Signs of Our Times

Signs are sprouting up everywhere in my neighborhood near Boston. The presidential election is coming up soon and that would certainly inspire signs. However many serious issues concern us these days. I have never seen so many signs on my morning walks.

This noble and often charming clamoring includes statements of appreciation. It reminds me to never take for granted our precious right to speak what is on our minds.

Shinto Sacred Sites: Musings on Natural Beauty and Power

When walking about in nature, I respond to the visual beauty of shapes and colors, the effects of light, and the motion of trees and water. The fresh scent after a rain or the call of a bird may add a grace note. The slower natural rhythms and quiet provide a soothing contrast to visually jarring aspects of the constructed world, tight schedules, and everyday stress. But on the other hand, when exploring in nature, one can suddenly come across a jutting cliff, or a rushing waterfall which has a sense of pure natural power which is anything but tranquil. 

When I visited Japan to view a number of famous gardens, I was expecting to experience integrated compositions of beauty, tranquility and harmony. I found these in abundance. I learned for example, that massed contours of clipped azaleas can make one feel levitated – like floating on clouds – and that some gardens unfold horizontally, as one might view a scroll in a sequence of linked images.

With these gardens, a vision is being shared and yet each person experiences the garden from their own individual perspective. In a way, a living dialogue happens. I observe and respond to the garden moment by moment, and the garden moves and changes as I move my eyes and feet. This provides delight, energy, grounding, peace, comfort and wonder. 

Upon reflecting back upon the many experiences of the trip, perhaps the least expected was the depth of my response to specific areas of Shinto shrines. These sites were not gardens but ancient sacred sites. Stone steps set in the earth led up a short way into the woods to a small square space marked off with a simple straw rope. Within this space was a low boulder.

Nearby was an enormous tree that curved up from a rectangular bed of gravel. The tree was circled by a rope from which hung white paper constructions. At yet another site, I saw a sacred spring that was noted with a sign.

For me, as a foreign tourist with no background in Shintoism, these ancient sites, with their trees and boulders, had a basic and primal quality which was very compelling. I responded to their simplicity, clarity of form, and relationship to the natural setting where dappled light through the leaves enhanced their ancient feeling. They had dignity and great power.


It is interesting to speculate whether these ancient sites have had an influence on the design of gardens created primarily for aesthetic purposes. In Japanese gardens, tress and other natural objects are used with great respect for their essential qualities, and boundaries are normally strong and clear.

When I returned to the United States, I went looking for places that had some of the natural power of these ancient sacred sites. I found that energy when viewing large boulders that had been jumbled together and left by the glaciers. 

I began to wonder if some of that power could be brought into a designed garden and whether it would prove to be peaceful or unsettling. The additional question arises of whether being unsettled in such a way would be a good or bad thing. The answers may vary from person to person, but it is always good to remember that we have a fundamental relationship with the pure power of nature. 

This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Whimsy Has Its Place

Many of us are attracted to the playful, quaint and fanciful.  Children take to it naturally, of course, but you can also find it in New Yorker cartoons and a satirical print of a calligraphy class – see detail below. I think that is a good thing. A taste for whimsy is one of the more appealing human traits.

The gentle art of whimsy can provide a point of light that is especially appreciated in dark times.  During the postlude to a virtual church service in these times of COVID 19 social distancing, two children vigorously “played” a large organ displayed behind them in their little Zoom rectangle.

When is the last time you engaged in banter or added a small whimsical touch where it could bring you and others a moment of joy?

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Cat calligraphy class print copy

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 minidocumentaries 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 we felt from that session is now 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 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.

What it Means to Have Faith in The Unending Sea of Blessings

A video of how the painting below, “The Unending Sea of Blessings,” by Lidia Kenig-Scher* was created is available here.

The Sea of Unending Blessings SMALLPhoto of Lidia’s painting by Jean Abate, Framing & Fine Art Reproduction Specialist, Northeast Digital Imaging, Salem, NH

“The Unending Sea of Blessings”

According to William Scott Wilson in The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, page 135:

“This phrase from the Kannon-kyo is the summation of the life, free of obstructions, that we can have if we put faith in the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

If, in a lawsuit, you stand before a magistrate,
Or are in dread and fear on the battlefield,
Think upon the power of Avalokitesvara,
And all the myriads of enemies and their hostilities will retreat and disperse.
The wonderful sound, the Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,
Brahma’s sound, the sound of the tidal sea
Surpasses the sounds of the world
And for this reason, should be constantly kept in mind,
Thought by thought, never giving rise to doubts.
Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, pure wisdom:
When in pain, suffering, or close to death,
He is able to provide a foothold and support,
Provided with all merit and virtue;
His compassionate eyes never leave sentient beings:
An unending sea of blessings.
For this reason, you should bow with deepest respect.

It is also a recognition that despite all our grousing and discontent, we are already fully blessed. To truly understand this, however, we must get past our egocentric selves. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, enjoins us to act not in response to our own pain and suffering, but to that of all other sentient beings. This Bodhisattva is often depicted with a thousand eyes with which to see suffering the world over, and a thousand arms with which to act for its cessation.

In some understandings of Buddhism, all Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and attendant gods are reflections of our own potentialities. In this way, Avalokitesvara is the Unending Sea of Blessings, and we ourselves are Avalokitesvara, and are ourselves the source of unending blessings.”

*Lidia Kenig-Scher is an award-winning mixed media artist and transformational catalyst. Her intuitively conceived works are installed in the interiors of successful homeowners and entrepreneurs, many of whom claim that the art emits a vibration capable of positively affecting their lives and the spaces where the art is installed. This highly decorated interior designer and Feng Shui master also teaches people to “paint from the heart,” a meditation-based technique grounded in more than 40 years of Buddhist practices and intense spiritual work. Lidia notes that her artworks invite personal growth because she too starts by opening her heart and trusting her brush to paint the truth.

Hidden Gifts of Aging

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Buddhist teachings tell a story that the Buddha encountered “divine messengers” that changed his destiny. At 29, he left protected life in the palace and encountered old age, illness and death for the first time. Like young Prince Siddhattha, we may be out of touch with these realities, preferring to imagine we will live forever. But these messengers can shock us into seeing a path beyond the superficial and beyond our heedless reactivity to the 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys of life.

We face many of the same challenges that humans have always faced although history and culture have shaped how we think about aging in modern times.

In these times of existential threats, we can define anyone different from us as dangerous. Those who remind us of our own death can certainly pose a threat. Even older adults can define themselves as “not old,” and take extreme measures to act and appear young. And many older adults complain of feeling invisible – not seeing them is another way to deny old age, illness and death.

I recently heard a moving story about a dying woman who said that she gets to choose love over fear in every moment. That “choosing” resounds beyond conventional time making an eternity of each moment. We are all aging if not actively dying and if this dying woman found she had a choice, perhaps we do too.

I invite you to consider that there are hidden gifts that can come with the terrible blessing of aging. Elders experience so much suffering, so much reason to anticipate suffering and they see it in their older friends, yet they can report experiencing greater happiness than when they were younger. What is going on here?

I began to sense that aging can bring real gifts during six-week tea and dialogue workshops I offered older adults during my internship in Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies program. These elders were so open and direct, so supportive, so eager to really listen, and quite creative. They were also so appreciative of each other and what they had to offer each other that it turned out to be one of the sweetest experiences of my life.

Farmer and Farmer note that conversational skills may actually improve with age – older adults tell narratives that others judge to be more interesting than those told by younger people. Pipher found that older adults tend to value honesty. In his TED talk on “The Neuroscience of Social Intelligence” Bill von Hippel mentions that older adults may not censor themselves about what might be considered socially inappropriate topics. While this might be considered a liability in some situations, speaking the vulnerable truth provides access to our fundamental interconnection. According to the Committee on Future Directions for Cognitive Research on Aging, elders appear to be particularly sensitive to emotional aspects of situations, including interpersonal ramifications of problems (Stern & Cartensen, 2000, p. 31).

In Older and Wiser: Classical Buddhist Teachings on Aging, Sickness and Death, Soeng, Ambrosia, & Olendzki provide commentary on several Buddhist teachings related to equanimity noting that older adults may live more in the moment and may have learned the futility of wasting time and energy in overreacting. Aronson cites evidence that contrary to what younger adults might believe and fear, elders can actually experience reduced anxiety and increased life satisfaction. She notes older adults may no longer care what others think about them, bringing a new and most welcome sense of freedom.

With age can come enhanced wisdom and compassion – less judgment, less denial of reality, more appreciation for every precious moment and more choosing love over fear. Sharing tea with a sensitive, caring and wise elder (who may very well be an excellent story teller) even online if maintaining physical distance is necessary seems like a very good idea in these challenging times.

Gathering for Tea

Tea plant

The Camellia sinensis plant is used to make tea all around the world. Perhaps that is not surprising given tea’s many significant health benefits. Research has also found that drinking tea can elevate mood, support focus and enhance creativity.

We do not simply drink tea, we create art and rituals around it. And they can be quite stunning. Watch this short slow motion video of portions of a Japanese tea ceremony by videographer Jeffrey Klein.

An elevated mood and greater ability to sustain focus would likely amplify the benefits that connecting provides for our social species. With both tea and social connection supporting wellbeing along with the enhanced creativity that tea makes possible, it is no wonder that sharing tea became a focus for special equipment and gatherings all around the world…

United Kingdom,
Japan,
China,
Taiwan,
Korea,
Russia,
Senegal,
Vietnam,
Colonial America

And drinking tea quite informally is always an option. But while some of tea’s benefits can be had by drinking it alone at your computer, why not enhance those benefits even further by offering to get tea for others or by inviting others to take a break to share tea with you? It is always tea time somewhere.

Beauty & Imperfection

With its seeming love for the one-of-a-kind and constant change, the natural world can be quite worthy of our detailed inspection. Even an oddly unique, or broken and incomplete natural object can be so beautiful it can take our breath away. There is a story about Sen no Rikyu, a famous Japanese tea ceremony master – he shook a few leaves onto the moss after a tea garden was cleaned a bit too perfectly. Leaving a few fallen leaves on the moss points to the wonder and mystery of reality as it really is.

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We care about others’ approval because we need others in order to survive, and that can have us wanting to be perfect. But perfection in the abstract is a rather odd concept when you think about it. Toward what end? And according to what standards does it operate, anyway? What matters to one person may not matter at all to another and different cultures value different things.

I have found that people actually love it when we accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we can be open about feeling vulnerable at times. Those who can accept their own imperfections tend to have an easier time accepting them in others which can be a great relief given how much we tend to fear being negatively judged.

Japanese tea ceremony teaches many lessons through the actions involved in sharing tea while engaging with various objects. For example, a beautiful tactile tea bowl like the one made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, may be misshapen or have imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire. Irregularities and burnishing from age and use can add great depth to beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.

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The subtle and hard to define Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” embraces imperfection. It recognizes that since everything is constantly changing, perfection is impossible, except in perfect moments as Beth Kempton notes along with wonderful examples in her Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

I find that looking for a beauty that embraces imperfection can provide great solace. At times we can even catch others and ourselves in the act of being beautiful. And seeing the light shining through that deeper beauty can connect us to all that is.

Below are examples of imperfect beauty that called out to me. I recommend the wonderful adventure of finding your own examples.

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Insight Dialogue

09 Sept ME

Most of us have experienced relaxed conversations that just seem to flow, perhaps in a setting where nature is on view like the one in the photo or around the kitchen table. Peace descends and we feel whole and seen.

Often, however, we lose track of that potential. Avoiding getting stuck cycling on issues that concern us can be difficult enough when we are on our own. Maintaining calm awareness while interacting with others can be particularly challenging.

Insight Dialogue provides support to bring tranquil awareness to the interpersonal domain. First one person speaks on a designated topic while the other listens silently without commenting and then the roles are reversed. There may be an additional timed period with no separate speaker and no separate listener. Pausing allows time to discern what would be beneficial to say as well as time to take in and gain new understanding from what is said.

The Insight Dialogue’s guidelines create the safety needed for evolving trust and authentic sharing from the heart: Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. It becomes clear we are all vulnerable and that we also have great power to support each other just by how we listen.

This video of Phyllis Hicks facilitating an Insight Dialogue practice shows this supportive energy. You can see the openness, authenticity and caring connection in the responsive body language of the participants. More of Jeff Klein’s sensitive videography can be seen at his website.

Gregory Kramer developed Insight Dialogue. his website, InsightDialogue.org, includes information on each of the Insight Dialogue guidelines as well as opportunities to experience online drop-in sessions, and face-to-face practice.

The Insight Dialogue guidelines honor dignity; attentive listening meets disclosure for all participants. That makes it easier to truly show up and pay attention to what is said including by oneself. Participants are better able to perceive the preciousness of our sensitivity to each other and learn how to bring greater compassion to all interaction.

Because of the vulnerable investigation of experience, difficult emotions may arise at times. David Treleaven provides guidance for recognizing and addressing adverse reactions that can arise with any form of mindfulness practice.

In my experience, most of those who try Insight Dialogue appreciate the careful attending that goes well beyond the normal rushed and distracted quality of much everyday interaction. With practice, I found I could bring that same supportive energy to any conversation, and that brought a whole new ease to my life.

Living Intertwined

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I purchased this lovely two-inch pendant without knowing anything about it. A little online research informed me that it is a Taka. Taka are treasured heirlooms of the Ngadha from the beautiful Island of Flores in Indonesia.

Being Singular Plural explains: “to be Ngadha is to have a keen sense of being implicated in the existence of others. Being with others is a human concern, as people cannot exist in the singular. For Ngadha people, this is particularly explicit, so that individual independence is not a coveted state of being; rather being singular plural is the principal mode of existence.”

The author goes on to explain, “Ngadha practices of interdependence are reflected in the community economy, which privileges ancestor worship, community cohesion and group distribution of resources above the needs and desires of the individual…Interdependence is a dominant feature of everyday Ngadha life and organization. Ngadha people’s view of their own society involves a sense of self that questions the conceptual separation of self from others. Frequently, people alerted me to the ways in which everyone and everything is connected.”

When what we need (and often only what we mistakenly think we need) is bought and sold using money and we do not directly perceive how things are made or obtained, it is easier to forget how much we depend on each other. But scientists keep finding evidence for our fundamental interconnection with each other – that this ‘we’ sense of identify has validity.

In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Lieberman notes, “Just as social and physical pain share common neurocognitive processes, so…do physical and social rewards share common neurocognitive processes.” There is evidence that our brains synchronize during social activities, and recently it was found this is also true for bats. As Zhang explains, “The ‘magic’ here is social interaction. When we interact, our brains engage each other indirectly through our behaviors.”

in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe the many negative effects that result from feeling socially isolated (which has been found to be as bad for us as smoking). They describe how “the sensory experience of social connection, deeply woven into who we are, helps regulate our physiological and emotional equilibrium. The social environment affects the neural and hormonal signals that govern our behavior, and our behavior, in turn, affects the neural and hormonal processes.”

That Taka is a reminder that there are those living on this planet who understand and honor our inextricable interdependence. Perhaps the growing scientific evidence will help us remember how important to us our social superpowers really are.