Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tchaikovsky Catharsis

I had no idea that Tchaikovsky could take me to the places I went to tonight under the stars at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) with the Philadelphia Orchestra! The venue is a beautiful, open-air amphitheater that also happens to be where my mother spent a 34-year career. It wasn't the first time I went there since she died two and a half months ago. However, it was, by far, the most emotionally powerful!

 My daughter, husband, and his brother's family of three visiting from Colorado sat on the sloped lawn with me. I was in a reverent mood and expected a level of decorum around me that honored my mom's spirit and life work. How wonderful it was to be there as the sun set behind the amphitheater, following a sun shower that painted a rainbow across the sky (pictured, below, over the building in which my mom worked).

Photo taken by my friend, Faye Mihuta

It was the first time I was at SPAC with my daughter since my mom died, and it felt so right to be there with her. She understood completely where my head and heart were at, for hers were in the same place. It also was a special night because my sister was with our dad, sitting in my parents' seats inside the amphitheater. (It also was my sister's first time at SPAC since our mom died, and the rainbow pictured above greeted her.)

The first half of the program included Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, featuring Montenegrin guitarist, Milos Karadaglic. During the piece, the sky was dark, and crickets chirped in the distance. It occurred to me that my mom would have loved the performance because she was so passionate about guitar. It also occurred to me that, although my mom's spirit is always in the air at SPAC, if any evening could pull her away from the formless realm back to SPAC, it would be tonight - for my dad, my sister (who isn't "into" orchestra), my daughter, and I all were there. That was a first! The only one missing was our middle sibling who lives out of the area. During a guitar solo, my daughter and I started sniffling at the same time, for we both realized the significance of us all being there on this particular evening.

During intermission, my daughter and I went down to the amphitheater to find my dad and sister and talked with them and a couple of my mom's friends until intermission was over. We stood in the same spot in which I dreamed of my mother smiling and walking by as I spoke with a few people during the first dream I had of her following her death. It just so happened that's where we ran into one another.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74, Pathetique - the composer's final, completed symphony. It was composed in 1893, the year he died, and premiered nine days before his death in October. I was getting a little tired but appreciated my surroundings with all my senses. I imagined my mom sitting inside with my dad in their special seats, dressed impeccably. As the symphony played, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to conjure images in my mind - of a ballroom filled with women in gowns and men in suits, dancing, in pursuit of love. I was so glad to be at SPAC and reflected on why I had rejected so many of my mother's invitations to attend classical performances in recent years. The first time I attended a performance this summer with one of her former coworkers, I ran into my dad, who couldn't believe I was there because I "hate ballet." Well, that was never the case, but apparently it was the impression I gave. I think expressing disinterest toward the ballet and orchestra was just another way to push back against my mom and cultivate a separate identity. Sometimes, when something means so much to a person, it becomes more about the relationship than whether or not you actually enjoy the event to which you've been invited.

Now that she's gone, that boundary no longer exists. I can go to the orchestra and enjoy it! I wished my mom could know that.

I continued to savor listening to live orchestra in a setting infused with my mom's spirit. During the unconventional Adagio lamentoso finale, I opened my eyes and let images of the SPAC grounds at night and all the summers I spent there flood my heart and mind. And then I became aware of another presence. My own spirit was there, too: The little girl given the special honor of accompanying her parents to the ballet or orchestra rather than staying home with the babysitter. The young pianist who dreamed of someday being a soloist with the orchestra. The elementary school student with the biggest crush on her music teachers - one of whom worked at SPAC during the summer. (How thrilling it was to see her and other teacher friends who were ushers and gate attendants!) The adolescent who anticipated the thrill of meeting the performers backstage after the show. Back then, SPAC was my summer universe, and there were so many people there who were so familiar and influential in my life - people brought together by a mutual appreciation of the arts.

It was like a SPAC-based life review that also included a memory of bringing my young children to an orchestra performance that ended with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (complete with cannons). When the walkway lights were turned up at the beginning of intermission, my son (who was about five years old at the time), stood up and started walking up the walkway, exclaiming with delight, "I loved it!" - an unforgettable response to his first orchestra experience.

All of a sudden, I was with all of the old, familiar faces again, along with my mom and the ghost of my many, younger selves. I felt deeply grateful for all the time I spent at SPAC growing up. The symphony's slow, mournful finale brought out all these memories and feelings as if by some kind of musical magic. I began weeping silently but uncontrollably. I've never cried like that in a public place, but I suppose it was bound to happen sometime at SPAC, and why not below the trees and stars, with crickets accompanying Tchaikovsky and so many people who loved my mom in the audience? It was a safe place to cry - spacious and fortunately quite dark! But the tears were not of sadness. Not at all! They were of the most profound gratitude. I sent out a sincere prayer - Thank you, Mom - to greet her wherever she is, and hoped my deep gratitude would bless her soul.

After we all went our separate ways, the tears continued to flow all the way home as an impossibly huge, 3/4 waning gibbous moon floated into the sky up ahead.  

Postscript: I didn't read the program notes until a full 24 hours after the concert, after I finished writing this piece. I found it interesting that Tchaikovsky wrote that he "wept profusely" as he composed the symphony in his mind!

