Author: susantara

Back into Presence

Back into Presence

It’s true: Everything is impermanent. Even seasons of inertia. Thank goodness.

A couple days ago, I finally had my first inspired idea after returning from the seven-day silent mindfulness meditation retreat. It happened without trying, and it felt like it came from a deep place. So now, instead of just framing photography for my upcoming exhibit, I’m painting the frames, too, for a color-coordinated, shabby chic look. It makes a big difference and feels so much more “me.” I’m psyched.

This morning, more inspiration came. I think it’s back. It seemed to come in response to getting carried away by a wave of emotion last night. One step back, two steps forward.

I’ve been doing well embodying mindfulness since the retreat. However, now my son is home from college and has transportation issues. We live in the country, and he can’t get a summer job without reliable transportation. All he has is a bike, which he’s determined to ride. However, the roads around here aren’t safe for bikers, especially when it gets dark, and to make a long story short, I ended up getting hooked by sadness last night. I felt bad about not being able to offer him more than I can, and then sadness morphed into regret for all the mistakes I’ve made in my life that resulted in him not having a car to drive this summer.

Every so often, I acknowledged this is regret and noticed where I felt it in my body. And then I got hooked again. Regret is my seductive teacher. It keeps returning until I’ve learned what it has to teach me and don’t need it anymore.

But everything is impermanent. Even challenging emotions. This morning, I woke up feeling better. During my walk, I recognized: Regret is disempowering. Come back to the present. 

Then I noticed the trees and the new leaves they’re putting out, still a tender, bright shade of chartreuse. I suspect trees don’t regret last year’s foliage or any previous year’s. That’s in the past. Now they are starting fresh with a new generation of leaves. New determination to grow. All that matters now is the leaves that are emerging this year that can capture sunlight and help the tree to grow.

Then it occurred to me that I might want to go home and get my camera because the trees were showing me something about my own nature. On the way back to my car, I noticed an oak tree that hadn’t let go of all of last year‘s leaves. They are brown, papery, and shriveled and such a contrast to the tender, bright, new leaves. I considered the tree holding on to what no longer serves it a rather unappealing quality – and a contemplative image I wanted to capture. So home I went, to get my camera.

When I returned with my camera and started photographing oak and maple trees, I felt completely back in my element. Waiting for the wind to quiet down is a great opportunity to embody presence, and this is what photography has been for me all along: an invitation to presence. Presence when the conditions are right and presence while waiting for the sun to go behind or emerge from a cloud or for the wind to calm down. Photography as a portal to presence. It’s a significant part of my spiritual practice.

I don’t need my camera to embody presence. But I do tend to pause and linger a little longer while waiting for conditions to be more favorable for capturing the image my heart desires that somehow speaks to me. And that right there is the way I want to live my life. It’s the answer to the koan I brought back from retreat about goals and contentment.

When conditions aren’t exactly the way I want them to be, I can focus on being present to and allowing what is. Then, when conditions are right, I can put all that much more presence into the photography. And if the conditions don’t present themselves, then I haven’t wasted my time because I’ve embodied presence and stillness and can walk along like that until the next inspiration arrives! In the meantime, I’m not tempted to put my energy into anything that distracts me from what feels right because I already feel so content and peaceful.

Without even trying, I returned home with this blog post. I didn’t have a goal to write today, but it arose from the stillness.

There’s a season for putting out bright, shiny new leaves – new possibilities for growth. There’s a season for full, deep green leaves collecting maximum sunlight for the growth part of the cycle. There’s a season for letting go of leaves because it’s not time for that anymore, and they’re not needed. And there’s a season for rest and reflection. Each of these seasons is impermanent and important, and wherever we are in the cycle, may we let it be as it is. May we trust in the seasons of our lives and not try to fill them with compulsive activity. In presence and stillness, growth comes without us needing to try so hard.

I bow to the Buddha on my meditation altar. I bow to the leaves in the trees through which Source energy reveals itself. I bow to all my teachers, including unpleasant emotions that carry me away and eventually dissolve back into stillness. I bow to it all.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, and feng shui consultant whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York. 

Seven Days of Uninterrupted Mindfulness

Seven Days of Uninterrupted Mindfulness

“It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing.”

This is what I overheard one of my fellow retreatants say to someone on the phone when we were about to depart at the end of a seven-day silent vipassana meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

She summed it up perfectly.

The retreat wasn’t as I’d convinced myself it would be after reading someone else’s account online. But I think I knew all along that my results would vary. A week after returning, I feel very different than I did before going on retreat and am immensely grateful for the experience. I’m sharing my experience to provide a taste of what this kind of meditation retreat is like for anyone who may be interested or curious. Just keep in mind that your results would vary, too!

