The many paths of non-linear tea learning

All of the trails in this photo lead to the tea. Some are long and fairly continuous. Others diverge and split and groove all over the place. They all begin from various unique points on the brim of the cup – the first sip of tea. And where they go from there is really where the tea takes them. But they all lead to tea.

As a visual concept, non-linear makes a lot of sense. It’s more than just an analogy or a nice idea, though: This is also the very literal knowledge of the body. Our body knows time is non-linear, even when perhaps our thinking brain doesn’t quite get it. Our cellular cycles, our internal seasons, how we constantly circle back on everything in our experience while at the same time moving forward. So why is this so challenging for the mind? And why is it a challenge for our learning?

I started to realize some time ago that I’ve always been a non-linear learner when it came to my tea, but I didn’t fully have the words for describing why or how until recently. Let me explain a little of that history:

My main way of learning tea was cyclical, repetitive (in a good way), and very embodied. I worked a job where preparing a LOT of tea, every day, and caring for tea, was a key part of my work. I learned seasons and variations and quality through every sniff at the cupping table and from the many teapots that I washed. At the same time, I was also a trainer and had to teach staff about tea in a way that spoke more to how we live tea rather than how we analyze tea. This was because the people they would interact with – customers – were enjoying tea as life, themselves, not as an analytical pursuit. Words mattered.

I also saw this method reinforced through other related modalities I studied over the years. When I lived in California, for example, I was able to enroll with the Urasenke Foundation and study chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony). Considered one of the traditional “Ways” of life practice, tea in this culture is framed entirely in the perspective of cycles and connections. The style of tea, how we serve it, changes all year, with every season and every gathering. The manner that we come to the tatami mat to study is through our body – classes are often nearly silent, there’s no note taking, and we learn through observing, feeling the movement in the muscle, and absorbing knowledge beyond the grasp of words.

This non-verbal, very embodied and personal approach to knowledge was also reflected in my studies of yoga, Alexander Technique, Somatics, and other similar forms.

Where I ran into a bit of a wall was in systems that require everyone to walk the same path. System that lay out the very exacting pieces of information that one must know, in an unwavering determined order, where we are tested and certified and led to believe that we just keep ascending up and up and up… until, what?

We make it somewhere?

We are a “tea master”?

We are done learning?

Indeed, over the years as a teacher in professional/industry settings, I have met many students in a rush to get through their tea studies, to get that diploma, specifically so they can “be done with it.” This is not at all uncommon.

As program director – if I want a fancy title, haha! – here at Being Tea, I still run into this from time to time. In folks who are surprised that there are no certificates, no tests, no awards here. No “this before that,” no progressive courses to move through. I do understand how this can be confusing, especially since so much of how we are educated in our westernized, modernized culture is through structured, codified, performative based systems. But this is not the only way to learn.

One of my core teachers, Yoli Maya Yeh, shares that in matrilineal teaching – that is, through the mother line – knowledge is passed on verbally and often through creative expression. In songs, dance, poetry. In cooking, in weaving, in tending the land. However, especially in the West, most of what we have built our educational and training systems around is patriarchal point of view. Academics is rife with this. Yoli notes how common it is for actual practitioners (including/especially Indigenous folks) of a subject to be excluded as scholars; only the “formal,” controlled method training of academics could produce true expertise. Publication, advancement, ascension are the goals in this realm.

Sound familiar to corporate life? The same echoes in our education.

This is why it’s so important to have spaces that exist outside of this bubble. Where body, personal experience, language, emotion, are all invited together to play. And it may not be “school,” but make no mistake, it’s DEEP learning! It is also a structure and a system, just a different one.

Compare how someone who is practicing a very physically energetic yoga style looks, from the outside, to someone who is lying on the floor, all cushioned and blanketed up on pillows, practicing restorative yoga and not moving much. Both practitioners are actually doing a whole lot of work! One of them, however, is doing their deeper work below the surface, where the outside world can’t see. But it is still just as worthy and important for health of mind and body. (and you know, learning to rest is a whole other subject we can get into sometime, whew!!!)

I just wanted to share some musings behind why things are the way they are here at Being Tea. Everything is always very intentional, and sometimes there’s words for that, while other times, it’s more like a feeling. One that hopefully brings us closer to Tea, rather than separates us from it.

“For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring? Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer