Communing with Surfaces

I first met Ken Matsuzaki on a trip to Japan. The first photo is of his pottery on display when I visited in 1997. After I returned, I was delighted to see Ken again, as well as examples of his latest work in Boston at the Pucker Gallery, which continues their long-term relationship with the master potter.

Entranced by the exuberant surfaces of the works on display in 2010, I asked and was granted permission to take closeups. I hope the photos below convey some sense for the joyful adventure of looking closely at their remarkable diversity.











Sharing Tea and Dialogue As A Form of Servant Leadership

The new tea and dialogue practice I have been working on might be considered a form of servant leadership, a style of leadership that is primarily focused “on the growth and well-being of people.”

The respectful sharing of tea and honest open dialogue is aligned with what Lowder (2009) found in reviewing the literature on servant leadership including: mutual power, collaborative participation, non-judgment, a focus on believing in and empowering people, providing opportunities to learn, and valuing differences. Two particularly notable aspects were “openness to spiritual, emotional, and mental inspiration and revelation” (p. 12), and a focus on “overcoming… fear through creating shared meaning” (p. 13).

I find that holding nurturing safe space for authentic relating makes “aha” moments more possible. Marshall (2016) notes that an intention to improve wellbeing may not lead to action until it is supported by a strong emotional connection, “The aha moment is essentially the sweet spot where the emotional brain and rational brain finally integrate” (Marshall, 2016, p. 65).

Edwards, Elliot, Iszatt-White and Schedlitzki (2015) discuss the potential use of creative techniques like tea & dialogue to support the integration of cognition and emotion that is accessed through the body (Nummenmaa & Glerean & Hari & Hietanen, 2014): “leadership cannot be reduced to an entirely rational process, there has been an increasing interest in emotional and social intelligence in the leadership literature…with arts-based methods and other creative techniques gaining ground…It is argued that these approaches have the potential to connect cognitive and emotional processes” (p. 2).

Fry & Krieger (2009) describe servant leadership, which they rank highly in their model of being-centered leadership as follows: “Servant leadership consists of helping others discover their inner spirit, earning and keeping the trust of others, valuing service over self-interest, and role modeling effective listening…The most effective leadership in this view is not provided by those who seek leadership roles but rather by those who have a compelling vision and desire to serve others first” (Fry & Krieger, 2009, p. 1682).

The embodied awareness of tea & dialogue is particularly useful for leadership that works through supportive relationships. Brendel and Bennett (2016) speak of the benefits of “a practical model of embodied leadership where individuals learn ways to deepen awareness to include both the mind and the body as an interdependent system” (p. 409). They concluded embodied and aware leadership “builds resilience and resourcefulness, and improves relationships in complex environments” (Brendel & Bennett, 2016, p. 409).

References:

Brendel, W. & Bennett, C. (2016). Learning to embody leadership through mindfulness and somatics practice. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 18(3), 409-425. Doi: 10.1177/1523422316646068

Edwards, G., & Elliott, C., & Iszatt-White, M. & Schedlitzki, D. (2015). Using creative techniques in leadership learning and development: An introduction. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 17(3) 279-288, Doi: 10.1177/1523422315586616

Fry, L., & Krieger, M. (2009). Towards a theory of being-centered leadership: Multiple levels of being as context for effective leadership. Human Relations, 62(11), 1667-1696. Doi: 10.1177/0018726709346380

Lowder, T. (2009, June). Best leadership model for organizational change management: Transformational verses servant leadership.

Nummenmaa, L., & Glerean, E., & Hari, R. & Hietanen, J. (2014). Bodily maps of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Marshall, L. (2016, December). The power of the aha! moment. Prevention, p. 62.

Listening Deeply & Speaking the Truth

It is clear from our body language when we are really present for each other. Photo by Jeff Klein.

All the Insight Dialogue guidelines are fundamental to establishing the meditative qualities for Insight Dialogue relational practice. Without first Pausing, Relaxing, Opening and Attuning to Emergence, I do not know how it would be possible to Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. In that spirit, during a recent Insight Dialogue practice that I co-facilitated with my guide and mentor, Jan Surrey (bio below), I paused and directed attention both inward and outward, and then called on all of those guidelines to discern what might want to be spoken in that moment.  I heard myself saying that not only people but all of nature listens and speaks and that I always come back to gratitude.

