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Category: Mindfulness

Better Than Envy

Better Than Envy

My friend, Colleen’s 18-year-old son, Isaac, is an amazing wildlife and landscape photographer. Last summer, his shot of the solar eclipse made National Geographic’s “Daily Dozen.” I have to admit, I was a little jealous. 

Okay, more than a little. It wasn’t just the shot itself. It was the killer lens he used to capture it and the resources he has access to, including epic landscapes. And he was only 17 at the time.

Today I learned Isaac was named Young Photographer of the Year through the prestigious Windland Smith Rice Awards for nature and wildlife photography, and his winning shot, “Battle of the Bulls,” will be in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Holy cow!

There are moments when you realize how much you’ve grown and that the work you do on a daily basis really does make a difference. Learning of Isaac’s latest accomplishment was one such moment…because I didn’t feel jealous or envious as much as I felt truly happy for him. And that’s a big deal for an Enneagram “Four” like me because we tend to default into envy, comparing ourselves to others and feeling bad because we convince ourselves that we don’t measure up and lack any kind of personal significance and existential worth. 

In the past year, I’ve done a lot of inner work – more than I can remember ever doing in a year. Diving into Enneagram work has made a huge difference in my life. It’s a powerful combination along with daily mindfulness meditation practice. Finally, I can catch myself when I start to go into “Enneagram Four negative thoughts” and label them as such…and transform them or let them go.

Noticing and labeling are important. You can think of a thought as a bus with a sign lit up that shows where it’s headed: “The Dark Side of Enneagram Four”. Seeing that sign, I realize it’s not a bus I want to get on. It’s one of the usual routes I’ve taken all my adult life, but now I can see it for what it is and where it goes to and can let it pass. It stops in front of me, and I hear the sound of the door opening and the bus driver inviting me to get on…and then choose to continue sitting right where I am.

As the bus pulls away, I go back to noticing the sights and sounds around me, the sensation of breathing, the areas of tension in my body, and don’t give that bus a second thought. Eventually, another bus comes along with either another or the same destination sign lit up, and again I can make a conscious choice about whether or not to get on and go for a ride.

This is kind of amazing! It’s like the bumper sticker slogan: You don’t have to believe every thought you think. Freedom from thought. Yes, we do have a choice! Why don’t they teach us that in school?? What a difference it would make in our personal lives and in society.

So instead of wasting time and energy wishing I had that sweet glass and 12,000 Instagram followers, instead of getting on that thought-bus that travels down dismal streets like “I really screwed up my life” and “There must be something seriously wrong with me”…

I allowed Isaac’s success to inspire me and to help me clarify what is most important to me. Because that’s what you can do when you don’t get on the bus that takes you to places that suck the life out of you.

Truth is, I’ve been focusing on a lot of other things lately. Building infrastructure for photography and other endeavors. Decluttering across the board – emails, Pinterest boards, all kinds of stuff that has accumulated but no longer fits with who I have become and what I want to move toward. I’ve been doing portrait shoots, but because I’ve been so busy, I haven’t taken my camera out as much as usual to photograph nature, which is my true passion. I haven’t even left the area in the past year except to go on spiritual retreats at two retreat centers. 

Isaac’s photography reminded me that I have a photography bucket list. It reminded me that the Adirondacks and New England (for fall foliage) are close by. Even Maine isn’t too far away for photographing northern lights. His photography reminded me of the importance of having a work schedule that offers flexibility to travel for photography. And this is good because I nearly interviewed this week for a position that would have made that much more difficult – and doesn’t fit with who I am now, anyway!

Isaac’s photography reminded me that there are beautiful places near and far. Just as with meditation, healing, and spiritual growth, you start where you are right now. That’s what you work with. There’s no need to wait until conditions are better or different – until I can travel out of the area or until fall or until I’m awake for a really nice sunrise on the river. Right now, there is a garden full of morning glories just outside my door. Start there. Photograph them…because that’s what’s available to me right now.

Isaac’s photography reminded me that having my camera in hand makes me more aware of the beauty around me, and that is a big part of my spiritual practice. It re-inspired me to take out my camera every day because it adds so much meaning and joy to my life.

And so I did. I photographed the morning glories outside my door. I didn’t capture any National Geographic worthy images, but I fell in love all over again with the anatomy of morning glories, how they look dappled with raindrops, and the way their petals roll up when they’re ready to call it a day. Feeling appreciation, awe, fascination, wonder, and connection with nature feels so good and allows me to be my best self much more than wallowing in disempowering envy, self-pity, and shame. Neuroplasticity is for real! I am creating new mental habits!

