Come In and Have a Cup of Tea

In one of my favorite Zen stories, a traveling Zen master stops at a temple, where he is invited to speak to the congregation. As the Zen master greets people entering the temple to study, he is joined by the temple’s proctor, the person in charge of admitting people to the temple and maintaining order. The Zen master greets the first guest, asking if the guest has been there before. The guest answers Yes, and the master invites him in to have tea. The master asks if the second guest has been there before, and that guest answers No, it is the first time. The master invites that guest in for tea, too. The proctor is angry and confused – it doesn’t matter if the people have been to the temple before, they all get invited in for tea with the Zen master? The Zen master’s response is to invite the proctor in for tea.

To me, this story is not about tea. It is about being in the present moment. We are often the proctor, certain that we know the way, with all our learning and experience. We feel responsible for the success of our temple and know that our way will make the temple successful. We begin to pass judgements on whether people are or aren’t following our way; are or aren’t worthy to be in our temple.

The invitation to tea is an invitation to let go of our way, the right way, whether or not we are living up to that way or others are living up that way. To let go of what we know about these people – their pasts – our past with them, or our lack of past. To sit, in the present moment, experiencing the cup of tea, the weight and warmth of the cup; the smell and moistness of the air that steams off the surface; the wet and taste, the bite on our tongue, as we sip. The smooth feeling as it slips down our throat and the warmth as it lands in our stomach. The floor we are sitting on, the air around us, the sounds of china clinking as other people sip from their cups. To relax into that moment.

I have found it very challenging to meditate lately. I am caught up in my thoughts so much of the time. Struggling, struggling, attached to the idea of what meditation should be, distracted with the realization that I am not doing what I think I should. Distracted by my brain wanting to take action, wanting to share the importance of my thoughts, crafting words and sentences, called back to focus on my breath, lost again. This is, for many of us, the nature of meditation. The nature of learning to experience this moment, not past moments or future moments or alternate present moments. The nature of building the discipline of sitting and having a cup of tea without the need to do anything else.

Someone told me recently that I need to stop caring so much about everything. That I need to learn to pick and choose what I care about. The things I choose to care about – go all in. The other things – let it go.

I thought of this over the weekend when I went to a training class on how to be a pollworker. Pollworkers are those people who staff the polls when you go to vote, the ones who (in NY State), check your name in the book, hand you a ballot, make sure you have the privacy to vote, and instruct you on how to put the ballot in the voting machine. (Along with, as I learned on Saturday, many many other things on election day.) My husband has volunteered as a pollworker for ten years and has been pushing me to do the same and, having run out of excuses, I finally agreed. And so, I went to training class.

As soon as I arrived, my judging self kicked in. The people there weren’t like me – they were like the people who you usually see at polling sites, the ones who frustrate you so much. I was going to ace the class – with my experience and background staffing registration tables, organizing information, instructing unsure people what to do, picking up new technology, I would have no problem learning what to do.

The universe immediately sent me a message: I didn’t have a pen with me. Why didn’t I think I needed a pen? Other people had pens. I began to judge myself for not having a pen, for having to borrow a pen. The trainer smiled at me as he handed me a pen, a smile that said, of course you don’t have a pen, no one has a pen – but I am not no one, I thought, I am someone who is always prepared. And yet, I did not have a pen. I was not prepared. I was not different than everyone else. In fact, I learned quickly, I did not have paper either and the people around me had brought both pens and paper. I was different than everyone else – not because I was better prepared but because I was unprepared.

Ah, I thought, this is a Zen exercise. I chose this to learn, once again, that I am not special or advanced. I am a beginner. I am always a beginner.

The class began. As someone with experience teaching others, and organizing things to be easy for people to understand and take action on, I was distracted by the format of the class, the instruction style, the clarity or lack thereof of the workbook and the videos. – so distracted that I found it difficult sometimes to follow the instruction. I had to keep reminding myself that I was not there to care about how well these things matched up with my own ideas about what right looked like; I was there to learn the process of helping people vote.

And so I recognized and put aside the indignation that I often feel when things outside my control are not arranged in a way that enables people (me) to complete them accurately with little intervention. Yes, the world is a confusing, annoying, disorganized, uneasy, complicated, chaotic mess. Yes, I am doing what I can in little ways to mitigate that, to relieve that for people (me again — and others) in some way.

But I don’t have to do that all the time. And I don’t have to get angry or indignant when I come up against processes that I can’t influence. I don’t have to rail against the inefficiency or take over or even think about how I would do it instead.

I don’t have to care so much about everything, all the time.

Sometimes, drinking my cup of tea is enough.


p.s. Mark election day on your calendar and schedule an appointment with yourself to vote. And if you live in New York state, bring that little useless-looking card with your polling information on it – the one they send you about a month before the election. This year it has a barcode on it that pollworkers can scan, which will make the lines at the “look up your name” tables go faster. Do yourself and your neighbors that favor.

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