Listening Deeply makes use of the amazing receptive capacity of our sensitive body-heart-minds. We can harness energy and mindfulness to direct attention both outward and inward at the same time. There is deep beauty in opening to the internal and external flow of all that we can sense. That can provide access to wisdom and compassion in that moment, the moment we are alive. Still, I sometimes get lost in my own responses. When that happens, I gently return to mindfulness with kindness and compassion. There is a lot going on at the same time. We take in words and match those with meanings and associations. We take in tones of voice, and changing facial expressions. We participate in the flowing “music” arising between us. Deep listening as meditative practice means allowing oneself to be touched by the unexpected, to open to whatever arises. Awe is possible, so is learning to welcome being influenced.  

Speaking the Truth involves listening internally, discerning, and then speaking emerging truth in relation to a specific contemplation. Not stating what we think is true about the topic. Not sharing theoretical, or scientific truth. We use the support of the Insight Dialogue guidelines Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, and Listen Deeply in relation to the contemplation. We draw on the whole body-heart-mind in investigating and speaking with an intention to adopt the teachings on wise speech: to speak what is true and not false; to speak what is beneficial and timely – is it appropriate to say that now? We attempt to speak in a way that is gentle, nonviolent and kind, and finally, to speak from compassion with an intention to liberate from suffering. We take care, knowing that speaking like listening, can influence us and others in ways that matter.

Listening and speaker inter are and work together. The wisdom of bringing attentive care to listening and speaking is clear from many Buddhist teachings: 

Right View (Anguttara Nikaya): “there are these two conditions for the the arising of right view, Which two? The voice of another and appropriate (or wise) attention.”

The Holy Life (Kalyanamittata): Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”

Right Speech (Samma Vaca) One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort & right mindfulness  & run & circle around right speech.”

 When listening deeply and speaking the truth something quite remarkable can happen – a working toward and aligning with what is true now. That creates an opening to release and ease that comes from a place beyond the personal. It is also a means to cultivate wisdom and compassion that bring with them a greater capacity for peace, happiness and wise action. In so many small and large ways, we really do practice Listening Deeply and Speaking the Truth for the benefit of all beings.

Instructions for dyad dialogue practice:

I invite you to Pause, Relax, Open, and Attune to Emergence as you explore how Listening Deeply & Speaking the Truth work together.

      Structure: – 20 minutes: S1, L1, (switch roles) S2, L2, Open 

S1 – Speaker 1 speaks for 4 minutes while Listener 1 listens. Pause

L1 -Listener 1  reflects for 4 minutes on the process of listening. Pause

          The Partners switch roles (Listener 1 becomes Speaker 2)

S2 – Speaker 2 speaks for 4 minutes while Listener 2 listens. Pause

L2 – Listener 2 reflects for 4 minutes on the process of listening. Pause  

Open – 4 minutes of open exchange with no formal speaker or listener roles.

Note:  At the start of dialogue practice, participants take a minute to introduce themselves and determine who will speak first.  At the end, participants thank their partners for the opportunity to practice together.

Contemplations for dialogue practice:

When speaking: What do you notice about how your partner’s practice of listening affects you as you Speak the Truth?

When listening: What did you notice about how your partner’s practice of speaking affected you as you Listened Deeply?

During Open Dialogue: What is it like speaking and listening with formal roles dropped?

It Might Sound Like This:

As Speaker: I notice I am pausing to see what is here. There is anxiety about not knowing what to say. Sensing you watching me, I feel a bit self-conscious. Noticing your smile, I feel myself relax. As I pause and settle, I can sense you are not judging me. That is encouraging.

As Listener: I noticed that you really took your time figuring out what to share. That helped me pause and relax. When you tilted your head, I felt welcome. When your tone of voice softened, that affected how I understood your words. I could feel myself bringing in energy, becoming really interested in what you had to say.

 I invite you to draw on the support of all the guidelines and make good use of the Pause before, during, and after speaking.  

******************************************

With deep gratitude for all the support and guidance from my Insight Dialogue Teacher, Janet Surrey, who teaches Insight Dialogue retreats worldwide as well as leading a monthly practice group in the Boston area. She serves on the Teachers Council for the Insight Dialogue Community. Starting in 2007, she has been working with Gregory Kramer, founding teacher of Insight Dialogue meditation, a relational meditation practice within the Theravādan Buddhist tradition. She is a practicing clinical psychologist and a founding scholar of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College. She is also on the board of the Institute for Meditation and Psychology.

Cultivating Authentic Connection

Sharing tea during tea and dialogue practice (photo by Jeff Klein)

Convinced there is great need to create opportunities for authentic connection, I started working on a new mindfulness practice that involves respectfully sharing tea and dialogue. While technology has numerous practical advantages, many of us engage much less in the kind of trusting face-to-face interaction that helps our social species thrive. Loneliness and social isolation, which have been found to be as bad for us as smoking, were on the rise even before the pandemic.

This post explains why I chose to take elements from two very different relational practices to create what I hoped would prove to be an accessible and adaptable new secular “tea and dialogue” practice.

At first glance, Japanese tea ceremony’s largely silent formal sharing of a bowl of tea might seem worlds away from the in-the-moment candid verbal sharing of Insight Dialogue. But both practices provide the safety and support needed to bring sustained attention to social interaction that deeply taps the wellbeing of felt connection. And both can open the door to life-transforming insight.

Japanese tea ceremony is a performance art that takes place in a tranquil setting apart from everyday worries. Water is whisked into a bowl containing a mound of powdered green tea and bowls of tea are shared with a few guests. After much practice, body learning makes it possible to carry out the detailed prescribed procedures with artless ease. Time slows down. Sustained embodied awareness opens one to the deeper beauty that can be found in imperfect objects, in nature, in all those gathered in the tea room, and in each moment. Sharing tea with many different guests over the years always left me feeling centered and at peace regardless of what else was going on in my life. Japanese tea ceremony began to feel like a time capsule of wisdom that was badly needed in these particularly stressful times.

Insight Dialogue is a practice with three elements; meditative awareness, investigation of a topic capable of imparting wisdom, and human relating. Participants form into pairs or small groups and take turns for timed intervals sharing what arises in the moment on the designated contemplation topic. That all listen without commenting creates safety, while the practice’s guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth – provide powerful support. The subjective impressions that are shared tend to be intrinsically interesting. They are often wise and moving; more like poetry than everyday speech. Being truly heard is rare. Listening carefully is a natural way to encourage others to continue returning that precious favor. After a time, I found myself bringing the same nonjudgmental supportive energy to everyday conversations, even stressful ones, and that transformed my life.

Bringing sustained embodied awareness to authentic sharing amplifies the wellbeing and resilience that generosity and gratitude provide for our species. That compassion is warranted becomes clear (given how much each of us has to contend with), but so are joy and gratitude (given how much we are able to give and receive from each other).

Posts describing variations of the new practice combining elements of Japanese tea ceremony with meditative verbal sharing are available by clicking on the Tea & Dialogue category to the right and scrolling down. Whether with dear friends or with someone new, it is well worth remembering how much we benefit from authentic connection.

Japanese Tea Ceremony’s Enduring Zen Flavor

In discussing Japanese tea ceremony’a Zen flavor, it is appropriate to first consider its special setting that creates a space apart. Tea room and garden maintenance are ongoing. For each tea gathering, the host selects and arranges the scroll, flowers, and utensils keeping the season, particular occasion, and guests in mind. Thus, meditation in action begins well before guests arrive.

The tea room and garden bring a mountain cottage retreat atmosphere into a town or city setting. For all the care that goes into a tea hut’s construction, they are lightly built and are all the more intimate for that acceptance of impermanence. Soft natural lighting create a tranquil mood. There is little to distract beyond naturally arranged flowers and a scroll.

Tea gardens are designed to evoke the essence of purified nature, and often resemble a mossy path in an idealized wood. This path-garden is called roji (literally dewy ground or path in Japanese). A Buddhist interpretation relates to ‘awara‘ or disclosure, not just disclosing the garden to the eye, but disclosure of everything within and without to the heart/mind/body. Before guests approach the tea hut along the path, the host will clean it and water the stepping stones as a sign of welcome. To do that properly, it is necessary to first cleanse oneself of what disturbs and sullies the mind and heart.

Tea garden design begins with opening to what is here. It is a process of emptying the mind and listening to the site and the context in order to allow the design and its aesthetic qualities to grow from the place rather than being applied to it. The garden and the person who tends it are always getting to know each other through a process of action and response that goes both ways. As the relationship deepens, maintenance is not so much imposed from outside but takes place from within that relationship by attuning to what needs doing.

Students of the way of tea learn by observing and copying their teacher, and by being patiently (although sometimes strictly) coached in what is essentially a form of direct transmission. When I first started taking tea lessons, I learned how to walk on tatami mats. I had to master the many sub-procedures of a relatively simple way of preparing tea. A great many steps must all flow together in a natural and unobtrusive way before a student can claim competence. There are many different ways of preparing tea or temae to learn, and all the utensils require special handling. Tea stories make clear that patient practice and goodwill are more important than achieving perfection.

Thus, tea ceremony provides many opportunities to experience beginner’s mind while learning how to retain a sharp embodied focus on what is going on here and now. The way of tea might appear gentle as compared with working on unsolvable riddles under the stern guidance of a Zen master. But because there is so much to learn with body, mind and spirit, serious students of Japanese tea ceremony may find themselves facing the strong doubt, strong faith and strong determination that are said to be requisites for dedicated Zen practice.

In time, applying firm resolution in a context of openness and mutual support can lead to consummate freedom and ease. That a selfless commitment to discipline is required to achieve that flow is one of the many paradoxes of this art (and of life). Learning the formal procedures with total-hearted commitment provides access to deeper levels of perception and being that in turn influence how one performs the art so one returns to where one started very much alive, in touch, and in the moment simply enjoying sharing a bowl of tea with a few others.

Just seeing a demonstration does not reveal the relational quality of this art. Students are taught to always keep the guests tranquility top of mind when preparing a bowl of tea. The flowing generosity and gratitude becomes one and communal awareness arises as guests actively support the host’s intent for sharing the beauty of the particular occasion and of each unique moment.

A Boulder Around the Seasons

A boulder perched at the edge of Hills Pond when I started the photo series. It became an island as the waters rose. Then ice linked it to land again. In spring, geese and ducks perched on its strong back. There were signs of trouble as algal bloom sullied the water and all the birds left.

Waiting unperturbed, the boulder bore silent witness to ducks returning as brilliant colors in shades of yellow, orange and red mixed with the greens. Though all of this, the boulder sat with perfect equanimity. It had me wondering whether I could be more like that. Probably not, but that I could appreciate (and hopefully remember) its still presence seemed to count for something.


Mushrooms After Rain

Nature is constantly shifting and not just with the normal seasonal changes these days. This early fall, I would certainly welcome some quiet green time on my morning walks in Menotomy Rocks Park (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA), but nature had its own ideas. After abundant rain all summer, amazing fungi were popping up everywhere and calling out to have their portraits taken.

I sometimes moved into contorted positions to capture the fascinating diversity up close, and in one particularly lucky shot, spores falling from a cluster (last photo below). My walks extended to two or more hours and I was off on another adventure, discovering how important fungi are to us as well as to so many other forms of life on this planet.

Nurturing Wisdom

Seven days after his birth, when the Buddha’s mother knew she was dying, she entrusted her precious son to her sister, Mahaprajapati. You might think that raising the Buddha from an infant would be enough to make Mahaprajapati a figure of interest. But, in fact, very little information about her was available until Shambhala published The Woman Who Raised the Buddha; The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati by Wendy Garling (photo by Jeff Klein above, her bio is below).

In this short video from a June 27, 2021 celebration of her latest book, Wendy describes some highlights of Mahaprajapati’s influence. An audio recording of her entire talk describes both the process and the contents of the amazing material that Wendy brings alive for us. Thanks are due videographer, Jeff Klein, for both recordings.

Drawing on literature of multiple Buddhist traditions as well as recorded oral stories, Wendy introduces us to a woman who was of considerable importance in the early days of Buddhism. Even though she was the respected Buddha’s “mother,” and Queen of the Sakyas, it took Mahaprajapati’s own nurturing wisdom to overcame barriers so that the Buddha’s teachings reached both women and men (as he intended) right from the beginning.

Mahaprajapati’s effectiveness, despite the cultural values of her day, should be of particular interest to us now, at a time when we must work together to make progress in solving so many critical issues. Perhaps the publication of this book at a time when we are so in need of the transformative power of nurturing wisdom is not a coincidence.

At the party, Buddhist scholar, Charles Hallissey noted that not only does this book make a major contribution with its subject matter, but Wendy also shows us how to approach sacred literature in general. We all must necessarily start from where we are. Wendy models the process of using imagination to explore what might have been true in another culture and time where unanswered questions remain. At the same time, it is appropriate to be very clear about the assumptions one is making. By bringing imagination as well as all of one’s heart and experience to such literature, it can come alive in a meaningful way while making it possible for new insights to evolve over time.

WENDY GARLING is a writer, mother, gardener, independent scholar, and authorized dharma teacher with a BA from Wellesley College and MA in Sanskrit language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (2016, Shambhala Publications), and more recently, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha; The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (2021 Shambhala Publications). For many years Wendy has taught women’s spirituality focusing on Buddhist traditions, while also pursuing original research into women’s stories from ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature.

A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Wendy has studied with teachers of different schools and lineages, foremost her refuge lama His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (who gave her the name Karma Dhonden Lhamo), her kind root lama, the late Sera Je Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama whom she first met in India in 1979. Pilgrimage has played an important role in Wendy’s life: in 2007 she journeyed to the sites of women saints in Tibet, and in 2012 and 2018 to sacred sites of the Buddha in India. Her dream is to bring back the stories of Buddhism’s first women, reawaken their voices, and ensure that they are not just remembered, but valorized as integral to the roots of Buddhism. Wendy lives in Concord, Massachusetts and can be reached at wendy.garling@yahoo.com.


Pandemic Stories: Art in Nature, An Invitation

When I first came across the installation in Menotomy Rocks Park, early morning light streamed through the trees onto the translucent flags. A sign explained that Nilou Moochhala, the 2021 Artist in Residence in Arlington, Massachusetts had created this work, “Reflecting on Our Pandemic Experience.” As she describes, individual flags were designed in response to interviews she conducted with a diverse cross section of this town of 50,000.

Every other flag had a word embedded in its design. I found Freedom, Madness, Tolerance, Humanity, Denial, Inclusive, Collaborative, Wary, Grateful, Unreal, Healing, Cautious, Overwhelming, Devastating, Love, Comforting and Confusing among others. Patterns and colors out to the edges suggested that the stories that inspired the multi-media flag drawings are still going on.

The words, patterns and colors all seemed part of a lively conversation going on within and among the flags, and I was being invited to join in – literally, as I learned. There was an opportunity to add my own responses to the pandemic via an online questionnaire. All responses plus this art work would remain in an archive at the local library.

We are connected like the flags by this pandemic, I thought. None of us can escape being affected in one way or another. Nilou’s art asks us to bear witness to the diversity of experiences. While there are great challenges, grief and suffering, the flags remind us that supportive connection and even growth are also still possible in these dark times. This art asks us not to turn away but toward. It asks us to hold and honor all of it with kindness and care.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Neighborly Haiku

My town’s art association was holding a haiku contest. The haiku should refer to something the writer experienced in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts.

My feelings for this area where I live had deepened during the pandemic. I was more appreciative of kind neighbors and the caring friendliness of those working in local businesses. I spent more time in nearby parks enjoyed by children, families and dogs both on and off-leash.

As I walked along Massachusetts Avenue near its intersection with Park Avenue looking for haiku from the contest, I came across several in the process of being painted. I said to one of the painters, “Maybe this has started something. Maybe there will be more poetry displayed in Arlington Heights.” The woman doing the painting agreed that should happen.

I noticed that some of the signs shop owners had put up in their windows felt a bit like poems. Looking back along the street, I knew it had happened again. I felt a new appreciation for this particular corner of the world.