A guest post on Tea Ceremony from my wife

Recently, my husband Xin asked me to write about my thoughts and feelings (and experiences) of Japanese tea ceremony. He and I have taken lessons from a remarkable and kind teacher – he has attended lessons much more often than myself, due to my health issues – and I think I can comfortably say that the experiences we have had have been – overall – wonderful and interesting.

But for me, in general, it is just a little more complex. My health doesn’t really permit me to do a lot of things – I have had to step back from both University/class-based learning in general, as well as most forms of paid work. I can occasionally do some editing work from home, but I have to watch my stress levels and workload, otherwise I can inadvertently make myself even sicker. And so it can often be with tea ceremony.

I really enjoy tea ceremony and, more to the point, I think I am actually pretty good at it. I tend to pick it up quite quickly, as I am generally very observant, and the quiet, considered movements are very much in line with how I prefer to move. I love the ritual of it, I love the gentle friendship and understanding that have been extended to me by my fellow tea-makers and particularly by my teacher, and I actually really love (and miss) Japan, so being able to connect with traditional Japanese culture in this way is so wonderful to me.

However (you knew it was coming, I’m sure)… I have multiple conditions that make it hard to do tea ceremony regularly. And the tea itself – pure matcha (ie. pure green tea) – can be a real kick in the stomach (IBS) and heart (tachycardia) at times. The sweets, which are usually perfectly aligned with the season, and wonderfully sweet to offset the bitterness of the tea, often contain egg or gluten (foods I have huge issues digesting) or are actually just pure sugar (which, again, IBS, tachycardia…). My scoliosis sometimes pipes up, along with my fibromyalgia, when I try to perform the ceremony, or even when I am just sitting/kneeling as a guest while someone else performs. And I certainly have trouble assisting when my teacher and the other students do demonstrations/performances of tea ceremony at festivals – the sheer number of people and the (usually) hot weather conspire to make almost all of my conditions flare out of control.

So. Whilst I love tea ceremony, and enjoy doing it, and really enjoy being good at something I love, I have a bit of a complex relationship with it. It has come to be a point of contention for me – something that just inspires so many complex emotions inside of me that sometimes I go into meltdown mode just thinking about it. I want to be able to do it regularly, I want to be able to drink the tea and enjoy the sweet, and continue learning how to do this act that inspires such wonder and calm and connection within me. And yet, often if I even try to attend class, I end up exhausted, in pain, and frustrated that one bowl of tea has made me feel like I am actually vibrating.

It also makes me feel like I am a small child throwing a tantrum – ‘but I don’t care if it makes me sick!! I WANNA DO IT!!!’ Not exactly the dignified and harmonious feelings that tea ceremony usually inspire within me.

I think most people would advise that I quit cold turkey, having heard the difficulties that it causes me. I understand that point of view. And, actually, I have tried to do it myself before. I handed in my fan and my ofukusa (silk cloth, used in the ceremony, borrowed from my teacher) and tried to put it behind me as a fond memory. But with my husband still attending, and continuing to improve and learn different kinds of ceremony, I couldn’t help myself and returned to classes late last year. Because my teacher divides her time between Australia and Japan, there are times when she’s not in the country and so there are no lessons. When she is here, I want to go, but I just am never sure how my body is going to respond. I talk sometimes on my own blog (shameless self plug – I’ll put the URL below) about chronic illness and how conditions like IBS and ovarian cysts can make you scared of your own body or any food you may choose to put into said body – this is kind of an extension of that. It’s a pervading fear that is hard to shutdown, or sit with. ‘What if today I have extreme pain while I’m in class?’ ‘What if I have lie down when I’m there?’ Chronic illness is really complex, and often I don’t really know what is the right response to a symptom. Sometimes I still choose wrong. It feels like my body is constantly re-writing the rules – some days I can absolutely handle drinking a bowl of tea, maybe even two! And other days the mere smell of it sends my heart galloping around my chest.

And, thus, at the moment I find it hard to know whether to try and quit cold turkey again, or to just… persevere. And try to attend the odd class. I am leaning towards the latter option. I may have to deal with some frustration, and a lot of pain and exhaustion, but when it is something that I love so much, it is hard to just leave it behind. Plus, it is truly something beautiful to me. And I think we could always use a bit more beauty in our lives.