The Context

I went into it expecting a “mindfulness bootcamp” experience because of the full schedule that began with a 5:15AM bell and ended close to 10PM. And because I wouldn’t be able to read, write, use my camera, or even check the weather forecast on my phone. There would be no contact whatsoever with the outside world so we could observe our minds free from distraction. My impression was that it would be strict and Zen-like, and I dreaded the intensity, although I believed it would be beneficial in ways I couldn’t yet understand and therefore was worth doing.

When I arrived at the retreat center and was trying to find my dorm room in what seemed like a maze of corridors, a young man asked me if it was my first time there and kindly pointed me in the right direction. I asked him if he’d been on retreat there before. He said yes, and I responded, “And you came back?!” He assured me that by the end of the retreat, you don’t want to leave. Before we went into silence that first evening, I heard numerous repeat retreatants talking and started to suspect the experience would be quite different than I’d anticipated.

It wasn’t bootcamp after all. It was more like a weeklong mindfulness learning laboratory. There were nearly 100 of us, and we were well supported by comfortable accommodations, easy access to nature, skillful teachers and staff, and deeply satisfying vegetarian meals. The retreat center has been operating since Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein founded it in 1975. With more than 40 years of experience, they know what they’re doing and do it well. 

At the beginning of the retreat, we took five Buddhist precepts: 

  1. To refrain from killing living beings (including insects)
  2. To refrain from taking what is not given (stealing)
  3. To refrain from all sexual activity
  4. To refrain from false speech (not an issue when you’re in silence)
  5. To refrain from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness.

In addition, we were to observe noble silence and avoid eye contact with other retreatants for the duration of the retreat – even when we ate next to each other in the dining hall and held doors open for one another.

The daily schedule was:

5:15 Wakeup bell
5:45 Sitting meditation in the meditation hall
6:30 Breakfast
7:00 Yogi job (I was a pot washer in the kitchen)
8:15 Sitting/Instructions/Q&As
9:15-12:00 Self-scheduled practice (alternate periods of walking meditation and sitting meditation)
12:00 Lunch (the big meal of the day)
1:30 Walking
2:15 Sitting
3:00 Optional mindful movement (I did yoga on my own during this time)
4:00 Self-scheduled practice (sit/walk)
5:00 Light dinner (soup, fruit, and bread or crackers)
6:15 Sitting
7:00 Walking
7:30 Dharma talk
8:30 Walking
9:00 Lovingkindness dharma reflection/sitting meditation

For the most part, the day alternated between periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation. Walking meditation basically consisted of choosing a space indoors or outdoors where you could walk back and forth about 20 paces with full attention. Imagine what it looked like with so many people walking slowly back and forth all over the grounds! (I laughed to myself, “The zombies are walking!” because that’s what it looked like.) I was glad to learn of a three-mile loop on surrounding country roads for walking as vigorously as we wanted to while maintaining awareness. I did that every day, and it was a highlight of my day.

Every other day, we’d meet for small group interviews with one of the three teachers for an hour during self-scheduled practice time to talk about how our practice was going, ask questions, and receive personal guidance regarding our practice. We weren’t allowed to talk with each other, only with the teacher. 

In my first interview, when I commented on the demanding schedule, the teacher explained that nobody was forcing us to attend every session in the meditation hall. However, they hoped we’d at least attend the morning instructions and the evening dharma talk. In other words, there was some flexibility. We just had to be honest with ourselves about whether we were truly tired and needed to rest or were avoiding practice. I felt relieved to learn that sitting meditation could be done either in the meditation hall, an alternative sitting room, or elsewhere. Sometimes when I didn’t feel like meditating with everyone else, I’d sit alone on the balcony of my dorm adjacent to the woods and listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees. 

So that’s the basic container of the retreat, within which the inner exploration took place. 

The Inner Process

I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation more or less regularly for 25 years. However, meditating for 20-30 minutes a day or in the course of everyday life is one thing. Witnessing what was going on in my mind constantly for a full week in silence is another thing. Throughout the week, practice continued to build, presence deepened, and some issues arose. I’ll describe some of the highlights.

Thoughts inevitably would arise, and the instruction was to notice where my attention was. What am I experiencing right now? The point was to develop the witnessing presence, not to be free from thought (because thinking is what minds do) but to be free from attachment to thought – so as not to be thrown off-balance by craving, aversion, delusion, etc. Most of the thoughts that arose for me during the week could be labeled planningproblem-solving, or counting. (I’d count how many days I’d been on retreat and how many more to go, how many hours I’d been practicing so far that day and how many more to go, the number of meditators in the meditation hall during the dharma talk, etc.).

