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.

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 of memories of 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 of our contemplation topic, “the unending sea of blessings” was displayed:

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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 below it 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 “the unending sea of blessings,” (a Japanese scroll saying). Besides our contemplation topic we were also 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 including 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 effort involved lent 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 a connection even though he could not see the painting.

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. Lidia had put up a quote about the wisdom of trusting emergence rather than forcing things on her studio wall some time ago. 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, empathic support, and effortless expansive creative flow, the completion of the painting recognized by a hug, felt particularly powerful. That hug also symbolized the closeness the practice supported. I could not help but be grateful that we were capturing all that on video.

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

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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 this joyous example shows.

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.

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.

Blueberry Memories

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When I asked what she might like to contribute for a gathering to share tea and dialogue in my tea hut, Anita suggested blueberries. Blueberries are tough plants. They like the acidic gravelly soil with lots of sun exposure that is found on tops of mountains in New England and other places where they grow wild. They thrive when they are burned or eaten back by animals as this stimulates new growth underground.

Knowing they are good for you does not take anything away from their wonderful color and sweet-acid taste after a hike up a mountain.

Anita told me she has different memories of blueberries. In New England where she now lives, she buys them at farm stands. But in Central America, where she is from, they did not know about the fruit.

She has special memories of her American grandfather who loved pies made from blueberries. He had the fruit sent all the way from North America to Honduras by boat. Here she tells that story for a video made by Jeff Klein.

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