This summer, the river that runs by my front door has been my refuge.
On the river, everything is so normal and predictable. It could be any summer. The sun and moon rise and set on schedule and travel the path they always do, undistracted by human drama. Birds sing. The water lilies open and close at the same time each day.
I speak insights and words of gratitude into my online journal through my phone (set to airplane kayak mode), and herons and eagles have an uncanny knack of appearing suddenly out of nowhere and flying overhead as if to underscore certain especially resonant and relevant inspirations. The other night, I was on the river doing this under the moonlight, and instead of a heron or eagle, it was a shooting star that appeared like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that had brought me to tears of homecoming.
It’s downright magical and sacred on the river.
This stretch of the Hudson River is the church I attend almost daily. It’s been keeping me balanced and centered as 2020 continues to carve its unpredictable and uncharted course through human and personal history. It’s taught me how to stay and to deepen my connection with the life around me. When I teach meditation classes, I use the phrase “on and off the [meditation] cushion.” But out here, “on and off the river” carries the same meaning.
There is a small spot on the riverside nearby just large enough for a family or small group of friends to enjoy the river and launch kayaks. It’s been getting a lot of use this summer, which is great. However, people often leave behind their garbage. It’s been happening more noticeably this year than in the past.
One day, I paddled by this spot and was disgusted and saddened by the sight of trash piling up. It fit a basic theme of selfishness that was pissing me off. So of course that’s what I saw. A narrative arose in my head about people who feel entitled to leave behind their garbage in the name of personal freedom. I saw selfishness, irresponsibility, a lack of caring and concern for others and the earth.
I paddled away feeling irked. And separate from and somehow better than the people who left behind their trash. But it didn’t feel right. As I paddled on, I asked myself how far down the river I was going to carry these feelings and assumptions.
The great thing about having a regular meditation practice is that I can catch myself sooner when my mind goes over to the dark side. And once you realize what’s happening inside your head, it opens up a field of spaciousness in which the heart can speak.
I realized that just as people can do better with cleaning up after themselves, I can do better than judging them.
So I paddled along with a prayer in my heart:
May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that causes us to do harm. May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that leads us to exclude others from our heart.
That felt better because I was back in connection with my fellow humans.
Our human struggles and the demons we wrestle with are universal, even though they may look different on the surface. We get triggered, addicted, distracted, stuck. We fall short, miss the mark, make mistakes. It is the human condition.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when we stop blaming others and making them wrong and instead take an honest look at ourselves and our reactions, we become empowered. Because the one and only person we can change is you-know-who. When we shift the way we look at something, new possibilities can come to light. We can find a better way to hold a situation so we can see expanded possibilities and take some kind of positive action.
Opportunities for Caring
If we explore a little deeper, we’ll likely find that underneath our anger, indignation, and judgment is some kind of caring. The light of love, kindness, and compassion wants to shine forth, but the ego tends to obstruct it when things aren’t the way it thinks they should be.
The caring in me resonated with ideas such as putting a small sign at the spot on the river inviting people to enjoy it and to remember to carry out their trash. Maybe leaving a box of bags in case they didn’t think to bring their own. Or putting on some gloves and cleaning up the spot myself. We can see an opportunity to be of service and shine our light instead of another opportunity to disconnect our hearts. Instead of just photographing and griping, I can bring a bag and be part of a solution. I can share my images and ideas and be part of a productive dialogue.
The great news is that before I had a chance to do that, someone else had come along and cleaned it up! Another caring heart.
I’ve paddled by the littered spot on the river many times since and started reflecting on how it is connected with the other things we find unacceptable in our world, in our lives, and in ourselves. Might they, too, be opportunities to shine more light and love?
I’m thinking of issues participants (mostly female) in my mindfulness meditation courses bring up – that often resonate with me, too. I find it so beautiful when one person voices something they’re struggling with and others reassure them that they understand and that they’re not alone. Which is the truth. So often, we feel alone in our struggles, as if nobody would understand. Or maybe (God forbid!) they’d judge us. But we’re never alone. Our struggles really aren’t that special!
For example, instead of seeing weight gain as moving in the wrong direction or being unacceptable, could it be an opportunity to love your body more, not only when it meets your expectations but also when it doesn’t? With practice and intention, might feelings of disappointment or disgust cue you to take a breath and beam love to the parts – of your body, your life, your world, your past – you deem unacceptable?
I often do this during self-Reiki and chakra work. It’s a beautiful practice, and it really is a practice that you do again and again. As your capacity for mindful awareness increases, those familiar feelings of shame can cue love, compassion, acceptance, and even appreciation! And the kind of love that inspires you to give your body/life/world what it most deeply thirsts for instead of what is merely habitual. Without beating yourself up – because you realize punishment is neither a necessary nor effective path to well-being.
Might anxiety or white coat syndrome be an opportunity to bring more love and kindness to yourself, and to be less judgmental? To listen to what your body is saying when it gets your attention through a sympathetic fight-or-flight response, instead of trying to whip it into submission? Instead of creating more tension and dissatisfaction through resistance?
Blame and disconnection.
“I’m right, and you’re wrong.
Regrets and mistakes of all kinds.
What do you see in a heap of garbage on the side of the road? When you look in the mirror? When you take in community and world news? When you communicate with someone who doesn’t see the world as you do?
Can we learn to hold what we repel in a different, more spacious way so new, more empowering and caring possibilities can arise? Can we include them in our circle of lovingkindness so they can awaken our natural wisdom and compassion instead of keeping us rigid and stuck?
Yes, we can. Held the right way, the demons we wrestle become allies that help us to evolve. To love better.
© 2020 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.