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The photographs in this blog 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, 2014. 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 (www.river-bliss.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Balance Along the Deerfield River

Last weekend, I set a goal to go on three more adventures before the month is over. I didn't have anything in particular in mind other than to engage the magic of the "yes" energy wave I've been riding all summer long. As if on cue, a friend contacted me to say she was driving home from Vermont and passed by some rock balances that made her feel peaceful and also made her think of me. I know someone in an online rock balancing community who lives in Vermont and wondered if he might have done them. We had been meaning to get together for quite some time to balance rocks in a beautiful setting, and I didn't realize how close he lived to us until I asked him if he was responsible for the balances my friend had noticed. Turns out he wasn't, but the wheels in my head were set in motion, and my husband discovered he had a couple days off in a row for the first time all summer. Less than 24 hours later, we were on the road headed for Vermont for our first experience camping away from home in our RV and our first play date with another rock balancer.
We scored a private, wooded site at a campground just outside of Bennington, with a babbling brook only a few yards away. It was a cold night, and the sky was clear and dark, with no discernible light pollution and a very late-rising moon - which combined to reveal more stars and celestial objects than I've ever seen, including a few meteors streaking across the sky. It was so quiet.



The following afternoon, we met Robert, our fellow rock balancer, in person for the first time and retreated to the upper reaches of the northwest branch of the Deerfield River in Searsburg. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and the very first trees (few and far between) were turning red.


It was illuminating to balance rocks with someone much more experienced. I am an eager beginner, my husband has been balancing regularly for the past 15 months, and Robert - a kindred spirit - has been at it for several years. For him, balancing rocks is a daily, spiritual practice. I warmed up by balancing some fairly hefty, single rocks vertically. I love to interconnect with the energy of the rocks and discover their point of balance, which is inherent and just waiting to be found. It's a meditative, centering activity.


Then I set to work on some simple balances, noticing which rocks seemed to be calling to me.


Meanwhile, the men concentrated on their own balances.


In the photo below, if you draw a line diagonally from the bottom, left corner to the top, right corner, my balances are in the half that falls within the bottom, right triangle (including the balance in the foreground), and theirs were in the other half. We lined the river with balances!


My husband's back was bothering him, so he wasn't capable of his best work. However, when I compared my self-described "baby balances" to his and Robert's, it was clear they had pushed through some mental barriers and were working on a more advanced level than me. For starters, every now and then I'd hear loud thuds as large rocks they were working with fell to the ground. (To avoid injury, it's important to wear protective footwear and/or to be vigilant.) That was because they were taking risks, pushing limits, thinking outside of the box - whereas I was playing it safer. I have come to regard rock balancing as a reflection of one's willingness to take risks, think creatively, and trust in life - as illustrated by some of Robert's balances in the photo, below.


Their work with rocks inspires me, along with stories shared about their lives and Robert's profound faith and trust that life will provide what he needs. (We engaged in no small talk.) These are unconventional, caring, loving, free spirits who live their lives with deep integrity and without concern for material possessions or pleasing others. There is real freedom in knowing how little you truly need in order to live an authentic, satisfying life - a freedom that reduces fear and inspires me greatly. My sense is that many members of the international rock balancing community have tapped into this energy, and I am inspired daily by seeing the balances - sometimes extremely elaborate ones - that are shared online. They convince me that virtually anything is possible if we really and truly put our minds to it and open ourselves to inspiration and grace.

Balance and photo by Michael Grab/Gravity Glue, www.gravityglue.com and www.facebook.com/gravityglue

If you don't take risks that sometimes result in toppling rocks, you can't take it to the next level. I'm talking about both rocks and life. Toppling and momentary "failures" are a crucial part of advancing. By being willing to take risks, you engage a different level of energy that is ultimately more satisfying than playing it safe and keeping it neat and symmetrical. You get to learn what you're capable of, expand your limitations, and revise your conceptions of what is possible. It doesn't mean that life (or balancing rocks) is easy, but you realize that you have the inner resources to work with what comes along and to roll with it. You allow the rocks to guide you, instead of imposing your will on them, so that you are co-creators. You also develop patience. For instance, while working on the balance in the photo below, it took a quite a while for me to find the balance point of the large, pointy rock. But I felt drawn to that rock and just knew I could connect with its point of balance. It seemed to volunteer and want to be balanced! And finally, it happened. And for a while, that was good enough. But eventually I returned and added to it.


When you take it to the next level, you aren't concerned with balancing just one, individual rock at a time. You expand your awareness to focus on relationships between two or more rocks at a time and how the relationship affects the balance points. You become more aware of the whole and how everything fits together. It's a different way of thinking than focusing linearly on one single rock at a time. The photo below shows another of Robert's balances.


By the time we left several hours later, I couldn't begin to count all the balances we'd created along the river. And the conversations were every bit as inspiring as our natural surroundings.


But there was even more inspiration awaiting on our way to dinner, when Robert shared with me a presentation binder that illustrated how he has introduced children as young as three years old to the joyful practice of balancing rocks. I teach kindergarten but haven't introduced my students to rock balancing because I felt they were too young. However, seeing the interest of even younger children has opened my eyes. With proper ground rules and supervision, I think rock balancing could be an enriching activity for my students - perhaps a quiet center during play time. I might even keep a small basket of rocks in the Quiet Tent for a child to arrange and/or balance in solitude. There are so many mini lessons to be modeled and shared!

We had such a great time on the Deerfield River with our new friend. The energy was wonderful and positive. Although I haven't figured out my two remaining adventures for the month, I have a strong feeling they will involve rocks and water.  


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, 2014. 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 (river-bliss.com and riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mindfulness and Education Conference at Omega

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."
-John Lennon, "Imagine"

I recently spent three days at Omega Institute for the sixth annual Mindfulness and Education Conference: Bringing Mindfulness to Children Grades K-12. I had wanted to attend the conference for the past few years but this year received a full scholarship that finally made it possible. My guess is that about 300 people attended the conference, and it was powerful to gather with that many like-minded educators who value holistic education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. Actually, I've never experienced anything like it! I have a few friends online who teach in schools committed to a holistic approach to education, and the college from which I received my master's degree offers a holistic, student-centered educational experience and a faculty that attracts a diverse and alternative-minded student body. One faculty member literally "wrote the book" (several, actually) on holistic, progressive, and alternative education. It's been eight years since I completed the program, and it was my last experience of being in community with so many like-minded educators until going to Omega this summer. For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water in the current educational environment and have questioned how much longer I can continue in the profession. I attended the conference hoping to connect with kindred spirits and to be inspired.

Buddha outside Ram Dass Library, Omega Institute

A passion for social-emotional learning brought me to the teaching profession in the first place. After trying to implement the MindUP curriculum in my classroom for the past three years with limited success, I was in need of practical suggestions. Is it possible to implement such a curriculum successfully without support, given the present realities of public education? How do you fit it into an already packed school day?

Keynote speakers included Jack Kornfield, Amishi Jha, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Social-emotional learning expert, Linda Lantieri, also was scheduled to present but was unable to attend due to health issues. I took so many notes at the conference, and there is so much I want to share, but I am organizing this post around the ideas that stood out the most for me, indicated in bold. Clicking on the numerous hyperlinks included throughout the text will provide you with a wealth of information about mindfulness in education if you are are interested in learning more about it. I'm also including a list of book recommendations at the end.

The major understandings and inspirations I took away from the conference are as follows:

Mindfulness must be wed with compassion. 

It's not mindfulness unless it's also heartfulness! Teach children to discover their worth, to value one another, to befriend themselves. Honor them by holding a beam of love and understanding. Teach them not only how to calm their mind and focus their attention but also how to be wise and loving beings.

Mindfulness and compassion training should not be something you're forced to do but an invitation to well-being. It is a process of paying kind attention. The teaching of mindfulness and compassion is not religious; it promotes the development of universal human values, or what H. H. the Dalai Lama refers to as secular ethics. It is about teaching children and teachers to train their mind, regulate their emotions, and be more loving and compassionate. 

Establish the classroom as a place of mindfulness, for tending and befriending ourselves. Consider beginning mindfulness exercises with a bell or a poem. Depending on the needs and energy of the group, there are times when sitting, walking, or heart practices are best.

Trace thoughts and feelings to the body.

Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings must be traced to the body - to where you feel them. One way to practice this with children is to put your hand in the air (where the thoughts are), and trace thoughts down the arm to the part of the body they're attached to. The first step is noticing the thoughts and tracking down to the sensations in the body. The next step is to bring self-care to the body. Our body needs so much love and compassion when our head is spinning!

I realized that I tend to live in my head. Since the conference, I have reminded myself to drop down into my body, and it is a powerful practice! I did this once in a doctor's office when I was in the midst of my "white coat" anxiety habit (in which my body seems to have a mind of its own), and the results were quite profound. Another time, I was awakened during the night by a thunderstorm, and immediately my mind started spinning. It was right after the conference, and my mind was trying to make sense of why I experienced such an emotional response to the conference. (More about that later.) Within a few minutes, my mind had created a tidy theory and was quite pleased to have wrapped it up so nicely. But there still was tension in my body. Then I remembered to sink into my body and practice mindfulness - to feel the sensations and hold them in kindness and compassion. A storm had come along, and I got caught up in a whirlwind of thought for a while, until I remembered and practiced - and quieted my mind. A couple hours later, I was awakened by another clap of thunder, and my immediate response was to practice. It was as if the thunder clap was a meditation bell! I sank down into my body and felt the sensations, thus strengthening that response. And that is what it is all about. Making an analogy between meditation and exercise, one of the speakers at the conference said that each time you bring your mind back is the equivalent of one rep. I love that.

I've also found that sometimes it helps to physically touch the place in which I experience the sensation in my body - for example, putting a hand on the solar plexus (where I often feel a stab when I remember my mom has died) or the heart. When I am falling asleep, I sometimes like to rest one hand on the pelvic valley and the other hand on the solar plexus and become aware of the wave of breath between those two areas. It is like ocean waves and is so calming. Likewise, you can teach children to focus on their breath by inviting them to put one hand on their heart and the other on their belly.

Create a safe place.

Establish safety first! Do whatever you can to help a child feel emotionally safe and relaxed and present in their bodies. We must get kids into a place where their parasympathetic nervous system is in control so they can grow and learn. Help them to understand that they are not alone in their suffering - that we are all in the same boat! Help them to see that other children have divorced parents, have felt bullied, have fears, etc. Let them see each others' beauty and troubles. Teach them of their own goodness and vulnerability. Teach them mindfulness and heartfulness when they're calm. Young children need to learn what it means to "pay attention."

Include movement first.

Younger children have so much energy that you need to allow them to release a little through physical movements before asking them to sit and breathe. Include a movement activity before attempting seated mindfulness practice. When kids are antsy throughout the day, do yoga poses.

I find this is also true for myself. It's always easier for me to do seated practice following yoga or another form of physical exercise.

Begin with yourself.

For years, I have struggled with how to teach focused awareness to a whole group of children - some of whom struggle with attention control or can't sit still - without any assistance in the classroom. When I try to lead a core practice in mindful awareness, inevitably one or two students will effectively sabotage the whole experience by acting out, seeking attention, etc. For example, in the MindUp curriculum, there is a daily core practice of focused listening (to the sound of a resonant bell) and deep, belly breathing. Each year, I have grown weary of trying to manage behavior throughout mindfulness practice - and abandoned it altogether because the behavior management is so exhausting. But I always was pleasantly surprised when some children later begged to listen to the bell ring because "We haven't done it in a long time." They must like how it feels to do the practice, and I don't want to allow the behavior of a small minority to ruin the experience for the whole!

One of the biggest realizations I brought home from the conference is that if you can't control anything else in your school environment, the most basic step you can take is to maintain a daily mindfulness practice. Even if I'm teaching in an environment that doesn't actively embrace the benefits of mindfulness, I can do it in my room, in whatever capacity I can manage. Some years I might be able to do more than others. The first step is for me to practice mindfulness every day. Before school and even during the school day when the kids are out of the room, I can turn off the lights, lock the door, and do it! Do it on my own, deliberately. Make it an individual practice until the cavalry comes. Or if the opportunity arises, link up informally with others who are doing it.
 
Chris Cullen, cofounder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, offered these priorities to keep in mind:
  1. Be mindful.
  2. Teach mindfully.
  3. Teach mindfulness.
Rather than throw my hands up in frustration because I'm not able to teach mindfulness the way I'd like to, focus on being mindful. That is a great start! And if that's all I can manage, then that is enough! It is a worthy accomplishment to succeed at that first step. If you're doing it, you're doing a good job! Success is not opening the refrigerator or turning on the cell phone!

The missing piece: Caring for teachers

Teachers cannot solve the whole problem of fixing what is wrong with public education. Because we are the ones on the front line, we need to cultivate self-compassion - so we can stay in the job! Someone at the conference said they realized they had to make a choice between changing their mind or leaving their job.

Our schools aren't failing. Our kids aren't failing. Our schools are failing our teachers. The missing piece is taking care of our teachers. When you're doing your best in an impossible situation with an impossible workload and your professionalism is questioned when you act with deep integrity on behalf of children, and your core values are not reflected anywhere in the curriculum, and you don't feel supported or valued, how can you create a safe space for children? Our schools are filled with stressed out teachers who are expected to do more with less each year. Children absorb the teacher's energy and ultimately are the ones losing out despite the teacher's most sincere and heartfelt efforts. The teacher's state of consciousness is the unwritten curriculum.

If our schools fail to care adequately for teachers, it is essential that teachers practice self-care. It is so much more satisfying and empowering than being a victim and squandering precious time and energy by complaining and feeling bad. That is precisely how I became serious about nature photography. I challenged myself to connect with beauty every single day. It was a way for me to unwind and re-attune after an exhausting day at work and often occurred during a walk (for physical exercise is also essential to mental health). Now I've added some quiet time for seated meditation, for I find that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my day. It clears my mind, weeds the garden of my senses, and is time well spent. It's so easy to get caught up in the endless stream of work during the school year, but it is essential to learn how to put work aside and take time to care for ourselves and enjoy our families. It sounds so basic, but with the extra demands put on teachers now, the need for self-care becomes more urgent than ever.

Keynote and Breakout Presentations


Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga (The School Yoga Project) encouraged us to be our students' superhero and to have a plan for when we're not feeling like a superhero - a song, breath work, etc. Everything is harder when you're exhausted, so give everyone time to relax during the school day. She asserted that children make their own experiences and meaning when you slow down and leave lots of space. There's no need to process everything! Allow some experiences to simply be. And if what you're doing isn't working, stay connected to your kids! That is the most important thing.

Her program is based on five elements:
  1. Connect - with the world around us, to other people, and to our own inner experience
  2. Breathe - nose to belly breathing
  3. Move - joyful experience
  4. Focus - teach how to pay attention, mindfulness activities
  5. Relax - guided visualization or storytelling but also quiet time
She emphasized that the relaxation element is crucial and makes everything else you do during the day more potent.

Cofounders of the Holistic Life Foundation (Mindful Moment Program), Andy Gonzalez, Atman Smith, and Ali Smith, described how they use guided visualization, yoga asanas, breathing, movement, chair-based exercises, games, and student leaders in their work with schools. They underscored the mentoring component (in which older kids help younger kids) and the use of students leading their peers through mindfulness exercises. In order to become a leader, a child must model good behavior. An added benefit is that kids go home and naturally teach their parents (and probably their dolls and stuffed animals, too)!   

Daniel Rechtschaffen, who facilitated the whole conference, led us through a "popcorn thoughts" activity from his book, The Way of Mindful Education. It is a great exercise for elementary school-aged children. Explain that your mind makes thoughts like a popcorn maker makes popcorn. Instruct children to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Whenever a thought comes into their mind, they raise their hand (like a popcorn kernel popping) and let it fall as the thought falls away.

Amishi Jha's presentations were energetic and engaging and truly wonderful, but I don't want to get into the neuroscience of attention here and encourage you to visit her website and/or the website of Dan Siegel (who wasn't at the conference but is a major researcher).

The most poignant part of the conference for me was a guided visualization led by Jack Kornfield. Up until this time, I was interested but not emotionally vested in the conference. After a very tough school year, I was at the end of my rope, unsure about returning to my job in the fall. I'd even revised my resume and applied for a non-teaching position right before leaving for the conference. But I was open to inspiration and miracles. Jack Kornfield invited us to see ourselves in the toughest situation we've experienced at work. In the middle of it, there is a knock on the door, and a luminous figure (for me it was H. H. the Dalai Lama) enters my body and takes over managing the situation while I witness it as an invisible presence. A while later, he goes back to the door and on his way out gives me a gift and whispers some words. To my great surprise, somewhere in the middle of the visualization I realized that, lurking below my residual feelings about my most awful experience, there is still a pulse in my teacher body. I was very surprised to discover this! We took a short break, during which I retreated to my room to release some tears. When we returned, I looked into Jack Kornfield's eyes and told him that I'm a teacher who was this close to not going back for another year but realized during the visualization that there is still a heartbeat. He held his hands to his heart, expressed gratitude, and held my hands in his. From this point forward, I was fully engaged!

On the final day of the conference, there was a panel discussion of administrators and teachers who have put mindfulness into practice in their own schools. There were many times during this panel discussion when I found myself choking back tears and almost needed to leave the room - because what the panelists and audience members described with such joy was both so beautiful, hopeful, and inspiring and in stark contrast to my own experience. Here are some examples of what some schools - both independent and public - are doing to promote a deep culture of mindfulness and compassion:
  • Whole school participates in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course
  • Create a breathe room - a quiet, inviting space you can drop into anytime during the day
  • Mindfulness as a special class, like music, art, and P.E. (Oh, how I love this idea! I want that job!)
  • Every teacher receives chimes and a copy of Linda Lantieri's book on cultivating inner resilience
  • Begin faculty meetings with a couple minutes of mindful breathing, or lead them in a moment of mindfulness.
  • Faculty gratitude circles: Reflect on what you are grateful for that happened in the last week, and send out intentions for next week
  • Yoga class for teachers
  • Offer stress reduction workshops for families

I love the idea of a breathe room! But paring it down to something simpler, you could establish a breathing space in a classroom. I have a single-person "Quiet Tent" in a quiet corner of my classroom right next to my desk (which is my private, quiet space). I've always allowed children who need some quiet space to retreat to the Quiet Tent when they need to. However, it also could be a place for mindful breathing once I teach them how to do it.

Someone else spoke of bringing children into nature as an important part of mindfulness. Read them some stories or poems (perhaps Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry) to open their eyes. Then invite them to write or draw. As a photographer, I might show them an image I captured and ask them to consider why I took the picture. What drew me to that image? Where is the beauty? How did it speak to me?

Pond outside the Sanctuary at Omega Institute

There was a teacher from Manhattan's independent Blue School on the panel. I had learned of Blue School from a panel discussion during the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit that included two founding members of the Blue Man Group. The school looks like this dreamer's dream come true! The Blue School teacher described a joyful, holistic environment that includes singing bowls, singing lullabies, yoga poses, art, breathing, and children leading breathing. She spoke of so much goodness that I couldn't write it all down! The school also has a mindfulness blog, and parents drop in for mindfulness on Friday afternoons. Wow.

The general consensus was that mindfulness programs did not encounter anticipated resistance but spread with joy - though it's best to take the time to grow them slowly. One panelist suggested starting in kindergarten by training kindergarten teachers and then filtering it up. They also emphasized the idea of teachers practicing together. Even if there aren't any school-wide mindfulness or yoga classes for faculty and staff, a small group of colleagues could meet and practice mindful breathing for ten minutes before school, to set the tone for the day. It's much like having a workout buddy. You are less likely to skip your exercise if there is someone else to whom you are accountable. Similarly, if your school does not have a room devoted to mindfulness, you can cultivate an environment or create a space in your own room. If all else fails, simply maintaining your own mindfulness practice makes a big difference!

If you do encounter resistance in implementing a mindfulness program, there is lots of neuroscience data to back it up. Dan Siegel's book, Brainstorm, is a good resource. You also can emphasize that you're not stealing time from the rest of the school day curriculum but are replacing pieces that don't work with what does work, and you are educating children to take care of themselves. Furthermore, you can ask families to notice that their children are coming home more relaxed.

Closing

At the end of the conference, we were guided to reflect on the ways in which we were inspired and what we need as we go back into the world and return to our classrooms. My greatest inspiration was discovering that there is a heart inside me still beating to teach in ways that allow me to:
  • Reflect to others their own inner beauty and help them to love themselves
  • Open the hearts and minds of others to the beauty and interconnectedness of nature
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the light that shines through nature and people - the essence that shines through the forms and connects us all. 