I experienced the glorious spaciousness of noticing but not processing thoughts. For the first half of the retreat, thoughts would come, but they weren’t too interesting. When I “brushed them lightly with awareness”, they tended to dissolve swiftly. By day five, I noticed thoughts with more of an emotional charge starting to arise – perhaps in anticipation of returning home. When they did, it was not time to analyze or react to them. It was time to become aware of the emotion, allow it, and notice what it feels like in the body.

For example, one afternoon I was sitting on my bed and noticed the towel hanging on the rack next to my sink. My mom had bought the towel. It reminded me of her, and I remembered what a sweet person she was. Then I felt a wave of grief arise, and tears welled up in my eyes. However, instead of feeding the grief with more sad thoughts, I simply noted, “This is grief,” and noticed where the physical sensations were in my body. Then I watched the grief recede like a wave after it’s crashed on the shore. All things, including grief, are impermanent. They arise and fall away naturally if we don’t feed them.

Early on, I realized how self-conscious I tend to be around other people, even when there’s no interaction. I noticed that awareness of others took me out of presence. When thoughts arose (sometimes after the fact) about how self-consciousness limits me, I practiced noticing them and noting simply and without judgment, “This is how self-consciousness feels. It’s OK.” Then I noticed the sensations in my body and watched “self-consciousness” pass, without forcing or resisting it in any way. It was a welcome alternative to getting carried away by critical self-talk and feeling bad! 

By midweek, it took me a half hour to eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. All week, my definition of multitasking was chewing one bite of food while arranging the next one on my plate…and even that felt like too much. So I’d put down my spoon or fork between bites to be more fully present. It felt so spacious.

I tuned in to how my body felt and what it truly wanted in terms of food (quantity and quality) and movement. During dinner one day, the soup and freshly baked bread were so delicious, and I lingered even more than usual, one mindful bite after another. When my bowl was empty, I became aware of a tension between satisfaction and desire. My body was content and satisfied, but my mind craved more, wanting to prolong the pleasure. As I drank a mug of cinnamon rose tea, I was more aware of the tension than the taste of the tea. However, every slow swallow and the spaces in between sips took me further out of habit/craving/future and back into presence and contentment. I experienced the difference between craving and true hunger

How lovely not to feed the habit of craving, by becoming aware of it! After meals, I’d linger at the table to experience the physical sensation of satisfaction – enoughness – and become more acquainted with it. Just sit with it instead of getting up right away to attend to the next thing. 

Transitions were opportunities for mindfulness, too – such as walking to the dining hall, meditation hall, or back to my room. I played a little game with myself: How far down the hallway will I get before I realize I’m walking?

I began to recognize the first hint of recurring thoughts – like the very first notes of a familiar song. 

I acknowledged that my body is my tool for evolution in this lifetime and provides useful information, such as: This is what yes feels like, and no. This is what hungry feels like, and satisfied. This is what garden variety craving feels like, and deeper aspiration. This is what the tug of habit feels like, and freedom.

I had a lot of dreams during the retreat. Normally, I work with my dreams as a source of inner guidance. However, doing that conflicted with the instructions for vipassana meditation. I asked the guiding teacher during an interview how much attention to give to dreams during the retreat, and she said, “Not much.” When you wake up, you can note that you had a dream and where you feel it in your body, and then keep meditating. So for the duration of the retreat, I let my dreams go and suspended my usual spiritual practices, realizing I could return to them when the retreat was over.

There was a dharma talk every evening addressing various aspects of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been drawn to Buddhism and its practical, rational approach to spiritual development and liberation from suffering. Through the dharma talks, I understood the root of my “abundance blocks” and “poverty mentality” and how deeply ingrained Buddhist ideals of simplicity and modest living are in me. 

I also acknowledged the contrast between vipassana practice and pursuing goals, including the use of tools like vision boards. While immersed in vipassana practice, it felt like Law of Attraction mindset and vision boards reinforce craving and desire, which is accepted in Buddhism to be the cause of suffering. I didn’t let myself think about it much during the week, but it was something I could contemplate after the retreat was over.

At the end of the retreat, after we broke silence, lunch was offered in the dining hall, and I realized the stories and personalities I’d attributed to fellow retreatants were wildly inaccurate! I sat with other 50-somethings and noticed a table of much younger retreatants who seemed to know each other, engaged in lively conversation. There were even couples. I felt a combination of envy and regret arise and wished I could have connected with others who were dedicated to a spiritual path when I was younger.

