All too often, the experience of tea is reserved for the self-proclaimed connoisseur. Because there is a good deal of mystery and jargon surrounding the countless types of tea, the fascinating history of the beverage, and the equipage used in its service, tea novices may feel intimidated and reach for the more familiar coffee mug. But the truth is, most people can enjoy tea in a meaningful way without having to worry about all the detail and fuss that surrounds it. Tea is, of course, a beverage, so anyone can simply drink it. But quietly lurking in the preparing and drinking of tea lie little gems of experience, quite unavailable to those in a rush, that can soothe the souls of those who take the time to hunt for them.
Some are fortunate to have childhood memories of tea. Often a grandmother or great aunt has introduced a child to pretty teacups, white gloves, and the proper etiquette of sipping tea with adults. For these lucky people, simply holding a china teacup that looks like grandma’s will evoke a whole roomful of memories, a treasure chest of feelings that calms them as they relive the excitement of a child doing a grown-up thing and recall special moments with people long gone. While these fortunate folks may have a head start on the path of tea and self-discovery, don’t despair if holding a teacup is a brand new experience. Soon, it may mean something to you.
Tea lends itself to both sharing with friends and contemplative time alone. The experience of having tea with a friend centers on sharing, taking time to enjoy each other’s company, and relaxed intimacy. The beverage itself is usually secondary, but provides a calming yet gently stimulating atmosphere that encourages good conversation and strengthens the bonds of friendship. Habitually having tea with friends will also help create wonderful memories associated with tea that will come back to you even when sipping by yourself.
But it seems the best time to drink tea is when quietly alone. By simply spending time alone with tea, not only can you learn to appreciate tea’s flavors and aromas, but you can also enhance your knowledge of yourself. Use your teatime as a short meditative period. Allow tea to create a bubble of time within which you can experience the present without worrying about the future or the past. You can experience tea as an island of timeless perfection, an oasis from your workaday concerns. Within this space, you can experience yourself anew and emerge calmer and refreshed.
If you’re not sure tea can bring you to such an esoteric place, try this experiment. Get some tea, something you know you’ll like. Be sure that it is fresh. If you happen to have some premium tea, use that, but any tea that tastes good to you will do. If you are sensitive to caffeine, use decaffeinated tea or herbal tea. Put water on to boil (using a microwave may ruin the atmosphere), and prepare your pot or cup. If you are lucky enough to have a selection of china cups or pots, choose something that you really love for whatever reason. Take a moment to think about why you chose the piece you did. Now—wait for the water to boil. Just stand there and be. This may be difficult. You may want to do the dishes or something, but try to wait patiently. Patience is part of the experience of tea. When the water is ready, make your tea. Let’s not quibble about how to do this. Just get the tea leaves and the water together however is your habit. Set a timer for the desired steeping time and wait—that’s right, more waiting—for your tea to brew. (Setting a timer will help you not to rush this part.) When it’s ready, sit with it in a quiet corner, doing nothing. Don’t read, don’t talk, don’t answer the phone, and don’t plan tomorrow’s dinner. (It is, however, permissible to pet your cat.) Bring the teacup to your face and breathe deeply to smell the tea. Pay attention to what the aroma reminds you of, what images come to mind, and how it makes you feel. Notice what things you think about—if you think of something stressful or unpleasant, just notice it and let it go. Smell the tea again and take a small sip. Feel the hot tea in your mouth, throat, and stomach. Taste it. Notice how the flavor changes as the tea passes over different parts of your tongue and as you swallow it. Notice any lingering aftertaste. Notice any changes in how your body feels. Notice if you feel relaxed or tense, happy or sad. Are you enjoying this?
As you try this experiment with different teas, with different cups or pots, at different times of the day or days of the week, you may notice all sorts of memories, images, and emotions. You may also notice a fondness developing for the beverage that elicits so much from you. Very likely, you will begin to appreciate the subtleties of flavors and aromas of different teas and become curious about the world of experience tea offers. As you ingest more tea, as it becomes part of you, you may come to feel camaraderie with tea drinkers everywhere and in touch with the long history of a plant that grows on the other side of the world.
Welcome. You have entered a rich space that will reward you abundantly as you partake of its flavors and aromas, participate in its history, and continue your journey of self-discovery.