My needs are to practice myself and to feel valued in my work environment. I could begin by sharing with anyone who might be interested what I have learned from the conference and through my own experience. Perhaps I am mistaken in assuming nobody would be interested. You never know until you try! (Postscript: Two days after publishing this article, I received a bulk email from a teacher at my school who wants to offer a yoga class once or twice a week so colleagues can practice together!)

As I prepare to return to my classroom in a few weeks, I will bring with me an excerpt from a poem entitled "School Prayer" by Diane Ackerman, which Jack Kornfield quoted. I intend to post it in a prominent spot and read it daily:

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

Book Recommendations


  • Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community (Parallax Press, 2011)
  • The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students by Daniel Rechtschaffen (W. W. Norton & Co., 2014)
  • Little Flower Yoga for Kids: A Yoga and Mindfulness Program to Help Your Child Improve Attention and Emotional Balance by Jennifer Cohen Harper (New Harbinger Publications, 2013)
  • Building Emotional Intelligence: Practices to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Linda Lantieri (Sounds True, 2008)
  • Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel J. Siegel (Tarcher, 2014)
  • The MindUP Curriculum: Grades Pre-K to 2: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning - and Living by The Hawn Foundation (Scholastic, 2011)
  • The MindUP Curriculum: Grades 3-5: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning - and Living by The Hawn Foundation (Scholastic, 2011)
  • The MindUP Curriculum: Grades 6-8: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning - and Living by The Hawn Foundation (Scholastic, 2011)


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    The photographs in this blog 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, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com and river-bliss.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    Moonrise on the Lake

    Did you see last night's lovely moonrise? Two months in a row, we have been graced with a "supermoon" that appeared larger than usual. And this time, I was intent on viewing it from a great location.

    A photographer friend recently turned me on to The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE) app, which is a fabulous resource for outdoor and landscape photography. You input a location and date, and it calculates the angles of the sun and moon relative to the location so you can plan photo shoots based on natural lighting. I had a few moonrise locations in mind and consulted TPE early in the day to determine whether conditions would be favorable. I visited one nearby spot that required a brief, steep hike and - knowing exactly where the moon would rise - realized some trees might obstruct the view. I also decided the location was too perilous to attempt at night.

    My second location was a 45-minute drive into the Adirondacks, and although I was disappointed that the closer location wouldn't work out, I was grateful to know this ahead of time! A third option was to appreciate the moonrise from our dock, but I was in caught up in "YES" energy again and committed to following wherever it led - and it definitely was leading me to a new landscape involving water. I was determined to take full advantage of the beautiful, clear-sky, summer night! Besides, I had photographed from the dock the night before (and captured the moon's reflection on the water).


    Since I would be alone, I needed to choose a safe location. Having consulted TPE, I decided on a small beach park on the shore of Lake George in Bolton Landing, with mountains in the background.

    Although I traveled solo, an older couple was at the gazebo when I arrived, and when they left, another older couple arrived for the moonrise. From watching local news on TV, they knew what time the moonrise was supposed to occur but didn't factor in how our altitude (relative to the altitude of the mountains standing between the moon and us) affected the timing. This is something TPE calculates, so I knew to figure another half hour for the moon to rise above the mountains. In the meantime, we watched a steamboat go by.


    The atmosphere on board sounded like a party!


    A few minutes before we saw the first, orange glint of moon on top of the mountain, several other people arrived - all eager to see the moon. I was in good company, and everyone seemed a bit giddy with anticipation.



    As it floated higher into the sky above the mountains, the orange hue faded against a darkened sky, and a chain of moonlight was cast across the lake. Moonrise, part two.


    The shimmering light was mesmerizing, and lots of people were boating under the moonlight!


    Email subscribers: Click HERE to enjoy the dancing moonlight.

    The drive home was sheer delight, with the moon beside me the whole way. When I got home, I transferred my photos to my laptop and shared one image via social media, along with many other people. It was a night when all eyes and many cameras were focused skyward. And how wonderful that so many people paused to notice and appreciate something beautiful that can be seen by everyone on the planet (as long as weather permits). It makes the world feel smaller. People gather in person and share online, and you can feel the collective energy, much like group meditation. Although I usually meditate on my own, when I do meditate with others, it's a completely different experience. I feel so supported and elevated by the energy of others. I loved spending an evening connected with others, near and far, who were moved by the same moon that was shining in my own back yard.

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    The photographs in this blog 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, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

    Saturday, August 9, 2014

    Water Lily Reverie

    I have been so busy working on my new website! The site is not quite ready yet, but soon it will be the new home for my blog and some exciting projects that are in the works.

    In the meantime, I've made a commitment to myself to meditate every day. Usually I do mindfulness meditation, but sometimes I do guided meditation in which there is instruction to visualize yourself in a place in which you feel most relaxed and at peace. The image that has been coming up for me is floating in my kayak on a leisurely, summer afternoon amidst luminous, white water lilies.


