It feels as if my soul is guiding me, and I am still enough to hear it. The soul connection is much stronger than in normal daily life, and it deepens each day on retreat. There is a momentum that builds and is difficult to describe in words.

As I was settling in to the practices, I heard (in my mind):

Quiet, quiet, quiet!
Put your mind on a diet!

…which made me laugh.

Each day, I walked the 11-circuit labyrinth (based on the Chartres cathedral model), letting the 34 turns of the labyrinth work their magic on me. A symbol of wholeness, a labyrinth is different from a maze in that there is one pathway from the entrance to the goal (in this case, the center), with no dead ends. If you keep walking, you are certain to arrive. My time in the labyrinth was especially powerful and transformative. I don’t know if this is true for others, but there is a certain point in the labyrinth where the insights seem to come and really take hold. There is a pile of smooth rocks near the entrance to the labyrinth, and I carried one with me each time and offered it when I arrived at the center.

Not long after meeting with Alice in the late afternoon, Larry arrives with dinner in a lovely basket. In addition to being a dedicated caretaker of the land and facilities, he is a fabulous cook. The meals are vegetarian, as meat and sugar are best avoided while on retreat because of the effects they have on one’s energy field. I always look forward to Larry’s nourishing meals. This one featured rice pasta with a delicious, puréed sauce.

After the sun sets, I light the mantle on the gas lanterns on the wall and continue doing my work next to the warm glow of the wood stove.

Eventually, it’s time for sleep. I find that I go to bed much earlier on retreat than I normally do, and I think the retreat rhythm is closer to my natural rhythm. You have to climb a ladder to the sleeping loft, and therefore you can’t bring much with you. I bring a notepad, pen, and a small headlamp. Note: It is not necessary to climb in order to sleep, as there is a pullout sofa bed in the living room. Also, the woods cottage has downstairs bedrooms.

Multitudes of stars shone brightly in the clear sky through the window and skylight over the bed. So peaceful and comforting. I was tempted to do some astrophotography but felt it was more important to get some rest.

Dream work is an important part of the retreat process. I record my dreams on the notepad and work with the content the next day.

Here is the view to which I awakened in the morning:

The first morning, I woke up to a snow-dusted world. I drank some hot water with freshly squeezed lemon juice and watched the snowflakes dance through the air. My first insight of the day came from the snowflakes:

Water is not content to stay still.
It constantly moves and changes form:
A snowflake. A tear. A river.
A snowflake does not expect 
To remain a snowflake forever
But enjoys dancing its way to the ground.
In its brief time as a snowflake, 
It gives its all to being a snowflake.
Then the sun melts it,
And it is time to move on.
Let’s melt and become a puddle
Then soak down and nourish the plants
And then?
And then?
And then?

Thus spoke the higher Self.

Throughout the course of the retreat, I did experience guidance and clarity with regard to my original intention and also had some time for some unanticipated, additional work that Alice’s inquiry and intuition felt was important. I have complete trust in her, which is important when working with a guide. It is a trust that has developed through the decades, and I feel so blessed to have her in my life. She is an amazing teacher and healer.

I appreciate that the journey back home takes quite a while. After being on retreat, the energies of the world feel very dense, and I prefer to ease myself back in. I stopped again at my favorite waterfalls in Ithaca, and experienced more people than usual smiling at me and approaching me – remarking about my starry shoes or that I’m “obviously” a professional photographer (::smile::). I think I was radiating a higher energy than usual. The quality of my energy after being on retreat also reminds me of the value of making time for daily meditation, prayer, and reflection. I see the image of a dusty attic with the sun shining in through the window. Meditating is like sweeping the dust from the floor and cleaning the window. Doing this daily makes a difference in your life and how you view the world around you. It creates a sense of spaciousness. Going on retreat – especially a guided retreat – is like doing deep spring cleaning!

I find it rather interesting that as I was writing this blog entry, a cardinal landed briefly on my windowsill – just long enough to get my attention before flying away. I have been trying to photograph a cardinal for weeks and haven’t been able to get close enough. It’s as if this one came to me. Post-retreat magic!

You can visit Light on the Hill’s website by clicking HERE.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all 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.

Gifts from Dying Patients (and the Promise of Spring)

Gifts from Dying Patients (and the Promise of Spring)

This morning, I went to the river’s edge for the sunrise, and the dawn chorus was what I noticed most. The birds were all waking up for the day and singing their territorial songs of spring from their perches way up high. The ice that covered the river throughout January and February has thawed, and the river has assumed its reflective quality once again. Early in the morning, the water is very calm and mirror-like, which is a joy to photograph. 

