When I started meditating back in my 20s, my intentions were very different than they are today. A little more spectacular, you could say. I hoped to see visions, experience altered states of consciousness, receive special knowledge…and relax. But after a whole lot of living, my reasons for meditating have become more subtle and practical. Mindfulness meditation enriches my daily life, big-time.
Here’s a small example:
It used to be that I’d get upset when a yacht or motorboat would speed by when I was kayaking on the river. The boats created turbulence both on the water and in my mind. I became angry and stayed angry at the selfish, insensitive boaters who only cared about themselves…and presumably were wealthy, too. Selfish, rich people who think they own the river. Grrrr.
That was the story I told myself. Eventually, I’d let it go…until the next boat went by too fast for my liking.
It didn’t bother my husband as much as it bothered me, and he came up with a name for me and a song to go along with it. Remember the song, “Mississippi Queen”? Well, I was the Hudson River B**ch. He’s a joker, and it was all in jest. An attempt to lighten me up. And it did make me laugh.
But I still got angry with the fast boats.
Truth be told, I was afraid of the big waves they created. Once, I got a wave of Hudson River water in my face and didn’t want it to happen again.
I spent the last month migrating my website to a new domain and purging my blog to half its original size. In the process, I read every single post and remembered all the challenges of the past few years – some I’d forgotten. I wrote a lot about waves as metaphors and learning to work with them so they wouldn’t keep knocking me off balance.
I’ve had a lot of practice with waves. No doubt you’ve had your share, too.
AND (as I’ve mentioned before) I went on a seven-day meditation retreat a few months ago that took me to a deeper level of mindfulness meditation practice and have meditated every day since. It’s mellowed me out and helped me to be more clear and intentional about my “To Be” list. Every time I sit down to meditate, I light a candle with the intention to release erroneous thought patterns and embrace deeper truth.
As a result, kayaking on the river has been quite different this summer. A yacht comes barreling down the river. Instead of cursing it or feeling agitated, I allow it to be exactly as it is. I know I will be able to navigate whatever turbulence it creates and realize the boat has a right to be on the river, too. If the boat slows down when it goes by me, great! (How wonderful the boater was so considerate! Thank you! Happy wave!) But I don’t need it to. Either way, I know I’ll be fine. If I really want to keep my distance from boats, I’ll stay on the eastern side of the river, which isn’t my preferred side, but wow, aren’t I fortunate to have a river in front of my house that I can kayak on anytime I want? And the waves are actually kind of fun to bounce around on.
If the word “wealthy” slips in with a negative connotation, ding! ding! ding! ABUNDANCE BLOCK! Take notice, and take a deep breath. Put some spaciousness around that thought. Feel grateful and prosperous for having such easy, daily access to the river, and remember that my dear cousin in British Columbia spends a lot of time on a 68-foot yacht and is one of my favorite people in the whole world. Maybe even direct some lovingkindness in the boat’s direction. Ahhhhh, that’s better!
Same situation. Totally different reaction. A little awareness makes a big difference. Awareness + spaciousness + better go-to thoughts = GAME CHANGER.
Awareness opens the door to transformation.
It makes a difference to have equanimity towards the boaters who create turbulence on the water, the bugs buzzing around, and the people who aren’t looking out for me. All these things are part of life. If you want to go out on the river, chances are you will have to deal with turbulence. You’re grateful when the warm weather finally sets in, but then there are bugs. Unsatisfactoriness is part of life, but we can learn to better prepare ourselves for the unsatisfactory conditions and not let them disturb our peace of mind so much. We can cultivate equanimity and deep aspiration to free ourselves from suffering.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is unsatisfactory, or imperfect. There will be difficult people, challenging circumstances, failures, and disappointments. The goal is not to eliminate these conditions from your life and “live the dream”. It’s to cultivate inner peace despite it all. True freedom. It is possible to experience inner peace even if you have noisy neighbors or lose your job or a close relationship. Even if your significant other isn’t exactly who you want them to be.
The point is to practice not letting any of these factors disturb your peace of mind. Not expecting them to change before you are truly happy. You can be happy anyway, right now. But first, you have to reclaim your power and stop making other people or circumstances responsible for your happiness.
We have the power to release ourselves from suffering. Holding resentment and anger in our heart is like choosing to ingest poison. It’s one thing to notice an unpleasant emotion arising and to accept it with mindfulness and lovingkindness. It’s another to hold onto it and feed it. It didn’t hurt the boaters when I felt angry and resentful. It only hurt me. When you can stop blaming and accept the invitation to take responsibility for your own patterns, it’s such a hopeful, empowering shift!
In the past, I would have been consumed with irritation towards the boaters and feared the turbulence. Inner peace is a much more pleasant alternative! Now I know I can handle the waves, and I know what kind of thought patterns I do and don’t want to cultivate. That’s a powerful combo.