 


Beth’s blog can be found at http://butterfly-elephant.blogspot.com/

Us vs Them

When people hold beliefs that threaten the things we care about, it’s easy to see them as enemies. Perhaps they believe things that attack our own values and beliefs, or threaten the emotional (or even physical) safety of our friends, loved ones or selves. That’s tough, and feeling defensive and angry is a good and appropriate response.

Yet I would argue it is not the best one. Getting angry and seeing people as enemies leads us to the absolute thinking of “Us vs Them”. The reality is far harder to consider: that it’s Us talking with Us. That there are no lines in the sand, there are no sides to pick: that we’re all on the same field and no one is the enemy.

John and Hank Green talk a lot about understanding one another complexly. That regardless of our views, it’s important to see the human in each other, and to empathise with and understand people. Even people who hold beliefs that might be hurtful, or threatening to us. Even people we are tempted to see as enemies.

Having said that, I don’t mean to imply that we should listen indefinitely to hate speech. But I think that we need to listen to others, even in our hurt and anger, if we want them to do the same to us. The world is a better place when we understand each other more deeply.

An important caveat: when we can no longer listen (because we’re too hurt or angry or whatever), it’s best to remove ourselves from those discussions. If we cannot respond from a place of grounding and compassion, we are likely to do more harm than good, to lash out and sever ties, burn bridges. We must take care of ourselves first, and if we cannot ask the person to stop speaking, we need to step away so that we can’t hear for a bit.

Perth Japan Festival 2019

Every year in March the Perth Japan Festival comes to Forest Chase, and for the past three festivals my tea school has run demonstrations of chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony). Without fail, the weeks and months leading up to March are the most stressful time of the year for me.

 

It’s a million small things put together: the noise and movement of the crowd, the busy work of preparing sweets and whisking tea, and don’t even get me started on how hard it is to go to the toilet without having somewhere clean to take off my hakama (pants). And yet this year I faced all those same stressors, and for some reason they didn’t really bother me. I didn’t even bat an eyelid when my worst-case scenario came to pass and Sensei asked some of the guests if they could hear me, and they sheepishly said no. I laughed it off, did my best to communicate more clearly, and everything seemed to work out okay. There even came a moment when I misplaced my notes, only to discover that I had memorised them and didn’t actually need them. 

 

It’s as if all the worrying, ruminating and catastrophising I did in the past few weeks helped me to shrug off the small stuff. Sure, things went wrong; tea was spilled, some of the guests didn’t like the matcha, and at one point a distressed woman started screaming outside the marquee until security arrived and waited for her to exhaust herself. And yet I think that I prevented more disasters than I caused;  replacing a hishaku (water scoop) that had fallen to the ground, slipping an assistant my kobukusa (small silk cloth) when they didn’t have one, lowering a wire just as someone was about to trip over it… By the end of the day, I’d say I was up on the scoreboard.

 

As usual, my favourite part of the day was hosting a ceremony myself. I had an unusual sense of peace and mastery while I was performing; every movement was precise, every mistake rectified elegantly and intentionally. I slowed down and sped up at will, and brought everyone with me. It felt like I was the captain of a ship taking everyone on a journey, and that I held them all safe in my care until the very last moment.

 

By a small margin, my second-favourite moment of the day was the final ceremony at the end where all of the students and assistants crowded into the tiny room to enjoy tea and sweets ourselves. We had the pleasure of being hosted by a student who only joined a month ago, but has already learned to perform otemae (the standard ceremony). It was wonderful to share laughter and encouragement with the others as she tentatively reached for this utensil or that, and everyone would nudge her in the right direction until she pieced it together herself.

I also had a wonderful time watching my teacher’s sister perform: through witnessing her masterful performance, I learned at least two things I want to start doing in my own practice.

 

The next day we had an uchiage – an afterparty. In previous years I found them more stressful than enjoyable, but this year was different. It was like I’d crested the wave, and that nothing could really phase me after all the stress I’d been through and all that I’d accomplished in spite of it. It was pleasant to be in the company of people I love and admire, sometimes talking, sometimes sitting quietly with my wife as she took some time out. Photos were taken, I came third in Bingo (and won some awesome rocky road), and overall I had a really great time. Mostly I was grateful to have worked hard with my peers to create something beautiful.