In my twenties, when I went to meetings of spiritual groups, I was always the youngest, and others would comment on my age, which made me feel uncomfortable and like I didn’t quite fit in. I had a wonderful teacher, who is still my teacher today, but I didn’t have any companions my age “on the path”. Sitting at the middle-aged table, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have been different and how much further I’d have come by now if I’d had more spiritually supportive relationships. Certainly, it’s easier now with the internet. But oh, if only… When I noticed the “if only” thoughts arising, I remembered the words of one of the retreat teachers describing the process of spiritual development: It takes as long as it takes. That’s a gem I’ll hold onto. I can’t be reminded of that enough!

Re-Entry to Everyday Life

After doing some photography, I drove home on country roads through small towns, which was perfect. Although I’d considered going grocery shopping on the way home, it felt like that should wait. At the end of the retreat, one of the teachers explained that we were more tender and sensitive than we might realize. It never occurred to me to turn on the radio as I drove for nearly three hours. Doing anything more than driving felt like too much. When I walked into the house, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her house and into Oz for the first time. Everything was so colorful! It was as if I was seeing my home for the first time, through fresh eyes.

I also was technologically challenged. Using my mobile phone felt strange and confusing. It took a couple days before I was at all interested in using my phone or computer or even loading the pictures I’d taken onto my computer. A week later, my relationship with technology still feels much more spacious and less compulsive. I only check my phone a few times a day, and when I receive a notification alert, I might not even look at my phone, but the sound serves as a meditation bell that cues me to tune in and take a mindful moment. I’m loving this new relationship with my phone!

I went grocery shopping the next day but kept it as simple as possible because it felt like sensory overload. I was glad to have a few days before returning to work.

For a few days, I also felt like I didn’t have any kind of protective shell around me. Maybe that’s part of what the teachers meant by being more “sensitive”.

Perhaps the most wonderful shift I’ve experienced is that I haven’t been multitasking, even while driving, eating, or cooking. I’ve tried, for example, to listen to a podcast while preparing a meal, to listen to the radio while driving, and to read an article while brushing my teeth, but I haven’t been able to. It’s still too much! As a result, I’ve been doing less, but what’s fallen off my plate are the more compulsively driven and ultimately unnecessary activities. They don’t seem as important as they did before, so I’m not making myself frazzled by trying to fit them in and over-delivering. This includes activities like posting daily on social media. Less is more. I’m focusing on what’s most important rather than trying to do it all.

I also haven’t been getting ahead of myself. My mind hasn’t been arriving at destinations before my body does. I’ve been noticing that I’m walking instead of focusing on the destination and what I’ll do when I get there. This morning, I noticed a lovely patch of flowers next to a pond and went to my car to get my camera. As I walked to my car and back to the flowers, I was aware of walking and of the other beautiful flowers and sounds along the way, rather than focusing on how excited I was to photograph and later share a beautiful sight. I didn’t even feel excited. I felt alive and present, connected. Similarly, I tend to notice that I’m walking from room to room instead of being caught up in I have to do this, this, and this. That’s very different for me. 

I feel much calmer and more peaceful. 

I still don’t feel as ambitious or passionate as I did prior to the retreat. The idea of having ambitious goals and marketing/promoting my services in any way feels strange. However, one thing I know from observing my mind for an entire week is that this will pass. I’m still re-acclimating to normal life. And perhaps the stillness from the retreat continues to strip away the more compulsive needs to achieve something I’m passionate about so I can be guided by deeper aspiration and more spacious awareness. Less tunnel vision.

However, I’m used to generating motivation from a state of passion, which I have not experienced since I left for retreat. I wonder: Can I still be motivated and productive if I’m not in that high energy state? When I contemplate that question, I see an image of me as a young woman writing poetry at the bottom of an Ithaca waterfall. In my early and mid-20s, I thought I had to be near a waterfall to write poetry. When I moved out of Ithaca the first time, I was worried about not being able to write poetry anymore. However, in time I discovered I could write almost anywhere. 

It wasn’t the waterfall. And perhaps it’s not a particular state of mind. Perhaps my work will be of better quality if it’s not coming from such an intense and driven state of mind. 

With regard to goals, I’ve been considering: What are my heart’s innermost desires? What motivations do my aspirations spring from? Are my goals fueled by altruistic or selfish intentions? Selfish motivations will strengthen craving, which causes suffering, whereas wishing that my success will benefit others brings deeper satisfaction. I’ve been considering my vision board through this lens. I haven’t removed anything from it but am trying to be more aware of the underlying intentions. My sense is that as awareness deepens, false values fall away, and vision boards reflect that. 

I bought a statue of a serene Buddha in seated meditation that I placed outside the window of my workspace. It elevates the energy of the space and serves as a reminder to take mindful pauses or embody mindfulness in my work. 

I have new appreciation for how mindfulness practice balances my personality patterns and the benefits of daily practice. Mindfulness practice helps me to cultivate a more skillful relationship with my thoughts and emotions. It also keeps me in the here-and-now rather than focusing on my to-do list, regrets, mistakes, what’s missing from my life, etc. It generates equanimity and a stillness from which deeper wisdom arises.

