FIELDWORK is a series of conversations and interviews with various Inner Fields community members and collaborators. Each month features someone new. By exploring the contemplative practices, personal experiences, philosophies and insights of each individual, I not only hope to nurture a sense of connection and inspiration between all of us, but ultimately profile what a community based in wisdom might look like. May this culture of thoughtfulness, kindness, justice and wisdom continue to inspire and motivate others, and grow.
Listening To That Which Is Already Here. With conservationist and architectural designer, Sarah Hedden.
Sarah Hedden is a conservationist and architectural designer living in the Utah desert. She first wrote to me when Inner Fields had just been born and included me in her project Sanctus, Form & Light - a series of letters interviewing various creative minds about "the making of art, the role of beauty, and the nature of practice." Since then we have remained in correspondence and although she has yet to visit Inner Fields in person, her presence has definitely become part of this community. She has designed various ceremonial spaces such as free-standing tea houses and meditation rooms, but is currently absorbed in public lands work, advocating for the vast acreage under threat across Utah. Her robust contemplative tea practice continues to ground and serve this work.
You have a really philosophical and poetic ethos around minimalism. Tell us about what that is.
When I talk about minimalism, I’m not describing an avant-garde movement originating in the 1950s. I’m not even sure I’m talking about more recent “tidying” or “downsizing” trends. To be honest, I think I’m talking about something closer to animism than anything else - a suspicion that we are in conversation with the material world all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.
For me, as an architectural designer and aesthete, minimalism suggests a willingness to listen to the many material voices clamoring to be heard. Just as a composer is thinking about harmony, rhythm and dynamics, I’m thinking about the interplay of light and form, tone, texture, dimensions, etc. Culturally, our inattentiveness to this conversation is manifest not only in the widespread acceptance of banal and insipid design, but in our hyper-consumption and profligate waste.
How is this ethos reflected in your design approach?
Minimalism frequently involves a stripping away, but minimalism need not always be subtractive. Minimal spaces aren’t simply austere. They are alive and inviting, giving the human imagination room to breathe. Thus in the ceremonial spaces I’ve designed, from ‘paper architecture’ to art installations to a half-dozen free-standing tea houses and adjoining tea and meditation rooms, so much of my work is done in an effort to be in more meaningful conversation with the world.
What has the ritual of tea ceremony taught you?
Tea has been a calling. When I was in my twenties, it was the magic of Japanese teahouses that inspired me to pursue a career as an architect. Now, as a conservationist working through the lens of culture, I find that it is my relationship to tea (and design) that is opening up new avenues of possibility. I’ve seen so many dedicated activists struggle to communicate their passionate care and concern - when you share a bowl of tea with another human being, some of that work is done without ever needing to say a word. Beauty is the language of the heart.
Can you describe your tea room to us?
My tea room is marked by a bend in the floor plan of the house. Low south-facing windows look out on a small garden and an open field. The space is about 12 feet on a side and holds a large mahogany table which I use for gongfu [a ritualized type of Chinese tea ceremony] and bowl tea. When I am serving matcha, I move everything out of the room and configure the space as if it were a 4.5 foot tatami mat chashitsu [Japanese tea room]. A large bubinga sideboard serves as my mizuya, or preparation area.
Describe the landscape in which you live. What kind of influence has it had on your life?
I live in a small, high, arid valley in the Utah desert. To the east, 12,000 foot peeks rise up covered in aspen, pinyon and juniper. To the north and south, red cliffs rim the valley. Two miles away, the Colorado River flows toward Glen Canyon Dam and the Grand Canyon. In the desert, some seeds wait decades before flowering. Aridity teaches you the power of patience and presence. To know stillness - the stillness that exists beyond the glow of lights and the rush of cars - is to carry it within you, and seek it always.
Do you have a daily tea practice? What does that look like?
As there are so many different forms of tea I study, my practice varies a bit from day to day. Some mornings, I prepare a simple bowl tea (leaves in water). Other mornings, I will engage in a temae, or ceremony, that lasts for several hours, alternating between the roles of host and guest. The part of the practice that remains constant across all schools of tea, though, is the attentiveness to the seasons. I am always searching for new and different ways to connect tea with the particularity of this day in the calendar year. For instance, here in my high and arid corner of the Northern Hemisphere, the resinous smell of new leaves fills the air. How best to evoke the sticky sweetness of this time? The feeling of possibility right before the heat of summer? And, how best to make the poignancy of this remembrance matter in the face of so much uncertainty? For me, my art and practice are strongly linked to my work as a conservationist.
What would you most like to share with others regarding this work?
Writing to you now in the spring of 2017, with twenty-six National Monuments under review and the very notion of “common ground” threatened, I would like to encourage anyone who might be reading this interview to use his or her voice to reaffirm our democracy. Our federally owned “public lands” - some of the most sacred places of all - face the same existential threats as our core democratic values. The two are inextricably linked - the warp and weft of a belief system that posits that we, the people, are better together. There are many ways to do this work, from ceremony to protest to song to simple acts of kindness. All are needed and the hour is very late. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “The future can be different if we choose to make it so. There is no time for complacency, hope lies in what action we take."
Finally, what kind of impact would you like your life to have?
Last year, I was inspired by Caroline Casey (host of ‘The Visionary Activist Show’) to replace the word ‘impact’, meaning a short, violent encounter, with the word ‘influence’, suggesting a long sinuous engagement. In everything I do, I strive to preserve, protect and reveal the beauty of what is already here. Some days that means advocacy work, and other days that means design and ceremony. Always, though, my aim is to speak to the heart of my fellow human beings to encourage an empathy equivalent to our influence. The world need only be “seen” to be loved, and it needs our love painfully at this time.
The Eternal Way. Philosophies of Trickery, Simplicity and Equilibrium.
Taganyahu Swao is the father of two boys who has been working with inner city youth in the New York City public school system since 2005. As a martial artist he practices Qi Gong, Tai Qi and Capoeira, and after graduating with a Masters of Acupuncture in 2015, is now a practicing bodyworker. Tagan currently teaches Qi Gong every Monday at 9am at Minka Wellness Center, and every Tuesday at 9am at the Brooklyn Zen Center. He is a regular collaborator at Inner Fields, offering Taoist Meditation and the very popular Qi Gong & Breakfast sessions.
Qi (pronounced ‘chi’) is often described as a vital 'life-force' or 'energy'. How would you describe Qi? And how do we experience it?
Qi is our energy and our energy is felt before we say a word, before we are seen. So Qi is our presence. It is a subtle yet active form of ourselves. Yet it is elusive because it is constantly shifting. We immediately become more aware of it once we direct our attention towards it.
There are different types of Qi within us. Some Qi flows right on the surface - this is called our Wei Qi. Then there's Qi that we've inherited from our parents which runs very deep - this is our Yuan Qi. And [there are types of] Qi which are associated with the different organs in the body.
Everyone feels Qi differently and its manifestation is unique to our own experiences of life. We can feel one another's Qi and our Qi can be affected by another person's. We experience it as a feeling, sometimes an aversion and sometimes as a sensation. These sensations can manifest in ways that can even bring us back to pre-natal memories.
How does Qi Gong affect our Qi?
Qi Gong heightens our awareness of our Qi and empowers us with the ability to direct and manipulate it. It enables us to affect how we receive the world and what we put out to the world. [Particularly] our Wei Qi, because the Wei Qi runs on the surface of our skin and is our first barrier between our external and internal world. Qi Gong highly benefits the immune system [and] how we interact with others. There are specific postures that can ward off energetic and psychic attacks. It benefits our daily interactions and influences how people receive us and how we receive others.
Qi Gong is an internal martial art and one of its main purposes is for us to create internal awareness, benefit the organs and provide a vehicle to reach epic proportions within ourselves. It is truly limitless because Qi or energy has no limits. We always have access to it. Especially when it’s done on the daily.
How has studying and practicing Qi Gong, Tai Qi, Taoism and acupuncture affected your life and what do you hope to share through them?
Being able to empower people with the ability to heal themselves is something I've always wanted to do. Always a rebel and against the corporations, I see acupuncture and Qi Gong as having the ability to empower people with their own healing.
Studying Tai Qi made me more aware of my movement. Qi Gong made me more aware of my energy. Studying Qi Gong is what brought me to acupuncture. Acupuncture gives people a tactile sensation of their Qi. To make ourselves feel better and manage our [own] pain is what I believe we all need. I also think spaces for healing are great opportunities to build community. Acupuncture & Qi Gong are my path and have given me a new direction in my life. I feel very blessed to be a vehicle for these arts to reach my community.
You practice both Capoeira and Qi Gong which from the outside seem pretty different. Can you describe what each of these practices bring to your life?
Capoeira and Qi Gong have different roots however they both develop my awareness. Capoeira has developed my awareness of myself with others. It manifests in how I carry myself; talk, walk and how and what I choose to express to the world. Trickery, the art of maliciousness and flexibility have all [been] cultivated in me [through] Capoeira. It is believed that these traits need to be developed in order to navigate ourselves in this world. I feel that I've always been a very open person and that I needed a certain amount of balance in this regard.
Qi Gong teaches you how to be soft. To let go, to receive, and to develop insight of the world within. This impacts how I relate to others profoundly. Both arts are very necessary tools for me in this world and I have definitely [noticed] Qi Gong's influence on my Capoeira.
Cultivating trickery and maliciousness seem in direct opposition to the internal work of Qi Gong. What you mean by these terms? Can these martial arts work together?
Capoeira is a positive and uplifting form of an art. However it isn't only a martial art. It is a dance, theatre and many other things. From its development in Brasil, Capoeira's application has always been about trickery. Some say it was "disguised" to be just a dance [when] really it was a powerful martial art. Just like when it was in the slave quarters it has to show its elusiveness and mask itself. Without "malicia" or maliciousness, Capoeira would only look like ballet with two people doing cartwheels and handstands.
I don't see cultivating ‘trickery’ and ‘maliciousness’ as counteractive to a Qi gong practice. We constantly have to show ourselves to the world as being capable of surviving and playing the game of life. I think the ability to both maintain a spiritual practice and uphold one's self in the capitalist society we live in is [what that] ‘trickery’ is in regards to. Showing yourself as an upstanding citizen while what's really holding you up is your internal practices. So I believe that Qi Gong has influenced my Capoeira practice because it helps give me an equilibrium to walk in the world. Whether I'm doing Capoeira or going to work, the pause before I respond is always being cultivated and is always present.
Taoism is the underlying philosophy of Qi Gong. Taoist meditation can connect us to our internal physical and energetic body through visualization and mindfulness. What are the benefits of this subtle awareness?
Directing our gaze inward isn't an easy thing and Taoist meditation opens this up as a possibility. Connecting to our organs and how they function on an emotional level is a great tool to be able to transform and shift our emotions when we find ourselves feeling stuck. This meditation is a Qi Gong practice. Qi Gong isn’t only about movement and static postures, it involves seated meditation as well. Inner awareness is the focus of all Qi Gong. The limitation of our eyes only being able to see the outside of ourselves makes our search for happiness an external one.
What are some of the things which inspire you about Taoist philosophy?
What greatly inspires me about Taoism is how it explains life. The simplicity of it makes a lot of sense to me [and] there’s an attitude in Taoism [which] I identify with. According to the Tao, everything just is. And everything is how it should be. Living with ‘The Way’, with the source of all things, is how I want to live.