Voice Lessons

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Photo by Kathleen Fink

I met Joanna Porackova (left), several years ago when she was rehearsing for a concert. My choir director and talented composer, Jeffrey Brody (right), was accompanying her. The sanctuary where they practiced looked like a large overturned wooden boat with pews lined up under it. Sound bounced all around inside that space and musicians loved performing there.

I sat a few pews back. I was hoping for some feedback on a PR piece I had written for the local newspaper. When Joanna noticed me sitting there, she asked Jeffrey to start over again, so I could hear the piece they were rehearsing from the beginning. Joanna said, “She worked so hard on that article.” I was to learn that kind of thoughtfulness was typical of her. I do not take it for granted. I still feel honored that she did that.

Then the two of them performed just for me. Time stopped. Awe is no stranger to me. But the glorious sound of her voice took me over. They were in perfect accord about what the music should do. I knew at the time, I would never forget that experience.

When I came in early for choir rehearsal, I would sometimes see them in the sanctuary. At times, she was giving voice lessons to one of her students with Jeffrey accompanying. Other times, he would be coaching her on a new opera role, or a solo part in a major classical work. It was obvious they were good friends. Jeffrey is an expert on Wagner who coaches opera singers on Wagnerian roles, and Joanna’s voice is suited to that music. It was clear they both know the world of opera from the inside out, and enjoy talking about it.

Jeffrey suggested that I take a few voice lessons with Joanna. I did not take him up on the idea. I had been singing in one choir or another for much of my life. I loved choral singing, but I knew I was no soloist. However, when a choir friend suggested I join her for the warmup portion of her lesson with Joanna, I could not resist. That is how I started formal voice lessons in a limited kind of way, anyway, with a kind opera singer whose voice awed me.

The vocal warmups we did might look quite peculiar to someone observing us. We would position ourselves some distance apart on the strip of carpet in the center of the sanctuary. We held our heads up while lying on our stomachs in the Cobra position, practicing ever higher scales and coming back down again. We paid attention to filling our lower back with air in the Child Resting position. We ended by singing scales on various vowels while standing on one leg in the King of Dance and Tree positions. Then my friend would work on singing various pieces, and I would watch.

As I learned, early voice lessons are all about letting go of tension that shows up in the voice. Unlearning deeply ingrained habits can take time. Each person’s body, mind and experiences are different. It is the voice teacher’s job to figure out what would be most helpful. The routine she taught was how Joanna’s teacher taught her to do vocal practice. That made sense to me. Yoga is a way to free up energy in the body that works for many people. The sound I made was usually richer and stronger when I was in one of those odd positions, especially the arching ones that opened up the air way.

When I mentioned her kindness, Joanna told me she had intentionally chosen kindness as her way of coping in the world. She even used it during the unnerving auditions that all professional singers endure. To manage her fear, she uses her singing to send healing energy to those who are judging her. By her kindness, Joanna made herself totally trust worthy.

That kind of trust is useful for voice students since a high degree of exposed openness is involved in singing well with one’s whole heart. Before I started lessons, one of her professional students told me that all of her students love her. I have no doubt of that, even regarding any of her future students who have not met her yet.

My choir friend stopped taking voice lessons, so I began taking them on my own once a month. I explored a bit, discovering haunting Celtic songs that seemed a good match to my vocal quality, and my heritage.

For one of my lessons, Joanna asked if I minded if another person joined us for the warm up. I was happy to accommodate him. I sensed she wanted to help this young man in some way using the healing power of music. After the lesson, I said, “If you were not a professional singer, you could be a healer.” That was when she told me she had spent much of her career as a pediatric nurse.

Someone working in the hospital overheard Joanna singing to one of her young patients and suggested she contact a voice teacher he knew. By the time she had advanced to teaching nursing, her singing career was really taking off. She had a choice to make, and she chose music. She then performed opera roles and solos all around the world as well as appearing in radio programs and recordings.

She became known for her sense for the inner drama of the music and her wide vocal range. Those of us who know her well, however, would add kindness to her list of outstanding talents. Joanna told me that she still visits shut in senior clients in their homes and sings to and with them.