So thank you, Isaac, for your passion for photography, and congratulations on yet another success! Thank you, too, for the inspiration and reminders about who I am and what’s most important. Isn’t it wild that by doing what we love, we can affect others in ways we’d never imagine?

Of course, that could go either way. Witnessing accomplishments like Isaac’s could lift a person up or bring a person down depending on that person’s own level of mindfulness and self-esteem. It’s useful to keep in mind that when you are in the spotlight (or even when you’re not) and receive unflattering comments or unsolicited advice, they often are more about the person commenting/advising than the quality of your work!

And of course, shooting in Wyoming with Isaac is one of the items on my photography bucket list!

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher 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.

Changes in Attitude

Changes in Attitude

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.

You decide to stop making yourself miserable.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher 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.

Embraced by a Kind and Spacious Heart

Embraced by a Kind and Spacious Heart

It’s been quite a while since my last blog post. I’ve sat down a number of times to try to write one and have been doing loads of writing. I just haven’t felt like publishing anything.

It’s partly because I’ve been simplifying since returning from the seven-day vipassana meditation retreat in early May. The effects of the retreat continue, and it’s been like a total mind reset. But there have been a number of times when I’ve remained silent even when there was something I wanted to share, and that’s not about simplifying and being more deliberate. That’s about withholding and withdrawing…which tends not to be a good thing. Usually, it means a misguided thought has taken hold, and I’m shrinking and disconnecting rather than expanding and connecting.

I’d much rather expand and connect.

This particular thought has required me to utilize pretty much every tool in my toolbox. It goes something like this:

Nobody is interested in what I have to offer.

It’s one of my mind’s Top Ten Tunes, and I can get sucked into it if I’m unaware or tired.

Fortunately, because I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation every single day for the past 90 days and began formal training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, I’m aware of it and realize it’s untrue. But it keeps coming back! It’s like weeding the garden. Weeds can grow quickly, and you have to be clear about what you do and don’t want to grow in your garden and stay on top of it.

If I’m looking for evidence that the erroneous belief is true, there’s plenty of it. My family wasn’t receptive to the ways in which I could assist loved ones who were dying. My former principal didn’t value my creative, holistic approach to early childhood education. I often feel invisible and unrecognized in groups. I don’t have many followers on social media. Oh, the list could go on! 

But it all depends on what you’re looking for because there’s also evidence to the contrary. My mom really wanted me around when she was dying because she felt safe with me. Parents from my old school district have practically begged me to start a preschool. I sometimes receive emails from friends and others who read my writing or see my photography and appreciate it. There are people who believe in me and say they wish I could see myself through their eyes.

Working with the problematic belief has been illuminating because it provides insight into how my mind operates. Some days (especially when my self-care slips), it gets me down, but some days I can laugh at it and find some humor in how persistent it is. A sense of humor is a great friend on the spiritual path.

Being with Thoughts and Children

A recent visit with my 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter, Ava, revealed parallels between working with our thoughts and guiding our children. When Ava displays undesirable behaviors, rather than either looking the other way or getting locked in some kind of power struggle, my natural response is to hold her with unconditional love and acceptance while applying a strategy like humor, distraction, empathy, etc. I might ask her if she is tired when she lashes out. Rather than either allow her troublesome behavior (or my troublesome thought) or take an axe to it, there is another option: to hold it in a kind and spacious heart and consider what’s behind it. What unmet need is behind our self-sabotaging actions, assumptions, cravings, etc.?

I’m discovering the key is to develop a friendliness and tenderness towards the fact that such a belief exists, while at the same time considering: Is it true? Is there evidence to the contrary? Am I giving more weight to the absence of positive response than to its presence? Awareness, tenderness, and curiosity can be powerful tools.

When I was in the library the other day, I walked past a toddler who dropped to the floor on the brink of a meltdown. His mother responded by saying, “Oh, honey!” with such presence and compassion that I had to do a double-take. She neither scolded nor placated the child. Instead, she acknowledged him and remained centered, skillful, and connected. Moments later, tantrum and power struggle averted, the child got up and walked along – just like a thought moves along when you meet it with skillful awareness.

I was in awe because it’s not something you see every day. It was absolutely inspiring – and apparently, I needed to witness it.

