blah, blah, blah

by Jean-Claude van Itallie

March 1, 2016

Thanks to all who came to my "readings" of Tea with Demons, games of transformation at Elmer's Store in Ashfield, Massachusetts, and World Eye Book Shop in Greenfield, Massachusetts, this February.

I was touched by the turnout and the enthusiasm. Learned that it feels best at such a reading to have tea, chat, and play games from the book. 


Jean-Claude, left and above, at Elmer's Store, Ashfield; at World Eye Bookshop, Greenfield, top left.

Tea with Demons filled with insight, inspiration

By TINKY WEISBLAT for The Recorder

Friday, February 19, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tea with Demons by Jean-Claude van Itallie (Leonardo/Haley’s, 212 pages, $24.95)

     Locally, the Shantigar Foundation serves as a center for theater, meditation and healing. In New York and around the world, its founder is known as the playwright of such works as “America Hurrah” and “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

     Jean-Claude van Itallie, who will turn 80 this year, has a spirit that shines through his writing. “Tea with Demons” takes its name from its author’s contention that many of the problems that beset us are, in fact, the product of our own inner demons.

     His book provides a number of mechanisms by which we can make peace with those demons and improve the quality of our lives. He calls these 49 mechanisms “games.” Some of them seem like games; others, more like exercises. Most of them are doable and look like a lot of fun. “Tea with Demons” and its games are divided into a number of chapters and sections based on a “resplendent palace” imagined by van Itallie. He devotes different corners and levels of this structure to varying colors, seasons and moods.

     He introduces and illustrates the different parts of his palace with autobiographical anecdotes, drawings and color photographs. Many of the photographs depict van Itallie himself. Using his image is a smart tactic: his personality is clearly strong, and his smile is infectious.

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January 26, 2016

Had an amazing NYC blizzard weekend. Was to attend playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie's workshop based on his "hot-off-the-press" book, Tea With Demons - Games of Transformation.

Instead we shared tea in his West Village home with the snow whirling outside. I love New York . . .
                                                       —Katharine Gilpin

January 16, 2016

The Martian

      What is the mythical meaning and unconscious popular appeal of the highly touted movie The Martian starring Matt Damon as an astronaut abandoned alone on Mars?

     The Martian won the Golden Globe Award and may go on to Oscar glory. Why? I saw it recently, escorting a friend who had been assured the film was “worthwhile.”

     Granted, we saw it in a Times Square multiplex where we had to clamber almost to the top row of a small steep nearly empty theater to flee the overwhelming assault of the HUGE digitalized screen with its BLARING sound.

     Behind us a man stretched out, his feet on the arm of the seat in front of him, closing his eyes through twenty minutes of previews. I twisted Kleenex and stuffed it in my ears.

     The emptiness of a NYC theater showing the latest Hollywood blockbuster may speak volumes about the future of movie-going. Wouldn’t we all rather stay home and stream? There we can choose screen size, control volume, and fast forward ads.

     So what is really going on in The Martian? The hero is inadvertently abandoned by his mother ship commanded by a woman who loves him as a friend. Is she symbolically his mother? When she is advised that against all odds he survived the aborted Mars landing and is living like a baby out there on his own—she feels terribly guilty.

     Meanwhile, back on Mother Earth, everyone in the world is heartened by news of the astronaut’s survival and horrified at his abandonment. They cooperate to rescue him at whatever cost.

     Some 140 million miles away, our smart astronaut—conveniently also a botanist—like a good child without a parent, learns to survive alone on Mars, as he explains, by “growing potatoes in my own shit”—in a sense accomplishing his own toilet training.

     The commander defies orders and common sense by turning her mother ship around to go rescue him. The whole of Mother Earth cheers her on. In this movie, everyone behaves well.

     The astronaut climbs into a small, stripped-down rocket-ship with only a plastic condom-like tarp (which will soon rip away) to protect him against the rigors of outer space. He shoots off like a solitary sperm to an improbable rendezvous with his mother ship. But first he shaves, I guess so he can greet his commander with his recognizable smooth Matt Damon baby face.

     Ultimately, the determined commander boldly and bodily ventures into dangerous outer space to reel in her abandoned astronaut on a long tangled umbilical cord-like ribbon.

     Judging by the many violent attacks on abortion doctors and clinics, many Americans profoundly identify with fetuses—unconsciously and irrationally terrified, perhaps, that if they don’t save fetuses, they may identify themselves as “an abortion” unwanted by their mothers.

     Often when dreaming we are trying to deal with hidden emotional matter—our demons—that we are unable to acknowledge or deal with in our waking lives.

     In a way, a popular movie is a communal dream.

     On an unconscious symbolic level, The Martian may be a communal dream trying to assuage and resolve hidden passionate feelings of abandonment and lack of love from parents.

     The Martian subliminally claims that all we children of abandonment and insufficient love can, if we try, survive and live happily ever after in a technologically successful world.

     But, alas, it ain’t necessarily so. To live with our inner demons, we must bravely and painfully acknowledge them first—not just go on pretending they aren’t there.

January 4, 2016

Warm Fireside Vibes 


     This early January, sending warm fireside vibes from Western Mass, cold at last, to friends everywhere.

     In the new year may we reach out with trusting hearts, touch hands, and experience peace within and without. We are all refugees. Today I was heartened to receive the following two emails from friends. Authors like to receive emails like this.

     "Last night I saw a friend at a party. She came rushing over to me with an excited look in her eyes. I was flattered that she seemed so thrilled at my presence. It turns out what she was really excited about was Tea With Demons, games of transformation. She bought a copy to give her daughter after seeing it on my Facebook page, but she's been keeping it under her pillow and reading it every day. She's going to get another copy for herself. She loves the feeling of flow she gets from the book and is drawn to opening it every day."    

     "Back from my travels and Tea with Demons was awaiting my arrival home. Great book! Been savoring it but finding my control of my copy challenged. Staying with a friend and his fiance who love it too so I have to fight them for it. Last night another old friend came to dinner. She also immediately fell for Tea with Demons. I'll be getting more copies!"

November 24, 2015

We Are All Refugees

     I am a refugee.

     In May, 1940 I was a scared four-year-old Jewish-born Belgian with my family fleeing for our lives. My mother, Marthe Levy van Itallie, drove my four grandparents, my aunt, and me from Brussels into France on roads packed with fleeing Jews dodging bombs.

     My father, Hughes van Itallie, in the Belgian army when Belgium surrendered, picked up a British helmet on the beach at Dunkirk, put it on, rowed out to a British ship, and was taken on board. From England, he returned to France, where he joined us.

     In the French port town of Bordeaux, my paternal grandparents, Dutch nationals Tilly and Ferdinand van Itallie, took a Dutch ship to cross the Channel to England, but the ship, the Berenice, was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat and my grandparents killed.       

     In June in Bordeaux, too, the brave Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul, defied orders from his boss, the dictator Salazar, and issued visas for entry into Portugal to thousands of us Jews.

     In the fall as we waited near Lisbon, Newton J. Rice, an American glove manufacturing colleague of my maternal grandfather, Fernand Levy, contacted his friend, the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who telegraphed the American Consulate in Lisbon: “Give visas to Fernand Levy and his family.” We sailed on a Japanese ship, the Aku Saki Maru, to NYC. I remember the joy on board at everyone's first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. We were saved.

     We escaped Hitler through luck, my father’s smarts, some means, and, especially, through the kindness of strangers. My family and I are wildly fortunate to be welcome in the US and to call it home.

     We were lucky to have penetrated the American barrier of prejudice against Jews in 1940, a prejudice similar to that against Syrian refugees today as expressed by the governors of thirty-one of US states announcing they will not accept Syrian refugees.

