Healing divided self: Why tea meditation matters
In January 2020, weeks before the pandemic would tear apart so much, a college student asked me a question about burnout during a tea meditation workshop I was hosting at a university.
Specifically, the type of burnout that happens when working so closely with something you are so entwined and dedicated to pursuing. How the long hours of study and breathtaking speed of soaking in all you can leads to overwhelm and eventually walking away. A common and very real worry for a college student, I thought.
Have you ever felt that way about tea, he asked?
I took a long pause and considered my response. Burnout can result in deep grief and loss of self, so it’s a weighty question. I felt deeply for this person asking this question, because I think many folks encounter this type of conflict as they navigate careers, friendships, identity. I answered carefully, no I have not experienced burnout with tea itself – but I likely would have, had I not changed the direction I was going.
For many of my years working in tea, I kept my personal practice completely separate and private from my professional identity.
The trainings I gave, the subjects I taught, were very technical, industry focused, mastery and knowledge collection oriented. The influence of solely relating to tea via a capitalist structure, I realized later. Inside, I knew this was not really the whole of my tea life. My personal practice, after all, included tea meditation, spirituality, tea ceremony study, movement therapy. But there seemed to be no place for this in the “professional” realm I knew.
How long can I maintain this separation without complete exhaustion, I wondered?
I started teaching the tea meditation that I practiced myself – just on the side, little by little – in 2010, and that certainly helped. But it wasn’t until around 2015 that I fully made the transition to open the bridge and start really including the “soft skills,” as HR folks would say, in my tea work. To more publicly study AND teach contemplative practices with tea in my life, alongside the sensory skills work. Even if it meant leaving some other possibilities, familiar places, and relationships behind.
The more I sat with tea, the more I understood that divided self is a conflicted state to dwell in for too long. Like trauma, which disrupts our reality of time and integration, not being honest with who you are and how you show up in the world has powerful consequences for our well-being. Burnout being one of them.
Practicing tea showed me that, and I fully believe it also kept me stable and sane during what would become one of the most challenging, overwhelming and devastating years most of us have ever witnessed.
What do we mean by “practicing” tea?
“Why would people spend two hours drinking just one cup of tea? Time has much more value than money – time is life. In two hours of drinking tea together, we don’t get money, but we do get life.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master
How exactly does one “practice” a drink? Well, first we must acknowledge that tea is not simply a beverage.
Tea is a living being. It is also an ancient culture, a way of life, and a contemplative study. When we tap into this by sitting down to mindfully prepare and drink tea, we acknowledge this connection.
Tea touches all of your senses, supporting body, intellect and emotion. A tea meditation practice teaches us to be vulnerable as we sit in the present moment and witnesses our being listened to. Tea also becomes a philosophy in this way, and one that can serve us very well in stressful, intense times.
Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun of Tibetan lineage, says, “The essence of meditation is training in something that is quite radical and definitely not the habitual pattern of the species: And that is to stay with ourselves no matter what is happening, without putting labels of good and bad, right and wrong, pure and impure, on top of our experience.”
To understand this more clearly, we must shift our relationship to the word “practice.”
To many artists, musicians, and athletes, for example, practice is part of the road to mastery of a subject. You practice to level up, to get to a particular destination or goal. To the contemplative arts, however – of which tea is included – practice is the work and the point itself. We don’t practice to get “better” or to achieve something specific. We practice because the path of exploring inspires us, creates understanding, and deepens connection.
And the benefit of practice in this way – of being – is something that I learned from my tea many years ago, before I even knew what was happening.
Before I had the words
“It’s a general moral principle that the more power you have over someone, the greater your duty is to use that power benevolently. Well, who is the one person in the world you have the greatest power over? It’s your future self. You hold that life in your hands, and what it will be depends on how you care for it.”
– Rick Hanson PhD, author and psychologist
I started to feel something stir within my tea quite some time before I actually worked in tea professionally.
Around 2001 or 2002, I took up the pleasant habit of taking a solo afternoon break with tea on the patio at my work. In my life before tea, I worked in a newsroom, producing newscasts and writing stories for shows. I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. As you might imagine, being a producer is a rather tense and stressful job, to put it mildly. About an hour before the show, I would take some time alone to sit outside and drink tea quietly. To this day, I still have no idea where the instinct to do this came from, because I certainly didn’t grow up with any supportive mental health practices (quite the opposite; my upbringing was one of complicated trauma). I just did it.
Back then I only had access to tea bags. Carefully, I would tear them open just a little to release some of the tiny leaves inside, and I would observe how they moved in the water. I could also see how they flowed and moved beneath the dampened, infused paper. Their small, flattish shape and bright color struck me as similar to the leafy tree canopy overhead, if I concentrated my sight on the very top leaves of the tree.