 

Festivals have always been stressful to me, but this one wasn’t so bad and I feel like I’m starting to find my rhythm. Perhaps more importantly I’ve discovered that my motivation to attend them has changed; it’s no longer primarily out of a sense of giri (duty) to my teacher, but out of a sense of love to the people in attendance. To share this precious art with the world, and to make it a special experience for the people who do me the honour of being my guests. I would never have found my tea school if I hadn’t been to a demonstration they put on four years ago, and now I have the privilege of sharing that gift with others. I hope that many people come to know and love tea ceremony, even as my own appreciation deepens over time.

One of the guests asked me “Is there a goal in tea ceremony? Like, are you working towards… I dunno, being a tea master or performer?” Without any irony (whilst also being fully aware of how cheesy I sounded), I told him “The goal of tea ceremony is to practice tea ceremony. For me, practice is its own reward.”

 

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My Counselling Journey

A friend recently shared a video with me in which Jenn Im talked about her therapy journey. I found it really moving, and as I watched it I discovered that I wanted to reflect on my own path and how I got to where I am today. So here goes.

 

My first encounter with a counsellor was quite by accident. High school was a rough, rough time for me and I found myself drowning in distress on a daily basis. One day when I was struggling with perfectionism, I opted to miss the first two periods of school so that I could finish an assignment that was due by fourth period. I had to sign in late at reception, in the box listing my reason I wrote the word “moribund”. I’d meant it to be a cheeky way of implying that I was sick, and (in my arrogance) I didn’t expect the receptionist to know what it meant and to just ignore it.

Instead, later that day the Head of Year 12 knocked on the door of my Religious Education class and asked if she could speak to me. Terrified, we went for a walk through the school grounds as she raised her concerns. Yes, I knew what the word moribund meant. No, I didn’t mean it literally. No, I doing okay thank you. No, I didn’t need to see the school counsellor. No really, I didn’t want to see her.

But bless that dear, sweet woman, no matter how much I insisted she would not be turned aside. And so to make her go away more than anything else, I agreed to see Counsellor #1.

 

Counsellor #1 was a beautiful person. She described herself as Funky, Fit and Fun, and she was always smiling. For an hour every few weeks, she would sit with me and provide a listening ear at a time when I was desperate to share the pain inside of me. It felt like I had been carrying this boulder all by myself for so long, and she came along with a wheelbarrow and asked if I’d like to borrow it for a while. Life became more bearable by talking to her, even if it didn’t feel like the weight of my burden was decreasing.

I remember her asking me to draw how I felt inside, and I drew this ragged black thing with cruel eyes and fangs that I called The Nothing. Another time, I said to her that I hated my brother and I found myself sobbing because I realised in the same moment that I didn’t actually hate him, but that I hated the fact that I felt like I needed to hate him in order to protect myself. (Incidentally, we have a wonderful relationship now, and it took us many long years to get here.) Counsellor #1 gave me the validation I had so desperately been craving, and was a wonderful interlocutor as we discoursed on psychology and philosophy.

Things weren’t all great though. One of the things she said to me repeatedly was “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Looking back I think I know what she was trying to do: she was trying to get me to focus on the strengths I had, my victories and successes, the parts of my life that were beautiful instead of the darkness I constantly found myself looking for. But at the time, it didn’t help. I didn’t have the words for it, but there was a part of me that wanted to scream “I’m not okay. I’m so deeply, desperately, broken. I feel awful all the time. Why won’t you acknowledge it?”

One of the effects of seeing her was that I realised when I was feeling terrible I didn’t have to just accept it; that counselling services existed, and that maybe they might help me feel a little better. I started calling the Kids Helpline when I felt overwhelmed, and sometimes they were just what I needed and sometimes they weren’t. They taught me an important lesson too: that all counsellors are just people, and that some of them are absolutely terrible at their jobs (or otherwise not suited to me at all). In those moments, hanging up and calling back to speak to someone else could make all the difference in the world.

Ultimately, Counsellor #1 showed me so much kindness at a time when I needed it most and I will always be grateful for that. She invited me to come back and see her even after I graduated high school, and she always made time for me. However, I realised that I couldn’t continue doing that indefinitely, so upon her recommendation I checked out the counselling services at uni.

 

That lead me to Counsellors #2 and #3.

Honestly, I don’t remember much about either of them, except that I didn’t get on with them at all. They were both white guys in their 40’s, and their approach was really clinical. I guess that after seeing dozens of students a week, they found it hard to connect with individuals and care about them.