     My whole family did not escape. My great aunt Irma Levy and her daughter Luce, who lived in Paris, tried to join us in Fouras, France as we were fleeing but missed us by twenty-four hours. Luce wrote to the family in July 13, 1940: “My dear all, I can’t tell you how disappointed Mother and I were after a grueling six day journey by subway, on foot, in military trucks, and in cattle cars carrying three small suitcases with not much in them but which seemed quite heavy to us. We spent nights in railroad stations sitting on our suitcases which are now badly crushed, and in hospitality centers, barns, or six in a bed . . . ”

     Luce and her mother returned to Paris and were later deported to a Nazi concentration camp where they were exterminated.

     In a sense we are all escaping a country or state of mind, an unhappy childhood perhaps.

     Certainly America is a nation of refugees. That is its strength.

     Syrian refugees, carefully screened to make sure there are no terrorists among them, are not a danger to our security. They are fleeing from terrorists. They are not themselves terrorists.

     They are mostly middle class folk terrified for their lives and seeking shelter and the chance to live productive, creative lives.

     We in the West share responsibility for the de-stabilization of the Middle East through our waging perpetual war there, a war has driven millions of refugees out of places like Syria and Afghanistan as well as pushing desperate suicidal young people into the arms of terrorist organizations like ISIL.

     Let us open our hearts and minds to the fleeing and frightened. Let us give them refuge. For we are all, literally or figuratively, refugees.

 November 18, 2015

I Love the Premise

    “I love the premise,” a friend commented on Facebook about the title of my book Tea with Demons, games of transfomation. What does she mean? What premise? What demons? Why offer them tea?

    I believe we all have demons inside our mind. They tell us what we can’t do and why we can’t do it. You’ve heard them. I’m sure you have.

    How can you recognize demon voices from other voices in your mind? How to tell when a voice is demonic rather than sensible or even angelic?  After all, someone shouting, “You can’t do that!” could be benevolently warning you or malevolently halting you.

    One way to tell a demon voice is by timing—when a voice turns up.  Significantly, demons are on the scene especially when we start something creative, something new and positive that pushes the envelope of what we were allowed to accomplish as children.

    We can often recognize demons by the negative hurtful tone of how they speak to us. They may speak in the familiar judgmental voices of early caretakers in our lives when those caretakers were being negative. They employ nasty phrases like, “You’re too stupid.” and “There you go again.” and “Who do you think you are?”

    So if you recognize demons, why on earth offer them tea? Why not just tell them to shut up and let you go about your business?

    Well, because, unfortunately, demons won’t shut up. So why not beat them up or kill them? Isn’t that what we do to enemies? But our demons are inside our minds. They are part of us. We can’t beat them up or kill them without harming or killing ourselves.

    Symbolically offering tea to demons is a way of acknowledging our shadow selves. By recognizing our demons, by offering them tea, we start the long process of re-integrating their power into ourselves. 

November 17, 2015


   I am accompanying this with a picture of a flower because it is peaceful, and I believe peace is what we all want.

   Everyone takes personally an attack on Paris, city of light. This morning I read that one of the murderers was born in a poor suburb of my native Brussels. I wish he weren't but he was.

   Each act of horrible mass violence understandably makes us want to be violent back, though the French bombing of Raffa may unwittingly play into the hands of ISIL, killing not ISIL leaders (who likely moved on) but yet more civilians, these being Syrians. The survivors may in desperation join ISIL.

     I believe what we most need to do is soul-search the causes of these ongoing horrors. If we can grok causes, perhaps we can stop the violence or at least cool it down.   

     Why are there vicious suicidal attacks, including 911, on innocent civilians in the West? It's a question worth asking ourselves. It's not enough to shout, "these are evil people" or, as Bush II claimed, "they hate freedom." When I watched on TV the twin towers sliding down, I thought: at least we in the US will now have to ask ourselves why do some people hate us so much? But that never became part of the national dialogue.

   After 911, Bush was wrong, deliberately maybe, about the reason to go to war in Iraq. But fourteen years later the US and its allies are still attacking and occupying the Middle East, causing intense suffering to millions, dropping bombs that kill not only combatants but grandmothers and children in hospitals, at weddings and funerals. Why? Oil? Balance of power? Domestic power for our leaders? Money for arms makers? Force of habit?

   By waging perpetual war in the Middle East—sometimes not even sure who or where is the enemy—have we have helped build a huge backlog of hate, a Middle Eastern generation blindly bent on revenge? Feeling suicidal with nothing to live for, increasing numbers of young, poor Muslims are joining fanatic fundamentalist groups like ISIL.

   The crucial question isn't who started the violence, or even why. It's how to stop it. Even if there were good will, that wouldn't be easy. The situation is immensely convoluted, with paranoia and rampant greed for power.

   Yet, if we don't cool things out in the Middle East, it could easily turn, as fortune tellers as divergent as Nostradamus and Richard Nixon have predicted, into World War III—and end civilization.

November 15, 2015

Dropping Down into Awareness

    Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night in a state of anxiety about real, not delusional, concerns: age, poverty, isolation, my friends and me dying – for instance.  In this tense state, each passing thought is dingy with despair.  Everywhere I look—home, security, dear ones, the ground and my body itself, crumble before my eyes as in a horror movie.

    This feeling is probably far more common than is usually mentioned. Its frequent occurrence in many people accounts for the high consumption in rich countries of anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs.  But medical drugs accumulate industrial chemicals in the body, speeding up physical and mental disease even if sometimes masking them a little.

    So not drugged, tossing and turning, I may try to “get hold of myself” by remembering edifying ideas.  But good thoughts cannot win over bad ones.  I have never  “learned my lesson” just by thinking.  All thoughts, good and bad, are abstract stuff playing on mind’s chess board.

    Our chessboard logical way of thinking, with its solid-feeling “I,” is extremely useful for coping and getting ahead.  But why should we limit ourselves to thinking only in this way?  We may be able to think in more than one way.

    What if mind has a vertical dimension and works differently on other levels in the body?  Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists envision chakras, spinning colored wheels of subtle awareness corresponding to our endocrine glands.

    If we consider chessboard thinking as located at the brow, what kind of thinking might be located at the heart, say, and the gut?

    I imagine that on deeper levels of awareness (and who knows how many there are) “I” is increasingly less solid and possessive.  So dropping into deeper levels may ease me by loosening my tight grip on self as primary. 
    If “I” am less rigidly identified say, at the heart than at the brow, then at the heart my personal suffering may feel less paramount. In my gut thinking may be even less quantified, quickened, more spacious, playful and intuitive—as in dreaming.

    Becoming aware more profoundly may be why we are here – ultimately to realize our God nature, to know and compassionately be all.
    But how to drop down into deeper levels of self? 

    Sitting meditation is the traditional way of slowing down waves of habitual thought to allow contact with more subtle awareness.  But meditation instruction is never, “don’t think.”  That would be as impossible as ignoring the white elephant in the room.  Instead we pay attention to breathing. 
    It’s a simple trick, and yes it is a trick. Most transformation techniques are tricks, or games. We need such games as no instant enlightenment is available, alas. 

    Because our bodies are less resistant than our minds, many transformation practices or games are physical and involve the senses. A healthy alert body can lead a reluctant mind into greener pastures. 
    Games of moving, singing, dancing, doing, seeing, and listening have power over our spirit. They change us into more spacious listening, seeing singing dancing beings, at least for a short while.  Played often over years, such games profoundly change our sense of who we are.

    My book Tea with Demons offers forty-nine games for you to play.  Some are traditional, some simple and obvious, some surprising.
    On a regular basis, play one or two that attract you. The effects may be subtle at first but they are profound in the long run.

    Eventually by practicing the games, you become more yourself, the divine player.