Saturday, December 07, 2013

House of Tea with a Flower in It

While I was in Ypsilanti, I read Ezra Bayda’s latest book Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment. He’s probably my favorite Buddhist writer because of his clarity in pointing us from our thoughts back to our actual, direct experience, which has the quality of shifting constantly—of being alive—whereas our ancient fears and stories can almost seem not subject to the law of impermanence. It’s rather wondrous how things transform when we put our attention in the right place: on what’s actually happening and not what we think is happening, or think about what’s happening.

He has some helpful things to say about when he was in his 20s and trying to decide what work to do. He writes, “[S]omeone I trusted told me to stop thinking about what to do; instead, whenever the anxiety arose, I was to stay fully present with the anxiety itself.” He says it was difficult, but he stuck with it for several weeks, and one day it became “crystal clear” to him that he should do a certain kind of work—something he had no experience with whatsoever, but he proceeded in that direction and it ended up being a satisfying decades-long career for him.

I found that appealing because it’s very difficult for me to make decisions, probably because my primary tools are thinking and more thinking, so that a certain course of action seems as entirely right one day as it seems wrong the next. This way of “making decisions” (few decisions actually get made) is based on fear and leaves out intuition and other emotions: When this seems most scary, I decide to do that, and when that seems most scary, I decide to do this.

In his meditation instructions, Bayda, who teaches at Zen Center San Diego, recommends sitting with our eyes open: “The reason the eyes are kept open is that it is too easy to enter a dreamy state with the eyes closed.” After starting to go to the S. F. Zen Center several years ago (I don't go often these days), I experimented with sitting with my eyes open, and soon gave it up, probably because I wanted my dreamy state back. After reading this book, I decided to give it another try and it’s proving to be great this time around.

It’s more difficult to get lost in thought for an extended period, and it makes the ebbing and flowing of alertness and drowsiness very clear. When I’m sitting there with my eyes open, using my body as an anchor of attention, I’m doing exactly what I’ll be trying to do the rest of the day, to be awake and present in my body, so it gives a nice feeling of alignment, of time put to very good use.

Tom and I took the train to Sacramento for Thanksgiving at Steve’s and Julie’s, with the usual congenial crowd, and that was very nice. We slept over at Ann’s, and Steve, Julie and Diane (Julie’s mother) came over for breakfast the next day. When I got up, I told Ann, “I think I need a hair of the dog that bit me. Could I please have six dinner rolls and half a stick of butter?”

On Sunday, Ann and Tom and I went to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, preceded by lunch on Shattuck Ave. In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek plays her own mother, whose parents perished in the Holocaust and who lived because her parents sent her off via the Kindertransport to England. The show consisted of Golabek telling her mother’s story in the first person and playing the piano, the latter gorgeously. Her dynamics are particularly masterful, the shifts in volume and pacing.

This past Tuesday, David and Lisa were in town from Seattle and we had made plans to have dinner at Chef Jia’s, but that favorite restaurant is no more, so they and Tirtza, Barry, Nancy, Terry, Peter, Tom and I had dinner next door at House of Nanking. Most of us ordered hot tea, which at Chef Jia’s was free or at a nominal charge and came in modest little cups, but at House of Nanking comes in large glass mugs, in each of which floats a golf ball of tea, which unfurls to form a tall flower. It’s also pre-sweetened. Lisa said when she saw the tea unfurling, she knew it was going to be expensive, and I had to chuckle when I later heard Barry examining the bill for his portion of the table: “Fifteen dollars for four cups of tea?” We went afterward to Café Greco.

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