Category: Mindfulness

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. 

Climbing the Stairs

Climbing the Stairs

So many lessons and reminders can be extracted from time spent with babies and young children if you pay attention. Right before little Ava started climbing the stairs this morning, I wondered: What will I write about next? Within minutes, I had my answer.

Ava’s mom (my daughter) left Ava and me downstairs in the family room and disappeared up the stairs to take a shower, which of course is something of a luxury for mothers of little ones, especially when you’re in transition between homes in an environment that hasn’t been babyproofed and don’t have access to the various aids and equipment that make life with newly mobile babies easier. (Back in the day, the original Exersaucer made it possible for me to take showers!)

As soon as she saw her mother disappear up the stairs, Ava lost interest in the toys she had been exploring and started crawling toward the stairs fueled by a burning desire to be in her mother’s presence. In addition to reinforcing the strength of the mother-child bond, she taught me that…

If you want to get to the top of the stairs, focus only on climbing the stairs. And keep in mind why you want to get to the top of the stairs. (Maybe because when you get there, you will be nearer to your mother, and won’t it feel great to hear her voice and see her smile!) Pay attention to where your hands are, where your feet are, how your weight is distributed, the sequence of movements that get you successfully from one step to the next.

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Focus on one step at a time, and give it your full attention and effort. And be patient! Let love, curiosity, and the feeling of your wish fulfilled propel you forward. 

Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by sounds or wondering where other people are or exploring tiny pieces of leaves (with both your hand and your mouth, of course) or turning around and looking behind you because multitasking compromises your concentration on the task at hand, and looking back might throw you off balance and send you tumbling to the bottom of the stairs! That’s not to say there’s no value in pausing to explore a leaf if you find it intriguing, but don’t lose sight of the reality that you are perched precariously on the stairs and haven’t yet mastered your stair-climbing or balancing skills, both of which call for focused attention at this stage of the game!

Allow your determination and desire to attain your goal to overshadow any doubts you may have about your ability to succeed. Move confidently in the direction of what you love.

If you slide down a step, no worries. Learn from it. And trust that the Universe wants you to learn and grow and will support you, and there will be someone to catch you if you fall. Focus single-mindedly on climbing to the top of the stairs, and you will reach your goal.

ava-stairs-2

This morning’s mindfulness and manifestation reminder is brought to you by Ava (with a little Dr. Wayne Dyer and Abraham thrown in) and a couple grainy cell phone snapshots because she was moving quickly, like a newly hatched turtle intent on reaching the water, and I didn’t have time to grab my “real” camera. Wishing you a fruitful week of making progress toward whatever goal is dearest to your heart and having gratitude for all the gifts and blessings that are already in your life!


My 2017 calendar of contemplative images and reflections is still available for purchaseClick HERE to order yours today! You also can order by credit card over the phone by calling 518-312-1853.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2016. SHARING IS CARING, and I appreciate my work being shared with others! Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (River-Bliss.com). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. In other words, I put my heart and soul into my writing and photography and want to be credited for it and have some traffic sent my way. It’s the high vibration thing to do!  🙂 

A New Day

A New Day

Today is a new day, and thank goodness for that! Yesterday was the first day of school, and I did not expect it to hit me so hard. Summer vacation is over, the tourists have gone home, and the locals have returned from their beach getaways. School buses are back on the road, and my Facebook feed is filled with first day of school photos. It is time to return to business-as-usual. And that’s the issue! There was a rhythm to my life as a teacher that has been broken, and not returning to it made me feel as if there was no ground beneath me, nothing to support me. A sleep deficit didn’t help.

I felt like a train wreck! Days like that come and go. And we can learn so much from them if we face them head on rather than flee from the discomfort.

Waves of emotion kept coming at me yesterday, and they were huge – and hurt when they hit! They knocked me off balance and dragged me under, and it felt as if I wouldn’t be able to come back up for air. But eventually the wave subsided, and I floated back up to the surface and could breathe again.

waves

And then another wave would come along sooner or later. So working with the waves became my practice. More specifically, I practiced remaining in the present moment with bare attention, without attaching any labels, storylines, interpretations, wishful fantasies, or romantic longings to whatever arose. It’s not reality that is a problem; it’s what we add to it! If we’re not mindful, we can wander into a very destructive place – a downward spiral that leads to a void we don’t want to be part of. And that is a gross misuse of imagination! I can think of a thousand better ways to channel my energy, imagination, and creativity! Why go there?

It reminded me so much of being in labor and working with the contractions, which were more intense than anything I’d ever experienced. The biggest lesson I took away from my childbirth experiences was to breathe into each contraction as it comes along and stay focused on just that. Don’t think about how many more contractions I would have to deal with or evaluate whether I was doing a good job or how much progress I was or wasn’t making. Don’t wish to be anyone else in the room. Instead, remain in the present moment, the wellspring of strength and power.

The mental imaginings also remind me of the speedboats that zip by and create a turbulent wake when I’m kayaking. Catching myself when I notice I’m indulging in a storyline – and deciding not to go into it – makes the speedboat slow down and pass by without generating turbulence. The water remains calm and undisturbed.

How wonderful to realize that we can set it all aside, push the reset button, and return to bare presence. It’s basic meditation instruction.

Buddha

Granted, it’s much harder to do that when your energy is low. Some days you just have to set all expectations aside and be gentle with yourself. Don’t board those fancy trains of thought and imagination that take you to dramatic places. Stay in the present, where you can hear the rich and rhythmic sounds of a late summer day, be enraptured by the geometry of morning glories and the brilliant design of airborne seeds, and engage opportunities that present themselves (or at least realize that opportunities do exist). Focus on the basics, like getting enough rest. And remember that this, too, shall pass. You’re just having a bad day, and your thinking is a bit delusional as a result.

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So that was my practice yesterday. And I learned a lot.

I was reminded of the importance of self-compassion and self-love and that the very first step is to get enough sleep.

I learned that you have to be that quality you most desire from others. Mine it from within. If you want to be nurtured, start by nurturing – yourself and others!

I learned to turn inward for salvation and not lean so much on this world that shifts constantly, like a kaleidoscope. It’s great to have people to reach out to. But they aren’t always available, and the reality is that we will have to let go of everyone in our life sooner or later. Such is the nature of mortality. So why not realize that the answers and the compass we need for this human journey are all inside of us – and lean into our own heart center and source of strength, which is more enduring and always available? Ultimately, everything we need is there.  And the natural world and its larger rhythms and cycles can be a great source of healing, as well.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all dissing the value of human relationships, which can be incredibly enriching and healing. But there is such a thing as being too nurturing and creating a dependency that hinders others from experiencing their own wisdom and strength. Likewise, there is a danger in becoming too dependent on others for guidance and a sense of well-being.

I learned that it’s more productive to believe I am fundamentally good and just having a tough time learning a particular lesson, rather than believing I am fundamentally bad or flawed and deserve to suffer. A more loving and compassionate view of oneself allows us to cultivate more love and compassion as opposed to further suffering. There is no value in beating yourself up or feeling sorry for yourself. Doing so is completely counterproductive.

Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom emotionally to realize status quo is not working, and to jolt you into awakening and discovering a new way to proceed. The road less traveled. But there’s a tollbooth on it, and the toll required is to leave behind whatever weighs you down and doesn’t serve you. This includes the stories we cling to.

I learned that the feelings that seem so threatening and overwhelming – like tidal waves that threaten to pull us under – are invitations to grow. All the information we need is within those feelings, if we can lean into them and not run away from them. Every single wave that comes along is an opportunity to become stronger and more skilled – at feeling the waves crash over us, letting go of our baggage, keeping or regaining our balance, and then seeing the gifts the waves leave behind in the sand.

When you’re learning and practicing this right there in the water, such insights can make all the difference in the world and save you from drowning. When you hear it from the outside, it probably doesn’t sounds like much at all. What seems so simple can be so profound and full of wisdom when you find yourself in a real situation where applying it can make a difference. As I approach 50, it feels as though I am just learning the basics. It’s interesting how, as I get older, insights that seem so simplistic on the surface take on new meaning and depth.

