14 Hours In Light: Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany

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photos by rus vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015

Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany

These seven minutes I spend on the summit of Big Bald Mountain, waiting for the sun’s first sliver to slip over the eastern mountains beyond Little Bald are, perhaps, the most powerful of my life.

Within the first minute of standing between the falling moon and the rising sun, my phone loses all power. Fear returns as quickly as it dissipates, whisked away by the strong winds as if not allowed at 5,516 feet high. I know I am vulnerable here, surrounded by tall grasses and steep drops that give me virtually no warning if a black bear – or any creature for that matter (except the American Redstart warbler, perhaps) – were to charge me. All of the What-Ifs, as well, linger in my mind (if but for a passing moment), as I still need to descend some 1,300 feet, back through the brush, when I leave. I have no way of contacting anybody. Anywhere. Any way.

I am alone with the elements, caught here between the moon and the sun-to-rise.

Or perhaps, instead of being alone, I am all-one, a part of something greater. Instead of seeing myself apart from this natural world, I see myself a part of it all.

I am surprised at the comfort in this, the absolute release and relief of shedding these chains, of finding myself in the middle between day and night, light and dark, faith and fear, and enveloping myself in complete liberation by the nurturing elements of the earth and the air.

I stare at the very northeast tip of the mountain beyond Little Bald where the sun will first rise. I can feel the energy bursting already from that pinpoint, that precise place where night will become day. The heavy moon behind me bears the weight of a long night’s journey. It is tired and ready to surrender the early morning, if but for a short 14 hours and 2 minutes, to light.

I, too, surrender. I exhale and give myself to the wind, the earth, the sky. I am one with the elements.

And then I feel it. At first, it is a negligible push and pull, an almost indiscernible, autonomous and rhythmic sway that defies the strong winds that whip around me. The pulse, though, grows stronger as I stand there, an earthly beat by two heavenly chambers that carry the energy of all things to and fro, back and forth, around and around.

I am between these two chambers that volley life-energy ceaselessly. And for those final moments leading up to the defining second where the sun rises, I embody dark and light and everything in between. I am the conduit for love, for life, for existence.

The winds steal away my tears as fast as they appear, but that seems right that they should fall elsewhere on the mountains around me. As I am being baptized by the earth and by the heavens, my tears become a part of the ritual, returning to the earth drops of life manifested by such beauty, such energy.

DSC_8427Unblinking, I watch night surrender to day, The sun rises as the moon sighs, and I am filled fully with the energy of both.

In the name of Walt Whitman, I sound my barbaric YAWP from this rooftop of the world and hear the single syllable echo among the ridges that now bathe brightly in early morning hues of yellow and orange.

A single note, a single man, resonating boundless life and love and energy.

I have never felt so alive in my life, and I want to run from this mountain top and tell the world – I want to tell you – that what is in me is in every one of us. We possess the same life, love, and energy that flows incessantly, reverently, across lands, through waters, and among skies.

We are the earth. The water. The sky. We are all one, a part of the ceaseless energy that makes this universe – and each of us – the most beautiful creation imaginable.

I drop my pack and walk the perimeter of the summit, setting my own compass and course to carry me home: fearless, faithful, and fulfilled.

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Next… Part 5. The Energy Within

Read Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach


 

During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the fourth of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”

An Open Letter To God: Are You There?

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photo: rus vanwestervelt

Dear God:

Are You there? Lately I have been wondering, as a few things have happened around our world that makes me question what’s really going on.

Well, I guess it is a combination of things. I mean, bad stuff happens all the time. No real change there. The change is in us, and the way that we are living our lives.

It’s really beginning to concern me.

I remember when I was in fifth grade, our teacher took us to the library to pick out a book (or two) for the winter break. I was an avid reader by that time, and I was going through the books we had pretty fast. Most of the nonfiction titles were about sharks or ghosts, and I had already devoured them. When it came to fiction, though, I read anything I could find. I walked over to the “New Arrival” shelf, and I found a book that I had never heard of before. It came at a time when I was curious about all things related to God and spirituality. I distinctly remember thinking that this book was there, for me, at that exact time.

I took the book to the librarian to check it out. She read the title, then put the book behind her on a separate shelf. She looked at me with disappointment.

“I’m sorry, dear. You can’t read that book.”

I looked at her incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.

“What do you mean? I’m in fifth grade! I thought we could check out any book here.”

“You can,” she responded. “But not this one. It’s not appropriate for boys.” She waited for me to leave, but I just stood there. I was an ornery kid.

“Why isn’t it appropriate?” I asked.

All she could do was get angry at my persistence. “It just is! Find another book. Look around you. We have plenty of other titles that you will like.”

I left the librarian, and the copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, remained on the back shelf and out of my reach.

Later that day, I found out from a girl friend of mine that the book had stuff in it about bras and menstruation, and I immediately decided that I had heard enough and would be happy to find another book before we left for the break, even if that meant rereading about sharks and ghosts.

I admit, though, I was pretty bummed. I thought that the book was about God, that it was there for me, on that shelf, for a reason. And that librarian? She could have recognized why I was interested in the book in the first place. A little redirection to the God shelf would have been pretty appreciated.

I’m wondering how many fifth graders today are wondering about God and looking for answers. I know that, if I am now, at the age of 48, then others must be as well.

So, God, instead of going to my local library (where, by the way, I can now read any book I want without being questioned because it’s all self-serve when it comes to checking books out), I thought I’d come directly to You today.

Are You there, God? It’s me. Rus.

I want to tell You why I am so confused right now. It’s not about these tragedies that are happening around the globe and, terrifyingly enough, right here in the States. Like I said before, I get that (I don’t like it, but I get it).

I am confused because I feel like I know too much. I have read too much about the history of religion, and I question the validity and the motivation of our historians to capture certain religious events. Even more specifically, I question the timing and the similarities between the development of Christianity in relation to other religions.

Or should I not get too hung up on all that stuff? Should the hows and the whys regarding the past not matter to us in the present?

To be honest, God, If it were a purely historical thing, then I don’t even think I would have the need to write you. Wam, Bam, Thank you for the facts, Ma’am. And I’d be on my way.

(Probably not too appropriate here in this context, God. Sorry ’bout that.)

Anyway, this is why I am hung up on this.

photo: rus vanwestervelt

photo: rus vanwestervelt

I feel Your presence. I feel Your love. In all things. I listen to the holiday songs, and I feel You. I see the icons of Christmas, and I don’t see dollar signs or material goods; instead, I feel You.

When I don’t think about all the things that I have read, and when I stop comparing it to how historical or significant events are archived today with so much bias and subjectivity, where seemingly unrelated agendas govern the accuracy of actual events, everything is different.

But I do think about them, and that’s the problem. I’m finding it so hard to follow my feelings when my head is telling me something so different. It’s just so hard to let go of all of that thought stuff and just believe.

Isn’t that how it worked before we had all this stuff written down? Why did it have to get so political about who wrote what, and how?

Earlier today, I asked a few friends about how they knew You existed, and the answers that I got were right in line with us believers having a personal relationship with You that transcends the written word.

Believe me, God. As a writer, it’s very hard to acknowledge that anything should transcend words. But when we write, we are just trying to understand, aren’t we? To put things in a relative context that makes us understand something a little better? In this case, I think it has done just the opposite.

Anyway, here’s what they said.

Mark offered a quote from a band called, Live: “I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven. – I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset, and I perceive.”

That’s pretty clear to me, God. You exist in all things, now and forever. Check.

Natalie went deeper with her thoughts, bringing to light in a strong reminder that Nature offers proof that something greater than us exists. “Why does something greater than ourselves (nature) have to be attributed to a deity? I believe there is a higher power than mere humans, but I think nature in all her glory is more than enough to believe in. That way, I can remove judgment and feeling from the equation and just accept what is.”

I couldn’t agree more that the spirit of the higher power existed long before we could write anything about it. It existed, and we as humans reacted to it in the best way we knew how.

