Saturday, June 9, 2012

Making a cup of green tea

Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war. - Paul Reps

This line was reportedly a written statement by the poet while trying to get into post-WWII Japan to visit a Buddhist temple. The story goes that he was turned down by the immigration officer since only military advisers were allowed into the country during this period of fragile reconstruction. On the back of a piece of his rejection paper, he wrote those words and handed it to the officer. 

The officer slowly read the note. He responded by stamping his passport and paperwork to allow him into Japan. The  the official told him that more keepers of the ritual would be needed to help in the rebuilding of the country.

After stumbling upon the story in one of Peter Levine’s books on Buddhist approaches to death, I wrote the quote on a recipe card and propped it up on the kitchen window sill. Whenever I see it, I am reminded of how powerful rituals can be in the healing process.

In an era of globalization and hyper-fast lifestyles, these words strike me as  important   - and a koan. I understand a koan to be a philosophical puzzle with paired ideas that do not make logical sense. One frequently cited example of a koan is: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

How on God’s green earth does one person clap with one hand or by making a cup of tea to stop the war?

I don’t know but I think the tea ritual has something to do with hospitality. Serving others with a pure heart has the potential to nurture the sacred within. In making the tea, I am involved in wanting something for the other person. 

I’d like to think it is a positive action. Goodness knows I've witnessed and experienced "giving" that didn't feel so wonderful.

Sometimes I think it is a placeholder to keep me from doing harm. Maybe no one wants the tea and I am avoiding the war. 

Except, the koan says that the action stops the war. Perhaps loving action diverts war energy. Compassion in a respectful way leads to something nurturing or nourishing.

I wonder what the poet would have written if he was trying to enter British colonized India and just wrote tea. What spiritually/culturally relevant practice would have connected with an Indian officer in such a warm way?

In a time when all cultures seem to be afflicted by commercialism and globalism resulting in a loss of the sacred, will groups be able to maintain their long-held traditions of hospitality with the stranger that are ingrained in their rituals and stories? Will they lose their rituals used to create sacred relationships? In times of trouble, how will we know what to do? Who has the time for this? Do I?

A friend who hosts family members on a regular basis had a month-long stint of having the family in her home. I sent an e-mail asking how it was to play the Domestic Goddess. Her reaction wasn't exactly a happy one. 

To so many of us, this is a place of feeling abused, neglected, and taken for granted. I know that place. As a girl, I avoided housework and opted to hang out with my dad doing farm work. There was no glory or fun, as far as I could tell, cooking and cleaning.

Becoming a mother s-l-o-w-l-y changed that. And now, as a grandmother, there is something comforting about those tasks. 

At this point in my life, cooking and cleaning, caring for the dog, etc. are part of my meditation practice. It's not that I always love doing these things, but I love how these acts help create a nurturing space or are opportunities to open my heart up and stay in the present moment. The phone rings, it is a friend struggling with depression. Or, someone is lost and seeks direction. A community group seeks a meeting space. Come on in and have a cup of tea. 

Actually, my personal style at home is to tell everyone where the cups and tea are and they can fix what they like. So, I probably have a long way to go in understanding the depth of this practice. 

How does one create a rhythm carrying out ordinary acts of home life and taking that energy out in the world? Is there a difference?

The trick for me is not to try to save the world by "fixing" anyone or by rushing around and then feeling angry. These are huge habitual behaviors for me to work on.

This koan keeps drawing out more questions. But like a jewel, this koan is keeps drawing me in to its beauty. I invite you to share your understanding of this little gem.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Spirit and Religiousity

I'm struggling with religiousity. In this case, questioning my own religiousity-essness.

I never really understood the extent religion could be misused at the personal level in unhealthy ways, just like any other patterned thoughts and behaviors, until my mid-40’s. It wasn't until attending Loyola in Maryland's Pastoral Counseling program that the subject came into clearer focus.

How is one's religious ideas helpful - to themself and others - and when are they not?

This feels like it is coming to a head since I keep trying to figure out why I live such a small life as a pastoral counselor. My identity is tied to this question in profound ways. I didn't just become involved in spiritual work, I grew up in a family with a complex set of messages around religion, work, and connection to community.

At my Quaker meeting a few months ago, I spoke at meeting for worship.

First another woman spoke up about her conviction that the Genesis story blames Eve for original sin and that it is still with us today. She asked what to do about it. She sounded pretty upset by the state of affairs for women, especially when it seems women's rights are losing ground in the United States and particularly in the meeting's home state of Virginia.

I felt moved to speak from a place of personal experience - that radical place where George Fox spoke about the Living Word which took him beyond what the words said in the Bible, and encouraged people to experience the Living Word for themselves.
(Fox's quote can be found at: )

I spoke about the life-changing experiences of giving birth to my daughters at home. Not only was I testing my faith in a loving God and my body, but I knew that the research on homebirth challenged the fearmongers.

My own daughters were born at home, despite my family’s doubt. But most important, my experiences of those births were not the painful, dreadful events that had been impressed upon me. The first birth took place in less than 7 hours from the water breaking to birth. The second birth was 3 1/2 hours from beginning to end. I likened the physical experience to having the flu.

Most remarkably, the second birth also had elements of pleasure!

How could that be? Paradoxically, as the baby came out with her hand beside her face, I stretched more, feeling like I was giving birth to a rock. But this same stretch also brought about tingling and pleasure. No one ever told me this was possible!

My point in sharing this story simply was to test the text (Genesis) with my own lived experience. How does this square with the overarching message of freedom through faith in the Spirit? Fox points to God's word, yet parts of the Bible don't make sense from a literal perspective. He interpreted  scripture in his on unique way, which includes the unique position of women in ministry since the 1600's.

I found other texts to be useful. The Hindu-influenced book, "Spiritual Midwifery," prepared my heart and mind and body so that I could more fully experience birth, including the pleasure - one not bound by a Judeo-Christian mindset. It helped that Sheila Kitzinger's work, a social anthropologist studying women's experiences of birth and nursing, was available to help me make sense of my experiences. Later I would learn that the Buddha also encouraged people to test for oneself to see what is true.

This experience radicalized my faith. It shifted my understanding of the Biblical narrative. I was a young mother, but was developing a Feminist understanding of theology. Who wrote these oral stories? What was the purpose or message implied? Who was served by the stories? Who was left out? What do they say about the human experience?

After we left meeting for worship, my Partner said in a very kind voice that he had noticed an edge in my voice when giving the message. It was a question about whether my voice was changing or if I was missing tenderness or if there was something else going on.

Truly, I don't know, but it feels like all three could be true. My throat has been bothering me;  I often have to strain my voice to talk to loved ones with hearing loss. Then there was the was lack of tenderness in my message - the anger that 30 years later and there is still an assault on women and homebirths.

But, when Partner said something about the edge in my voice, I immediately experienced it as my mother's voice. I was taken back to the piercing element of her words as she recently talked about contacting my grandfather's half-sister about my grandmother's death -  someone who hasn't been in contact with the family for decades - and then, she added that the husband was affiliated with a hate group. Did the sister share her husband's beliefs? Did she encourage and enable violence? Why did my mom feel compelled to tell me about this? Was this a message related to my life's work?

At a time when the Southern Poverty Law Center cites record numbers of hate and extremist groups, I can really scare myself and get angry about it. It's never as far removed as we think. I just had no idea the level until my grandmother's death. It's in the family tree.

Later, I thought of a news story I heard this past week of the Sande Society in Liberia still having bush schools to train their girls to be good wives. Part of their initiation involves female circumcision. For more on this, go to: Nothing like taking away any potential God-given pleasure sources for women.

There are so many excuses for threatening and imposing one’s misguided beliefs on another. It’s exhausting to hold the many stories I come across in my work, let alone the ones I carry in my heart from my family.

Coming home, I experienced a continuation of feeling frustrated, anxious, and lost.

The kingdom of God is within. The kingdom of God is within. The kingdom of God is within. I look around at the trees and flowers and honeysuckle and think of my home. For a brief moment, I realize that there is too much to do and I am paralyzed with grief.

In the midst of all of this internal drama, my thinking becomes clouded. Is my searching for meaning and purpose lost in self-absorption? How can I be useful if I am not open and loving? Is anger masking depression which is masking hurt? Is this just self-doubt because I shared something personal and made myself vulnerable to the meeting, a group I sometimes see as privileged or different or judging? Am I doing the old finger pointing outwardly trick when I need to examine my own issues? Do I need to be doing anything?

Yet, I seem to be driven to be useful or helpful.

One of my greatest fears is hurting others. Yet, I don't know how to live or be myself without hurting others. Is it even possible? My faith and clinical skills seem to be particularly lacking here. One thought is to relax and let God be in charge. Yet, the fear of inviting more difficulty seeps into my consciousness, the fear of being tested.

Sometimes I just want to meditate and pray (more religiousity?). Other times I just want to be someone else. My weaknesses kick in and I find myself in the kitchen or reading books or sitting at the harp. On a good day, I go for a walk. And, in moments of clarity, I can see that God doesn't care about my religiousity. It's something I put on myself.

One way through this mess is to follow my own admonition and seek out clarity through connection with others from my faith community. I need to test the health of my thinking and behavior. The antidote to obsessive thinking is opening this up to the Light with those who care for both me and the beloved community.

You'd think giving up the yoke would be easy! But what yoke am I giving up? Labels? Roles? Religiousity? Pastoral counselor? Quaker? Woman? Hopefully, I'm ready to give up whatever is no longer useful for I still live in this world and in this body.

Didn't Jesus die on the cross for our freedom?