Since returning from retreat, I’ve been doing sitting meditation every morning for 30 minutes, followed by walking meditation, and I look forward to it because I realize how it benefits the well-being of myself and others. I consider it a valuable opportunity to become aware of what my mind is up to. It’s absolutely worth getting up earlier to practice sitting, walking, and yoga. I also have been embodying the practice in daily life, for example, by not doing anything else while eating or driving and pausing before selecting/preparing food to consider if it’s habitual craving or what my body really wants. 

I touched base with my long-time guide to discuss the issues that have arisen since being on retreat, and she put my mind at ease and told me that I must have misunderstood something about Buddhism earlier in life that made me think of voluntary poverty as a spiritual ideal. She reminded me that the teachings come from cultures in which spiritual teachers were supported by the community, which is not the case for us. That was something I needed to be reminded of. She also told me she often doesn’t realize what she got from being on retreat until months later. Integration can take time.

In the closing talk, one of the teachers cautioned us not to get attached to our practice always going smoothly. She said there inevitably will be times when we will experience two steps forward and one step back…and that’s OK. A week after returning from retreat, I’m still riding the wave and appreciating the steps forward that have shifted me into greater presence, clarity, spaciousness, and calm. But if I find myself clinging to that, I know what to do. It’s a matter of becoming aware of it and allowing, “This is what I’m experiencing right now.” And then noticing what happens.

Again and again and again.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, and feng shui consultant whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York. 

Preparing for Mindfulness Bootcamp

Preparing for Mindfulness Bootcamp

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m preparing to do something I’ve never done before and am feeling a little anxious about. Something that will take me completely out of my comfort zone. 

Soon, I will go on my first seven-day, silent vipassana meditation retreat. It was on my bucket list of “someday” items. However, I wouldn’t have done it so soon if it weren’t a prerequisite for the mindfulness meditation teacher certification program I’m about to embark on. I’ve been on plenty of spiritual retreats in my lifetime: silent retreats, group retreats, and lots of individual retreats. But this one will be different.

For a full week, the day will begin at 5AM and end around 10PM. Until the tail end of the retreat, we will maintain “noble silence”. When I’m not eating meals mindfully in silence, I will alternate between periods of seated and walking meditation. There also will be a daily period of silent, mindful work of some sort and a dharma talk and/or meeting with a teacher. It will be a week of mindfulness bootcamp!

But there’s more…

For the whole week, I will have no access to my camera, phone, or even a journal. I will not be able to write down any ideas, record any insights, or look up any information. I cannot imagine going a week without writing!

Basically, I’ll be removed from all my usual crutches and comforts, with no place to run or hide. Just bare presence and witnessing every move my mind makes. All the mental gymnastics. And there will be nobody to vent to because everyone will be maintaining noble silence.

Spending 20-30 minutes a day in seated and/or walking meditation is one thing. Practicing every waking moment is another ballgame! Sam Harris described this kind of retreat as “extreme sports for the mind”.

I’ve spent the past couple weeks – since getting bumped from the waiting list to the confirmation list – anticipating and coming to terms with what the week will be like. Some people close to me have expressed disbelief about what I’m voluntarily choosing to put myself through. Some have commented that it sounds like I’m already there because I’ve been thinking about it so much. And they’re right, of course.

But no worries: It’s not some kind of cult. It’s totally legit, and the teachers come from a long Buddhist tradition. If you’ve ever heard the story of Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) meditating under the bodhi tree until he became enlightened, it’s more or less inspired by that. 

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect to attain supreme enlightenment during a seven-day retreat and actually am not expecting any particular outcome. I simply realize that some of my habitual thoughts and thought patterns – even ones I considered virtues – cause me to suffer deeply and needlessly, and I know I can do better. I want to do better.

I want to become more intimately acquainted with my mind and be more of a wise conductor and less its slave. I want to understand how my mind manufactures and sustains attitudes, beliefs, and realities that ultimately do not serve me or anyone else, and that don’t support my goals, my vision of who I am and who I can become, or my core values. I want to understand how I can value this and do that and my tendency to react to the behavior and words of others by creating stories, fantasies, and interpretations rather than allowing things simply to be as they are. I want to stop adding fuel to the fire and experience greater stillness and equanimity that will allow me to engage with the world with more inner peace and wisdom and less ego.

For a full week, I’ll have nowhere to hide and will have to face with awareness whatever arises in my mind. I might even get to experience my mind as a peaceful oasis for a while when the mental activity settles down. What an awesome opportunity, huh?

