It was just a regular paddle up the river to my usual turnaround spot and back. Occasionally, I’d pause to be still on the calm water and take in the symphony of the birds without the steady rhythm of paddling in the foreground. Before paddling back across the river to return home, I stopped to appreciate and make pictures with the water lilies.
I’d recently acquired a new lens that offered a fresh sense of both perspective and exploration. Before I knew it, I’d disembarked from my kayak in shallow water and was contorting my body into a sequence of “water lily photography yoga” asanas, to achieve the most pleasing angles.
Time doesn’t seem to exist when I’m with the water lilies. I fall into a water lily time warp. That’s what happens when we’re fully present and connected to what we love, or when love reveals itself through something or someone we’re fully present to and connected with.
When the nose of my kayak slid into the shore in front of my house, my sense of time returned immediately. I saw “10:30” flash in my mind. Could it really be that late? I had to teach a class at noon and had envisioned returning with three hours to spare. But when I looked at the time, it was 10:24. Somehow, I had lingered on the river for 3 1/2 hours!
However, when I’m with the water lilies, it is time well spent. They draw me close and whisper deep into my heart. If I were to choose a symbol for my life, it would be a water lily. No doubt about it.
Out of the Mud
I’ve contemplated water lilies from many different angles over the 13 years I’ve lived on this quiet stretch of the Hudson River. This week, I became fixated on how a beautiful, white flower grows from the dirty mud beneath the water – and how we, too, grow from the mud of this human life we’re living.
There’s a tendency to perceive our challenges and suffering as interfering with our lives. However, the challenges and messiness are as essential to a human life as the mud is to a water lily. They are part of life and provide us with essential nutrients for growth.
The mud of suffering belongs. It’s the foundation from which we awaken and bloom.
But sometimes we stay stuck in the mud. Instead of surrendering to the awakening process and growing towards the light, we remain in the comfort of the stories we tell about other people, ourselves, and life. When I think about the times I’ve felt stuck, it’s incredible how much suffering was generated by dysfunctional use of my mind. My own mind was holding me back!
And it’s even more incredible to realize that all along, it was within my power to step out of the muddy narratives and into the present moment. To set myself free from the addictive stories, as if awakening from a dream of tremendous limitation.
Towards the Light
Awareness is the first step of liberation. We can’t transform what we don’t even notice in the first place. When we make a practice of noticing with kindness and compassion the stories we tell about life, real transformation is possible. From the inside out.
I’m writing about this because it’s something I’ve experienced. I’m fascinated with how bored I’ve become with stories all of a sudden. Narratives that go something like: This is/isn’t how [my] life is supposed to be. Or how other people are supposed to be. Or my body. Stories that illustrate and explain why this person is a monster. Complaining stories.
These stories often carry some kind of judgment that generates a sense of superiority, inferiority, or separation…which reveals the author’s true identity:
Hello, Ego. I see you. I see what you’re doing. Thanks for trying to help. I’ve got this.
It feels like the stories have simply outlived their usefulness. Living in stories about others/myself/life pales in comparison to engaging freely with life. The stories and narratives are like a filter or veil that gets in the way of real presence and connection.
And I’ve learned that I greatly prefer presence and connection. They are breaths of fresh air.
The more I practice presence, the greater the momentum becomes to choose presence instead of the trance of stories. Awakening from dream/trance becomes more natural. I catch myself when I’m beginning to tell a story about a person, a situation, or myself. An alarm goes off in my head: “Story!” Then I can put my attention on what’s here and now: perhaps birdsong, flowing river, clouds drifting through the sky, or the breeze in the trees.
The idea of inhabiting a story brings to mind an image of a water lily bud living in a river, before reaching above the surface. A river of thought. But when we become aware of the water all around us, we don’t become so identified with how we perceive things. We can see there’s a layer or filter that distorts our perception to some degree, that we’re caught up in. We become aware that there’s more above the surface of the water and continue growing towards the light, where intuition and deeper insights can reach us. Where blooming happens naturally.
Truth is, our mind doesn’t have to work so hard. There’s an easier way to navigate this life. We need not inhabit such density. There is light available.
With practice, we can develop the capacity to notice what is happening – what we’re immersed in – and, like a water lily bud in the river, choose to keep growing upwards towards the light. We can choose the kind of relationship we have with our mind so it can be used for growth instead of holding us down. It is possible to overcome the addiction to thinking and being at the mercy of compelling thoughts that keep us stuck in unhealthy situations and disempowering beliefs.
Like water lilies, we are invited to transcend the mud, grow through the water towards the light, and bloom in the fresh air above the water. To experience the sunlight directly instead of through the filter of stories, narratives, beliefs that distract us from presence.
We can choose to accept the exquisite invitation and become more than a closed bud in a dense environment. We can bloom and be part of the pollinating world: inspiration to other buds, evidence that blooming is possible. That flowering is our nature, and there is a blueprint embedded within us.
We Are Not Alone
And like a water lily, we are not alone. Above the surface of the water, it might look like a water lily is a separate entity. But it’s connected with all the lily pads and other water lilies around it, part of the same plant, connected by stems and deep rhizomes. When I move my paddle gingerly through lily pads, it becomes very clear that everything is connected. The lily pads floating on the water gather sunlight and help the water lilies to grow and bloom.
