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.

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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:

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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.

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The Unending Sea of Blessings

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The below contemplation was used for several tea and dialogue sessions with an explanation that “The unending sea of blessings,” a phrase used on scrolls hung in Zen temples and during tea ceremonies is not a closed concept. It tells us what we can sense when we remove the obstacles we put in our own way. Wilson discusses it in The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea on page 135.

The ability to experience pain is necessary for biological beings. We need to recognize and avoid what is dangerous in order to survive. But humans can easily get stuck cycling in stressful worry and doubt. We can forget that compassion also comes naturally to us.

Compassion is. It matters as much to us as sensing pain. That understanding is common to spiritual traditions the world over. We are born with an instinct for compassion. Even babies too young to speak will pick up something that is dropped and hand it back to you.

Bringing in self-compassion when it is needed makes it easier to see the caring generosity from others and nature all around us. It shows us the unending sea of blessings. Research provides evidence that when we offer support to others, we benefit our own wellbeing, health and resilience.

We can open to the preciousness, the beauty of the transient tides we swim in. We dance the unending sea of blessings as much as it dances us. We have the capacity to do small acts of kindness as simple and important as a smile. We can recognize the light in each other that shines through our uniqueness.

We belong to the source of all waves
Colors never seen before
Floating and becoming and blinking out of existence
Only to well up again with
All the moldy, composted, and fertile mysteries
That make up our days
And the recognition when we see
Our own water light colors in others’ eyes
Facing waterfalls and the ocean, we recognize
The call in our sea salt blood ever coursing
We answer our cries for compassion
From no-thought belonging

Solitary Peace or Loneliness?

Nantucket

It is amazing to me how different the states of solitary peace and loneliness are. The gift of mindfulness is the ability to bring compassionate awareness to them both.

While moments of transcendent peace can show us our belonging with all that is, a study found that mindful wisdom can combat the common human experience of loneliness with all its devastating effects.

We face a global epidemic of loneliness. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, loneliness expert John Cacioppo was reported to say, “When you look across studies, you get levels anywhere from 25 to 48%.” Loneliness is gaining attention in the media as research demonstrates its serious adverse health effects which have been found to be as bad as smoking.

But just as we do not intuitively grasp the health threat from loneliness, we tend to have no idea how much we have to give and receive by tapping into and drawing upon our fundamental interconnection.

Traditional farmers needed close social coordination to raise animals and grow crops. Large families meant more helping hands. Elders taught grandchildren important skills and wisdom while their parents were engaged in the demanding physical labor necessary for survival.

Now the majority of humans live in urban settings. Packages magically arrive at door steps. Many of us spend long hours working at computers. Family members can, and often do live far apart from each other.

The incredible popularity of social media demonstrates how much we long for connection. But a recent study found that negative comments on social media can lead to felt social isolation. But with no negative comments, social media did not increase participants’ sense of being connected with others.

Fortunately, we are not powerless in the face of the rising tide of loneliness. Caring interaction provides our species with vitality, resilience, joy, creativity and hope. Our brains provide neural rewards for generosity. Supporting others provides significant health benefits not only for the person receiving the support but the person giving it.

The Arlington, MA Council on Aging (COA) offers many opportunities for social connection. During my internship there while working on a Masters in Mindfulness Studies at Lesley University, I realized many elders are naturals at mindful connection. With time more precious, perfection and things matter less. What does matter is time spent together. They understand that deep listening and honesty support the kind of heartfelt aware connection that amplifies wellbeing.

As I learned, many of the 200(!) or so Arlington COA volunteers are elders themselves. When asked what they were most grateful for, a number of volunteers told me it was the opportunity to support others. I found that quite moving. That understanding is both rare and badly needed. It should not take a natural disaster or realizing there are few years left for us to understand we have the tools to honor each other’s dignity in ways that are mutually supporting.

My experience offering mindful tea and dialogue workshops to elders confirmed my sense that they might be well positioned to create and promote opportunities for the caring connection that is so badly needed in these increasingly lonely times. During these tea and dialogue sessions, I observed: (1) caring support, (2) appreciation that deep listening powerfully benefits both the speaker and the listener, (3) growing trust and openness, (4) delight in sharing natural objects and stories (5) playful and joyous creativity, and not least (5) satisfaction from being able to support each other in ways that truly matter.

A Cat Kindred Spirit

Jude needed a new home. When Shah Hadjebi told me she was a special cat, I knew I could believe him. As it turned out, that cat and I were kindred spirits. When I was home she was always with me. Unlike most cats, she liked to be carried. Since she loved looking out the large kitchen window, I began to carry her for daily walks in my garden. She could be playful and active at times, loved catnip, and when she wanted to go somewhere she let you know it.

I cuddled her under a blanket “cave” when I knew her days were numbered. I told her, “All we have is the present moment.” Cats understand that. They live their whole lives that way. A year after she died, I asked Shah to paint her portrait. He used the photo of her looking up at a blue jay through the kitchen window, a most fitting way to celebrate the life of a cat we both loved.

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Jude

Kintsugi: Two Tea Bowls Mended with Loving Care

There are very few practicing the traditional craft of kintsugi (literally gold mended) in Japan, although you can purchase materials online and try it yourself.

You can also find examples with related concepts. This article describes three aesthetic concepts related to appreciation of nature including the illusive wabi sabi. Other Japanese concepts related to kintsugi include, mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (openness to transience).

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The example above was a favorite “travel” tea bowl of a Japanese tea ceremony enthusiast. When it broke in transit, honoring it by having it mended using a nontraditional color (normally kintsugi uses gold, silver, or platinum) certainly gave it most vibrant new life. It is treasured by its owner for the whole series of memories it has accrued including this latest set.

When I first encountered kintsugi, my first thought was about the time-transcending collaboration; the one who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the one who mended it all contributing. I could imagine the bowl held gently in the hand as it was fixed linking the spirit of the mender to the spirit of the maker, even if the maker was long dead.

There are many good reasons to mend a bowl. From tending my tea garden and dealing with storm damage along with all the seasonal changes I learned the wisdom of honoring the potential of what is here now even as everything changes. At times, the radiance due to loving care brought to mending a troubled past can lead to a beauty that surpasses the original.

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The owner of this beautiful bowl by Brother Thomas considered having it mended so the repair would be invisible, but the gallery owner thought better of that and decided to have it mended using gold leaf. When the bowl was shown to Brother Thomas, he was most pleased. In fact, he liked it better that way. The bowl remains a very happy part of the gallery owner’s collection.

Although Audrey Harris was not so pleased with her first attempts at mending using kintsugi, the important lessons she learned with the help of her teacher were certainly treasures. Kintsugi is brimming with metaphoric lessons. Here is another video showing a particularly powerful use of this metaphor.

Addendum: This post was updated on 3/11/19 to include the video on the meaning of kintsugi for a survivor.

Noticing Stones

It is the rare child who does not like stones. Some of us never stop picking them up. It is not just the stones but the process – the adventures involved in finding them and the friendships.

These examples lined up above my monitor speak of the natural world with resonances appreciated by the Asian scholar.

Viewing stones on shelf

A close looks provides access to amazing colors, details and dreams:

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On the Same Wavelength

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Now Shah Hadjebi is focusing on his painting, a talent that runs in his family. Some of Shah’s watercolor images have been transferred to clothing and pillows like the one I treasure shown above. Shah and I would meet at an Indian restaurant with only a few tables. We usually had the place to ourselves. We inspired each other to sense and share in multiple dimensions as we discussed ideas for a press kit for his new “Departure” jazz album.

Connecting with clients to help them promote their creative passions is always enlarging as well as a source of great joy. Every once in a while, magic happens:

I first reached out to Shah Hadjebi for feedback on a sentence I planned to use in an article for a concert series I support. Here is what I wrote about his music: “This is the type of music you want to share with a close friend while traveling on the open road on a spectacular, star-spangled night.” To my surprise, Shah asked me if I would like to do PR for his group even though we had never met.

He explained that musicians would come and go as his group evolved. But they were all pros who could join in his vision and perform with minimal rehearsal. Their diverse backgrounds including African American, Persian, Malaysian, and Japanese added depth to the sound.

A benefit of taking Shah up on his offer was hanging out with the group at selected rehearsals where I got to talk to them during breaks. I also attended the concerts at places like the Hard Rock Café, and Johnny D’s.

When I did research for the new album’s press kit, I discovered that Persian blue is actually a family of colors associated with lapis lazuli. These colors are found in the glorious tiles used in middle eastern palaces and mosques. The Persian indigo variation is derived from the plant used for dying cloth for centuries in many cultures ranging from wax resist masterpieces in Japan to ubiquitous “blue jeans.” The lighter medium Persian Blue with its greater admixture of green suggests ocean and lake water.

The group’s logo shows hands holding up the famous NASA photo of our planet taken from space. I wrote, “Shah’s music speaks of sunrises, and departures; both the good life and our profound human struggles. Shah loves natural beauty, and the rich cultural diversity to be found in our one world. Both the logo and his music convey his warmth toward every single one of us who hold this precious small planet in our hands.”

When I had trouble reaching him, I decided to listen to an advance recording Shah had given me. These words just seemed to flow:

“The first cut, ‘Departure,’ is a drifting dream with a sense of ocean tides and deep undercurrents. The main theme first presented by the sax is haunting and draws you in before ocean waters wash ashore. Here one also finds the ebb and flow of sensed connection between two lovers who are not touching but read each other very well.

With ‘It’s all good’ you are looking in the door at a party with interesting guests who do not take themselves too seriously. There are conversations, comings and goings, laughter, ice clinking in glasses. A bit later, a talented couple starts dancing with others clapping in time. The couple continues to dance while a loud conversation starts up in another part of the room and things get looser and wilder. If you do not believe all this is happening, just listen to the music and come up with your own version.