I see mindfulness as a tool that can cut through disempowering, dualistic mental patterns that send me running into all sorts of places for relief and comfort. My hope is that instead of talking myself out of taking action that would serve my goals or engaging in thoughts of unworthiness (one of my go-to fantasies), through greater mindfulness I will be able to acknowledge my mental patterns and not get derailed by them. Or at the very least, it will shorten my recovery time – the time it takes to realize I got carried away by thoughts and feelings and bring myself back. 

THESE are some reasons why I am going on the vipassana retreat. 

It does seem like the retreat has already started, weeks ahead of time. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve already been able to witness the places my mind goes in preparation for this retreat, and that is useful information to better understand how my mind works.

I’ve already noticed that when I’m mindful of my thoughts and simply witness and label them rather than indulge them, I don’t get hooked and feel calmer. I don’t get carried away by whatever thought-stream arises. So much of my mental activity is neither useful nor necessary. It just fills the spaces. There’s no time like the present for some thought decluttering! Spring cleaning for the mind that starts with taking a good look at what’s in there.

I’m confident that “mindfulness bootcamp” will be beneficial. And if I can gain more insight into my own mind and how to work with it rather than be at its mercy, then I can help others to better understand and work with theirs.

Soon, I will give up all my comforts for a week to experience greater freedom. I will deal with it and get through it, one breath and one step at a time. And when it’s over, I’ll let you know how it turned out!

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, and feng shui consultant who lives on the Hudson River. Her work combines her passion for photography, writing, and energy work with her deep interest in the nature of mind and her love of the natural world. 

Even While Waiting for Spring

Even While Waiting for Spring

“It’s another lovely winter day.”

“Don’t spend too much time in the hot sun!”

These are typical greetings I hear every day as we wait for Spring to arrive in all its glory and for Winter to release its stronghold. Spring is certainly taking its time this year.

Yesterday morning, I was mindful of what I needed most of all before heading to work: a nice, vigorous power-walk. I had hoped to get my walk in before the rain came, but it started raining a few minutes after I started walking. However, I had an umbrella with me and a warm enough coat, so I kept walking.

There’s a choice in moments like that to feel grumpy about having to walk in the cold rain. You might even choose to stop walking and go home. Get out of the cool, damp weather. Or you could feel empowered and unbothered by the weather and have a lovely walk despite the rain…as I did. Not that anyone who feels grumpy about the persistent “wintry weather” and ice-covered windshields would want to hear my Susie Sunshine story. But I felt good about giving myself the gift of what I needed most that morning and knew I’d feel better at work because of it and because I didn’t allow myself to make excuses and not exercise.

I also thought about how nice a hot shower would feel when I’m done walking. 

And felt grateful that I could take a shower.

I thought about the homeless population I see every day at the library. If anyone has a right to complain about how long it’s taking for Spring to arrive this year, it’s them. Surely, they’d appreciate being able to come inside from the cold weather and take a hot shower at will.

I felt truly grateful for having hot, running water and a bathroom with a shower. 

The night before, I watched the documentary, Minimalism, which is about decluttering our lives and living with less stuff because “less is more”. I recently completed the requirements for Clutter Clearing Coaching certification and also became a Certified Feng Shui Consultant, so the documentary was right up my alley and very inspiring. An interview with a couple who lives in a “tiny home” helped me to reframe my small (by today’s standards), one-bathroom home built nearly 200 years ago (when people didn’t have nearly as much stuff) as an exciting decluttering challenge. I thought I did a good job last year of getting rid of stuff, but after watching the movie and looking around my home, I realize I can do more.

The documentary reminded me that I have so much more than enough, even though every home I go into for clutter coaching and feng shui seems so much nicer and more spacious than mine.

Of course, it’s not about the amount of space or stuff you have but whether your space and your stuff reflects your values. Having all your possessions fit into a couple of carry-on bags might represent freedom, resourcefulness, and empowerment to one person and disempowerment and unworthiness to another. Someone who values caring for the environment might not be drawn to a large home that takes up a lot of space and requires more energy to heat, cool, and maintain it, whereas someone who values entertaining and hosting holiday celebrations would be unlikely to live in a small home with tiny rooms like mine.

I started thinking about gratitude and my relationship with abundance. I wondered: When is gratitude for what you have an “abundance block” vs. a virtue? 

The late Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote:

“Refuse to allow yourself to have low expectations about what you’re capable of creating. As Michelangelo suggested, the greater danger is not that your hopes are too high and you fail to reach them; it’s that they’re too low and you do.”

