January 25, 2006

Teahouse Practice.

In Zen Buddhism, there is an ideal of mindful presence known as "teahouse practice." The term comes from the analogy of an old woman who runs a teahouse on the edge of town. She is wise in the dharma and has cultivated a quiet joy about her that pervades her every action and even the very atmosphere. And though she never teaches or preaches a word about Buddhism, everyone in town is drawn to the teahouse without knowing why.

I have always loved this story and, for a long time, it has been an ideal of mine to have the kind of presence that this woman possesses. Often times, people such as myself become so invested in our communication skills, our ability to convince and convert. We appeal to reason, we work with emotions, we enlist the help of beauty, metaphor and mystery to make our case for us. When we believe something and find it to be meaningful, powerful and above all joyful, we want to share it with the world. As a writer, I have always felt driven to communicate my ponderings and questions, as well as a few tentative replies or theories here and there. But I have also learned to accept the limitations of overt communication.

This is where teahouse practice comes in. If you are anything like me, you sometimes underestimate the power of direct, nonverbal communication. We all know the thrill of flirtatious body language and the pain of being given "the silent treatment," but we forget that even our everyday actions, when performed with intention, can be deeply meaningful. And this meaning is not just for ourselves, but for others. When we cultivate a peaceful, mindful presence in the world, we help ourselves to find peace, but we also demonstrate peace and love to and for others. We appeal directly to the cores of their being in the hope that they will respond. They might not know what it is about our presence that comforts, soothes or energizes them, but they can feel it. In the more common terms of witchcraft, when we tune ourselves to the "good vibrations" of peace, happiness and gratitude, we can raise the vibration level of those around us, even if we never say a word.

When I imagine the ideal magical self that I hope to become, I recognize immediately that one of her most noticeable traits is this ability to influence others in this positive, uplifting way. Her entire life is a "teahouse practice" in which her every action speaks love and thankfulness, whether at work or play, whether with strangers or friends. Of course, I have always assumed that this type of mindful presence was quite a difficult thing to accomplish and that, in addition, once I had accomplished it, I would feel different. I would instinctively know that I was having such an effect on others, and so would they. Recently, though, I've come to reevaluate this expectation.

A few months ago, my boyfriend and I decided to end our relationship as a romantic couple and continue as friends (to say "just friends" would be to imply that being his best friend was somehow less fulfilling than being a girlfriend to him, which is not at all the case). In the time since, I've gone through many natural emotional ups and downs, questioning the value of my friendship and companionship, worrying that the new relationship he is pursuing would weaken our bond, and doubtful if I would ever have another romantic relationship of my own that I would feel as deeply committed to. During this time, I often reminded myself of teahouse practice and sought comfort in the idea that, even if I did not have such a direct relationship with anyone for a while, I still had much to give to others by cultivating my own mindful presence and finding peace even in difficult and emotionally-trying times. But then, even when I did give myself permission to feel happy despite also feeling lonely, I would grow frustrated with myself if no one seemed to notice. I would tell myself, "You are not doing anyone any good, they don't even notice your mood. You could go into work peaceful and grateful everyday, and people would still bitch and moan and have screwed up priorities, and you would still feel isolated and alone even within your peace. So what's the point?"

Then last night, I had a mini-revelation, brought on by the question, What would it actually feel like to be effective at teahouse practice? And furthermore, how do I know it would feel any different? And the truth was, I didn't know. Then I began to think back, about the number of times in just the past two weeks alone that someone at work--whether a coworker or customer--had told me what a nice girl I was, or how cheerful or helpful I always seemed to be. And every time, I smiled and thanked them and felt a momentary happiness in having been able to satisfy their needs; but in the next moment, I shrugged it off, telling myself, "Well, they only say that because they don't really know me."

What a self-defeating process that was! In the story of the old woman, her regular patrons at the teahouse do not even realize her loving influence on them, let alone have the presence of mind to thank her for it. And here I was, ignoring the very people who were telling me directly that I had effected them! And why? Because I had allowed myself to define the influence of my presence largely based on the reactions of one single person--the person who had, I secretly felt, "rejected" me and, in some sense then, rejected my loving presence as well. Of course, he above all people told me constantly that he enjoyed my company, that I had a wonderfully positive effect on him--but I chose to believe the surface appearance of his actions, rather than his thoughtful and supportive words.

What I realized, having thought of all this, was that teahouse practice also takes a certain amount of trust and faith in other people and their capacity to be receptive to your mindful intentions. Without the hope that others are taking in and benefiting from your actions and vibrations whether they realize it or not, it's easy to grow discouraged and imagine that you are isolated and ignored. But this is not true. Teahouse practice is about what you put out into the world, what you do that can make the world just a bit more joyful and loving--it is not about how others react. After all, you can't control how others will respond. Each individual is fighting his or her own demons and is engaged in struggles unique to his or her life. What you can offer is love and peace, a sanctuary built of purposeful service where they might seek some shelter.

And you might not feel any different. You might still feel alone and misunderstood. I think back to the story of the old woman and wonder if she ever felt lonely, if she ever felt like people were just using her for her "good vibes" and no one loved her for who she really was in the more complex depths of her soul. And I'm sure she had her moments, as we all do. But she also did not let that stop her from continuing her work. She did not let these passing insecurities keep her from her loving-kindness.


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