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

Resonant Stone Arrangements

As children, my brother and sister and I loved to catch fire flies and release them down by a falling-apart stone structure behind our camp site in New Hampshire. Dolly Copp, an early settler to this location in the White Mountains had constructed a well-like structure to capture the water of a stream and then pipe it to her homestead downhill. Over the years as we returned to the camp site, we watched as the structure became less recognizable as it tumbled apart.

I tried to capture that structure at one stage of its existence in my own garden. I stopped moving the stones about when they seemed to “disappear” – When they had blended into the universe comfortably with no need to speak individually for themselves.

rock arngmt - version 2

Before I travelled to Japan to see its remarkable gardens, I had read about the famous Japanese garden Ryoanji with its stone groups set in raked sand that you can see in this video. I doubted that this garden would live up to all the hype, perhaps to save myself from disappointment.

We avoided the crowds by arriving at opening time, but there was no way to avoid a blaring broadcast in English. I tuned this out as best I could, until it ended with, “each person must find his or her own meaning.”

Although it was overcast, I noticed shadows on the sand cast by the surrounding wall and trees. One of my first impressions was the importance of the wall. I then became impressed by the large amount of open space; clearly, the point of this garden was not just the individual stones, although each was beautiful:

ryoan-ji

Gradually, I became aware of a low singing current passing from group to group and stone to stone. This grew in strength, zinging about. The key to this phenomenon seemed to be the specific arrangement. The intensity grew to unbelievable levels, and the stones ‘disappeared.’ It seemed like the configuration before me was a model of a vast, singing version out in space. It was full of immense power and it was beyond beautiful.

Although precious to me, my garden stone arrangement does not evoke the vast energy I experienced at Ryoanji. I sometimes think about Ryoanji’s designer and what price was paid to be able to get that particular arrangement just right.

Listening to a Special Place

Turning special places into radiant refuges requires more than understanding what creates welcome and peace, although the owners of the Bufflehead Cove Inn have supplied both in abundance. It requires sensitivity to the spirit of a place. In converting their family home on the tidal Kennebunk River into an inn, the owners made full use of generations of experience and memories. It is alive with what it means to be home, here in THIS place in a way that is at once now and timeless.

Like my tea garden and tea hut, the inside and the outside here are not a division but a collaboration. You can see the ducks gathering at dawn from the porch. There is the smell of wood burning in the fireplace in the evening. There is the slight creak of the old steps as you climb up to your room to see reflections from the river dancing on the ceiling. Even the easy walk along the rustic road into town that goes by ponds in the woods seems just right.

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porch chairs

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8 lily on the porch copy

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 such as wabi sabi (follow the link for one of the best articles I found on this subtle aesthetic), mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (open 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 where the one who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the one who mended it all contributed. 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. But at times, a mended bowl’s beauty can surpass that of its original appearance.

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The gallery that owned this beautiful bowl by Brother Thomas considered having it mended so the repair would be invisible, but 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 with the results. 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 great treasures. I greatly appreciate Harris’s discussion of how kintsugi is brimming with metaphoric lessons. Here is another video on the power of this metaphor.

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.

Addendum: This post was updated on 3/11/19 to include a most powerful video about the metaphoric power of kintsugi for a survivor.