The scene is all too familiar. Our props: coffee, laptop, music. Our scene: a bustling cafe or office desk.
Our emotional tone : busy, focused, productive, perhaps sprinkled, occasionally, with some stress and worry, with a bit of fatigue and anxiety on the side.
Don’t get me wrong. At this very moment, I am at said cafe—loud music, Mac Book, strangers conversing, an americano or two down my throat, writing about the quiet, meditative practice of zen tea-drinking. I know, quite the contradiction.
But I am going to lean on on Walt Whitman’s famous lines here :
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)
And, so do you. We all do. The key, to a rich and balanced life, is (perhaps?) to not live too one-sidedly—allowing the multitudes within us to each have a moment of stepping onto center stage. My crazy, coffee-loving, people-needing creative is at home here, among the bustle of the world. I drink in these beautiful human creatures, and they give me more of a buzz than the caffeine.
But there are other parts of me that must be tended to. And so, even as I sit here, with hipster cafe-music blaring in my head and posters of cult bands on the walls around me, my imagination moves to ritual. The man in front of me, with his ripped jeans, green t-shirt and curly hair pulled back in a pony-tail, transforms into a zen monk, in brown clothing, at home amidst silence, solitude, and simple ritual. He cups a ceramic vessel between his cold hands, and feels the warmth seep into his bones. He breathes in the steam from the tea he has just made, quietly. His nostrils clear, and he recognizes an aroma familiar and calming. He thanks the earth for her sustenance and beauty.
Zen tea-drinking is an art form, a spiritual practice that brings mindfulness into our daily lives, and connects us to the many elements of our natural world.
The Chinese tea sage Lu Yu (733-804) was known for his precise method of tea-drinking, eventually being given the honorary title of “Tea God.” In his teachings and methods, he stressed our need to not only make contact with, but immerse ourselves fully, in everyday nature.
In ancient tea-drinking the elements of our natural world are evoked and related to—water (the base of the tea), wood (tea leaves and fire wood), fire (the flame that boils the tea), and earth (the pottery). It was a daily ritual which the practitioner used to ground himself and come into relation with the basic and primeval forces of the Universal Spirit or Tao.
When studying this ritual many years ago, I quickly realized how far we have veered away from this practice. I thought of the many times I turned on my electric kettle, dropped a tea bag into a glazed mug (with “I love NYC” or some other painfully cheesy image like a dog wearing a buret standing in front of the Eiffel Tower plastered on its side) for a couple of seconds, and sat down to work or plan my daily tasks. Tasks. Tasks. Tasks. The tea was just a nice, warm reminder of all I had to get done. Providing some unconscious warmth amidst a conglomeration of conscious doings.
Inevitably, there would come a moment when I would reach the bottom of the mug and think to myself, “Wow, my tea is finished. I don’t remember drinking all of that.”
And then I would swallow the last, usually cold sip and repeat : Press button to boil water. Use same old tea bag for the second time. Roll my eyes at the buret-wearing dog (Who gave me this mug, anyway? Surely, I didn’t spend money on it). And continue to drink my tea as a nice accompaniment to the brewing of my busy mind and external work.
There was no rich simplicity or abundant stillness in my morning that defined the ancient practice of tea-drinking. The book, The Way of Tea : Reflections of a Life with Tea summarizes Lu Yu’s wisdom, and makes a strong case for reviving the practice, as a way of finding tranquility, equanimity, and a relationship to the natural forces that surround us.
“The profundity found just beyond the silence that tea inspires is deep, giving rise to joy and reflection, contemplation and meditation. Without such introversion a life is incomplete. …so many of the problems in the modern world are directly related to an ignorance of the dialogue between Nature and Man that can only arise when all external stimuli are removed and tranquility is sought. A healthy life with serenity, equanimity, and wisdom is not a figment of ancient stories, nor just the aged beauty of those hoary scroll paintings. Even in this day one can live in harmony with the Tao.”
Those words are as warming to my heart as the tea that comes with them.
In re-engaging with this practice, I found a few useful hints from studying the ancient tea masters, while still being able to live in my modern apartment and not plant bonsai trees in every corner, and replace my couch with a japanese stone garden. (though that would be quite nice!)
- Make space for quiet ritual. This begins with the way you make the tea and carries over into how you drink it.
- Be slow and intentional. Realize what you are doing. Keep your mind focused on the simple act of creating and taking tea.
- No gadgets. The modern way of saying no distractions.
- Have a corner or special seat (preferably in a quiet and sacred area of your house) as the place you take your tea.
- Connect with the elements. Most of us don’t have wood fire places anymore, unfortunately. But buy loose leaf teas, know where they come from, study the proper way to brew them with care, use simple, ceramic mugs made from elements of the earth. These things seem simple and trivial but make a huge difference to the way we experience and evoke the grounding and relating aspects of the ritual.
The tea-taking ritual can be designed to cultivate moments of solitude or also to deepen connectedness with others. When we engage in conversation during a ritual of tea, social norms fall away. Chit-chat is replaced with a meaningful dialogue. The scene is set for depth and soul-infused language to emerge.
The Way of Tea, continues :
The Way of Tea is not some somber religious ceremony held in dimly-lit halls by a bunch of solemn tea weirdoes chanting between sips. There is no cult of tea. The “teaists” I know find in tea a Way of sharing their inner peace with each other, of relaxing the ego, allowing us to be free and open with one another. Drinking tea with Tao is about letting go of all our “stuff ” and just being ourselves as we really are, in our true nature.
Darn, there goes my witch-brew. I quite enjoyed chanting mantras and spells between sips. I will have to email my cult members and update our membership policies and procedures.
Jokes aside, any practice that allows me to let go of my “stuff” and just rest in my self is unbelievably appealing. And how beautiful to sit before another soul, and experience their true essence, the simplicity of who they are, the richness they bring without social pretense.
When shall we meet, my friend? This time, let us forego our favorite cafe. Come to my home. Be with me over a cup of tea, and offer me your soul. I bow before you, beautiful one and look forward to honoring all that you are and the space that is alive and pregnant between us.