Last year, I looked closely at the veiny design embossed on lily pads and was astonished to discover that it looked just like a water lily. That’s how interconnected they are.
We need only get a glimpse beneath the surface to realize we are not alone. We are connected with all the life around us, part of the same cycle or ecosystem. We have help and are in this life together. Our situation is not unique. Our suffering is simply the mud from which we rise and bloom, and it serves a purpose. It’s not something to be ashamed of or to regret. It’s essential to our being, and transcending it is essential to our becoming.
Time to Rest
The first time I visited my “water lily friends” this summer was one afternoon right after the solstice. I stayed up too late the previous night and got a late start in the morning, which meant missing the sunrise. I waited until I was done teaching to go on the river.
But there were only a few water lilies still visible above water at that time, and they’d already begun to close up for the day. That afternoon, I was tired after not getting enough sleep, and the water lilies reminded me of the importance of rest.
My water lily friends begin to wake up a couple hours after sunrise then close up and retreat underwater by mid-afternoon. The next morning, they rise back above the water and open up again. Each flower does this for about four days straight. It keeps retreating and coming back again, until returning to the mud to decompose. I appreciate and am inspired by their dance of rising and opening, closing and retreating, and how resting and retreating resources their blooming.
Needless to say, I’m grateful for water lily time of year and what these beautiful flowers reflect to me about this human life. If I’m ever running late, you know where to find me: amongst the water lilies, where time does not exist.
This morning, I woke up to a supportive text from someone who loves and cares deeply about me and realizes it might be a difficult day. I’d awakened early this morning feeling worried about how the day might go but managed to get back to sleep for a couple more hours, and receiving that text, literally within two minutes of waking up for good, made a difference. It was comforting to begin the day knowing that I am not alone and that someone truly cares.
In order to get back to sleep a couple hours earlier, I focused on releasing my thoughts and replacing them with thoughts that brought relief, and I scanned my body to become aware of and release any tension. I told myself it’s okay if I don’t fall asleep and had a Plan B (yoga nidra meditation) if I didn’t. And then I fell asleep and awakened to that wonderful text.
Through half a century of living in this world and being dedicated to personal and spiritual growth, I have developed an well-stocked toolbox to help me regain my sparkle when I’m feeling down. The toolbox is filled with resources that empower me to embrace my wholeness and shine my inner light. I’m sure you have such tools at your disposal, too. Each of us has our own toolbox, though the contents will vary from person to person according to personal preference and what gets the job done. Personally, gratitude is one of my power tools that yields consistently effective and amazing results, and I have many specialized, go-to tools in the mindfulness compartment of my toolbox, as well.
And thank goodness for that because July has been an emotionally tumultuous month here on the Hudson! For example, I took my son (my youngest) to college orientation for incoming freshmen, and it hit me that he really will be going away in less than a month and that I will have an empty nest for real. Not just practice, like when he’s seven minutes away at his dad’s house, but for real. I’ve also been witnessing the decline of a close friend’s mental health and feeling there’s nothing I can do to help. My dad’s physical health is suffering, and another friend is dealing with an alarmingly heavy load that life has served up.
It’s worthwhile to open our toolbox and do maintenance and improvement on a regular basis because the greatest gift we can give one another is our whole, loving self. It is that wholeness I strive to cultivate so I can give those around me the gift of my best self rather than a smaller version of myself that depends on them providing me with the relief that ultimately comes from me taking personal responsibility and doing the inner work only I can do.
But there are times when our energy and resilience are low – perhaps from exhaustion or overwhelm (which can happen when we’re not using our daily maintenance tools) – and encountering a great loss or challenge leaves us feeling needy, vulnerable, and incomplete. We might not even have the strength to open our toolbox and might forget we have a toolbox in the first place.
That’s when a kind and caring communication from someone who truly loves us can make a difference and give us that burst of strength and positivity that makes a difference. So surrounding ourselves with people who are naturally kind, loving, and supportive is a great tool to have in our collection. And it’s important to maintain our toolbox by discarding what doesn’t work for us. Life is too short to waste time sifting through our toolbox to locate useful tools in a pile that includes tools that are broken or never worked for us in the first place, even if others swear by them.
The other night, I felt very sad and lonely. It was an uncomfortable feeling that I realized I probably should sit with even though I wanted to flee from it. I sensed that if I ran from it, it would lodge in my body, whereas if I sat with a witnessing presence, it might dissolve or transform. But the idea of sitting and “being with” the uncomfortable sensations felt daunting. I wanted a distraction to whisk me away from the acute discomfort I was experiencing.
It was a clear indicator that life was offering me a tremendous opportunity for healing and growth…disguised as pain.
And then the image of a water lily came to mind.
