Using tea to start a meditative practice
Meditation has been gaining an increasing amount of attention in western culture over the last few years. Our lives and our minds have become over indexed with large amounts of information. Moreover, much of the information we process on a daily basis isn’t necessarily that valuable to us, and has even shown to be detrimental to our mental health. Fortunately, meditation provides a pathway to peace. If you are already a tea drinker, or have aspire to begin drinking tea, you can use your beverage a queue to engage in meditative moments. The ritual provides a great opportunity for you to slow down and use your senses to bring more awareness to the present.
Why should I meditate?
I am far from a meditation expert, but through the power of knowledge brought by the internet, I have read, listened, and practiced meditation enough to understand the benefits. If you are asking yourself why you would want to meditate, consider your answers to the following questions,
- Am I frequently overwhelmed or anxious?
- Do I jump from thought to thought, or struggle to focus?
- Do I spend more of my time worrying about the future instead, rather than living in the present?
- Do I set aside time for observation and reflection?
If you answered yes to the first three questions, or no the the last, you might see immediate benefits from beginning a regular mediation practice. Various types of meditation have shown through scientific studies to ease anxiety, improve focus, and reduce stress. There are other desirable outcomes that have been achieved through meditation, but I find anxiety, stress, and lack of focus to be relatable to most people.
Why would tea be used for meditation?
There are many kinds of meditation, each originating from different religions or cultures, each with their own goals or benefits. For the purpose of your new tea meditation practice, we are going to focus on a kind of meditation called mindfulness.
Traditionally, mindfulness is practiced in a quiet space in a seated position, and is an opportunity to focus on your breath, and observe your thoughts. The desired outcome of a regular mindfulness practice is to create a degree of self-awareness, in mind, body, and spirit. Ideally, through practice, you begin to take this awareness into every part of your day, as a way to live in the moment, and embrace a peaceful spirit. By incorporating mindfulness into a tea practice, we can start to bring that desired attention into an activity, while still purposefully creating space and room for that awareness to build over time.
Brewing and drinking tea can be a procedural, and repetitive process. The idea behind incorporating an activity like making and consuming tea into meditation is to have just enough controlled activity that you can practice awareness in a task. Additionally, making and drinking tea allow you to actively engage your sense of smell, sight, taste, and touch. I can’t think of a better activity to support rooting yourself in the moment.
Preparing for your tea meditation session
To avoid interruption during your tea practice, it’s best to make sure you have everything you need laid out ahead of time. That means making some mindful decisions about a few pieces of tea ware and what tea you will be drinking, as well as setting out everything in the space you intend to use.
1. Choose a tea infuser or brewing vessel
If you are already a tea drinker, you might steep a large pot at once, and drink from it over time. While a larger pot of tea can certainly still be effective for meditation purposes, I encourage you to take out or purchase a gaiwan, which will allow for several smaller infusions in quick succession. In lieu of a gaiwan, a small tea infuser can still be effectively used. I’ll explain why smaller infusions are preferred further on.
2. Choose a tea cup
Again, aim for a smaller cup. A larger teacup will tempt you to fill it all the way, preventing you from repeating the process of steeping and pouring repeatedly. In addition to choosing a cup that’s smaller, try to pick a material and design that brings you joy. A cup that you can pick up a thousand times and not tire of it’s existence. Personally, I use a bamboo imprinted cast iron tea cup. I enjoy the weight of the metal, as well as the texture and the design. You may also want to consider using a cup that is white on the inside, so that it is easier to observe the tea you brew.
3. Select a tea
You don’t have to do this step ahead of time if you don’t want to. You can wait until your meditation time to see what you are in the mood for. I suggest choosing a quality loose leaf tea, and preferably a black, oolong, or pu’er. These varieties that will hold up better over multiple infusions during the course of your session. The benefit of laying out the tea ahead of time, is a reduction of activity you have to complete prior to starting your tea practice. If you are intending to make your tea sessions a habit, eliminating friction can improve your chances of success.
4. Have everything ready to go ahead of time
In the same vein of eliminating obstacles, there are a few other items you should have available prior to beginning your tea meditation,
- Hot water kettle or container, (I use the Epica 6 temp kettle)
- Tea tray or mat
- Empty container for waste water and tea, if you intend to rinse your tea or cup
- Cloth or rag, that can be used for spills or mishaps
- Tea warmer and candle, if using a larger brewing vessel
As you did with tea cup selection, if each of these listed items can be selected for both aesthetics and utility, it may bring more enjoyment to your meditative experience. If nothing else, select simple and practical equipment, that will serve their functions well. You can always switch out equipment over time, your decisions here have no permanence.
