An Experiment with Magical Musical Fishpond Storytelling

It was 9:30 AM on Friday, February 16th, 2019 as I arranged items on the conference room table at the Arlington MA Senior Center. I thought with excitement that I was finally getting a chance to try “magical musical fishpond story telling.” Although children are naturals at making up stories together, many adults enjoy that as well with elders being the keepers of wisdom stories in many cultures such as this example.

In the center of the table was a tiny incense-holder box (kogo in Japanese). This rather grumpy looking badger box represented the central character of the story we were to create. Although our Mr. Badger was gruff on the outside, all of us who would play his animal friends knew that he was actually quite caring.

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As we did for all our sessions, we used the Insight Dialogue guidelinespause into awareness, relax and accept what cannot be relaxed with compassion, open to mutual awareness and really seeing each other, attune to emergence to present thoughts and feelings as they arise and fade, listen deeply releasing thoughts about what to say next, and speak the truth about what is arising in the moment. I have found that pausing to access a place of deep stillness is very useful when accessing creative fictional truth.

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After drinking the tea while acknowledging all that went into it, we pushed the tea things to the center of the table so we could pass the tongue drum for our story telling. Each of us would offer our contribution and then tap the drum for emphasis before passing the drum on to the next person.

While Mr. Badger was away, a flood had swept everything from his cozy abode. Each of us as his animal friends was to bring an object to create a nice place for Mr. Badger to return to as an act of compassion.

First, we introduced our animals and what they each brought:

-Kathy the Kangaroo brought two Persian carpets.
-Daun the Deer brought two comfortable pillows.
-Alan the Dachshund brought a flag sign on a pole.
-Maggie the Robin sang and constructed a nest.
-Aurora the Golden Snake brought a quilt.
-Barbara the Bunny brought carrots, brown rice and a rice cooker.
-Meg the Monkey brought a platform bed.
-Maya the Panda brought leaves and bamboo.
-Tracy the Love Bird brought smudge sticks.

Then we went around the table again explaining how Mr. Badger had used our gifts in unexpected ways:

-The carpets were used to sop up mud at Mr. Badger’s entrance.
-The pillows were emptied of feathers so Mr. Badger could play with them.
-The flag pole was stuck in the ground to be used as a coatrack.
-The nest had a blue egg which Mr. Badger gently sat on until it hatched.
-The lovely quilt went on the table but it might become a sail for his boat.
-The rice cooker was used to heat water to clean up his place.
-The platform bed was used for sleeping (not where badgers normally sleep).
-The bamboo and leaves were used to make a covering over his entrance.
-The smudge sticks were used to purify his new home and bring in positive energy.

As we continued the story, Mr. Badger opened his home to other animals affected by the storm. A workshop participant mentioned that Dachshund means badger hound in German; the Dachshund’s act of compassion toward Mr. Badger was particularly notable as they were normally enemies. Since Snakes love eggs, it was a good thing that the Robin egg hatched without the Snake noticing it. With time, Mr. Badger made his home larger and started taking in animals as guests and he used his lovely carpets to make a safe cozy bed for the Dachshund’s new puppies.

This experiment gave me a greater appreciation of the vision of the National Storytelling Network to bring about conditions where “all people value the power of storytelling and its ability to connect, inspire and instill respect within our hearts and communities.”

Floating Flower Petals

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Floating flower petals took on special meaning during our video conference to share tea and dialogue on May 23rd, 2018.

At my suggestion, the other two contributed tea flowers:

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And I hung a tea scroll within camera range:

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Given we were actually in separate locations, each of us would need to act as both host and guest in preparing tea for ourselves. That is quite possible. It can be important, especially in cultures where taking time to offer oneself both respectful nurturing and gratitude is not given priority. In the context of our virtual meeting, listening for the sound as we poured hot water would connect us in generosity as much as if we were pouring for each other.

Remembering that humans tend to take things in best in sound bites, I paused frequently as I read aloud from William Scott Wilson’s wonderful book on tea scroll sayings, The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea:

Ichigo ichi’e ‘Each meeting a once-in-a-lifetime event’…is included among the fundamental concepts…because it is the guiding life not only of Tea but of Zen Buddhism and the martial arts as well. Ichigo refers to a person’s life, from birth to death – something never to be repeated – while ichi’e is a coming together or an assembly of people. The world is transient, and it is natural that whomever you meet, you will part from. Every meeting is special and unique, and will never happen again in the same way. Thus, you should put your entire body and spirit into the encounter, whether it be in the tea room, a chance meeting in the street, in martial conflict, or in your own solitary thought. The message extends to everyday behavior: one should pay attention to things and events as though none will ever be repeated. Let happiness as well as sorrow be complete, and experienced with attention and nonattachment” (p. 19-20).

I suggested we focus on the “Pause” guideline from Gregory Kramer’s powerful Insight Dialogue guidelines as the pause brings one home to present moment awareness.

Once they had their tea in hand, I made my tea using traditional Japanese tea ceremony utensils holding them up so they could see:

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I opened the container and placed two scoops of tea powder into the bowl. After pouring in hot water, I whisked the bright green matcha tea into suspension.

As we drank, I spoke of the warmth, the look, and the smell of the tea as well as how the taste is different with each sip. I gratefully acknowledged the energy of the sun captured by the tea leaves, the sustaining waters flowing through the tea plant and through us, and the effort of all those who planted, tended, plucked, dried, processed, packaged and transported the tea. Then there were also others who supported them, the ones who supported those others and so on…

After drinking our tea, we spoke making use of all of the Insight Dialogue guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. One of them commented on how rarely we slow down to really pay attention but when we do, we can notice so many sensory details. Another comment was about all the moments involved in the causes and conditions that led up to our being able to share tea. I mentioned how slowly time seemed to be passing.

As we approached the time limit for a meeting with a free Zoom account, I requested that these two experienced Insight Dialogue facilitators send me their comments via email. But they wanted to provide feedback right away and had the time, so we signed out and signed back in again for another meeting. I expressed my deep appreciation for any comments they cared to share.

One of them said that the “relaxed friendliness” stood out the most for her. To me it had a quality like the direct simplicity and freedom of children playing. They told me I had managed to bring in the meditative, relational and wisdom elements of Insight Dialogue. I was glad to receive confirmation that phrases used for the Zen art of tea ceremony are appropriate.

When I asked what I could improve, one of them told me she had felt the giving as host and the receiving as guest in her body as I spoke about each of us performing both roles as we served ourselves tea. She would have liked a reminder about that before we drank our tea. The other suggested it would be better to invite participants to continue the practice as we moved into dialogue rather than using the words, “commence dialogue.” I can definitely make use of both those improvements for future virtual tea and dialogue sessions.

I was not surprised when one of them spoke about her impression that Japanese tea ceremony is about perfection. I explained that while there are practical reasons for the order of the procedures, the true spirit of Japanese tea ceremony transcends perfection. Its values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility ideally make it possible for all participants to be truly present forgetting “the dust of the world.” I thought of how sharing tea is used as a focus for convivial interaction in many cultures.

The short film,“A Tea Gathering at San Francisco’s Urasenke Society” explains there is freedom in Japanese tea ceremony’s structure, and the focus on process serves a number of important purposes including bringing participants very close to each other.

As I watched that film again, I noticed that rapidly-fading flowers were mentioned as appropriate for display during tea ceremony. I thought of the petals on the flowers in their vases, and those floating downstream in the image on the scroll we used (see photos above).

We truly connected for a time even as the three of us, like petals ourselves, floated downstream. Sharing tea and dialogue via video conference seemed to work – opening a whole world of interesting possibilities for sharing that way…

Tea & Dialogue & Generosity

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Photo by Kathleen Fink

The photo above shows Annie Hoffman (left) and Jan Surrey sharing tea at Art and Soul Yoga on March 25th, 2018. It was one of those events where all the careful planning (see Preparing for Tea & Dialogue) just seemed to work. We kept to the schedule and it flowed better than I had expected given the complexity.