Bernadette: “Something inside a belief, a feeling and yes faith. Who or what created all this? Even scientifically speaking, all this energy starts and ends where and why … I know in my darkest hours that my faith and God carried me through it. I don’t believe in “my god” or “your god” over Allah or any other named [deity]. I believe in one God who does not discriminate; he/she loves everyone “as is”; the rules I find to be man made and not God driven at all. The God I know is for all people, all of the time. Even the nonbelievers.”

Again, we are back to the origins being before any written documentation. Beautiful, Bernadette.

Adam: “The quest to understand ourselves as spiritual beings requires belief in a spiritual realm, one which explains the origins of the universe, the world and of us as individuals, and our relationship with the creator. My belief comes from an understanding that we are spiritual beings, created by a spiritual deity. This is the framework through which I see the world. I understand maths and science as manifestations of the creative language of a creative God.

photo: one of my favorite students!

photo: one of my favorite students!

Each culture has its sacred texts, including atheists, to explain origins and meaning. The opening chapters of Genesis do not explain how the world came into being, but explains why it came into being, because God wanted relationship with the creation. And the resultant Bible is the history of that relationship.

How do I know God exists? I know the relationship I have with him and the communion with the saints. I have seen, and heard, many physical miracles of healing; have heard prophecy and words of knowledge, which, like a scientific theory, must be weighed carefully and proved.

The natural world is therefore a reflection of a creative God, a sign to direct me to the one who made it. I see it and know it most when I see people enacting the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour.'”

God, isn’t Adam awesome? (whoa– If there are no coincidences, I’m pretty excited here about mentioning God and Adam in the same sentence, and knowing you both). When he says that the natural world is a reflection of a creative God, it makes perfect sense to me.

I don’t need the words as much as I need to connection with the natural world, the communion with all that transcends us as humans. And yet, as Adam says so eloquently, we can also see You through the kindness of others.

Katie couldn’t agree more with what Adam shares: “Grace, any moment of someone else sticking their neck out for you or lending a hand, especially when we don’t deserve it, to me is a reflection of the original, ultimate example of this kindness. It’s something that even in today’s world, none of us have time for, goes against ‘every man for himself’ survival instincts, and yet its still everywhere.”

Deborah sees you, God, in everything around her: “You need only to look around to know that God does indeed exist. He is there in all of nature, in the falling of the leaves off the trees in autumn, and in the budding of leaves in spring. When you truly look around and realize what nature has to do in order to complete this cycle each and every year, than you know that a higher being is in charge.”

Jim, ever succinct, agrees as well: “The balance of chemicals in your blood stream, the Natural Order of the Universe, the Beauty of Nature – all evidence to me.”

So God, I guess writing does help us get closer to you in some ways. When my friend Lisa wrote, “That’s why it’s called ‘faith’; I just know,” it’s probably one of the simplest, yet most convincing statements I’ve read in a long time. Tonight, writing helped me understand more of what I believe, and why. As well, my friends’ writing put to shame my concerns that you might not be there anymore. Through their words, I feel Your love. And that’s probably the greatest way to receive Your love, through the kindness of others.

Phew! I feel better already!

Thanks for all You do (this is getting awkward).

Yours,

Rus

(p.s.: I think I might write an “Are You There God?” book for boys. All of this might have been a little simpler if that had been on the “New Arrival” shelf all those years ago.)

Mindfulness in Schools: Empowering Students For Success

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

As we get ready to head back to school for the new academic year, I am aware of a movement that is sweeping across the country to make students and educators more mindful of their learning and their teaching. It is flying right in the face of high-stakes testing and assessment, but is it really setting the stage for the ultimate battle of Man vs. Machine?

Studies throughout the world are demonstrating that mindful students are taking control of their learning, their emotions, and their general state of wellness, improving their communities and strengthening their independence as a result.

In a paper just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (20 June 2013), “Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: Non-Randomised Controlled Feasibility Study,” researchers concluded that “the degree to which students … practiced the mindfulness skills was associated with better well-being and less stress.”

Programs like Mindfulness in Schools are changing the culture of our classrooms and are empowering our students to be mindful learners, aware of their own learning styles and practices.

What is School Mindfulness?

Being mindful in school (a strategy for both teachers and students) is simple to practice, yet it is often neglected because of the pressures of assessment, placement, and evaluation. Because of the overwhelming pressure placed on schools to produce positive and high-ranking data, it is easy to lose the focus on the individuals comprising the data.

The principles of being mindful are easy to learn and to put into practice, even before the first day of school arrives. The definition of awareness, as given in “The Awareness Principle” by Peter Wilberg, can be easily applied to any education setting. As you read this summary of Wilberg’s findings, be mindful of the classroom setting you are familiar with and how mindfulness can empower teachers and students.

We have the power to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, of the way we express them, of the way they affect our bodies and our behavior. We have the power to be mindful of the way they lead us to act and react to others, of the way they color our view of the world, and of the way they affect our sense of ourselves. Awareness of our feelings and thoughts is not itself a feeling or thought, nor is it by itself anything bodily or mental; like space, it embraces and transcends each and every thing we are aware of. It creates space for clearer thoughts to arise, along with a new sense of ourselves.

When teachers and students enhance their self-awareness in the classroom, they make a decision to bring greater focus and meaning to their work, thus becoming more accountable for the purpose and intent of their actions.

Can Mindfulness and High-Stakes Testing Co-Exist?

It is easy to place mindfulness and high-stakes testing as polar opposites, making it seem like there is some difficult choice to make: either be mindful and aware of your experience in the classroom, or succumb to the machination of uniformity in a curriculum that continues to limit individuality.

I argue that practicing mindfulness in the classroom is a win-win scenario, both for you and for the school system. As more studies continue to demonstrate a correlation between mindfulness and wellness, students and teachers with reduced anxiety and greater focus can engage in the rigorous curricular activities while maintaining a “What’s In It For Me” (WIIFM) attitude.

At the very least, this awareness makes classroom content more relevant and applicable to individuals, giving greater reason for them to be engaged more meaningfully.

Over time, practicing mindfulness in the classroom will lead to an application of the WIIFM experiences to long-term goals that align with authentic career choices. Individuals will be devoting their time in their teens and well into adulthood engaged in meaningful work and charitable acts.

It seems like a no-brainer to students, teachers, and administrators: mindfulness is an empowering strategy for success, and integrating opportunities for students to be aware of their learning in the classroom makes perfect sense for now and our future, where our communities are filled with individuals who are actually living an inspired life, aligned with who they really are.

 

Follow Your Passion

Shift Your Energy, And Everything Changes.

We all carry within us an enormous, limitless supply of energy and creativity. It has to come out of us in some form, and we make the decision time and time again how we expend it.

Some of us make these decisions consciously; others have thrown themselves at the mercy of their environment unconsciously and allow it to be used or released or wasted as others see fit.

I’ve tried to always be conscious of it, but I often get so caught up in what I’m doing, that I don’t realize that I’m wasting my energy as plainly as the person who never realizes how their creativity or energy is being used.

You know what I mean, right?

We’ve all been there. Think about a time when you felt so strongly about a job, a relationship, a program. You put an incredible amount of energy into it because you wanted that end goal so desperately: to be wealthy, to be loved, to be smart.

How’d that work out for you?

The energy and creativity were probably off the charts, but the end result? Not so much.

That’s what I’ve been doing for so many years, creating and using energy for projects that I was absolutely sure were going to bring me great wealth and freedom. I convinced myself that “do the work” meant “sell your soul” to achieve greatness. Even though I kept feeling like I was giving my projects CPR just to keep them barely alive, I thought that this is what it took to “make it.”

I was wrong. Completely wrong.

When you follow your passion first, and simply choose to live your life in a way that provides solace and opportunity for others, you and your projects are never on life support. They blossom and thrive in ways you could have never imagined. Your creativity and energy become the soil, the rain, and the sun for that passion to grow abundantly — for your community and for you.

Realizing this has made all the difference in everything I write, I create, I do. I am no longer desperately looking for answers to solve my problems; I am looking for opportunities to share my passion for creativity and living fully with others.

I trust the rest will take care of itself when I follow my passion first. I cannot worry about anything else. With motivations that are pure and genuine, I know that goodness will prevail.

A Leap Of Faith

I know this doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do. We are so programmed to chase those goals, meet those standards, define our lives by success. Being encouraged to follow your passion seems so antithetical to everything we’ve been taught.

The beautiful thing is that you don’t have to quit anything. All you need to do is shift your energy and your creativity, ever so subtly, to the things you are most passionate about. Everything else will take care of itself.

Shifting that energy might be in the way you greet others, in the way you listen a little more acutely, or in the way you are patient during challenging times (yes! we use energy in practicing patience!).

Exercising your creativity might be in how you express your thoughts and ideas to yourself and to others, in taking creative dates or explorations, or going beyond your comfort zone with various art forms — watercolors, photography, sculpture.

There is no big plan or program. You don’t have to declare anything in social media. It’s just about you, shifting your energy, and following your passion.

And once you do, you’ll see everything in a light so vibrant, so pure, you will begin to realize the limitless energy and creativity within, always available to the genuine and passionate YOU!

 

Writing Strengthens the Soul: For the Present and the Future

I say it all the time: Your Story Matters, and for so many reasons.

Most of the time, the “Your Story Matters” phrase is something I tell people who want to write their story but are afraid to start. They might be afraid of judgment (more on this later about what assessment-driven writing is doing to the minds of our future generations), upsetting loved ones or family members, or no one caring about what they have to say.

None of these holds any weight of credibility. 1, you are not writing this for a grade; 2, you get to choose the audience (and sometimes we write just for ourselves at first); and 3, you never know who needs to read or hear your story.

Your story does matter, and if you are thinking about writing it down, I encourage you to begin immediately for no one but you: an audience of one. Send your self-censors and your inner-editors on a little vacation and just write. You can worry about who gets to read it later on.

There’s another reason why I tell people their story matters; it has nothing to do with publishing or a greater audience. Instead, it has everything to do with inner strength — not just for the present, but for the future as well.

I recently read a post by one of my favorite inspiring bloggers, Danielle LaPorte, who wrote about this very issue (you can read the entire piece here: “You Will Be Called On To Expand, And This Is Why We Practice“).

She writes:

When we’re believing in the fairness and the glory of human nature and the so-called Fates, we keep seeking, and meditating on reality, and praying for healing though nothing obvious ails us. . . .Because the day will most certainly come, as it does whether you are a whole-hearted Lover or in denial of Grace, that you will be struck down or ground down by life. It can come in tiny tearing heartbreaks five times a day, just walking through your neighbourhood. It could come in the name of tragedy that could only happen once in a lifetime. And you will need to withdraw the insights that you put into your heart’s escrow.

LaPorte is right, of course. Way back in ’88, I was renting a room in a farmhouse close to where I was teaching, and I was struggling in many ways. One rainy Sunday night, my roommates returned home from a weekend barn spiritual they had attended, and I was so empowered by their spiritual energy that I allowed them to share with me the power of Christianity and believing in a higher power.

For many months, I studied Jesus’ teachings as I read and re-read the letters, stories, and lessons shared in the New Testament. I had believed, all along, that the purpose of my struggles in 1988 was to lead me to read and study the bible so that I could be saved through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice.

What I did not understand is that, by studying and practicing the lessons and the teachings, I was preparing myself for my father’s death in the spring of 1989.

When he passed away, I found great inner strength to be a support for my mother, to support others who were grieving, and to deliver the eulogy for our entire family. I exuded that strength at the viewings as well as at the funeral; I was called on to expand, as LaPorte puts it, and this is why I practiced.

The same is true with our writing and our creativity. We do not write and create simply to publish and enlighten or entertain; we do these things daily so that we may know who we are, so that we may strengthen our self-esteem, so that we may feel the confidence to face any situation we are given and expand at a moment’s notice.

I write every day to keep my soul and my confidence in shape for today; For I know that, soon enough, I will be called upon to put that knowledge into practice.

Discard your worries about judgment, upsetting others, or if anyone cares. Write and create every day for you. Strengthen your soul, even in the best of times. Build that cache of confidence and keep it well-stocked. You will need it, and when that moment comes, accept it with a firm foundation of inner strength and confidence in who you are.