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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 09 96 TEA BALL MIND By Clare Robert DANNYNEECE D uring my first meditation retreat in 2003, I was intimi- dated by the tea balls. They hung in little groups, three or four to a hook. They called to me to use them but reminded me that I did not know how. I stuck to tea bags and instant coffee. Thankfully, these required less attention, and no mechanical dexterity. Tea balls are made of aluminum. Spring-loaded like a large safety pin, the slender wires connect to two little mesh half circles, framed in metal. They face each other to form an airy globe. Pushing the wire handle together will cause the balls to open wide to fill with enough loose tea to brew one cup. This movement requires gentle strength; otherwise the spring will break if forced too hard. It also requires patience and time. To hurry means that tea will be scattered over the counter, perhaps on the floor. Last February I decided to sit a seven-day retreat, my fifth in as many years. I arrived late, just as the group orientation was ending. When I got to the retreat manager’s office to register, I was told to sign up for a yogi job. My past experi- ences with dishwashing, vacuuming, and pot scrubbing led me to hope for an easy task—dusting, perhaps, or watering the plants. As I looked over the list, the manager said to me, “It’s the rule of this retreat that you take the first job offered, and not make a personal choice.” The first job posted was cleaning the tea balls. I reported for the training as instructed. I was to clean the tea balls after lunch and ready them for the last meal of the day, the five o’clock tea. I was told that it was particularly impor- tant that, for this meal, all the tea balls be in place, because so many people would use them at this time of the day. The next day at lunch, I saw that my fellow worker had not cleaned up the tea balls that had been used between meals. She had done the breakfast ones but had left me a pile waiting to be cleaned and hung. As I ate my lunch, I was sure that everyone was looking at the tea balls and criticizing me for not having cleaned them. After the first few days, I saw that if more than half of the tea balls were still unused, I could relax bit, because that meant that there would be enough for the duration of the meal, and I would not have to interrupt my meal to wash them. Each time I passed through the dining hall I would check to see how many used tea balls were piling up, and how many were ready to use. I had tea ball mind for much of the retreat. When I became aware of what I was doing, I realized that the tea ball was the perfect instrument of mindfulness. All my obsessions about doing a good job were caught up in my practice of washing the tea balls. My perfectionism was full blown, but after a while the physical act of spraying the tea leaves out of the little balls and rinsing them in boiling water became so absorbing that my obsessive mind gradually eased a bit. Watching my own anxiety rise as people drank tea was also interesting. I could not keep up with the incessant use of tea balls and my desire to have them all hanging neatly in a row. I was helpless to make impermanence permanent. The movement and flow of life was caught up in the little mesh ball on the wire handles. I willed people to choose instant coffee or tea bags, but they did not hear my silent pleas. Each time I attempted to finish the job, someone else would come by and want a cup of tea. I wanted to say, “Stop, you are messing up my idea of how things should be!” I began to see the humor of my predicament. I could not stop the tea drinkers, the pile of tea balls, or the flow of time. All of this was out of my hands, despite my desire to control the events happening before my eyes. I had to sur- render to the wisdom of the tea ball, the wisdom of impermanence. At the end of the retreat I asked the kitchen manager if I could take home an old tea ball, as a token. I chose a rusty one, slightly dented. It now sits on my meditation table, a bit battered but elegant, an eloquent reminder. Endlessness, imperma- nence, the ever-present flow of life, thy name is tea ball. CLARE ROBERT is a practitioner of Insight Meditation and an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. Journeys