Left-handedness, Tea, and Being a Beginner

An ongoing arc in my tea ceremony lessons is my left-handedness.  Tea ceremony was developed by the right-handed and for the right-handed, and the mechanics essentially cannot be taught correctly in reverse.  Even though one could theoretically invert the room and its layout and the utensils and their layout, refining one’s motions is still a practiced and “oral” tradition, and your sensei is likely to be right-handed.  Your guests are likely to be right-handed, and reversing everything would not benefit your guests, which would defeat the entire point.

Of course, like most southpaws, I have learned to adapt to a right-handed world quite a bit.  In fact, tea is not the only pursuit of mine with a handedness requirement.  Glass blowing carries a similar requirement, for example.  I play guitar right-handed, and I have lost any concept of handedness where some sports are concerned.

What keeps the arc alive is the interest sensei shows in my handedness.  I think that perhaps I may be her first serious student who is left-handed, but I cannot be completely sure.  She has, for example, gone back to the mizuya (the “water room,” where utensils are washed and prepared) and whisked tea with her left hand to experience the awkwardness and have empathy for working with your non-dominant hand.  She often asks what I find challenging in using my right hand and in experiencing a left-handed person’s perspective.  Often, the things she predicts to be challenges are not so bad, but other aspects of the procedures need different attention.  Fast motions like whisking the tea are not so bad, nor are large motions like handling the bowl.  What is the most challenging are things requiring precise finger placement and things which rely on good proprioception of my fingers, and sensei has taken to teaching that kinesthetically, by setting the finger positions right herself and letting me feel what “correct” is.

All of this reminds me of something I do when I instruct people at curling clinics.  It’s a little bit of folklore I picked up from the other instructors.  Before the students join me on the ice, I throw a curling stone using my non-dominant side.  The reason why is because, week after week, I have developed muscle memory for my dominant side so that I can focus my mind on my aim or on getting the velocity just right.  It’s been 18 months since I was awkward, but my students are going to all be awkward and need encouragement while they do this very strange and new thing.  One very easy way to return to that place of being a complete, awkward beginner is to simply use your non-dominant hand or foot for everything.  It brings back those feelings of mild alarm, of nothing feeling correct or in place, of doing something embarrassing.  It also, hopefully, is a reminder of that feeling of optimism, of feeling that you know you can become graceful if you can simply knock some of the rough corners off yourself, of knowing you just need someone to laugh with you and show you that they know what you’re feeling and that what you’re feeling doesn’t have to be scary.  Really, that’s how I see a teacher’s or coach’s first step in reaching a student.  It’s funny how you can do all of that by just switching hands.

What The Eyes Say

There is a moment in tea ceremony, after all the tools are in their place, for the host to take a moment and mentally center him/herself before proceeding to purify the tools and make tea.  The very first time I practiced temae (the tea procedure), I took what was meant to be a deep, slow breath, but which came across as a loud, nervous sigh, to the laughter of everyone in the room.  Determined to not repeat that at future lessons, at the next lesson, I took the opportunity to ground and center in a way most people of Pagan background would, by closing my eyes and drawing that nervous energy into a calm center.

Sensei stopped me.

“Rhett, please do not close your eyes when you stop to compose yourself.  I know many people do this to bring calm, but when you close your eyes, you’re shutting out the world for a moment.  Shutting out the world means shutting out the room and the guests, when connecting with your guests and showing your care for them is the reason for sharing tea.  Do not separate yourself from your guests by becoming separate from them, even for a moment.”

I have, since then, been acutely aware of the closing of eyes in a ritual environment.  It’s an incredibly common part of many Pagan rituals and a generally accepted part of prayer and even for secular moments of silence.  Yet, what if, in times when people are coming together for ritual or prayer, they are actually instead taking time to shut one another out and be in their own worlds?  How would people differently experience acts of community ritual (of all kinds) if they never, except to blink, closed their eyes?