During my walk, I felt like I was balancing on a tightrope between gratitude (for what I have) and poverty mindset (being content with what I have because others have so much less). It’s that line I wanted to be more mindful of and understand better. Can I or should I be content with living in a small, one-bathroom home with hot, running water and no usable storage space? It seems foolish to underestimate the value of hot, running water when so many people in the world and even in my affluent hometown don’t have such ready access to it. Does feeling such gratitude for simple pleasures like that prevent me from having higher expectations about what I can create in my life – for instance, a home with more spacious rooms and usable space?

I guess I didn’t want to get stuck or limited by gratitude. But how silly is that? As I continued to walk, I felt an answer coming to me: To feel gratitude for the little things while also feeling a sense of true abundance and worth. 

It doesn’t matter how much stuff you have relative to anyone else. Comparing yourself to others is not the answer. Feeling abundant and prosperous is what matters. Feeling that you are enough and have enough, whatever your situation is. I think that is a useful mindset for discovering what you’re really capable of.

In other words, gratitude and appreciation are not abundance blocks. What matters is how abundant you feel. When you feel appreciative, but a feeling of “not enough-ness”, unworthiness, or lack creeps in, that is the culprit that needs attention. 

So the feeling I’m going for is appreciation for what I have without clinging to it or craving more. A sense of being and having enough and not comparing myself to others – feeling bad about having more than some or not nearly as much as others.

Gratitude is such a powerful mindset. When you are filled with gratitude for what you already have, it produces joy and the abundance mindset and energy boost for continuing to follow your bliss. It leads to more of the same and natural expansion (which may or may not have anything to do with material possessions).

On the other hand, feeling bad about the home you live in, the weather, etc. produces a sense of lack that drains your energy and makes it harder to follow your bliss because bliss becomes out of reach. Dr. Dyer suggested “being peaceful, radiating love, practicing forgiveness, being generous, respecting all life, and most important, visualizing yourself as capable of doing anything you can conceive of in your mind and heart.” Playing the victim of weather or circumstance is disempowering. Being grateful for what you have without any feelings of lack puts the wind back in your sails and empowers you to play with greater possibilities.

It’s like having gratitude for the weather, even when it still feels much more like Winter than Spring in mid-April. Taking a walk anyway and being outdoors noticing the birdsong and legions of daffodils that will bloom in time. Not today, but don’t let that diminish your feeling of enough-ness in this moment. Finding beauty in a cluster of crocuses that are still closed, but the raindrops look so beautiful on them, and the image is simply perfect just as it is right now, and you wouldn’t dare or even think to ruin the poetry of the moment with thoughts of how cold it is.

Feeling appreciative and joyful about that rather than grumpy because Spring hasn’t arrived yet in all its gloryHaving a spring in your step and going about your business with joy in your heart, rather than waiting for the arrival of Spring or “more than this” to feel good.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a contemplative photographer, writer, educator, and artist who lives on the Hudson River. Her work combines her passion for photography and writing with her deep interest in the nature of mind and perception and her love of the natural world. 

Just for the Joy of It

Just for the Joy of It

As I drove along I-88 to Light on the Hill retreat center last weekend, I felt a little nervous. It was the weekend our group would focus on the Inner Child, and that kind of work hasn’t been my favorite kind of spiritual work in the past. What would my inner children have to say to me? What kind of emotional state would I find them in?

I’d recently finished sorting through all the family photos my parents had accumulated during their lifetime: 23 boxes of them, to be precise. It was like going through a multigenerational life review. I saw pictures in which I stood apart from the rest of my family, as if I wanted nothing to do with them, and felt bad about how I acted during those adolescent and teen years. Even when I was older, I believed I was more enlightened than the rest of my family and sometimes wondered if I was switched at birth. If I didn’t have the “Meyer eyes,” I seriously would have considered that possibility! Where the heck did I come from, anyway? I didn’t see myself reflected in my family.

In the same boxes, I came across baby pictures of my parents and wondered why I had to push so hard against such sweet beings. I imagined how it might be if my four-year-old self could have played with their four-year-old selves and experience a kind of peer equality we couldn’t experience when we were mired in the roles of Parent and Child.

Basically, my life is quite full and busy, and I didn’t want to put time into reparenting my inner children because it is a bit of a commitment. However, the weekend was profoundly beautiful, and I learned something really important.

In our first guided visualization, my 6-year-old self came out the door of my childhood home, and we had a conversation in the front yard that continued on the branches of the cedar tree I loved to hang out in. That tree was my secret place. It was like a room, dark and hidden from the rest of the world, and during the visualization, it all came back to me: the scent of the foliage, the texture and position of the branches, the way the light filtered in.

My inner 6-year-old was a happy girl and had lots to say. She was a little lonely, but happy. Most of all, she wanted me to lighten up, run around, and be imaginative. I asked her why she’s happy, and she said because she picked a flower and played “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on her piano. She wanted me to play piano because it brought her such joy.

