Weathering the Storm

Recently, I came across an abalone shell that called out to me. At first I looked for abstract patterns in its colorful interior. Then, a wind-blown tree came into view. There was no mistaking the tree that both stood strong and bent with the wind. It feels a bit like that now, I thought. We began to see patterns with COVID 19 that we did not understand. Now we find we are in a storm with no place to hide from the global wind. Is this tree in a storm image a warning, a source of hope, or perhaps both?

Learning to See

This paperweight was on the window sill for a while before I noticed its changeable personality. Two curved layers with outer films of dichroic glass reflected and transmitted light. Now that I looked more closely, depending on the light and the angle, everything changed.

I got out my camera to see what the super macro setting would capture. How could one small object do all of that?

Place as Winter Guide

I wondered what the beginnings of winter would look like on this crisp morning in early December. After several inches of snow followed by thawing and freezing, I expected snow on the pond banks.

As I entered the park, I noticed certain rocks were beginning to become familiar friends. But I fought against all such expectations, all such stories. Walking for my health here in these times of pandemic provides opportunities too precious to waste. Most of all now, I long to be open; to not even know where I am going.

I noticed the pond had a skim of ice, but only in certain places. Scattered ice fragments captured light. The few dog walkers I encountered understood the preciousness of solitude. Offering quick greetings in soft voices, they did not disturb the infinite sweetness of the melancholic luxuriance.

As the place, itself, took over as my guide, shifts in light and mood signaled when to stop and look deeper. I aimed my camera with awe and humility knowing I was a participant observer, not separate from such generous grace.

Silent Tea Music

I find music in the largely silent flowing motion of Japanese tea ceremony. It came as a surprise, however, when my involvement with that art played a role in a musical instrument finding its way to its rightful owner. After hearing the shakuhachi played by a master at a gathering at my tea teacher’s home, I obtained a student version of the bamboo flute, thinking I might learn to play it. However, the shakuhachi was relegated to a drawer when I had no luck finding a teacher.

Several years ago, I was introduced to a fellow student in my graduate mindfulness studies program who had a deep interest in Buddhism and an advanced meditation practice. He shared my passion for tea and wrote about the social dynamics of how tea is shared in China for one of his papers. When I learned he had never tried the powdered green matcha tea used for Japanese tea ceremony, I invited him to my tea hut so he could try it.

After declaring the flavor to be “very silent,” he asked if I knew of any shakuhachi teachers. His flute was broken and he greatly missed playing it.

I asked him to help himself to more tea while I went to get my long-neglected flute. I found it where I had placed it in a lovely small chest of drawers. When I returned, my guest told me he had drunk three bowls of tea. Evidently he really liked that matcha!

Fortunately, the long dormant student flute was still playable. When I presented it to him as a gift, he seemed delighted. He asked if I really meant for him to have it. I told him, “Of course the flute is yours.” In fact, I told him that this match gave me great joy. It seemed wonderful that the flute’s voice would be heard in the world after all this time. My new acquaintance later informed me that he played the flute on a daily basis.

My suspicion that the shakuhachi was used for meditation was confirmed by a little research. In fact, it is associated with particular Zen monks where playing the flute serves as a spiritual practice. Shakuhachi playing can be remarkably haunting and expressive with qualities unlike any other kind of flute music.

So my tea hut gathered to it another wonderful memory and a hint of distant shakuhachi playing from a flute that had found its rightful owner.

Pond Reflections

Now that the peak leaf colors and our election in the United States have passed, there is a softer, not so urgent feeling. The burnished colors have their own appeal as does not knowing yet what will happen. Come with me on my walk. Everything can change with just one small foot step.

It is hushed and quiet by the pond at this early hour. You can hear the ducks’ small sounds. And perhaps notice that reflecting on reflections is nothing new.

Dog Walkers Rule the Dawn

As I start my early morning walk, I notice it is quieter with fewer cars starting up. In my Arlington MA neighborhood, dog walkers have always been out and about at dawn. Seeing them now provides a most welcome sense of normalcy.

As I approach, Robbins Farm Park has a view of soft pinks over Boston framed by deep red leaves. Dogs romp as their owners call out greetings, recognizing each other despite their masks. A playground attracts a few children with its long slide and harvesters in the community garden seem most appropriate for a park that was once a farm.

Continuing down the sidewalk, I come to Menotomy Rocks with its glacier-carved granite outcrops rising here and there. Fallen logs molder on either side of a wide path as yellow leaves glow on the living trees. Dogs seem to love it here and families come down to watch ducks swimming through vivid reflections.

Despite all of this radiance, the dogs and their owners are what speak most to my heart. Even from a safe “social distance,” there is no mistaking their contagious joy and contentment. They know how to live in the moment.

Sometimes, and especially now, I find it helpful to get back to basics. Remembering what is still here for us in this most troubled world has been helpful when there is so much to be worried about

Japanese Tea Ceremony’s Enduring Zen Flavor

Tea practice copy

Japanese tea ceremony’s flowing process for preparing a bowl of tea may strike one as elegant or beautiful. However, for those unfamiliar with the art, just viewing a demonstration may not provide much insight into the depth that lies just below the surface.

Tea practice evolved over time. After it was introduced to Japan from China, tea was grown at Zen monasteries. Processed and ground tea leaves were mixed into hot water to support the monk’s alertness during meditation. This emulsion supports considerable and sustained calm awareness all by itself. It was also used as a form of medicine – matcha has many health benefits.

When the warrior elite adopted the drink, they delighted in collecting and showing off costly tea utensils. These objects were used as proof of political authority, and given to generals as rewards.

In the 1500’s, merchants with Zen training adopted a style of sharing tea imbued with refined rustic simplicity. All social classes and women were invited to participate. In this space apart, all present were honored and treated with great respect. Sen no Rikyu brought this style of tea preparation to its peak. Since that time, standards for Japanese tea ceremony have been maintained by hereditary tea schools.

Business executives adopted the way of tea followed by young women who would often return to it after raising their children. Learning about the many arts (like flower arranging, brush painting and ceramics) that tea ceremony employs was another way to fill free hours. Urasenke, the largest tea school, established chapters outside Japan in 1951. They recently began publishing books in English with detailed instructions and extensive photos starting with the styles of preparing tea that beginners learn first.

Tea practice in my tea hut (see the photo above) brings me into this season, and this time of day, embodied and grounded. There is something about the natural movements that brings one into accord with nature’s rhythms. Many comment on how time seems to slow down. With attention fully directed to what one is doing in the moment, there is no bandwidth left over for worrying about how one is perceived, or ego posturing. While you might think tea ceremony’s proscribed procedures would make it feel stiff or impersonal, it actually feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the formality, the caring generosity built into the practice is very real.

Under the right conditions, awareness may broaden to encompass everyone in the tearoom, the mossy tea garden and then expand outward from there. Even when mistakes occur or the right utensil is not available (creative improvisation is definitely appropriate per the tea literature), tea practice consistently brings me centering peace.

From tea ceremony I learned how bringing attention and intention to potentially annoying everyday activities can transform them. Washing dishes can become joyful service and meditative play. Tea ceremony teaches that it is possible to live life more like an intentional work of art with deep respect for the potential in each moment.

Abalone Tide Lessons

As soon as I started the photo series, I was totally entranced. There were worlds of dazzling design in the abalone shells’ spiraling concave interiors. I might discover an area of delicate veiled dreams or bold drama. Taking closeups and seeing what the camera had captured became an addiction.

I began to sense how the shimmering designs carried the rhythm of the tides that the abalone depended upon for all their needs. There were encoded hints of whale song yearning and how our planet breathes as it dances with its companion moon.

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Dappled Light

Now we are keeping to our homes, animals are coming closer. During solitary dawn walks to listen to the bird chorus, I come across rabbits just sitting there in the middle of the road. A neighborhood fox ran across adjoining backyards. Our generation has access to so much recorded history and information, and to so many things. Yet nature has her own inescapable ways and her own time table.

My most recent post was about what happened after I removed a fence I had allowed to decay naturally. The table in the photos below will likely be around much longer. Lichens will shun it. If we are indeed living in twilight times, I cannot help hoping that dappled light will still find the shiny objects humans leave behind.

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Reflections on a Tea and Dialogue Thesis

Tea hut 2 Jim & Anita Photo from video by Jeff Klein

Two older adults engaging in heart-felt dialogue.

After many years of having Japanese tea ceremony a part of my life, I began to think of the Zen art as a time capsule of wisdom that is very much needed in our challenging times. While I have deep respect for those who carefully preserve the traditional art, very few even in Japan, are willing to learn its choreographed procedures these days (Surak, 2013). But because I felt that “tea wisdom” is so badly needed, I longed to find a way so that more could access it.

Early in my studies in Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies program, I realized there was a serious problem with that dream – The sustained awareness needed to enact tea ceremony’s proscribed procedures is also what provides access to much of its depth.

Fortunately, I learned about Insight Dialogue, a meditative dialogue practice developed by Gregory Kramer (2007) that also sustains a high level of awareness while interacting with others. Combining elements of the two practices would take the new practice far from tea ceremony’s flowing peace, but I knew that meditative dialogue has its own important benefits. For example, it helped me encounter and release a false story that undermined bringing greater peace to my everyday life.

I was lucky to secure an internship placement at the Arlington, Massachusetts Council on Aging where I offered ongoing sessions of tea and dialogue to older adults in a six-week workshop format. My internship supervisor told me her greatest concern for the clients her agency serves was their risk of loneliness and social isolation. Someone she saw participating in various programs the agency sponsored might simply disappear, never to return. Then she would worry because she knew social isolation has been found to be as bad for health as smoking or obesity. I told her I believed tea and dialogue provides supportive connection capable of combating that harm. My master’s thesis topic had, in effect, found me.

Using a new tea and dialogue mindfulness practice to combat older adults’ risks from social isolation, given it works via video conference, seems almost too relevant now. The COVID 19 pandemic has made social distancing a common practice for all age groups, and the virus particularly threatens older adults’ health. The harmful influence of ageism that I discuss in my thesis is also quite relevant. Keeping visitors away from vulnerable older adults in nursing homes makes sense to protect them, but “inspectors are likewise staying away” (Ornstein & Sanders, 2020, April 24) at a time when their oversight seems particularly important.

On the other hand, the importance of social connection for our species is gaining greater recognition. And more widespread use of video conference technology might reduce use of transportation dependent upon harmful fossil fuels.

About a year ago, I met a skilled videographer during a walk in my neighborhood. He agreed to help create videos of older adults engaging in variations of tea and dialogue practice. Starting to gather raw footage did not present a large risk. Even if the edited videos could not be used for a creative thesis as I hoped, I wanted videos anyway to help create awareness of tea and dialogue’s benefits. Words alone cannot do the practice justice.

If I gained approval to use the videos for my thesis, having gotten an early start would take the pressure off locating participants and accommodating their schedules. We could collaborate in “trust emergence mode” taking advantage of opportunities and there would be more time for careful video editing which can be time consuming.

While it would be important for participants to feel safe to speak candidly, what is spoken might not always be appropriate for videos intended for a public audience. But since the videos would need to be edited for length in any case, giving participants the power to designate exclusions might solve that problem. I checked this idea out with Gregory Kramer who created Insight Dialogue. He agreed and seemed reassured that expert Insight Dialogue teacher, Jan Surrey, was supporting the project.

After I started locating participants, I realized that jumping into the role of producer-director put me well outside my comfort zone. But it seemed like it would be too much fun not to try. In fact, I would be engaging in the creative collaboration that I love with an amazing team, while working on something I deeply believe in that might prove of real benefit. It does not get much better than that.

As it turned out, the experience was one of vivid aliveness. The topic we explored, “the unending sea of blessings” (Wilson, 2012, p. 135), and the Insight Dialogue guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth – supported our interaction. The mood ranged from playful to solemn but there was always deep gratitude for each other that was at times acknowledged by explicit statements of appreciation.

Since video conveys tone of voice, changing facial expressions and meaning carried by coordinated actions, I hoped others could get a sense for the supportive connection we felt. You can judge for yourself by reviewing my March 2020 posts that provide access to the edited videos.

Like the older adults in my internship workshops, the video participants exhibited gifts for mindful communication. They shared generously and with open honesty. It was clear from their facial expressions that they really wanted to listen. And consistent with evidence that older adults can have greater sensitivity to the emotional implications of situations (Stern & Cartensen, 2000), they were sensitive, thoughtful, and kind.

Although there are many reasons to offer mindfulness practices to younger people, it is unfortunate that relatively few discover how fulfilling engaging with older adults can be. In addition to exceptional interpersonal skills, they often have considerable wisdom from life experience. Older adults can also be wonderful story tellers. This last ability was much in evidence during a tea and dialogue session with my mother.

The idea of bringing tea and dialogue to my 97-year-old mother came later. That seemed a great way to show the adaptability of the practice. We shared memories relating to our deep appreciation of nature, a passion we share. Afterwards, Mom told me, “That was a pure blessing.” Making mini-documentaries of tea and dialogue practice with older family members seemed a worthy undertaking in its own right. Such videos could well become family treasures while also helping to combat the invisibility that older adults often complain of due to ageism. The lingering closeness my mother and I felt from that session continued supporting us during this difficult period of social distancing and worries about the effects of COVID 19.

I was amazed at the abundance of research I could use to make a case in my thesis for this particular application of tea and dialogue. The factors involved with the growing seriousness of social isolation for an increasing population of older adults were clear and made an interesting story. Many sound studies provided evidence of harm from social isolation, and a number of fields were providing insight into the specific mechanisms involved with that harm. From work I had already done in various classes, I knew there was evidence for the benefits of tea and dialogue’s qualities of generosity, dignity, social connection and creativity. I was also aware of research on tea and meditative dialogue. I even found studies to justify using video as it conveys nonverbal social clues important to building trust.

I hoped that the spontaneous interaction already captured in the videos would provide ample examples of the ways I argued tea and dialogue should support beneficial connection. Experience and the research evidence I had found told me that should be the case. Fortunately, my gamble worked out.

Now, I find myself humbly realizing that what I have been working on might matter even more than I thought. I hope that some wise and caring older adults are inspired to engage in and promote tea and dialogue so they can help us learn how to become better at supporting each other in these challenging times. Although we are all vulnerable, we also have great power to support each other by tapping into our fundamental interconnection.

Books referenced in this post:

Kramer, G. (2007). Insight dialogue: The interpersonal path to freedom. Shambhala.

Stern, P. C. & Cartensen, L. C. (Eds.). (2000). The aging mind; Opportunities in cognitive research. National Academy Press.

Surak, K. (2013). Making tea, making Japan: Cultural nationalism in practice. Stanford University Press.

Wilson, W. S. (2012). The one taste of truth: Zen and the art of drinking tea. Shambhala Publications.