I’ve been drawn to water lilies even more than usual lately and have spent hours photographing them on the river. There’s something about their energy and form that speaks to me. So when a water lily appeared in my mind during a moment of acute anguish (aggravated by being overtired), it inspired me with a simple movement that helped me to inhabit my fullness again and expand beyond feeling tattered and diminished. I call it “water lily pose,” and I made my first-ever guided meditation video to share with you. It’s simple and brief, and it’s the newest addition to my spiritual toolbox that can be useful when you are feeling disempowered in the face of personal or world events and long to return to your whole, sparkling self. Water lily medicine.
I’ve been noticing feathers everywhere lately. They seem to appear around me constantly. Yesterday morning, I went on the river, and right where I put in the kayak, there was a feather floating on the water. Once again, I took note.
As I got in my kayak, I recalled reading an article about the most common signs from deceased loved ones. Feathers were on the list. I wondered if there’s something especially significant about white feathers – even though the feather floating next to my kayak was not white. Come to think of it, I couldn’t recall seeing any white ones since I started noticing feathers.
So I paddled out to the middle of the river to photograph the water lilies as they opened for the day. (It has been an extraordinary week for water lily photography!) I was totally in my element. Pure bliss.
When I returned to the dock, what do you think I saw floating in the water right where I got out of my kayak?
That’s right: a white feather. It certainly raised my eyebrows and even brought a few tears to my eyes. Could it be my mom saying hello?
Who’s to say whether the feathers – and the white feather, in particular – are actually a sign from a loved one who has passed on? I’m not committed to that possibility, although I am open to it and would like to believe that’s the case.
Maybe it’s more about perception and becoming more aware of the environment. You think about feathers, and all of a sudden, you see them everywhere. Perhaps they were always there, and you never noticed until now.
Maybe it’s about the power of our thoughts to manifest in the physical world. You think about feathers, and you draw them to you like a magnet.
Maybe it’s entirely random.
But there’s more to the story.
This morning, I returned to the river to photograph water lilies. They were even more ravishing than yesterday.
After nearly an hour, I paddled to the other side of the river to view and delete some photos in the shade. As I focused on my camera, I felt a tremendous sense of peace fill every single cell in my body. It was the most wonderful feeling. I spent about 20 minutes reviewing and deleting photos and appreciating this profound sense of peace. Then I decided to paddle back across the river to get sunscreen and a bite to eat.
When I put away my camera and looked up, I noticed that I was surrounded by white feathers floating on the water! The feathers definitely weren’t there before because I absolutely would have noticed them.
With wide eyes and a huge smile on my face, I paddled back home. It felt like a sign, especially because of the incredibly peaceful sensation that accompanied it.
But who’s to say for sure? From my perspective, the most likely explanation is that we have no idea how powerful our minds are and what we are a part of. All I know for certain is that it filled me with joy and raised my energy for the rest of the day!
More days than not, I end up capturing upwards of 200 images that inspire, delight, or speak to me in some way. Every now and then, however, I find myself transfixed by an image. It’s rarely the most aesthetically pleasing shot. Usually, there’s just something about it that has some pull on me and sparks an inner recognition of some sort. So I sit with the image and contemplate what it has to say and what feelings or thoughts it evokes, and then consider how the insights that arise might be relevant to my life.
Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, I spent the afternoon at the New England Peace Pagoda in Western Massachusetts. I hadn’t heard of it prior to yesterday morning but felt immediately compelled to visit. Apparently, it is one of only four peace pagodas in the United States.
One detail I was thrilled to find on the grounds was a pond with both white and pink water lilies. I have been longing to see pink water lilies! I took many pictures of the pond, with countless prayer flags flapping overhead.
Here is the image I have been sitting with today:
The way the water lily is illuminated with sunlight seems so ethereal, and the colorful reflection of the prayer flags adds to the overall impact.
The flower is enchanting.
But it’s not real. It is an illusion. A reflection.
I rotated the image so it’s upside down.
I think of how skewed the reflections are when the water is rippled or turbulent. If we can allow our mind to settle until it becomes like still water, we can perceive with greater clarity.
But another way to read the water lily image is to consider how we project stuff (thoughts, beliefs, desires, fears, etc.) onto reality and then mistake the projections for reality. We add our own inner content and conditioning to the bare “is-ness” of the moment and fall under the spell of our own projections.
In other words, the thoughts we think, the sights we see, the conclusions we draw, and the beliefs and opinions we hold are products of our perception of reality, not reality itself.
Oh, how we complicate reality! The image reminds me to return to bare presence and keep the mental commentary in check. Become aware of it. Allow it to settle and become still, quiet. Don’t believe all the thoughts you think!
When I showed my teenage son this image and asked him if he thought it looked real, he said yes – at first. But he had seen the original (non-rotated) image last night and explained that there are certain clues you can key in on and realize it doesn’t quite make sense when it’s turned upside-down. For instance, the flower appears to be floating.
And that adds another layer of meaning – a reminder to pay close attention to details that suggest that what you are perceiving to be real isn’t so. Avoid the temptation to pull the wool over your eyes and believe in the illusion simply because it’s so alluring, and you want to believe it’s real.
Anyhow, those are some thoughts that came to mind when I sat with and “read” the water lily photo. It’s an interesting exercise to try with a photo or painting that reaches out and invites you to lean in and go deeper.