Things weren’t all bad though. One of them taught me two grounding techniques that I still use from time to time. In the end, I found that after two or three sessions with each of them I moved on looking for a better fit.

 

Counsellor #4 seemed to be that fit. He was warm, came from a social work background, and had a friendliness that was a welcome contrast to the two impersonal approaches that came before him. He told me that I was mature for my age, and with that simple sentence, he captured the wordless despair I’d felt my whole life at being surrounded by people who couldn’t relate to me at all. Furthermore, he seemed to genuinely care about me. When I shared with him how often I thought about dying, he asked me promise him that I would call Lifeline before I acted on my thoughts. It seemed to me to be the first time anyone had taken my suicidal ideation seriously, and I found it strangely touching.

Counsellor #4 also taught me how to communicate more clearly. At first the talking ratio during appointments was skewed about 70:30 in his favour, and I found it harder and harder to wait for him to finish speaking before I could share what was going on for me. Eventually I just stopped waiting and started speaking when I couldn’t hold it in any longer,  and this turned out to be a very successful way of getting my point across. However after several sessions of this he gently informed me that what I was doing was called “interrupting”, and that some people might find it irritating even though he did not. That was a super important lesson that I’m glad he taught me early.

In terms of the therapy he offered, we weren’t quite a good match. As a student I could only see him 10 times a year, and so most of our sessions were based on anxiety-reduction techniques. He preferred to focus on the present and soothing my anxiety when it emerged rather than delving into my past and exploring the reasons it was occuring. He was really into this thing called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and in a nutshell he wanted me to acknowledge the presence of thoughts in my life without challenging them. This was not helpful to me because as far as I could tell, I wasn’t having any thoughts in particular that were causing me to feel distressed; anxiety was just my default state. (Incidentally, I’ve recently been studying ACT and I find it a very useful and powerful model. Counsellor #4 just wasn’t very good at implementing it.)

Ultimately, even though he was a welcome improvement from my previous counsellors, I stopped seeing him because I really wanted to delve into the deep stuff and bring about some lasting change in my life, and he just wasn’t willing to do that. I figured that I could work on mindfulness and soothing strategies on my own, and so I tried going without a counsellor for a while.

 

It did not end well. I hadn’t realised how poor my mental health was until I was on my final placement and the supervisors organised a meeting to advise me to withdraw. As far as I had known, I had been doing a great job, and it was a tremendous shock to my system to see that “my best” was actually a hot mess in the eyes of others. I decided to make a concerted effort to improve my mental health before trying again.

Finding a new counsellor was unknown territory to me. Up until that point I had been just seeing the most convenient counsellors that were available to me, and I didn’t really know where to start. As it happened, Beth had just started seeing a psychologist that her naturopath recommended, so I checked out her website, saw that she was into Buddhism and figured that it was worth a shot.

I saw the first available GP at the Uni’s medical centre to get a Medicare Mental Health Care Plan to see her. This was another instance that I opted for convenience and accessibility instead of planning for long-term healthcare, and I ended up regretting it too. That doctor at the med centre didn’t give a shit about me, and he seemed irritated that I’d come to him about something non-physical. When I filled out his questionnaire and all of the boxes were “moderately to highly distressed”, he begrudgingly approved the health care plan without a shred of empathy or patience.

 

Still, it got my foot in the door and I was able to set up my first meeting with Counsellor #5. The first session started pretty typically as she talked about confidentiality and I gave her an overview of my life story. It hadn’t been a particularly satisfying session so far, so it really caught me off guard when she said to me “You just want people to see how hard you’re trying to be a good boy.” I burst into tears, because it felt like that was all I’d ever been trying to do my whole life. It was a miracle to me that this stranger had seen and voiced in an hour what I had been struggling to notice in two decades. It taught me that having the perspective of a neutral observer could help me discover things that I just couldn’t see from my own point of view.

At the end of that first appointment, there was one other thing that really struck me; she seemed to have this idea that my life would get better. I found this very hard to wrap my head around because I had come to the conclusion that I would feel anxious every day for the rest of my life, and that all I could hope for was that some days it would be mild enough that I could function. I felt disconcerted by the optimism she seemed to have when faced with the crippling distress that stretched out into my future, so I asked her directly, “Do you really believe that one day I won’t have anxiety?” She answered “If I didn’t believe that, I’d be out of a job.” And with that, hope burned inside of me with a ferocity I hadn’t felt in many long years. She told me that I was safe with her, asked me to trust her. And so I did, putting blind faith in the idea that she could help me if I let her.

