Tuesday, July 22, 2008

tea and sympathy

i just had another amazing experience, one i could only have in the bay area.

tea and dharma.

it was held at teance in berkeley, which has earth friendly tones and a minimalist japanese sensibility in the decor. ecodesign throughout, even in the gorgeously appointed bathroom. advertisements for tea from asian magazines in the 20's and 30's were used to paper 2 of the walls. torn paper collage all over the wall.

when i was a kid at fundie school, about the only relief i got from my strict teachers' watchful eyes was at art class. one hour a couple every friday was all we got. but oh, that one precious hour! torn paper collages were one of my favorite activities. mrs. cole, a widower with a very cute son my age, was our wonderful instructor. i loved how she'd trust us 10 year old kids with sharp instruments and let us make wood block carvings. how patient and kind and funny she was. i love her to this day for that.

the other walls were covered in green stucco and embedded with young, thin bamboo chutes set randomly, about 5-9 inches apart. it was so simple yet so beautiful. i've never seen anything like it. at the top of one of the walls of stucco, a large rectangular space had been left for a scroll painting which was glued to the wall just like wallpaper. it was also so simple, yet so stunning. black and white scroll. green and tan earth colors for stucco and bamboo. red and white for the advertisements. and it all went together beautifully.

the sink, instead of being hollowed out like all european and american sinks, was instead, a long slanted slab of marble tiles upon which water poured ever so gently, making a waterfall of sorts down into another marble trough. i could have watched it for hours if there wasn't a drought and i was trying to conserve.

we gathered around a tea bar, in a circle, while a young looking middle aged man served us; so friendly, so gracious, such kind eyes he had. he went through a measured, calming ritual of heating the water, pouring it over the young green leaves, covering it with a lid, letting it steep ever so slowly in individual pots for each person, and pouring it out into a waiting cup in front of us. the cups were small and delicate, softly curved, robin's egg blue. it was such a pleasure to sit still and watch him serve each person. slowing down from my busy day. melting into my seat. softening my stance, lowering my voice, quieting my mind, listening to the sounds of the tea pouring.

what a humane ritual. wouldn't the whole world be a better place if we did this every day. just sit. with our tea. just sit and wait for water to boil, for tea to steep, for leaves to infuse water with just the right amount of flavor and color. for life to slow down.

how could we start wars if we drank tea with our friends and neighbors and enemies each day? how could we abuse our children or spouses if we were sitting, drinking tea. how could we honk the horn and give the finger to the driver next to us if we expected to see her at a tea ritual later that day?

i felt all my tensions and problems just slip away. just slip right away in the steam of the tea. in the calm of the tea master. in the color of the leaves. in the lightness of the voices of everyone in the room. in the company of strangers. i felt so alive and so full of nothingness. of oneness.

i'm pursuing buddhist studies every chance i get. i find that the more i read about buddhism, the more i want to read. the more i sit in meditation, the more i want to sit.

i've always been drawn to the life of the spirit.

and in buddhism and paganism and unitarianism, i've found what i was lacking in christianity: a sense of myself. a huge space for my self to just be. not to be in judgement or lack or shame or guilt or any of the other millioin needy feelings that christianity causes to arise in me. but just to be. a sense of acceptance of the universe as imperfect and all human existence as suffering but a sense of peace with that.

have you ever read "onward christian soldier?" really read it? it's one of the most widely known and sung hymns in all of modern american christendom. it was written just before the civil war and it's about the abolition movement. but it's so damn bloody. it's so militaristic.

jews and christians have been using military metaphors for as long as there have been hebrew and apostolic scriptures. the bible is rife with military themes. such a warring god, such a warring religion. such a call to war with oneself and one's neighbors.

oh, no wonder, i'm such a hardass sometimes. no wonder i'm such a bear to live with sometimes. no wonder no matter how hard i try not to be, i'm very judgmental.

as my lover said, "if i could take a vacation from myself i would, so how can i expect someone else to want to be with me all the time?"

but this buddhism calls me back to myself in such a calm loving way. i can still see all my flaws, all my imperfections that i strive so to hide from the world. i can still see all the million things i wish i could change about myself and my circumstances, my family and my world.

but somehow, they are easier to bear. somehow, these flaws that are glaring at me are not so blinding. somehow, i have more mercy for myself and others. somehow i can see that we are all pretty much the same. we need pretty much the same things. we want to feel loved. we want to feel that we are not alone in the universe. we want to feel appreciated. we want to feel cared for. we want to feel special.

i can do that. i can offer myself that. i can show a little patience for my own imperfections.

and if i did that, how would i feel? how would i treat my neighbor who annoys me? how would i treat the guy who cuts me off in traffic. how would i react to my child who rejects me?

somehow, i think i'll react with just a little more graciousness, a little more ease. a little more understanding.

i'm liking this new me. this new me i'm becoming in california is a pretty cool chick!