The next day, my 15-year-old self greeted me in another guided visualization. I was surprised at how pleasant and talkative she was but remembered that I saved my surly side for my parents! At 15, I had lots of rich piano opportunities in and outside of high school, including accompanying choral groups and vocalists and playing piano in jazz band. By then, piano had basically become my identity. However, I’d discovered boys and was putting more energy into being accessible and attractive to them than pursuing what I really loved, and my piano teacher could tell when I didn’t practice the assigned pieces between lessons. (But Bach inventions were so boring, complains the 15-year-old!)

At that age, my ego was all tangled up in piano, and there was more pressure and greater expectations around it, as well as competition and a stubborn root of perfectionism. Not to mention, my mom was living vicariously through my piano accomplishments, and I felt the pressure, so it was a facet of the complicated mother-daughter dynamic, as well. The delicate balance had tipped, and playing piano was more about outcomes, identity, and self-worth than being in the flow and immersed in joy.

When I got to college, the competition was too much for me, and I pursued new interests and identities. I gradually stopped playing piano. I’ve lived in some small spaces, including my current home, and what you make space for says a lot about what’s important to you. I’ve always made space for a full piano keyboard, even if it was played only rarely.

My 15-year-old self wanted to know why I stopped playing piano, why I threw out the baby with the bath water. She wanted me to play, and to do it on my own terms. Play from my heart, what I want to play, how I want to play it, not to please anyone but myself. Play the music that comes to me almost constantly, that I find myself humming and singing into the voice recorder app on my phone. Play without worrying about making mistakes or being seen and judged, without making it be about my identity or self-worth. Play for the joy of it, like I did when I was young because when I play in that spirit, it feels soooo good! It’s inherently gratifying.

On my way home from the retreat, I stopped in Ithaca at a state park I hadn’t been to in quite some time, to photograph waterfalls. As I walked back to my car, I understood the deeper message my inner children were offering me: When have I done something just for the joy of it, without trying to monetize it in some way or draw attention to it? To do something without concern for how anyone else would respond to it. Just do it for the pleasure of it, and leave it at that. Let it be a hobby. Basically, I realized the value of hobbies.

There’s a picture of me playing piano when I was eight years old. I was smiling, and it was all about joy. Playing piano hadn’t become a means of impressing anyone or proving my worth. I just loved playing. I found that picture and placed it on my music stand, to keep me in touch with that spirit.

I’m learning many new skills now and pursuing new certifications. My plate is quite full. However, devoting even five minutes a day to playing piano for sheer JOY could be the most important thing I’ve done in quite some time – a means for healing and integrating my inner child because playing for the sake of joy and delight is so different from having the music all tangled up in ego and ultimately abandoned! Cutting yourself off from something you truly love can really weigh on you. It can be like abandoning an actual part of yourself.

What brings joy can begin to feed the ego instead of the True Self if you’re not careful. When the ego gets too big, it can crucify joy and turn what you love into a false identity that serves ego instead of a vehicle that expresses the True Self. That’s what happened to me. But when you stop blaming others or putting conditions or too much weight on the activity you once loved, you begin the empowering retrieval process. 

There’s a room in my house that I’ve been working for the past couple weeks. It used to be a bedroom but got converted into a storage room because the house lacks usable storage space and closets. It’s where I store my keyboard. I’ve somewhat facetiously referred to that room as the “graveyard of former passions” because it also houses my collection of children’s picture books from when I taught kindergarten. Those are the two things most visible in that room, and they have survived multiple rounds of clutter clearing. Everything else is hidden away on shelves behind a screen or in a dresser.

This week, I decided to come up with a new name for that room. Something along the lines of the “Inner Child Playground” or “Room for Joy”. I switched the images on the walls to display photography that fills me with delight, including pictures of daffodils and lilacs that I loved to pick when I was a child. I’ve made the keyboard more inviting and comfortable to sit at and have been playing every day since I got home from the retreat. It’s been so much fun that five minutes is rarely enough, and I’ve been giving it the time it deserves. 

It feels like I’ve retrieved an abandoned and very important part of myself. The baby (or should I say inner child) has been removed from the bath water, and the good news is that it didn’t drown but is still very much alive. It has been a very happy week holding that child and appreciating its essence during our daily playdates as the cloudy bath water gurgles down the drain. At last!

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a contemplative photographer, writer, educator, and artist who lives on the Hudson River. Her work combines her passion for photography and writing with her deep interest in the nature of mind and perception and her love of the natural world. 

Page 1 of 3912345...102030...Last »

There's so much I want to share with you! Join my mailing list to receive the latest news and updates. And don't worry: I won't spam you or share your info with anyone!

You have Successfully Subscribed!