In a dyad session, the participants poured tea for each other and then drank the tea followed by Insight Dialogue where they commented on the truth of that experience. One participant said she enjoyed slowing down to really pay attention to the sensory details. Another appreciated how the flowing waters and energy of the sun captured by the tea plant become part of us – “We are the earth.” After remembering sharing tea in the past, one participant noticed it had hints of the depth and intimacy, the “Come over for 4 O’Clock tea” feeling that she now experienced on a deeper level.

The talk I shared on how both tea ceremony and Insight Dialogue teach us about generosity is reproduced below:

The powdered tea used for tea ceremony was first brought to Japan from China by a Zen monk. Tea was then planted in monasteries where it was used as medicine and to sustain awareness during meditation. The Japanese warrior class and then the merchants adopted tea and began holding gatherings to share tea and show off their tea utensils. Renowned merchant tea master, Sen no Rikyu with his strongly-held Zen values, shunned attachment to valuable utensils. His descendants, as heads of hereditary Japanese tea schools, continue to protect the standards Rikyu developed that became known as Chado or the way of tea.

Every aspect is designed to support tranquil awareness, starting with a walk along a naturalistic woodland-like path to the quiet tea hut or room. Sharing tea involves all of the senses, and the whole body. Rikyu made clear that those who follow the way of tea should put their whole heart into what they are doing, while at the same time keeping the tranquil awareness of all in the tea room in mind.

I was taught the flowing motions should be natural, and without artifice which paradoxically takes a great deal of practice, as well as calm awareness. Simple things are given the attention they deserve, and the only goal is to prepare tea and share it together. Like many, I experience time slowing down. Each moment becomes clear like the images in stop time photography.

Despite the formality of the giving and receiving, the warmth and caring generosity feel real because they are. This is life lived fully in the moment and with generosity born of a grateful heart. Tea ceremony has consistently brought me to centering peace over the years as I shared it with many different people. On occasion, I sensed awareness moving to the others present, then out to the tea garden, to all of nature and all that exists. I found my usual tendency to feel less than had no place from that perspective.

When I first encountered Insight Dialogue, Gregory Kramer’s guidelines of Pause, Relax, Open, Listen Deeply, Trust Emergence and Speak the Truth resonated strongly. I sensed immediately that these guidelines were remarkable in their power; nonjudgmental compassion would meet vulnerable disclosure for every participant. A new ease entered my life when I realized I could bring that same energy to any conversation no matter how stressful. The discussion topic also provided a means to gain wisdom. And we were all doing it together in powerful relationship, directly witnessing our fundamental interconnection. As Gregory Kramer describes on page 73 of Insight Dialogue, The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, “Compassion and joy create a virtuous cycle that promotes our finest relational qualities: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.”

With Gregory Kramer’s guidelines in place, both speaking, and listening are generous and meaningful gifts. I now understand listening deeply to be one of the most meaningful forms of love. And the energy of that love has a tendency to spread to others who in turn become more open and generous.

Both practices foster tranquil awareness in interaction. It is clear that what is happening is real and that it matters – paying caring attention, acknowledging each other, offering thanks and really seeing how one’s actions affect others are all fundamentally important. Chado provides direct experience of what we are capable of in social interaction under ideal circumstances, while Insight Dialogue provides a way to release hindrances that get in the way of tranquil awareness in real life.

Both tea ceremony and Insight Dialogue show us how much we have to give and receive from each other when we open up and pay caring attention. Having experienced the profound benefits of these two relational practices, I wondered whether it would be possible to bring them together. Sharing tea might be a way to Pause, Relax, and Open before dialogue begins. Thich Nhat Hanh who finds much value in sharing tea notes, “We can communicate in such a way as to solidify the peace and compassion in ourselves and bring joy to others.” (p. 6, The Art of Communicating). Perhaps the peace of tea would help with that.

A tea scroll saying illustrates the kind of egalitarian generosity that comes from a deep grasp of our interconnection. In The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, William Scott Wilson explains that scrolls that are used in Zen temples are also hung in tokonoma alcoves during tea ceremony events; “Among the implements of Tea, there is nothing as important as the scroll. For both the guest and the host, it is the scroll that has them grasp the Way of One Mind and absorb themselves in Tea.” What the scroll saying I have in mind says is: “Shaza kissa” (Sit down a moment and have a cup of tea.). Wilson explains, “In this way, you say, ’Have a cup of tea’ to whomever you are with” (p. 63).

This quote refers to a story where regardless of whether a visitor answered yes or no to Chao Chou’s question about whether they had been to the temple before, Chao Chou responded, “Have a cup of tea.” When the head monk of the temple, who had been listening in, asked Chao Chou about the meaning of his behavior, Chao Chou replied, “Head Monk! Have a cup of tea” (Wilson, 2012, p. 62).

This post is an example of using a blog post to share information with participants who met in live interaction. They were sent the link, and based on the visit statistics I would assume that several of them did read this post.

Preparing for Tea & Dialogue

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Insight Dialogue expert, Jan Surrey, kindly suggested that I try out my idea for combining sharing tea with dialogue at a Sunday Sangha that meets monthly for Relational Meditation/ Insight Dialogue practice in Cambridge MA at Art and Soul Yoga. We jointly agreed the theme for the tea sharing would be “Dana, the experience of offering and receiving.”

I will also demonstrate a simplified version of a formal Japanese tea ceremony practice that uses a tray, Ryakubon, and will provide a brief talk sharing my thoughts on how the giving and receiving of tea and Insight Dialogue cultivate generosity and gratitude (See Tea & Dialogue & Generosity).

For this tea and dialogue practice, participants will arrange themselves into dyads and simple small cups on square paper plates will be brought to them. I suggested to the volunteers who will be helping me, “This process should be natural and like a slow stream flowing if possible. We should be aware of each other, and as much as possible convey dignity and warm open generosity.” I decided to use powdered decaffeinated green tea. Traditional Japanese tea bowls and matcha tea are also available online.

The plans are for each dyad partner to swirl the thermal carafe before pouring tea for the other. Bowing will be used to indicate respect. Drinking tea in silence then provides an opportunity to practice the guidelines of Pause, Relax, and Open even before the spoken dialogue begins. The spoken dialogue makes use of all the Insight Dialogue guidelines developed by Gregory Kramer as first one person Trusts Emergence and Speaks the Truth while the other Listens Deeply, and then the roles are reversed.

I fully expect everything will not go as expected. That provides an opportunity to practice generosity and compassion in the moment in keeping with the theme.

This post is an example of using a blog post to share information with participants who meet in live interaction. In this case, I have the major benefit of knowledge of my intended audience which can certainly make for more mindful blogging.

Event Schedule:

Jan – leads overall session and Insight Dialogue
Kathy – leads tea aspects
Annie – leads movement
Peg & Edna – help with tea equipment logistics

9:00-9:20 Introduction (Silent sit / ID Guidelines / say name & bow / introduces Kathy)

9:20-9:30 Formal Tea Demonstration (Kathy serves Jan)

9:30-9:35 Talk on Tea & Dialogue & Generosity (See separate post with that title)

9:35-9:40 Arrange into dyads

9:40-9:42 Tea Sharing Logistics Explained (Swirl thermal carafe, pour for each other, bow)

9:42-9:50 Distribute cups and plates

9:50-9:55 Each person in dyad pours tea for the other (bell times)

9:55-10:00 All drink tea (bell times)
(Supported by contemplation to pay attention to senses
and all that went into the tea / getting it here
then silent drinking maintaining mutual awareness)

10:00-10:05 Clear away tea things (no bowing)

10:05-10:35 Dialogue (“Truth of the experience” bell times)

10:35-10:40 Arrange into position for movement

10:40-11:10 Movement

11:10-11:30 Second dyad dialogue practice (“Refuge” bell times)

11:30-Noon Large circle sharing (pass tea cup to one who will speak) and Closing