When angels cry’ is thoughtful and mellow with vocals and various instruments telling the main story, followed by elaborations and comments. There is regret that is all the more poignant since the pure feeling is becoming diluted with time.

Dude where’s my boat?’ is a curious title. The composer has spent some time simply messing about in boats. In the fashion of jazz titles, you can go anywhere or everywhere. Did he really misplace his boat? Did it depart without him? Or was this one of those frustrating dreams, in which you find yourself lost? There are some rich Persian motifs in this one and a bit of metal rock sound.

Sunrise‘ (Sunrise music video) is richly evocative of a time of day beloved by this morning person composer who often does his best creative work in the early morning hours before others are up and about. The music presents a sky transforming with remarkable colors in real-time. It ends with well-being: a great cup of coffee in hand and anticipating a day rich in promise ahead.

The last three songs are different. For one thing, they reflect Shah’s experience writing and performing rock. For another, they reflect his multi-cultural sensitivity to the darker side of human nature.

Questions are asked about those who misuse power as well as those who fail to struggle against injustice and adapt. Whether taken at a national, village, or family level, as well as within each of us, these are familiar themes. The last song uses understatement to convey the horror of truly knowing and loving peace, and also living with the awful silences of war.

There is certainly a clear plea here. Of all the many meanings of ‘Departure,’ let’s hope that human compassion gradually wins out over our historical fear and insanity. Then we can see the sunsets, sense the sexual tension, enjoy the parties and even, occasionally, miss the boat.”

I sent Shah the draft telling him it was only a start. However, he told me not to change a thing; that both he and his family liked it just the way it was.

Magical Musical Fishpond Storytelling

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Imagine you are a member of a troupe of players in the Middle Ages who wander from town to town providing entertainment. It is time to develop some fresh material to present to the hard-working town folk, but the players have wandered far that day and are tired.

Suddenly there are soft tones coming from the woods. Following the music leads to a glade where someone is playing a tongue drum like the one above tapping it with her fingers. She says, “Here all are seen, and all visions are honored. You found me because magical musical fishpond story telling called out to you.”

This muse, for that is her calling, explains that her role is to inspire – she can be serious, silly, or even outlandish at times. You and the others are to weave a story. Playing the fish pond expresses the feelings of your imaginary characters. She warns them the fish can swim away if the players do not respect the ancient tradition of weaving stories with the power to heal.

Children naturally take to this kind of creative play. Adults can forget how powerful a radiant refuge it can be. Imagination is a gift that can bring us into contact with dreams, talents and aspirations. It can enlarge and ease us no matter the circumstances. So often we are lost in the pragmatic details of life, forgetting all of us are fully capable of creating joy and magic.

When Once Is Enough

When I first came across a pendant with the jasper, I could find very little written about Morrisonite, so I decided to work on an article myself. Now articles and photos of this rare jasper and the location where it was mined are available online.

I bought a digital camera with super-macro capability and sought out opportunities to take photos of the incredibly diverse patterns and colors. Making friends with miners, lapidary artists and rock shop owners in the course of writing that article led to an invitation to visit the mine site, itself.

Of the seven of us on that adventure, two had mined Morrisonite jasper, three had websites selling it, and one was the grandson of a rock shop owner who had known the discoverer of this rare spectacular jasper. We took two four-wheel drive vehicles so as to have a back-up just in case. It would not do to get stuck in the desert highlands in the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon.

On the way to the steep canyon side, we passed farms, fruit orchards, wild flowers in clumps, sage brush (nice fragrance), cattle, horses, antelope, a coyote, a hawk flying with a snake in its claws, jack rabbits, and grouse. Despite the relative dryness, the area is very fertile because of ample volcanic ash.

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The final dirt track was intentionally left rough to encourage folks to stay out. We drove very slowly jouncing over large rocks and ruts. Beyond the second switch back on the final approach, it was no longer possible to drive, so we got out and made our way down the steep track contending with loose pebbles and sand.

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While the others hiked down the steep canyon wall to the mine site, I stayed in the top area with a friend who had a bad shoulder. The weather was perfect. It was a very dreamy location to spend an afternoon largely in silence, exploring two abandoned miners’ cabins, watching the light shift on the canyon formations and looking to see if there might still be some Morrisonite left in situ that I could photograph (there was).

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I only visited the mine site that one time. However, looking at the jasper (raw unpolished specimen below), and my special relationships with those who share my passion for Morrisonite became treasured refuges.

Cropped science fiction rough

As for the mine site itself, sometimes being just once in a magical place can provide nurturance for an entire lifetime.

On the trail at M Mine 62010 This last photo by Linda Stephenson is a favorite of mine.

Voice Lessons

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Photo by Kathleen Fink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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