    I wanted to share the sensation of floating gently from one exquisite water lily to the next, guided by joy and beauty. So I partnered with ambient musician, Roy Mattson, to produce a short video. I feel that Roy's shimmering, tinkling, radiating sounds provide a perfect voice for water lilies and the energy they emanate. I hope that by watching it, you will be transported into a state of relaxation!

     

    Email subscribers: Click HERE to view the video.

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    The photographs in this blog 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, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

    Sunday, August 3, 2014

    Coastal Bliss in Marblehead

    Many of my teacher friends have expressed sadness that August has arrived, bringing the beginning of a new school year closer in sight. However, I am certain there's still plenty of room for summer magic.

    I woke up one recent morning knowing that I must get to the ocean, despite not having a plan for doing so. That very morning, I received an invitation that set the wheels in motion and brought me to Marblehead, Massachusetts six days later. Call it post-retreat energy if you will (and I do), but I've found myself saying yes to opportunities and possibilities that arise. I've been yearning for new energy and movement that brings me into greater alignment with my soul's calling. Sometimes the yearning has tasted like a river of tears because I've wanted it that intensely. There's something deep inside me that seeks manifestation, and I am convinced that I cannot make it happen by doing the same old things. Instead of finding excuses to remain within the confines of my comfort zone, I'm engaging new energy. It's as if I'm sending out a signal - like a flower ready to be pollinated - and the Universe is responding magnificently. Because this time I mean it and will do whatever it takes!

    So I set off solo for the coastal town of Marblehead with the intention of being inspired and creating an infrastructure for a new venture.


    A friend whom I've known since childhood (when our families attended the same church), lives in Marblehead. Although we hadn't seen each other since high school when we were in jazz band together, circumstances brought us back into each others' orbit recently. His mom died a month after my mom, in the same hospice house, the same room, and even the same bed. Our moms knew each other, and his sister and I kept in contact as we traveled the anguishing path of caring for our very ill mothers. I held my two friends in my heart throughout our moms' final months, and knowing they were going through the same thing provided me with comfort and a sense of not being alone in this unfamiliar terrain. We continue to travel together as we adjust to the loss of our mothers, both of whom were such sweet, vibrant, and loving women.

    So it felt right to travel to Marblehead for many reasons, including the thrill of a new landscape to photograph.

    Marblehead Light Tower, Chandler Hovey Park

    Not only did I have a friend to guide me around during my brief, barely 24-hour stay, but we also went to a book launch open house hosted by a local photographer who had just published a beautiful, coffee table style book of Marblehead images. I was interested in learning about the process he went through to publish his book - which was a wealth of information about both the process and the area.

    With my gear in tow, we set out to see some sights and had hoped to be in a good location to catch a sunset but got delayed. When we returned to my friend's house, I planned to put my tripod in the trunk for the evening but then spotted an irresistible view right at the end of the street.


    It was low tide, but it was good enough for me! Filled with peace and gratitude, I lingered in the stillness of the quiet harbor for as long as I could.


    Although I wanted to get a good night's sleep to prepare for the long ride home the next day, my friend had mentioned that the sunrises are amazing, and I knew I couldn't resist getting up at an ungodly hour to take advantage of my one morning on the coast. The weather forecast was perfect for sunrise photography. Before falling asleep, I studied the photos in the book and knew that the author had fallen in love with his surroundings and come to know them just as I have come to know and love the river that runs by my door - the river that has awakened me to beauty all around, no matter where I am. So the book became my sunrise guide, and I mapped out a few locations to try in the morning. I was so excited that I barely could sleep!

    At 4:50 a.m., I got up and headed for Crocker Park, which offers great views of Marblehead Harbor. I waited to catch the first glimpse of the sun on the horizon. It was huge and bright pink. Although I wasn't able to capture the deep pink hue of the early sunrise, these images were satisfying nonetheless.




    Besides myself, there were just a few older people who were out for a morning walk (a.k.a. "the dawn patrol"). Everyone who passed by asked me (in a nearly reverent tone of voice) if I had photographed the sunrise, and one man told me it was the best sunrise all week.

    I felt like I was riding a wave of positive energy which continued when I found this on a bathroom mirror. (I plan to pay it forward!)


    Then I headed to Fort Sewall for more spectacular views of Marblehead Harbor.


    If I had stayed longer, I could have gotten to know the nuances of the landscape better and fallen more deeply in love with it. To connect with the spirit and the light of a place is such an intimate joy. To know what angle of sunlight makes it come alive and tell its story. To know how it is affected by the tides. To discover the secret places and small details that are overshadowed by the more obvious features of the landscape once your eyes have adjusted.



    Inspired by gorgeous photos of rocks and waves posted in online rock balancing communities, I longed to be on a beach with rocks that I could balance. My friend brought me to the perfect spot: Preston Beach right on the border of Marblehead and Swampscott.



    A quiet beach visited by local residents, it offered a fantastic supply of rocks. I was too tired to concentrate on anything beyond basic rock stacking, but stacking the different colors, shapes, and textures yielded pleasing results that drew the attention of curious birds.



     As the tide rolled in and covered the whole beach except for the rocky area toward the back wall, I was alone on the beach photographing the waves and birds that threatened the stability of the stacked rocks but did not topple them. I love the imagery of balance amidst life's waves.


    Marblehead provided me with the best photo sessions to date, and it took a long time to go through all the images and select my favorites. I wish I could have stayed another day to become better acquainted with this lovely coastal town, but I needed to return home.

    However, making this trip drew upon the energy that has been building throughout the summer and unlocked something in me. I returned home on a wave of beautiful, exciting energy. It seems that saying yes is the key that unlocks the door of my self-imposed prison. Over the past few weeks, since returning from a spiritual retreat, I felt the door of that prison opening, and now I feel it has been burst open for good. My relationship to unsatisfying circumstances has changed, for the door is now open to greater freedom. The freedom has been ever-present, but it's the realization that makes the difference. As Glinda, the Good Witch said to Dorothy, "You had the power all along, my dear!" I'm glad to realize this while I'm still alive!

    In his novel, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote, "When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream." This is what seems to be happening, and I am rather amazed - and deeply grateful to those who are showing up to assist me.

    This morning, I dreamed of a prison very close to me being closed all of a sudden because there no longer was a need for it. All the prisoners were released, and the prison was being transformed into something else. Later in the morning, I received a phone call out of the blue that paved the way for new opportunities and filled me with joy. I am beginning to believe that I can manifest my dreams.

    I intend to continue meeting this wonderful, fresh energy with YES. It is an exciting experiment thus far! At times the energy feels so powerful, like high tide rolling in. However, I know I must maintain a daily practice of meditation, yoga, and exercise - a commitment I have made to myself to remain aware, balanced, and grounded.


    Email subscribers: Click HERE for a minute of waves!

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    The photographs in this blog 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, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2014

    Finding Beauty at Omega

    I just returned from a truly nourishing and inspiring Mindfulness in Education conference at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, thanks to a full scholarship funded by the 1440 Foundation. I will write about the conference itself in one or more separate posts. But for now, I want to share the beauty of the campus - for it, too, was inspiring.

    Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is a non-profit educational retreat center located on 200 hilly acres in the Hudson Valley. Inspired by Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, it was founded in 1977 and is devoted to "awakening the best in the human spirit" through workshops, conferences, retreats, and online learning. A stream runs through the center of campus, and there are around 100 buildings, including a main hall, dining hall, cafe, bookstore, sanctuary, wellness center, yoga and movement spaces, cabin-like accommodations, and the Ram Dass Library (shaped like a lotus blossom). The use of cell phones is strongly discouraged in public areas, and I only noticed one person talking on a phone during my three days there.

    The Sanctuary was my favorite area - my anchor - to which I returned repeatedly. Here is the entrance.


    There is a tiny waterfall about halfway up the the winding stairs that lead to the Sanctuary. The waterfall is surrounded by space that invites creativity. Here are two arrangements that greeted me.


    They set my own creative gears in motion.

    There also was a basket of colorful, glittery word rocks - an invitation to play!


    And play, I did! Although the mosquitoes made it very challenging to balance rocks, I did the best I could.


    Here is one very simple balance that remained intact a full day later, despite a morning of torrential downpours. It's the one that didn't topple even though the acorn fell from its little perch (perhaps to be closer to the oak leaf?), and the "evolve" rock shifted off center.


    Spirit-infused art is all over the place, including some tucked away surprises and others that are impossible to miss. Outside the Sanctuary is a large bell with a mandala composed of moss and other natural objects at the bottom of the stand.



    It reminded me of the natural materials ("provocations") teachers in Reggio Emilia schools put out for their students' inquiry and exploration.

    There are many calming Buddha statues around campus, including this lovely stone planter at the entrance to the garden (with a twin on the other side of the path).


    One that's easier to miss is located amidst pine trees in a small meditation garden at the center of the dorm area where I stayed. I love the interplay of spirit, art, and nature.


    Here's another one that's tucked away near the heart of campus.


    Arrangements such as these remind me to take a deep breath and return to my center. They invite peace and calm.

    I was delighted to discover the classical style labyrinth located directly at the center of campus.


    Perhaps my favorite image of all was what I found at the center of the labyrinth. It is customary to walk a labyrinth with some sort of purpose in mind. A person often will carry a small object to leave at the center, symbolic of letting go or some kind of intention. I found this collection of offerings fascinating. 


    Here's a closer view (that doesn't show the red lighter resting behind the coffee cup):


    Looking at the offerings brought home the realization that nobody is ever alone in his or her suffering. We're all in this game of life together.

    Inspired by the spirit- and nature-infused art at Omega, I returned home enthusiastic about creating calming, centering spaces around our house. By the end of summer, I intend to transform our cluttered little home into a sanctuary. It is my August project. The truth is: We already have all the elements for creating such spaces. It's a matter of utilizing them - and remembering to notice them in the first place! There's nothing further to obtain. We just need to notice and enter into the space.

    My husband and I have noted that our yard seems to read our minds and give us what we desire. This morning, I went outside to look at the morning glories that are popping up around the yard and found this:


    It looked to me like a perfect frame for a mandala - so I ran with that idea!


    Pausing for an art break, I realized that most of the items on my to-do list ultimately weren't that important in the first place. I was putting too much pressure on myself to get things done! That's part of the beauty of the creative process for me. It pushes a reset button and helps me to simplify my life.

    I love being in places that inspire creativity!

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    The photographs in this blog 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, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.