Reading the room is something stand up comics are intimately familiar with. The difference between killing it and dying out there are vastly different. Jokes that get the biggest laugh with one audience may fall flat with another. How to handle a heckler and make them a part of your act is an art form that every comic needs to be good at, because sooner or later there will be a heckler in the audience. People are there to be entertained and have a laugh. If you are not funny or entertaining, audience feedback is instant. People are not shy about expressing approval or disapproval.
The same thing happens with live theater and public speaking. Presenters and actors know when they have lost the audience. They may not be as vocal as with comedians, but when people lose interest, you can feel it on stage or at the podium. Musicians and performers also know about reading the room. They have learned how to keep people engaged, energized and on their side.
The thing is, especially with public speakers, the speaker need not be slick and professional to hold an audience. I have seen terrible public speakers keep people on the edge of their seats. The presentation may take many wandering asides, or the story may make absolutely no sense, yet the audience will stay with the speaker, encourage them and give them energy.
The same thing happens with the host at a tea gathering. The host must learn to read the room. Like the terrible public speakers, a host at a tea gathering may not have a perfect and beautiful temae to keep the guests engaged. Learning to read the room and be flexible enough to keep the guests engaged is part of the art of tea.
I am reminded of the story of Rikyu and his disciple who went to a gathering. The host was very nervous and made many mistakes in his temae. His hand trembled and the tea scoop fell from the tea caddy, and without stopping to put straight the whisk which had rolled on the mat to his side, he presented the bowl of tea to Rikyu. The disciple snickered at the mistakes, but Rikyu said that the presentation of tea was the best he had ever seen. Later, on the way home, the disciple asked Rikyu what was so great about the presentation of tea. Rikyu replied that the host’s whole mind was so concentrated on giving me the bowl of tea before it cooled that he took no notice of the slips and accidents, but went straight on and finished serving it.
What is it about these stories that hold the guests and/or the audience in spite of the imperfections? For me, I have learned it is about authenticity, sincerity, and focus. In other words, kokoro. Showing up not just in your body, but in your mind, and your spirit. It is being present for your guests. It is about sincerely wanting to make the best tea for your guests rather than make no mistakes. It is about the focus on your guests, rather than how you look.
I believe guests show up to a tea gathering predisposed to want the host to do well. They are ready and eager to give the host their energy and focus. If they find themselves in the middle of a perfectly beautiful but cold temae, the energy of the room slips away a little at a time. If the focus of the host is to make no mistakes, the guests may have a good time, but not a memorable or life enhancing experience.
One of the most memorable gatherings I have attended didn’t have beautiful or expensive dogu. The host’s temae was not perfect. But the host was masterful at reading the room, flexible to adjust himself to the guests, and the energy of the guests fed the host who returned it to the guests. I never wanted it to end. I just wanted to sit there at the nexus and feed on the energy and feelings of everyone in the room. We all could feel the kokoro.