And yet, it was only 18 degrees (F) this morning, and I spent most of the sunrise photographing delicate, glistening ice formations along the shoreline. 

Winter has not yet released the Northeast from its grip, but I put my faith in the birdsong, which heralds spring.

While sitting on the shore listening to the birds, I recalled a hospice patient I worked with back in my twenties. I don’t remember her name and only visited her once, when she was in the hospital. It was mid to late autumn, and this elderly woman expressed sorrow for not being able to live long enough to see the flowers come up in the spring one more time. I was young at the time, and her words made an impression on me. I had my whole life ahead of me and took the seasons for granted, not paying much attention to their gifts or to the flow of the year or time in general. She awakened me to the power and promise of spring and to the relationship one could have with the natural world. I bet she was a gardener.

For the past couple weeks, I have delighted in observing the daffodils that have sprouted outside my classroom door. They make me smile every time I see them and urge me not to be fooled by the wintry weather forecast: Spring is coming! Now I get it. I understand the words of the dying woman and the spiritual and emotional significance of spring.  

It is usually the case that when I remember one of my hospice friends, several more come to mind. Each one taught me an important lesson that was a blessing to have received so early in life. Today, I am starting more tomato seeds, and I realize that each of these people planted a seed in my spiritual garden. I agree with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote, “The best teachers in the world are dying patients.” The authenticity of dying patients is an incredible spiritual gift – a teacher that sows hearty seeds. 

Here are a few others that have taken root:

V. was a 98-year-old man who was deaf, partially blind, and had numerous broken bones because his skeleton was so brittle. He taught me about the power of communicating without words, since he could no longer hear them. Though I visited mostly with his wife, the moments I spent with him were profound. I held his hand and visualized white light entering through the top of my head and flowing down through my arm, into my fingers, and into his hands and body. I did this silent visualization twice while holding his hand, and each time I imagined light flowing through me and into him, teardrops trickled from his eyes – and I knew that a deep connection was taking place. I never got to see him again because he died the night before my next scheduled visit. But I have carried that profound connection with me all these years.

Then there was M., my first patient – a spunky woman who loved origami and had always wanted to learn how to do it herself but never got around to it. She inspired me to learn origami because it was something to which I’d also felt drawn. So I learned, and I love it, and I have her to thank for it.

Finally, there was a female hospice patient whom I visited at home. She was probably in her late forties or early fifties and was suffering from ALA (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”). There were framed photographs all over the living room walls that showed her smiling with her husband and children when she was in better health, and the contrast between the pictures and the way she looked as I sat with her in her living room was striking and memorable. (I would love to have photographs displayed at the bedsides or in the rooms of all hospital patients so caregivers could see who they were prior to their illness.) This was a woman who had lived a short but vibrant, loving life and was so much more than her current condition suggested. I realized her fate could befall anyone. Her husband told us about all the special things he was doing for her in a devoted effort to fulfill all her wishes before she became further incapacitated and eventually died. He understood that his time with her was coming to a close and put everything else aside to be there for her. Such love and devotion! 

Although my grandmother wasn’t one of my patients, I remember the last visit I had with her at her home three months before she died. At that time, she would have been eligible for hospice services; she had decided to let the cancer run its course rather than subject herself to further treatments that compromised her quality of life. We sat together on her front steps, and she spoke quietly of the joy and comfort of watching the wind blow gently through the trees. And I thought – that’s it – she had arrived. Her attachments to worldly concerns were falling away, and she was able to dwell in the stillness of the trees that are so rooted in being. When I’m kayaking on the river or sitting in the back yard and a gentle wind shakes the leafy trees like soft tambourines, I think of her and how we sat in stillness watching and listening to the trees that afternoon.

If only we could understand how much of an impression we make on others when we share our authentic self, even in brief encounters, when we are suffering, or when we feel we have nothing of value left to give! By doing so, surely we have a far greater impact on our world than we ever would imagine. And perhaps we can allow the petty concerns of our daily lives to fall away long enough to realize how fortunate we are for the opportunity to experience the gifts of spring once again.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all 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.

An Open Letter to the Children in My Life

An Open Letter to the Children in My Life

This past week was a school vacation week, and it’s been a powerful time to dwell in the Big Questions as various circumstances converged. Yesterday I wrote down a “letter in verse” that was drifting through the air when I was tuned to that channel. Although it probably could stand on its own, I thought I’d provide a little context.

This week I have reflected on my role in the lives of the children in my care and engaged in some deep and honest conversations with my teenagers. The teen years aren’t easy ones – so many questions about “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” and how to manage the challenging circumstances and conflicts that arise, with self-esteem intact. As I wrote in a previous post, I was blessed with a mentor who guided me throughout my teen years and beyond and became a dear friend. He passed on a week and a half ago, and I was honored to participate in an incredible celebration of his life last weekend. Rereading the letters he wrote me throughout my late teens and twenties made me realize how much patience is required of parents and mentors before they finally have the satisfaction of seeing kids “turn out” (in his words). You have to be really patient with the process!

At the same time, my dad came home from a two-week hospital stay for open heart bypass surgery following an episode of cardiac arrest. There’s something interesting about open heart surgery. There’s a sense of appreciation for still being alive and a desire to “return” (in my dad’s words) the outpouring of love, concern, and support from so many people. The heart truly does open up, and you feel closer and more connected to the people in your life. And when this happens to someone else, you are better able to provide support, having experienced it yourself as either a patient or family member.

Finally, in the midst of a very challenging school year, I set the intention this week to reconnect with the passion and guiding values that led me to a career in education in the first place.

If the following words resonate with you, I invite you to share them as long as you cite me as the author, along with this blog address. Namaste!

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An Open Letter to the Children in My Life


Dear Child:
 

The divinity in me
Sees the divinity in you
And from this perspective
Knows we are One,
Honors our differences
As expressions of the One;
We are brothers and sisters.

Our unique talents and gifts
Are to be celebrated
And cultivated to the fullest 
So that we may inspire and uplift
Others through our example
And experience the extraordinary
Flow of being in our element.
But, my darling, please take care
To avoid falling
Into the trap of shoulds
Or putting your gifts
On a pedestal above any others.
You must catch yourself
Again and again
For the ego is cunning.
You are special
And so is everyone else.
But this does not make you
Any less integral
To the symphony of Life.
Each of us has our note to play;
May we give it our fullest attention.
May we give it our all.
May the inspiration you find
Be a torch you pass to others:
The courage to be uniquely, authentically,
Fearlessly you.

My spiritual great-grandfather
Hazrat Inayat Khan advised:
Make your heart as soft as wax
To sympathize with others,
But make it hard as a rock
To bear the hard knocks of the world.
This, dear one, is why I must give you
Both love and limits
As you grow in the garden of my care.
Sunshine alone is not enough;
A garden must also be weeded
To fulfill its potential.
And know, too, that the rains of sorrow
Play an important role.
The water on our planet
Is always being recycled.
We drink the tears shed by others
And are never alone in our suffering.

Both warm-heartedness and resilience
Are necessary for this journey;
They go hand in hand
And I toil here in the dirt
So you may grow strong.
Do not doubt yourself
When things do not come easily
For it is good practice.
May you weave your heartache
Skillfully into the fabric
Of your life
And make the best of
Whatever life sets before you.

Sometimes the best way
To empower yourself
Is to take responsibility
For your own contribution
To any disharmony that exists
Between yourself and another.
This is a strength that allows you
To burst open the door of your cage,
For hatred and resentment
Imprison those who adopt them.
Let them go! Be free to fly!

Embrace each moment
With an inner YES
But do not fall
Into the dream of complacency.
Think for yourself:
How can I bring about positive change:
By transforming the situation
Or my attitude toward it? 
Never give away your power!
Let it glow close to your center.

Step away from the screen, dear child
And open your eyes
To the beauty and wonder all around!
Open your ears and all your senses!
You may be convinced there is nothing
To see or believe in,
But this is innocent ignorance.
May you awaken one day
To the miracles of life
With awe and delight
As you did when you were younger
And wonder what took you so long
To return!

How odd that we must
Experience such wanderlust
And leave in the first place
Wearing the dualistic glasses
The world fashions for us
Only to realize anew
The all-encompassing Oneness
Where all paradoxes are reconciled.
But somehow the journey is necessary;
It makes us strong and wise,
Turns us into better guides
For those who follow in our footsteps.

And yet, even as we are inspired
By the words and deeds of others,
We must do the work ourselves;
The responsibility is ours alone
Though others may cheer us onward.

Dear child, may you find your way back home
All the wiser and brimming with love
Thus leaving this world
A better place than you found it.
May you know this to be
The ultimate measure of success:
To have emerged from the chrysalis
Of your small, separate self and become
Love
Love
Love.

© Susan Meyer, 2013 
 


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all 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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