It’s easier to ride the waves when you’re not upset with the inconsiderate boaters who caused them. You accept that there inevitably will be waves, and you ride them without aversion. And maybe even with some amusement or even joy.
At some points in the school year, learning themes sync up so perfectly that the rich threads connecting them simply beg to be elucidated. This is the case right now as our study of snow overlaps with our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unit. Diversity and tolerance are the major themes that run through both units.
This week, I watched on DVD Wilson Bentley: Snowflakes in Motion, an hour-long movie about the life of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer who became fascinated with snowflakes at a young age and was among the very first human beings ever to photograph a snow crystal, after years of trial and error. His passion for snowflake photomicrography made him a pioneer in the field. He took pictures of more than 5,000 snow crystals and asserted that no two snowflakes are alike; each one is unique. Wilson Bentley celebrated and shared the beauty and diversity of the thousands of snow crystals he photographed so the public could appreciate them – and so their brief existence did not go unnoticed. Here is a short video that shows several of the images he captured:
After watching the Wilson Bentley video, I fell asleep thinking of the aesthetic and transcendent beauty of snowflakes and how each snow crystal is an exquisite mandala. I woke up in the morning excited to introduce the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to my students by exploring the diverse beauty (beautiful diversity?) of snowflakes. I couldn’t wait to show my students images of myriad, unique snow crystals, balanced with a discussion of the properties shared by all snow crystals. The next day, we would consider both how human beings are diverse and what we all have in common. I’ve never linked our January learning themes like this and couldn’t wait to give it a try. It brought to mind the following, previously shared quote from “Mister” (Fred) Rogers:
“As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.”
Reconciling our uniqueness with an appreciation for the uniqueness of others is important work. This is described by some as “tolerance” and others as “acceptance.” It is about respecting our differences. Here is another quote from Mister Rogers that came to mind after being dazzled by the images of several dozens of snowflakes in the video – and impressed by the painstaking care with which Wilson Bentley photographed individual snowflakes so they could be seen by others:
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
Watching the Snowflakes in Motion video, I was struck by the idea of how much joy, fulfillment, and meaning Wilson Bentley’s dedication to snow crystal photography brought to his life. This passion stemmed from his love and appreciation of the natural world that began when he was a child. I related strongly to his discovery of tremendous beauty in dew drops, frost, and other evanescent natural phenomena that are so easily overlooked. When you do look and notice, you can’t help but wonder how you never noticed before! Beauty truly is everywhere if you keep your eyes open and slow down enough to perceive it. In Wilson Bentley’s own words:
“There is a need of a greater love for, and appreciation of such things, of the beautiful and wonderful in nature… There are oceans of enjoyment, soul satisfying pleasure to be had in Nature’s art and beauty, as shown freely to us in the common things all about us.”
Yes, yes, YES!
Yesterday, I was with my students on the playground and was drawn to a willow tree towering above us on the other side of the fence. Its slender, golden branches swayed gently against a vivid, blue sky. It looked like long hair blowing in the wind and was so beautiful. I felt the rhythm of my breathing become deeper and more relaxed as I tuned in to the here-and-now channel. Then I noticed some small evergreen branches that had fallen to the ground. I picked them up and inhaled their fragrance deeply. A few children noticed me holding and admiring the evergreen branches and came over to look at them. They noticed “baby pine cones” growing on the branches. And then they looked for evergreen branches on the ground and brought some inside for our nature table. Word of the “baby pine cones” spread, and there was a flurry of children around the nature table, trying to catch a glimpse of them. That was the most authentic and gratifying lesson I facilitated all day long.
Back to snowflakes…
My kindergarten students get so excited when snow is in the forecast and when they glimpse snowflakes falling from the sky. They also love magnifying glasses. To help them observe snowflakes, I plan to provide them with frozen swatches of dark cloth and magnifying glasses the next time we are outdoors when it snows. We also will cut paper snowflakes and notice how each child’s snowflake is different.
Similarly, we will learn about skin pigmentation and notice that nobody’s skin is actually white or black; we come in all different shades. In past years, I have had children mix paints to find their own skin tone, or compare their skin tone to paint cards and determine the closest match. We come up with descriptive names for our skin tones after getting ideas from picture books, such as The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney, and Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. Some years, we use “multicultural” skin toned paint, construction paper, or crayons to create self-portraits, using different colors and textures of yarn for hair.
We round out our discussion of human diversity by talking about how we all experience the same feelings; have hopes, dreams, and fears; and live our lives as passengers on “spaceship Earth.” The topic of snow is part of a larger study of the water cycle and the changes water goes through, and we learn that we all share the same water that gets recycled, over and over.
As a postscript, I would add that Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have another, very personal, common thread, and that is my grandmother, who was born on Dr. King’s birthday and raised on a Vermont farm. She has been gone for more than two years now and would have been 94 today (January 15th).