Joining the World’s Most-Shared Meditation
Practicing the simple art of tea
Illustration Credit: Titmouse Tea by Vivienne Strauss
From the archive: Selected stories from the past 20 years. Tea as a universal meditation
I remember hiking on cold nights over endless sand dunes in the Sahara Desert until finally the nomad guide stops, throws a rug on the sand, and prepares to heat water. Minutes before, we were intent, purposeful, slogging off the miles. Now, the bells on the necks of animals and the swooshing of pants and bags have ceased, and we hear only our breaths and the kettle. As the bubbles rise to the surface, the guide grabs a pouch of tea leaves from his side bag, and we enter a time of calm.
My journeys in and out of slums and villages and cultures around the world have been filled with excitement and difference, but there is this quiet through line: tea. Cups, mugs, glasses, pitchers, thermoses, and just about any other vessel have been handed to me, and it always slows me down.
I often think of my friend who gave up alcoholism for the art of tea, as well as my own struggles with ADD, and I have come to understand tea as a meditation rather than as a beverage. I don’t need a yoga mat or a Vipassana center. I have learned that when a moment gets too intense—or even when it doesn’t—I should begin to brew water and pull the tea from my side bag. Beauty and silence will follow.
My personal favorite is raw pu’er tea, a nonfermented tea from the Yunnan province of China that has been used as medicine for the last 2,000 years. Pu’er tea is known for lowering bad cholesterol, raising good cholesterol, fighting metabolic syndrome—and having little caffeine and huge amounts of the amino acid GABA, which relieves stress and calms minds and bodies. But that’s not why I came to love pu’er. I came to love the tea because it warms my core and settles my mind.
I drink tea every day. I think it is better to get to know one particular tea and focus more on the time spent sitting quietly. Focus on being thankful for the day and the moment you have. Day after day, this will become something you grow to love.
My mind was like a wild horse, and tea was the rope that allowed me to get to know it. When I began to brew tea on a regular basis, I started to understand and have compassion and love for that animal. With time, my mind became mine.
At Its Simplest …
The great tea sage Lu Yu famously said, “The water is done boiling when the bubbles look like fish eyes.” At this moment, usually two to three minutes over fire, you have water. No need to make it a difficult procedure, just add the leaves into the pot or cup, strain it if you like, and hold it in your hand. Breathe for a moment as the steam leaves the cup. Tea is water, your body is water, let it enter you with calmness. As you take your first sip, be thankful you have such time.