Thinking back, I feel complexly about our relationship. In many ways, Counsellor #5 was exactly what I needed to transform my life. And yet when I recall her, all of my memories are tinged with a gut-clenching fear and an effort to remain calm on the outside so that she wouldn’t notice my terror.

On the one hand, she seemed to me the very model of success: she was happy, and wealthy, and convinced me that she’d once been a mess just like me, and that she knew what I was going through. She could be sharp one moment and gentle the next, saying something that brought me to tears and then soothing me as I worked my way through it, smiling at me all the while. She made me aware of how out of control my anxiety had become, and had this ability to snap me right out of my thought spirals and back into reality.

 

She asked me to start attending the group therapy sessions she ran with her colleague, and so introduced me to Counsellor #6. In a nutshell, all he wanted for me was to care about something other than myself, and this was a lot to ask when I’d been stuck in fight or flight for so many years. He challenged me to lean deep into distress, to feel tremendous amounts of fear and just keep walking forwards rather than curling up or running away. Sometimes he was gentle, but those moments were rare. More ofter he would shame me, belittle me, tell me to “grow a pair”. And all the while he said it was for my own good, because he cared about me more than I cared about myself.

And to be fair, I think I needed to be pushed. I needed to be shown that I was stronger than I knew, that I could survive more than I gave myself credit for. It was their pushing that allowed me to stand up and fight for myself when my supervisor on my next placement threatened to fail me again. It was their pushing that allowed me to work six days a week and still face every day even when I felt like I was drowning in terror. They taught me to hide my fear, and this proved to be an armour that protected me from most harms. They taught me many useful lessons that I’ve summarised here, each of which were paid dearly for in sweat and tears.

And money, I guess. In the end, this was the catalyst that lead me to stop seeing them. An individual appointment cost about $140, and the group therapy sessions were $120 each, sometimes twice a week. When I told them there was no way I could afford the group sessions, they agreed let me pay $40/session, and so I attended weekly or twice weekly for two years. Then one night they took me aside and told me they had only given me the discounted rate under the proviso that I was fully committed, and they didn’t feel like I was trying hard enough any more so they were going back to charging me the full price.

I never went back.

I haven’t quite forgiven Counsellors #5 and 6 for the hurt they inflicted on me, the scars they’ve left. Maybe one day I will. But for now, I’m glad that those years are behind me and I can let go of some of the lessons I needed to survive that time in my life.

 

It was several years before I was willing to try counselling again. Things in my life weren’t going particularly well, so I accessed EAP through my work for four free sessions, and that lead me to Counsellor #7.

Counsellor #7 was a welcome change from how hard Counsellors #5 and #6 pushed me. I’ve been seeing her for two years now, and I love and respect her for so many reasons. One of the things I love most about her is that she is careful not to push me in one direction or another: she sits with me where I’m at, strives to understand me, and reflects back to me what she sees. She lets me come to my own revelations, and she never pushes me without asking first.

It’s hard to list all the ways in which I’ve changed since I’ve started seeing her. She helps me understand myself so that I can grow and change as I desire. I still come home reeking of what I call “the fear sweats”, but it’s been so good to have a safe space to lean into my fear and explore it. She’s planting the seeds that one day sprout into my consciousness, enabling me to access thoughts that haven’t previously been part of my narrative, and that gives me hope. Each session, as I settle deeper and deeper into my knowledge of myself, I’m forever amazed at what I discover inside of me.

 

It’s a bit of a cliche, but recovery is not a linear jouney; it’s all kinds of messy. As one of my mentors said, “We have five degrees between us and we’re still fucked.” There will never be a day that I put a trophy on my mantlepiece and say “I did it, I recovered.” And that’s fine, because each time I find myself struggling with the same problems, I’ll have more experience, more wisdom with me, and I’ll navigate the rough waters a little easier.

I have no idea who I’ll be in ten years time. But I’m so grateful to all of my teachers past and present for helping me become who I am today, so that one day I’ll become the person I’m destined to be.

If you’d like to talk about your experiences with counsellors, therapists and mentors, I would be honoured to hear about it. You can find my contact details here.

Whatever your story, I wish you peace and wellness, now and into the future.