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Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu describes the “storytelling teahouse” as any safe place in which students can express themselves by sharing their private thoughts.

“It’s possible to tell things to perfect strangers that one might never tell one’s closest friends,” says Murphy-Shigematsu, because guests treat each other with respect. It is a place where, “I tell you my story. You listen to my story. You tell me your story. I listen to your story.”

The 68-year-old academic drew inspiration for this safe space from the teahouses built during Japan’s Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The teahouses, built by Zen Buddhist monks to practice sadō (tea ceremony), would welcome samurai who would have to remove their swords to get through the small, low entrance. Stripped of sword and title, “everyone is equal in the tearoom,” Murphy-Shigematsu explains.

Likewise, anyone entering the storytelling teahouse must first “place ego in one pocket and humility in the other.” Students enter with a “beginner’s mind,” which simply means focusing on the present moment to experience being fully alive “now.”

Most people practice meditation to achieve peak performance. Murphy-Shigematsu believes this type of mindfulness is too inward-focused. He encourages the practice of a more outward-looking form he dubs “heartfulness,” which connects people to each other. In heartfulness, he says, students can achieve a heartfelt sense of building a community.

The Japanese proverb “ichi-go ichi-e” (“one time, one meeting”) may capture the essence of the storytelling teahouse more precisely. Each moment in the teahouse, approached with humility, equality, gratitude, acceptance and vulnerability, is a chance to connect with others in ways that will never happen again.

Murphy-Shigematsu is the storytelling teahouse sensei (master), but this doesn’t mean he is above his students. Rather, it means as their elder he is simply ahead of them down the path of life. They can accept his mentorship if they choose, but he is also there to learn. He leads by sharing a story of his own.

“As I show my own humanity, students start showing theirs,” he says. From there, “it just ripples.”

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