As I slid behind the wheel of my Toyota, I remembered the driving gatha offered by Thich Nhat Hanh, "My car and I are one. If my car goes fast, I go fast. .. . " The road down from the Mount Madonna Retreat Center, where I had just spent five days of mindfulness on a retreat with Thay, was steep and winding. The sun filtered through tall redwoods and I thought how wonderful life can be when the mind is primed to appreciate it. Quickly though, the peace was broken by thoughts of the "real world" of job, family, and friends.
Coming back from retreats, I've often questioned how to integrate what I had learned with the everyday reality of life in a fast-paced city. Just having the concept of "real world" and "retreat world" as two separate entities seemed an indicator of how cut off and compartmentalized certain areas of my life were. Here was my old friend duality rearing its head again. It occurred to me that I had often kept the more overt aspects of my spiritual life hidden. Part of this was in an effort to "be a Buddha, not a Buddhist" but part was also a worry of seeming a bit strange to people who were not accustomed to meditation practice.
This time, however, I thought I would like to show rather than tell my friends what I had done on retreat. A friend's upcoming birthday seemed like a good opportunity. I called to offer a tea ceremony as a present. There was a moment's hesitation in which I had to remind myself to breathe and then my gift was warmly accepted. On the planned day, I noticed some anxiety in myself about the ceremony. Would my friends, none of whom had meditated before, feel uneasy or just outright laugh at this ritual? The guests arrived and I noticed they were a bit uneasy. Would I ask them to do anything weird, one questioned. I tried to ease their fears by explaining a bit about the ceremony and encouraging them to relax and enjoy. There was a bit of giggling as we ascended the stairs to a loft overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
Beautiful homegrown flowers were the centerpiece around which my friends arranged themselves in a human bouquet. As the ceremony started, people immediately got the idea. They moved mindfully and seemed to enjoy themselves. Traditionally, there is a sharing at the end of the ceremony--a chance to make a spontaneous comment or share a poem, dance, or song.
This was a special time for the birthday girl. She was reaIly honored. We all got a chance to say how much her friendship meant to us. There was a feeling of how important we are to one another and how rarely we get a chance to say so. The mood was electric and the vibrancy extended after the ceremony as we continued to party and dance with each other.
Buoyed by this success, I decided to offer a tea ceremony to the nurses I work with at San Francisco General Hospital. We were scheduled to have a retreat and I thought it might be fun to end the retreat with tea. It had been my experience from a previous retreat together that work-related retreats could be quite intense experiences. In drinking tea together, I hoped there would be a space to just be together in some place before sliding behind the wheels of our respective vehicles back to the frenetic pace of our work. A bit to my surprise, the nurses openly welcomed the chance to participate in the tea ceremony. They expressed the need for closure and for healing. Each nurse was asked to bring a special tea cup with her. As we sat together and shared our tea and the beautiful cup that contained it, there was a wonderful silence that was almost palpable--the feeling of love and serenity was so strong. I realized I had never been with my co-workers in silence. I savored the moment. In the sharing, I saw the women I work with, these nurses, become poets, dancers, and singers. They talked of the rain outside, the smells of the earth, of seeds falling to fertile soil, and of their lives falling from one moment to the next. None had ever meditated before, but feelings of love and openness, mindfulness and joy were natural to them--like seeds sprouting in moist, ready soil.
I never cease to be amazed at the transformative quality of the tea ceremony. It seems to provide a necessary and safe structure within which people can open up and really be themselves. Most importantly, however, the ceremony is fun and therefore not so intimidating to people unacquainted with meditation and mindfulness practice. For me, it has served as a bridge connecting various parts of my life and also given me a very good time in the process.
San Francisco, California