we walked upstairs to a small room overlooking the tea shop and gathered around a monk who was sitting in front of a statue of Kwan Yin. we sang a few "american buddhist folk songbook" songs interspersed with beatles and james taylor songs about friendship while he strummed his 12 string guitar. the monk was very engaging, very humorous, very friendly, and very wise. he gave what i'd call a brief dharma talk on the three levels of human awareness: things, relationships and awakening.

in the level of things, we are still grasping to ego, still defining ourselves by our possessions, our jobs, houses, cars. in the second level, we are defining ourselves by our relationships, our children, our spouse, our lover, our status. but when we are awakened to the third level of awareness, we realize that all the rest is just ego, just grasping at straws. we realize that suffering is inevitable no matter how many lovers we have or how big our house is.

in this level, we realize our oneness with all humanity, with all sentient beings, with all who suffer. and we realize that sharing and loving and being unselfish is all that really matters.

i liked the monk very much. i liked how he let everyone have a turn at talking. i liked how he was so laid back and approachable. he had a wonderful laugh. he made everyone who spoke, whether it was the former gang member from the wrong side of town who'd joined the army to get his life straightened out or it was the artist yuppie who lived in berkeley.

at the very end, the monk took an old stephen foster american classic, "dixie," and changed the lyrics to be about nirvana and the dharma and buddhaland. it was really funny.

yesterday, i was feeling just so depressed about not seeing my kids yet this summer; i was missing them so bad, i could just barely stand it. i knew if i stayed home or tried to work, i'd just ruminate on this unhappy situation. so i decided to take myself out.

this always works well for me. when i'm depressed, i just hit the road and i'm happy as a clam in minutes!

my father was this way; he'd often pile all us kids in the car and we'd be off to have an adventure. who knew where? even he didn't know. but we'd end up somewhere, a snake ranch, an apple orchard, a rock quarry, a salvage store. and he'd get out and find the person in charge and ask all sorts of questions. and we'd be fascinated.

i'm the same way. the summer i lost custody of my kids, i rented a boat and took them out on a lake we'd never been to and gave them each a dollar to swim from the boat a few feet away to a little island to explore. they loved it. i loved it. (they didn't know what was coming so i gathered them around and explained that from now on they couldn't see me most nights or even each week. i don't think they knew i was dying inside because i was determined that they were going to have a great summer vacation and go on adventures just like i did when i was a kid.)

i drove us to a crafts school, one in tennessee that was created to preserve appalachian folk arts that have been handed down for centuries and which traveled over from scotland and ireland. we watched glass blowers, basket weavers, wood turners, bead makers. it took our minds off the pain and got us engaged in beauty again. i remember i even helped them select a beautiful hand carved gift for their dad for father's day.

so yesterday, after crying myself to sleep on sunday night missing my dear children so badly, i made myself pack up the car, not knowing where i'd end up. i packed enough for a couple of days in case i decided not to return.

and i got in my car not knowing where i'd go. i had enough gourmet crackers, nuts, fruits, and cheeses from trader joe's to last me several meals and i'd made a fresh batch of southern fruit tea with fresh mint.

i considered consulting a map but didn't. i just took off and followed my hunch.

i had an idea that i might like to hike up mt. tamalpais. i'd never been and there it is looming above the bay. i've hiked in the sierra nevadas, and in the san bruno mountains; i've hiked along the coast in big sur. i've walked up mt. diablo. i've hiked the berkeley and oakland hills a thousand times. and i've gone on long walks with my sweetie along the oregon coast. but i'd never been up mt. tam.

so i did it.

it was so therapeutic.

it's just damn hard to feel depressed when you are sweating and all you can think about is putting one foot in front of the other so that you get to some shade. and once you're at the top, it's pretty hard to feel sad when you can see such an amazing view, the bays and islands of san francisco all laid out before you like jewels. the fog rolling in so swiftly over the foothills. it was just a stunningly gorgeous place to be.

and i couldn't feel too sorry for myself up there.

it worked wonders.

i munched happily on blackberries, raspberries, sesame sticks, soy covered rice crackers, dried goji berries, cashews, chocolate macadamia cookies.

sunday i'd hiked the berkeley rose garden and the cordonice park before attending the Nyingma Institute training on Buddhism and Psychotherapy.

the Nyingma Institute is a little jewel of architecture and gardening, replete with brightly painted tibetan buddhist prayer wheels going round and round making a whirring sound! red, green, blue, and gold paint adorn the old structure just above the university. there is a fantastic view of the bay from their upper windows as the building itself climbs up the side of a hill.

i'm making friends with my depression. i'm not judging it. i'm not sitting in condemnation of myself that i can't get over the loss of my kids. i'm just becoming curious about what spiritual paths can transform my pain into something that is valuable for me and for my family and for my world.

and i'm feeling much happier, much more peaceful.

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