Yesterday, I felt expendable and forlorn. Today I feel free and open to possibility. And that makes me smile. Thank goodness for a restorative night of good sleep and the gift of a new day. A day when I once again can notice and appreciate tiny wonders, such as the sunrise and its reflection on the river, captured in beads of dew on a spider web.

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The reality is that, although the rhythm of my life as a teacher has been disrupted, who I am at my core has not been touched. And I am still part of a larger rhythm of the natural world and the cycle of humankind. So I am neither lost nor broken, even on difficult days. And neither are you.

The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Through Day-Blooms and Beads of Dew

Through Day-Blooms and Beads of Dew

This morning, I didn’t start off in an ideal state of mind. I was consumed by thought and longed for circumstances to be different. I’m in the midst of making a major life change, and some days it takes more work than others to pull up the weeds of doubt and cultivate the faith necessary to “advance confidently in the direction of [my] dreams and endeavor to live the life which [I have] imagined,” as described by Henry David Thoreau.

I went outside to get my sneakers from the car so I could take a walk. The daisies and spearmint leaves were still covered with dew, and the chicory and daylilies were opening, for it was their day to bloom – their one day to open up and offer their vivid colors to the world, to attract pollinators and play a starring role in the circle of life. It’s the day they’ve been preparing for, the day they for which they were created. Daylilies take full advantage of their day in the sun by remaining in bloom for the duration, whereas delicate chicory flowers close around mid-day when the sun is most intense.

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I stopped in my tracks to listen to the advice the day-blooming flowers offered about making the most of a brief existence. They said:

Quick! Dry your eyes!
There’s so much living to do.
Get to it!
The day is young,
and the day is short.
Wake up and engage it.
Don’t waste a moment
Wallowing in longing or regret.
You have this one day to work with
the material of Here and Now
So make the most of it.

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How interesting that the Chinese name for the daylily, xuan-cao, can be translated as “forget-worry herb” or “the plant of forgetfulness” because it was believed to alleviate worries by causing one to forget. When I stopped to connect with the essence of the daylilies, I forgot mine!

Then delicate beads of dew clinging to the leaves of weeds commanded my attention. Their existence as a single bead of dew is even briefer than a chicory bloom. If you sleep in or rush past, you’ll miss them and never know they were there in the first place.

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For about a half hour, I was transfixed by beads of dew on common weeds and captured 80 thoughtfully composed images in all. It was my morning meditation.

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If someone were to walk by and see me gazing intently with my camera pointed at a patch of ordinary, green weeds, they’d probably consider it a bit odd. But if you were to look closer, you’d see the beads of dew clinging to the edges of the leaves and perhaps would find poetry in the shapes, contours, patterns, and reflections.

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Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, explains that making the present moment the focal point of attention produces a shift in consciousness from conditioned to unconditioned awareness. Even something as small as a bead of dew on the edge of a leaf can transport you from an unconscious, habitual state of mind to spacious presence and stillness. It can bring you back to the present moment and free you from the tyranny of the incessantly chattering monkey mind.

“And then you notice a miraculous thing… You see aliveness and beauty around you that you didn’t see before. When you are in that aware presence, a deeper intelligence begins to operate in your life.”   -Eckhart Tolle

That deeper intelligence is where the juice is. It’s where life really flows. Tapping into that is like entering an alchemical dimension.

As a Four on the Enneagram, my default programming tends toward romanticized thinking and idealization of what is not available here and now. Transformation for someone like me involves releasing wasteful fantasies and romantic longings and connecting with what is here right now and allowing presence and gratitude to arise. Presence and gratitude are potent elixirs for an alchemical life.

Instead of lamenting over what feels unattainable right now or feeling anxious about the future, through my half hour with the blooming flowers and dewdrops I was able to become conscious of the present moment, connect with what is, and do what I love most (photography). As I see it, that is making the most of the moment at hand and following the advice of the daylilies. It is a first step in the direction of engaging the magic and transformed the quality of my energy.

And it doesn’t have to take a half hour. Awareness can arise in an instant when we pause to connect with the life that surrounds us.

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The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Take Me to the River

Take Me to the River

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

A few mornings ago, I experienced the worst case of anxiety I’ve ever experienced in my life. Overcome by what felt like an impenetrable sense of loss, I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone with myself. It felt like I needed other people to complete me and was really disturbing – especially since, in the vein of Henry David Thoreau, I am someone who normally craves solitude! There was so much energy coursing through my body, and I was about to spend several hours in a mindfulness group retreat. I felt compelled to exercise beforehand to release the energy because if I didn’t, it would be impossible for me to wind down and meditate during the retreat. So I exercised but still felt tremendously agitated. Desperate for a remedy or some kind of guidance, I took out my deck of Universal Cards, closed my eyes, and chose a card: WATER. Alas. Not the epiphany I was looking for.

An energetic shift began early on during the mindfulness retreat, which consisted of a beginning meditation followed by outdoor walking meditation, yoga, mindful eating, seated meditation, and group activities that involved eye contact and physical touch. Participants were expected to maintain silence and keep our eyes softly averted from everyone else during all but the final hour of the retreat. Amazingly, I was able to regain a calm, spacious state of mind by the time walking meditation was over!

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As the day progressed, the sensation of relaxation only deepened. I never would have imagined this would be possible given where I started!

Immediately following the retreat, I spent 2 1/2 hours kayaking on the creek, which transported me even deeper into gratitude and serenity.

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The natural symphony of the creek was hypnotic and soothing.

Every day since, I have spent a couple of hours after work either kayaking on the creek or balancing stones on the Battenkill River, where I spent a lot of time over the winter.

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I’ve been making a beeline from work to either the creek or the river. It’s a blessing to have something to look forward to, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect!

Floating on the creek is the deepest therapy imaginable. Among the red-winged blackbirds, painted turtles, and nesting geese, I feel like myself again: spacious and buoyant. Steeped in harmony and reverence, I feel completely interconnected and at one with life.

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My body smiles. In the pit of my stomach, there’s such delight. It’s an expansive feeling, which is in glorious contrast to the stabbing, contracted feeling of not being in harmony with the energy around you – the sinking, shrinking feeling. The natural energies of the creek environment uplift me and raise my vibration. The trees and wildlife make no demands. When I feel like paddling, I paddle. When I feel like floating, I float. When I feel like observing turtles, I inevitably hear the sound of them plopping into the water, no matter how carefully I approach them.

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Another great thing about the creek is that cell reception is spotty, so I can’t receive messages or phone calls in many areas. That helps me to break free from the tug of technology and enter the spaces where I feel complete and connected in a deeper sense and realize that I have everything I need to navigate  this human existence. I perceive life’s challenges from a higher vantage point and am profoundly at peace. I bring my phone with me nonetheless to make voice recordings when insights arise. Listening to the recordings later brings me back to the peaceful, spacious space.

Today I decided to balance rocks on the river rather than float on the creek.

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Originally, I had intended to do both but became absorbed in the meditative nature of stone balance art, and the next thing I knew, two hours had passed. Balancing stones with my feet in the Battenkill, listening to the sound of the river flowing was every bit as relaxing and therapeutic as kayaking, only different. On the creek, insights tend to arise when I enter stillness, whereas balancing stones facilitates focus and balance.

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If there’s anything that throws me off balance, it’s the fearful belief that there is no safety net and nothing supporting me. But on the creek, that seems to be the greatest delusion of all, and I remember that I must be a fastidious caretaker of my thoughts because they create my reality. Perhaps the sensation of being supported by the water is ultimately what is so appealing about floating.

In hindsight, the WATER card probably was the best guidance I could have received that morning when I was overcome by anxiety. It was the road map back to where I want and need to be. I feel like a sun that is shining again – and that benefits everyone around me.

The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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