But it’s not the norm. Children are emotional barometers and often act up when their adult caregivers are already frazzled (kind of like how our pain-body becomes active when we are tired and off-balance). Or perhaps the adult has an agenda that gets hijacked by a tired and cranky child, and then responds harshly to the child. Or they are in a public place and concerned about how they appear (in control of the situation?) to others.

Here’s the part nobody explains to us when we’re little: The authority figure’s response to us is not an indicator of our inherent worth. Their response is coming from the personality level, on which they’ve been subjected to certain causes and conditions that made them a certain way. But none of that is based on truth about our True Nature. If we are not conscious of it, others’ reactions to us become internalized, and we believe untruths about ourselves that carve deep grooves in our neural pathways and become the Top Ten Tunes that are programmed to keep playing in our head.

As Ava’s grandmother who loves her dearly, I’d want her to know that any harsh words that are spoken to her are not truth, and she should not believe them. I’d want her to realize she is a beautiful, worthy being of light (while also being a human being that makes mistakes) and to not let the unkind voices bring her down. I wouldn’t want her to internalize them or act in accordance with them. I’d want her to live in harmony with her True Nature and to help her connect with that because it’s where her power is.

Wanting that for her, and realizing my grandmother wanted the same for me, makes it easier to give it to myself.

Thank You, Mister Rogers

A few weeks ago, my son insisted on seeing the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? with me. He knows film, and he knows me, and when he tells me I MUST see a certain film, I listen.

It’s a wonderful movie, by the way, and please do yourself a favor and see it if you haven’t already.

After seeing the movie, an image started arising in my mind during meditation when I noticed myself getting lured toward a seductive thought that makes me feel bad about myself. It’s inspired by animated segments in which Daniel Tiger represented Mister Rogers as a child and is the image of a young child wandering toward a curious something that has strong energy. Just before the child gets close enough to touch it, a loving adult gently picks her up and carries her to safety. I think of it as little mind (personality level) being rescued by Big Mind (Higher Self).

But the loving presence could represent everyone who’s ever loved and believed in me and wouldn’t want me to bring more suffering on myself. This loving presence guides me gently away from danger, just as I would do for Ava. She (it’s a feminine presence) doesn’t look the other way and let me wander into the Forbidden Forest of destructive thought. She doesn’t yell or berate me. It’s more like she ever so compassionately whispers, “Oh, honey!” and takes me gently by the hand so I won’t linger in a place that only generates suffering. It leaves me feeling worthy and loved, and I’m so grateful for the new grooves that are being created in my neural circuitry, both on and off the cushion.

I experienced the last few minutes of the Mister Rogers film as the most poignant of all. People who were closest to him listened to a recording of his voice instructing them to think for one minute of a person who loves/loved them unconditionally. It was powerful to see how their faces changed as they thought about this person. Toward the end, he reminded them that this person would never want them to feel bad and suffer. They only want what’s best for you. They wouldn’t want you to let anyone snuff out your light – the uniqueness that makes you special.

Those who love us unconditionally and those whom we love unconditionally are our greatest allies in helping us to generate lovingkindness towards ourselves when we question our worth, even if they’re no longer in this world. That includes Mister Rogers, who sang:

I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you.
It’s you I like.

How about internalizing that voice?

I walked out of that movie with wet eyes, feeling deeply inspired. Mostly, I knew I needed to continue writing blog posts. It doesn’t matter if it feels like nobody cares about what I have to say. First of all, that’s not true. 🙂 Second, even Mister Rogers struggled with thinking his voice didn’t matter. And third, his spirit needs to be kept alive in this world. Empathy and kindness. Deep listening and appreciating. He and I (and only 2% of the population) are Myers-Briggs type INFP, and that’s what we do and who we are. And even though we can be misunderstood and devalued, the world needs us to express these qualities, big-time. Every single one of us who can bring forth empathy and lovingkindness needs to step up and not give up.

As we walked to the car after the movie, I told my son that the movie motivated me to share my writing again. He smiled a wise grin and said he had a feeling that would be my takeaway. Thank you, Mister Rogers, for reminding me that every message of joy, hope, light, and love matters and is worth sharing. And thank you, Cianan, for realizing I needed the reminder.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher 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.

P.S. I’ve rebranded! River Bliss is now Susan Tara Meyer! I’m also making changes to the way messages are delivered to my mailing list, and your patience is greatly appreciated as I work out the kinks. 🙂  

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 article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher 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 article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher 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 article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher 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.

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