Starting your tea meditation practice
Before beginning, recall that the goal of this is to engage in a mindfulness practice. You can make your own adjustments to the following guide, to fit your needs. If you brew your tea and take it on the go in a thermos, you can still apply the techniques here to bring more awareness into the present moment.
1. Begin with gratitude
Take some deep breaths and see how acknowledge how they feel. Prior to touching any tea or water, take a moment to express gratitude. You can by thankful for whatever you choose, as this is your practice. If all else fails, and you can’t think of anything specifically, mentally express your thanks for the time provided to reflect, the tea in front of you, and the breath that is within you. Gratitude has been shown to improve psycological traits, and our intention here is to help set our mindset for the coming moments.
2. Adding the tea to the brewing vessel
Take a deep breath. Pour some tea into your hand. Look closely at the tea. What color is it? What shape does it have? Is it uniform, or are there varying shapes and sizes. What does it smell like? What does it feel like? This plant came from the earth, was likely grown far from where you live, and then harvested and processed by real people. Now that plant is in your hand. Place the tea in your brewing vessel or tea infuser.
3. Pour your water
Continue to return to your breath between actions, bringing awareness to both your body and thoughts. Pour water into your brewing vessel. If you are rinsing your tea, immediately pour the water into the waste container. Pour new water over your leaves. Observe how the water changes the tea leaves form, texture, and color.
4. Smell your tea
As you wait 30 seconds, or the decided duration of your infusions, take more deep breaths. Bring the brewing vessel close to your face and note the aromas emitted. Enjoy this brief period of waiting, and continue to observe your thoughts.
5. Pour the tea
Keep breathing. Carefully, pour the brewed tea into your cup. Notice the color of the tea within the cup. Are there any pieces of tea, large or small, that escaped the gaiwan or strainer? There is not a correct answer to this question, only objective analysis of the tea in the cup. Seek to observe what is there.
6. Hold the teacup in your hand
Take the cup in your hand and hold it close to your face. Close your eyes and take a few breaths. With your eyes still closed, feel the warmth and texture of the cup, the weight of it in your hands. Smell the tea, and acknowledge any familiarity to other foods and smells. Are you thinking about things other than your breath or the tea in front of you? Do not fret, acknowledge these distractions, and do your best to return to the process in front of you.
7. Sip the tea
Everything you’ve done so far has led up to this moment. Reflect on it. Drink with your eyes closed, so that you may bring extra attention to the flavors and sensations it brings. Between each sip, take a deep breath, and return your focus to the mind and body. Enjoy this moment.
8. Repeat steps as necessary, bringing awareness to changes
Repeat steps 3 through 7, infusing the tea leaves many times. As you work through each cup of tea, try to take notice of the subtle changes from one infusion to the next. You may see the color of the tea lighten up, and the flavor continue to evolve as you expose more and different parts of the tea leaves. As the flavor becomes weaker, extend your infusions to one minute, or longer. Continue to observe and be present as much as possible, returning to the breath between moments.
9. Inspect your tea leaves
When you’ve had enough tea, or felt that you’ve gotten all that you can out of the current leaves, inspect them again before discarding. How are they different are they from what you began with? If you are continuing your session, reload your gaiwan or infuser with new tea, starting from step 2 again.
10. End with gratitude
Best to end where we began. Take a moment to appreciate the exhausted tea leaves for their contribution to you. Continue to sit and focus on your breath, eyes open or closed, as long as you see fit. Being out of tea does not dictate the end of your session, this is your time. Embrace it.
Practice makes perfect
With time and repetition, your tea meditation sessions will become more and more refined, and you will be able to take your focus and observation into the rest of your day. There is a reason they call meditation a practice, as it isn’t something you can perfect. If you find your mind wandering, and your mindlessly sipping tea, don’t judge yourself too harshly. There is no wrong way to approach this exercise. Instead of judgement, acknowledge your distraction, and refocus on your breath and the tea task at hand. With tea meditation as a starting place, I’m confident you can find an inner peace that can be extended into all areas of your life.
Happy Sipping, and happy sitting!
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Cover Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav)