Tea and Dialogue in an Older Adult’s Home

T&D at Sally's
Photo from video by Jeff Klein

The simple Chinese restaurant teacups and thermal carafe we used are visible as Sally shares her story about all that she noticed during a walk in the woods along a dirt road.

On June 21, 2019, I made decaffeinated green tea in a thermal carafe, checked that the temperature was between 160- and 165-degrees Fahrenheit, and packed it along with teacups and a singing bowl. Jeff Klein gathered his video equipment and we went together to visit my 97-year-old mother. We hoped to capture the adaptability of tea and dialogue practice while also showing how well it works to bring it to older adults who may find it difficult to travel. A few still photos were added to help viewers relate to the memories we shared.

Video of tea and dialogue in an older adult’s home

At first Sally was concerned that she might not know what to say, but when I explained we would be sharing about “Nature as Artist,” that seemed to put her at ease.

I chose the topic knowing that the beauty of nature is a passion for us both. I also planned to adapt tea and dialogue to what seemed most beneficial at the time. Videos of a full version of the basic practice were captured of a session that took place in my tea hut.

Sally’s comment “It’s a party!” acknowledged the positive cultural connotations of sharing tea. Drinking tea as a focus for mindful awareness seems to work for most people. This was noted by artist Lidia Kenig-Scher in a video made of a creative variation of tea and dialogue. Jeff used a slow-motion camera to capture Sally drinking tea. That footage highlights the embodied awareness that presumably flows into and supports the dialogue that follows.

Although I did not anticipate it, the dialogue focused on sharing cherished memories. I spoke about taking photos of leaves and Sally described what she experienced during a walk along a dirt road. Her detailed narrative of all that she noticed was a testimony to her natural mindfulness. There is research evidence that older adults may be better at telling stories than younger people.

What a contrast our interaction was to the invisibility that older women can complain of due to ageism. There was a lingering sense of closeness from the experience, and satisfaction from the understanding that both of us felt understood – that our appreciation for nature mattered. Jeff told me the video required little editing. He described it as “low hanging fruit.”

I am most grateful to Sally and Jeff for helping with this video.

Sally Fink started camping in the New Hampshire woods as a child. She and I have shared countless walks in the woods in many settings. After the session, Sally told me she regrets she can no longer take such walks. I said we can go there by talking about it and she agreed.

Jeffrey Klein is a bilingual videographer with a 25-year career in multi-media production in Japan and the United States including podcasts and videos intended for retail, business, entertainment and educational contexts. Samples of his work are available at his website.

Basic Tea and Dialogue with Spoken Dialogue

Basic T&D
Photo from video by Jeff Klein

Jan Surrey opened the session by striking a bell. Its round shape, like the pale water basin in the garden to the right and our round teacups might suggest wholeness or perhaps the Zen enso.

On June 2nd, 2019, five older adults (see their bios at the end of this post) joined me in my tea hut for a tea and dialogue session. Expert Insight Dialogue teacher, Jan Surrey, provided an introduction to the Insight Dialogue guidelines that are used for tea and dialogue practice. The introduction was kept separate so that the video of that overview can be used in a variety of contexts. Together the videos at the hyperlinks below show how the practice supports meaningful connection that is capable of combating harm from social isolation. The significant negative health impacts of social isolation can be particularly dangerous for older adults.

Video 1 Introduction to the Insight Dialogue Guidelines
Video 2 Sharing tea and dialogue

A painting created on our contemplation topic, “the unending sea of blessings” was displayed:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jim Flavin, the musician who had improvised on a variety of instruments as the painting evolved during creative tea and dialogue and Lidia Kenig-Scher, the artist who made the painting both agreed to attend. Anita Malone Clarke who contributed blueberries and a wonderful story to go with them sat between Jim and Lidia while videographer, Jeff Klein, captured what took place.

Iris had just started blooming in my garden that morning. Jan Surrey said, “like iris unfolding” in explaining the guideline “Open”. This artful simile hinted at what we can miss when we fail to open and attend to the beauty of such transient moments. Jan’s facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice reinforced her words, providing a sense for the deeper perception she was modeling as she invited us to make use of the powerful guidelines developed by Gregory Kramer – Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth.

The second video shows respectful tea sharing, reminders of our interdependence with nature and each other, and meditative dialogue. Generosity is seen in all the contributions and the attentive listening. Dignity is seen in taking turns, bowing, respectful facial expressions, and pausing to take in what each person says. Both generosity and dignity support trust. Without trust, meaningful connection doesn’t happen. We need to feel safe enough to truly show up so we can be seen and appreciated just as we are. This video shows the nonverbal music of trusting openness met with respect and acceptance as well as explicit statements of appreciation.

Video is able to provide a felt sense for tea and dialogue where a great deal is conveyed via such nonverbal social clues as nodding, supportive glances, smiles, and tones of voice. The caring connection of tea and dialogue seems perfect to support older adults who are at risk from social isolation which has been found to be as bad for health as smoking or obesity. The highly adaptable practice can be offered in older adults’ homes. Tea and dialogue supports meaningful connection even when offered remotely via video conference, making it of particular interest at times when distances are an issue or physical isolation is necessary.

I am deeply grateful to all those who agreed to participate in production of these videos:

Anita Malone Clarke came to the United States from Honduras Central America. Many years as a nurse practitioner taught Anita how important healthy choices and supportive relationships are for wellbeing. She deeply appreciates and believes in eating the wonderful whole foods that nature provides in abundance.

Jim Flavin is a musician and certified practitioner and teacher of Jikiden Reiki. He collects percussion instruments from all over the world and shares them with others in the drum circles he leads. His work as a contractor provides many opportunities for the practical application of mindfulness. He believes in spreading unconditional love through expressing respect, kindness and honesty in all relationships.

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.

Jeffrey Klein is a bilingual videographer with a 25-year career in multi-media production in Japan and the United States including podcasts and videos intended for retail, business, entertainment and educational contexts. Samples of his work are available at his website.

Dr. Janet Surrey 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.

With a cameo appearance from my long-time Japanese tea ceremony practice partner, Kikuko Mills.

Creative Tea and Dialogue with Art, Music, and Spoken Reactions

Creative T&D
Photo from video by Jeff Klein

Lidia Kenig-Scher painted while Jim Flavin played various instruments. Here, Jim improvises on the didgeridoo while singing bowls respond sympathetically.

In April and May of 2019, four of us worked on a project to capture footage of a creative variation of tea and dialogue while a painting emerged in response to our topic, “the unending sea of blessings” (a Japanese scroll saying). Besides contemplation of this topic, we were supported by Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence (previously Trust Emergence), Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. The video at the link below provides an idea of what occurred over three sessions that included spoken reactions and discussion:

Creative tea and dialogue video

After we shared tea in her living room, Lidia Kenig-Scher worked on the painting in her studio as Jim Flavin played a variety of instruments in the next room and videographer, Jeff Klein, captured the action. The materials, tools, and physical effort gave a grounded, down to earth quality to this multimedia dialogue. The video shows how the rhythms and the feeling of the music influenced Lidia’s brush strokes. Jim mentioned feeling connected to the painting process even though he could not see the painting as it evolved.

The tea we drank at the start of the second session had four ingredients. Since there were also four of us, that seemed a great metaphor for our communal awareness that retained what we each contributed to the blend.

We experienced a particularly vivid example of the stages described by Mitchell Kossak in Attunement in Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward an Understanding of Embodied Empathy where periods of seeking safety and risk taking ultimately result in an experience of the universal. Some time ago, Lidia had put up a quote about the wisdom of trusting emergence rather than forcing things on her studio wall. Jeff trained his camera on that quote and his comment about how well that quote expressed what happened the previous day is included in the video soundtrack.

After the doubt and empathic support, followed by effortless expansive flow, the completion of the painting recognized by a hug, felt particularly powerful. That hug also perfectly symbolizes the closeness the practice supports. I could not help but be grateful that we had captured all of it on video.

The plan was to display the painting in my tea hut (see below) for a later tea and spoken dialogue session.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am glad we discussed our common belief that creativity is not just for professional artists. Nor is it just for the young. Contrary to what younger people might believe, older adults can actually experience reduced anxiety and increased life satisfaction; they may no longer care as much about what others think about them, bringing a new and most welcome sense of freedom that supports creativity. In fact older adults bring a number of gifts to tea and dialogue practice. Creative tea and dialogue is certainly not just for professionals as is clear from this joyous example of collaborative storytelling with musical emphasis.

I am most grateful for the generosity of these talented artists:

Jim Flavin is a musician and certified practitioner and teacher of Jikiden Reiki. He collects percussion instruments from all over the world and shares them with others in the drum circles he leads. His work as a contractor provides many opportunities for the practical application of mindfulness. He believes in spreading unconditional love through expressing respect, kindness and honesty in all relationships.

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.

Jeffrey Klein is a bilingual videographer with a 25-year career in multi-media production in Japan and the United States including podcasts and videos intended for retail, business, entertainment and educational contexts. Samples of his work are available at his website.

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

A video of how this painting on the theme of  “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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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? 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 can accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we are 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. Take, for example, the beautiful tactile tea bowl below that was made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya.  While it is misshapen and has imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire, irregularities and burnishing from age add depth to its beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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 it yourself.

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 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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Creating Welcome

Bringing in peace as you prepare for a gathering will affect you in ways that cannot help but benefit your guests – Pause, Relax, and Open, Attune to Emergence and Listen Deeply. Then Speak the Truth in creating an environment that conveys warmth and welcome. The Insight Dialogue guidelines work well in so many applications including this one.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. Using a light touch, see what happens. Relying on a heart connection without words can open us to wonderful small surprises and an understanding that with a little care, life can be lived more like a work of art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can bring to it all the sensitivity and freshness used to create a tokonoma alcove arrangement for a tea ceremony. This one includes a collage by my tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You may also wish to keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. While it is important to ensure that what touches food or drink is scrupulously clean and that edibles are pure and safe, purity also dictates that anything not needed be eliminated. Care taken with objects and supplies implies respect for your guests.

Ideally, the result will be supportive of a sense of peace and wellbeing as well as openness. It takes a bit of effort, but this approach to preparing for guests is an important mindfulness practice in its own right.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA