Water Tower Magic

On September 7, 2014, a unique event took place to celebrate a local landmark (below) turning 90 years old. The notice I saw spoke of images of local places by both youth and adults. Each art work would be briefly projected on the substantial Arlington Reservoir structure before another took its place. Curious, I took my camera and portable canvas-seated sling bench to the classical revival water tower.

The images can only hint at what it was like to walk up the road to the top of the hill as the glowing tower came into view and then to join the crowd that had gathered there as darkness descended and the Luminarium Dance Company interpreted the images to music issuing from two large loudspeakers.

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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 arrangement that conveys warmth and welcome. These Insight Dialogue guidelines work in so many applications including when creating a setting for guests.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. It is a chance to be creative and playful, using a light touch to see what happens, a heart connection without words, a small surprise, a way of acknowledging that 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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More Than Just Stones

I had the shadow box for some time before I discovered what I wanted to do with it. It was a multi-step process: 1) Pick a stone, 2) Find or take a photo with something to say about it, 3) Arrange them together in the box, and 4) Take a photo of that. I did not know what would happen. The ones I struggled with the most could come together in perfect balance in the end. I kept thinking of new possibilities until it was time to stop. But this could be endless. Stones just have resonance.

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Morrisonite jasper slab with closeup taken from the top right.

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Lobster claw Scholar’s Rock with a lobster roll.

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Bubble lace agate with closeup.

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Hut Stone Scholar’s Rock with Japanese garden photo.

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Jasper pebble & the Whidbey Island beach where I found it.

The Unending Sea of Blessings

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“The unending sea of blessings,” a phrase used on scrolls hung in Zen temples and during tea ceremonies 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, 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 during my internship is confirming my sense that elders 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.

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.”

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