I stopped taking voice lessons when I became a graduate student in Lesley’s Mindfulness Studies program. I learned about many wonderful mindfulness practices and tried them all. Nonetheless, I consider singing one of my favorite mindfulness practices. I continue to sing with my choir friends. And I keep in touch with Joanna. I still wonder at the fact that I have a famous opera singer as a friend. But why not? She and I have many common interests including music, spirituality and healing.

Although I have not discussed the subject with her in detail, I am sure she would agree that singing is advanced mindfulness practice. While learning a new piece takes thought and voice lessons take effort, with singing itself, there is no time to stop and think about anything. One is aware of one’s breath, the nuances of the music, the words and their pronunciation, and the pitch and the quality of one’s sound, but it all flows. Letting go, over and over again like that is excellent mindfulness practice.

When a group of singers who like each other also like the music they are singing, a very strong communal awareness can arise. This sensitive and dynamic awareness is very much alive in its own right. The audience senses it when it is there in the sound. It is not guaranteed. Everything has to come together. I find singing in the midst of strong communal awareness to be a fundamental bottomed-out joy with freedom to it, a bit like taking flight.

Eventually we were able to find a slot of time when Joanna could join me in the tea hut I had installed in a mossy corner of my yard. I also invited a new friend who practices Tibetan Buddhism sensing that the two of them would like each other. I explained a little about Japanese tea ceremony and poured them bowls of tea in an informal version of the practice. Afterwards, we spoke of many things including the importance of making time to slow down and share like we were doing.

Joanna mentioned that she did not think she had told me she had learned to chant the Heart Sutra from a friend. My new Tibetan Buddhist friend asked if we could hear a bit of it. The three of us were standing in a triangle only three feet away from each other on the tatami mats in my small tea hut as she began. Time stopped.

Her vocal quality was entirely different from that time when I was first transfixed by her voice in the church sanctuary years earlier. There was an unexpected gruffness of tone that only enhanced the spiritual depth as she chanted the words. It was incredibly powerful. It was as if she were channeling an enlightened medieval monk.

It is not unusual for time to slow way down when I am in my tea hut sharing tea. But this was different. She told us there were tears in her eyes as she chanted because she knew that the two of us would understand.

Tea & Dialogue & Generosity

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Photo by Kathleen Fink

The photo above shows Annie Hoffman (left) and Jan Surrey sharing tea at Art and Soul Yoga on March 25th, 2018. It was one of those events where all the careful planning (see Preparing for Tea & Dialogue) just seemed to work. We kept to the schedule and it flowed better than I had expected given the complexity.

In a dyad session, the participants poured tea for each other and then drank the tea followed by Insight Dialogue where they commented on the truth of that experience. One participant said she enjoyed slowing down to really pay attention to the sensory details. Another appreciated how the flowing waters and energy of the sun captured by the tea plant become part of us – “We are the earth.” After remembering sharing tea in the past, one participant noticed it had hints of the depth and intimacy, the “Come over for 4 O’Clock tea” feeling that she now experienced on a deeper level.

The talk I shared on how both tea ceremony and Insight Dialogue teach us about generosity is reproduced below:

The powdered tea used for tea ceremony was first brought to Japan from China by a Zen monk. Tea was then planted in monasteries where it was used as medicine and to sustain awareness during meditation. The Japanese warrior class and then the merchants adopted tea and began holding gatherings to share tea and show off their tea utensils. Renowned merchant tea master, Sen no Rikyu with his strongly-held Zen values, shunned attachment to valuable utensils. His descendants, as heads of hereditary Japanese tea schools, continue to protect the standards Rikyu developed that became known as Chado or the way of tea.

Every aspect is designed to support tranquil awareness, starting with a walk along a naturalistic woodland-like path to the quiet tea hut or room. Sharing tea involves all of the senses, and the whole body. Rikyu made clear that those who follow the way of tea should put their whole heart into what they are doing, while at the same time keeping the tranquil awareness of all in the tea room in mind.

I was taught the flowing motions should be natural, and without artifice which paradoxically takes a great deal of practice, as well as calm awareness. Simple things are given the attention they deserve, and the only goal is to prepare tea and share it together. Like many, I experience time slowing down. Each moment becomes clear like the images in stop time photography.

