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.
© 2021 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.