Despite the formality of the giving and receiving, the warmth and caring generosity feel real because they are. This is life lived fully in the moment and with generosity born of a grateful heart. Tea ceremony has consistently brought me to centering peace over the years as I shared it with many different people. On occasion, I sensed awareness moving to the others present, then out to the tea garden, to all of nature and all that exists. I found my usual tendency to feel less than had no place from that perspective.

When I first encountered Insight Dialogue, Gregory Kramer’s guidelines of Pause, Relax, Open, Listen Deeply, Trust Emergence and Speak the Truth resonated strongly. I sensed immediately that these guidelines were remarkable in their power; nonjudgmental compassion would meet vulnerable disclosure for every participant. A new ease entered my life when I realized I could bring that same energy to any conversation no matter how stressful. The discussion topic also provided a means to gain wisdom. And we were all doing it together in powerful relationship, directly witnessing our fundamental interconnection. As Gregory Kramer describes on page 73 of Insight Dialogue, The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, “Compassion and joy create a virtuous cycle that promotes our finest relational qualities: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.”

With Gregory Kramer’s guidelines in place, both speaking, and listening are generous and meaningful gifts. I now understand listening deeply to be one of the most meaningful forms of love. And the energy of that love has a tendency to spread to others who in turn become more open and generous.

Both practices foster tranquil awareness in interaction. It is clear that what is happening is real and that it matters – paying caring attention, acknowledging each other, offering thanks and really seeing how one’s actions affect others are all fundamentally important. Chado provides direct experience of what we are capable of in social interaction under ideal circumstances, while Insight Dialogue provides a way to release hindrances that get in the way of tranquil awareness in real life.

Both tea ceremony and Insight Dialogue show us how much we have to give and receive from each other when we open up and pay caring attention. Having experienced the profound benefits of these two relational practices, I wondered whether it would be possible to bring them together. Sharing tea might be a way to Pause, Relax, and Open before dialogue begins. Thich Nhat Hanh who finds much value in sharing tea notes, “We can communicate in such a way as to solidify the peace and compassion in ourselves and bring joy to others.” (p. 6, The Art of Communicating). Perhaps the peace of tea would help with that.

A tea scroll saying illustrates the kind of egalitarian generosity that comes from a deep grasp of our interconnection. In The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, William Scott Wilson explains that scrolls that are used in Zen temples are also hung in tokonoma alcoves during tea ceremony events; “Among the implements of Tea, there is nothing as important as the scroll. For both the guest and the host, it is the scroll that has them grasp the Way of One Mind and absorb themselves in Tea.” What the scroll saying I have in mind says is: “Shaza kissa” (Sit down a moment and have a cup of tea.). Wilson explains, “In this way, you say, ’Have a cup of tea’ to whomever you are with” (p. 63).

This quote refers to a story where regardless of whether a visitor answered yes or no to Chao Chou’s question about whether they had been to the temple before, Chao Chou responded, “Have a cup of tea.” When the head monk of the temple, who had been listening in, asked Chao Chou about the meaning of his behavior, Chao Chou replied, “Head Monk! Have a cup of tea” (Wilson, 2012, p. 62).

This post is an example of using a blog post to share information with participants who met in live interaction. They were sent the link, and based on the visit statistics I would assume that several of them did read this post.

Preparing for Tea & Dialogue

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Insight Dialogue expert, Jan Surrey, kindly suggested that I try out my idea for combining sharing tea with dialogue at a Sunday Sangha that meets monthly for Relational Meditation/ Insight Dialogue practice in Cambridge MA at Art and Soul Yoga. We jointly agreed the theme for the tea sharing would be “Dana, the experience of offering and receiving.”

I will also demonstrate a simplified version of a formal Japanese tea ceremony practice that uses a tray, Ryakubon, and will provide a brief talk sharing my thoughts on how the giving and receiving of tea and Insight Dialogue cultivate generosity and gratitude (See Tea & Dialogue & Generosity).

For this tea and dialogue practice, participants will arrange themselves into dyads and simple small cups on square paper plates will be brought to them. I suggested to the volunteers who will be helping me, “This process should be natural and like a slow stream flowing if possible. We should be aware of each other, and as much as possible convey dignity and warm open generosity.” I decided to use powdered decaffeinated green tea. Traditional Japanese tea bowls and matcha tea are also available online.

The plans are for each dyad partner to swirl the thermal carafe before pouring tea for the other. Bowing will be used to indicate respect. Drinking tea in silence then provides an opportunity to practice the guidelines of Pause, Relax, and Open even before the spoken dialogue begins. The spoken dialogue makes use of all the Insight Dialogue guidelines developed by Gregory Kramer as first one person Trusts Emergence and Speaks the Truth while the other Listens Deeply, and then the roles are reversed.

I fully expect everything will not go as expected. That provides an opportunity to practice generosity and compassion in the moment in keeping with the theme.

This post is an example of using a blog post to share information with participants who meet in live interaction. In this case, I have the major benefit of knowledge of my intended audience which can certainly make for more mindful blogging.

Event Schedule:

Jan – leads overall session and Insight Dialogue
Kathy – leads tea aspects
Annie – leads movement
Peg & Edna – help with tea equipment logistics

9:00-9:20 Introduction (Silent sit / ID Guidelines / say name & bow / introduces Kathy)

9:20-9:30 Formal Tea Demonstration (Kathy serves Jan)

9:30-9:35 Talk on Tea & Dialogue & Generosity (See separate post with that title)

9:35-9:40 Arrange into dyads

9:40-9:42 Tea Sharing Logistics Explained (Swirl thermal carafe, pour for each other, bow)

9:42-9:50 Distribute cups and plates

9:50-9:55 Each person in dyad pours tea for the other (bell times)

9:55-10:00 All drink tea (bell times)
(Supported by contemplation to pay attention to senses
and all that went into the tea / getting it here
then silent drinking maintaining mutual awareness)

10:00-10:05 Clear away tea things (no bowing)

10:05-10:35 Dialogue (“Truth of the experience” bell times)

10:35-10:40 Arrange into position for movement

10:40-11:10 Movement

11:10-11:30 Second dyad dialogue practice (“Refuge” bell times)

11:30-Noon Large circle sharing (pass tea cup to one who will speak) and Closing

Fall Leaves

One form of radiant refuge for me is taking out my camera and looking for what I can find among the gems and jewels that are Fall leaves. I find colors and patterns and infinite variations on imperfection that is completely perfect in the moment.

Like us, each leaf is unique, and like us, these leaves are always changing. I have learned to capture something I like when I see it, as the next day it can be totally different in color and feeling. Doing this kind of photography has taught me to see pattern and design through new eyes. Just looking at a simple leaf, even one that has dried up, brings me so much joy.

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Chanoyu Lore

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When I first began studying the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony I was interested in its aesthetics. There were subtle delights in abundance from resilient tatami mats underfoot; the soothing sound of water heating in the iron kettle; and the scent of cedar bark incense.

I quickly learned that humility was involved as well. The seemingly effortless movements required much practice to master. We were taught to pay attention to the season, the particular circumstances of the day, and what was happening in the tea garden. There is, for instance, a particular beauty to a day with a hint of snow in the air when the leaves have fallen and a few linger on the moss.

I came across several stories recorded in chanoyu lore where tea masters combined ingenuity with an extreme sensitivity to nature to produce transcendent experiences for their guests. Three of my favorites involve Sen no Rikyu, probably the most famous of tea masters. Rikyu was known for his exquisite taste and sense for the fitness of things. He simplified the tea ceremony while at the same time introducing many innovations. His manner of making tea was said to be totally natural and unaffected so that one could not pick out any one part as being the most beautiful.

In one of the most famous tea stories, Rikyu’s patron, the regent Hideyoshi, had heard about the morning glories that Rikyu planted in his garden that year and wanted to see them. When Hideyoshi arrived in the morning, there was not a single morning glory to be seen anywhere. However, when the guests entered the tea room, a single perfect morning glory was displayed in the tokonoma alcove. Hideyoshi and the other guests found this refreshing. I was taught never to use morning glories during tea practice for this reason.

In another example, Hideyoshi supposedly had a large golden basin filled with water and a single flowering red plum branch placed beside it. How would Rikyu create a suitable flower arrangement using just these two elements? Rikyu approached the tokonoma and lifted up the branch. He then gently stripped the buds and flowers so that they fell into the basin and floated on the water. After that, Rikyu quietly returned to his seat carrying the bare branch. Hideyoshi admired this elegant resolution.

Bizen Rojin Monogatari describes a dawn tea ceremony attended by Rikyu. As the guests took their seats there was no light at all in the tea room, only the sound of the tea kettle boiling. A profound peace prevailed. Just as they were all wondering about the host’s intentions, Rikyu noticed a glow on the shoji behind him and slid open the panel. The moon framed in the opening sent its light to the tokonoma. Just legible there was a scroll with the following poem: When I lift my eyes / To the quarter of the sky / Where the cuckoo cried / There is nothing to be seen / Except the early morning moon (from Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler, p. 125).

I was lucky to attend a tea practice with something of this magical quality. My sensei had conceived the idea of a fall moon-viewing practice. Each student was given a lit candle in a small glass holder, and we were instructed to walk slowly up the wooded hill behind her house, leaving space between us along the path. I waited so I could see my fellow students winding their way up through the trees at dusk. As I reached the top, the moon was covered by clouds and then briefly appeared as a misty presence. Nature was very close all around us. We conducted the tea ceremony on a felt mat where all the utensils had been arranged in advance. Looking back, it was like walking into a Japanese print. I am sure we will all never forget the beauty and poignancy of that experience.

Although a tea master’s touch is always appreciated at a tea gathering, I have learned that special effects are not needed. The essence of chanoyu is present no matter how simple and quiet the tea practice is. Each is a “one time, one meeting” opportunity and all the wonders of nature and human ingenuity apply.

For more stories from Chanoyu lore, you may wish to read Stories from a Tearoom Window by Shigenori Chikamatsu.

This article originally appeared in the March, April 2010 issue of Sukiya Living, Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Lessons from Face-to-Face Advocates

Animals Cows copy

This huddle of cows awaiting a storm reminded me that being face-to-face has benefits for more than just humans. In my investigation of whether (and how) blogging might be a mindful form of communication, I thought it would be a good idea to look into face-to-face interaction.

In her 2017 TED talk, Psychologist Susan Pinker explains that face-to-face interaction reduces stress and extends lives. Besides releasing beneficial neurotransmitters, this type of interaction engages parts of the brain associated with attention, social intelligence and emotional processing.

In The Village Effect, How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier (page 15), Pinker notes that “The power and immediacy of electronic media have persuaded us that the different ways of ‘clothing ourselves’ in social contact are interchangeable,” but “Despite our being increasingly tethered to the devices that connect us…we’re lonelier and unhappier than we were in the decades before the Internet age.” (Page 287)

It occurred to me that Denmark is a country that places a high value on being together face-to-face. As it turned out, what I learned about their culture had some useful lessons for bloggers.

That Danes value face-to-face interaction is evident in their tradition of hygge. Hygge involves leaving troubles and drama behind as friends and family gather to share cozy nonjudgmental “quality time,” often with candles and something good to eat. Everyone contributes to the mutually-supportive atmosphere.

The hygge oath that Jessica Joelle Alexander, an American writer married to a Dane, and Danish psychotherapist, Iben Dissing Sandhal, include in The Danish Way of Parenting; What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids reads in part, “We agree to try to: Turn off the phones and iPads.”

Denmark consistently ranks near the top of the World Happiness Report that includes over 150 countries. The authors of The Danish Way of Parenting believe this is because of Danish child rearing practices that include:

play, authenticity, reframing, empathy, no ultimatums, as well as togetherness & hygge.

I find a number of lessons here for bloggers. For one thing, bloggers might want to consider how their balance of face-to-face versus online time affects their own wellbeing.

Meeting with those who share the blogger’s interests could lead to new friendships, not to mention blog followers. Face-to-face meetings might inspire blog topics and provide a more nuanced understanding of the audience a blogger cares most about reaching.

Approaches from the Danish Way of Parenting can be applied in various ways by bloggers. Here are some ideas that occurred to me:

PLAY: According to Stuart Brown, adults need to play too. Blogs can be playful to varying degrees and inspire play.

REFRAMING: Reframing can be modeled by starting with a narrow concern and then taking a wider and more positive view that puts things in perspective, while perhaps soliciting comments to open the discussion still further.

AUTHENTICITY: There is evidence that blogging in ways that display one’s authentic personality is likely to attract readers who can relate to you. Being authentic also helps bloggers to better understand what is important to them as they observe their own posts over time. However it is good to be quite careful to review potential impacts, as it is impacts that can matter more than intentions.

EMPATHY: There are many ways to use varied media artfully to demonstrate empathy. Telling stories in words, photographs and video can often help with understanding others’ feelings better. It is also possible to explain in a post how facial expressions and emotions relate.

NO ULTIMATUMS: It is even possible to model no ultimatums. This can be achieved by avoiding absolute judgments, and including alternatives with an intent to inspire exploration rather than dictating what others should think or feel. Open-mindedness and deep listening can also be demonstrated in how comments are handled.

TOGETHERNESS & HYGGE: In keeping with the spirit of hygge, bloggers could intentionally adopt a warm nonjudgmental tone for posts sometimes. That would likely help with the blogger’s own stress. Providing reminders of the warm support that humans are capable of providing each other might work for some bloggers and topics. As you would expect, bloggers share tips on how to create hygge in real life. In these scary times, a little warm coziness in the blogosphere might be welcome.

While applying lessons from Danish parenting practices to blogs might make them more mindful, there is a different kind of beneficial energy to face-to-face interaction (including to a lesser degree communication via video conferencing). Even limited face-to-face interaction with the right person who shares the blogger’s passion could lead to personal transformation and a more open and aware perspective. Then everything the blogger does might become more mindful.

The Mood of Tea

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In the tea hut, you can be yourself while at the same time seeking true empathy. At the heart of tea is the expectation that the host will put himself in the place of the guest and the guests will put themselves in the place of the host.

A stroll through the garden to the hut allows the guests to clear their heads and hearts of “the dust of the world.” The host will have arranged things in keeping with the season, the time of day and occasion. For example, to send a friend off on a trip a dawn tea may be conducted, with a scroll featuring a river and tea sweets with a flavor appropriate to the trip.

The scroll, flowers, and carefully selected utensils create a silent song. The wood of the hut, and the fragrant bark incense provide an elegant rustic undertone. Raindrops on the roof, melting snow, or rustling leaves add their essence. The mood is carefully orchestrated down to drops of water on the flower petals.

Such subtle pleasures inspire us to relax and perceive even more. Thus, one becomes increasingly open to the ritual to follow and to intimacy with the others present.

Over many years of practicing, we come to anticipate the meditative mood where breathing slows, time seems abundant, and hearts open to each other. Simple things are given the appreciation they deserve. There is no limit to the ability to expand one’s taste and to grow in humility and respect. Tea is not about ritual for its own sake, and it is not about religion. It is about living and taking the time to share what is truly important.

Once while traveling in Japan, the tour leader asked me to provide an impromptu talk about the tea ceremony as we travelled on a bus to a formal tea demonstration. I thought of my first exposure to chanoyu. I was wrapped up in trying to understand the ritual and could not even glimpse a hint of the meaning of tea. The number of people in the room and the strained environment further removed any possibility of intimacy or harmony.

To explain tea to my group, I decided to try an analogy that conveys my mood when anticipating a tea ceremony practice. I began by reciting Basho’s famous haiku: Old pond / Frog jumps in / Water sound.

I said, “Put yourself in an old boat drifting on that pond. You are content, almost dozing. You hear the crickets, the wind in the trees, and feel the slight rocking. You watch the ripples. A squirrel comes down an overhanging branch and stares at you and you stare back. You see an old friend unexpectedly on the shore but do not move or call out. Your friend sees you and the squirrel and waits, understanding.”

I told them, “Tea is about the heightened awareness of beauty associated with the transience of all things. The squirrel will leave, your friend will eventually leave, you will die, the pond will dry up, but let’s hope that frog of Basho’s will be around for a while.” I did go on to explain some of what they could expect from the ritual and that it was basically about sharing a bowl of tea with a few friends.

Afterwards, the woman doing the demonstration said that she was surprised that the group was so quiet, that normally she gets a lot of questions and interruptions. This pleased me. Maybe my squirrel analogy helped.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of Journal of Japanese Gardening (Now Sukiya Living, The Journal of Japanese Gardening).