There was a connection – green life in my cup, green life above in the branches.
As the hot, late afternoon desert breeze rustled around the leaves and branches, the tea in my cup moved to its own motion in the water. Soothing, rhythmic, yet somehow also distinctly still and quiet. At the time, I had no vocabulary for this experience or state of mind. I only knew that it helped me when it came time to step into the control room for our live broadcast. A live show is a constant practice of holding attention; you can’t step away for a second, because everything is unfolding in real time.
Back then, I also had no idea the level of inner resource and support that such intense work would require to stay in it for the long haul. I didn’t know anything about self-care or the benefits of meditation or mindfulness. But I could sense that relief from the overwhelm wasn’t about the quantity of tea consumed; it was the act of stopping everything for that moment.
These early experiences with tea and mindfulness stuck with me for some years, until I found tea again – this time, for keeps, as I left behind the studio production environment and invited tea to become my profession as well as my practice.
The benefits of tea meditation in your life
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
– Vikor Frankl, Austrian neurologist, author, and Holocaust survivor
Just what is meditation, exactly? A working definition I like to use is that meditation is the activity that allows for the exploration of engaged mindfulness. And mindfulness is where and how we place our attention. The clinical research for how meditation benefits our physiological and mental health are impressive and numerous. Just a few favorite examples:
– Regular meditation increases the brain’s ability to emotionally regulate, by increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex. (Lazar et al., 2005)
– Increases ability to place your mind where you want it to go. Thus, can reduce suffering. (Carter et al., 2005)
– Decreases stress-hormones in the body, within just 5 minutes. (Tang et al. 2007)
– Being “bad” at meditation is good for self-control. (McGonigal, 2012)
– Strengthens the immune system. (Davidson et al., 2003)
– Increases potential for compassion. (Lutz et al. 2008)
As we can see, while we often think of it conceptually as a mental activity, meditation is inherently body-centered, too. The mind and the body naturally collaborate together, even without our conscious direction. Body-centered practices, like breathwork, yoga, and meditation, can induce the body’s relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system). This state can counter the negative effects of stress and even alter the expression of genes in the immune system.
This is critical to note, as so many of us are suffering under unbearably high levels of stress, trauma and also chronic pain. Feeling disconnected from the body is a common complaint. About 80 percent of visits to primary care doctors have a significant, stress-based component (Avery, 2003, Journal of the National Medical Association) – and this figure is from before the pandemic.
However, for any number of very real reasons – chronic pain, anxiety, previous exposure to trauma – the classic representation of meditation as sitting in a total stillness with folded legs and shut eyes is simply not an accessible, appropriate or supportive method for all people.
The answer is not to try harder in a manner that is not serving. It’s to try to practice in a way that helps us feel safe and supported. We must consider function over form. Notably, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Applying non-violence to your body is not merely a means to practice mindfulness – it is a practice in itself.”
And this is where meditation with tea can help us tremendously.
How tea meditation builds intention
One of my favorite educators whose work has had a deep impact on me, author and trauma exposure expert, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, shares, “When outside circumstances dominate our internal ability to metabolize all that we are exposed to, we can become saturated. Physiologically. In our nervous system. Saturated. To move forward, maintaining balance, we must constantly be aware of how much we’re contending with externally.”
To alleviate this saturation, according to mental health researchers, we need to nurture practices that provide less distraction, more intention. This might be yoga or meditation. Nature walking. Cooking. It can also be meditation with tea.
Tea meditation can support our intention building in several specific ways:
1) Being intentional in how we select our tea.
2) How we choose to prepare our tea.
3) How we accommodate our own needs.
4) How we respond mindfully to our tea.
5) Observing our expanding comfort zone.
As we work with tea intentionally, we can see how it feels to come to a place of calm abiding.
We are invited to slow down, to pay attention, to soften our activity. We learn to read certain bodily cues (interoception) in a more informed way. How breathing changes from shallow to deeper, or how the heart rate gently increases or slows in tandem with our thought patterns. Through drinking tea mindfully, we train ourselves – body and mind – to become more unified.
Uniquely, tea is also said traditionally to be “the most Yin of Yins,” the most cooling and soothing medicine. It provides proportionate energetic balance to gently re-center us when we’re agitated and overwhelmed.
Try this: Guided tea meditation for daily practice
Let’s explore what a simple tea practice might look like together. This practice, from start to finish, can take as little as 15 or 20 min, if you like. Meditation is not about hours logged on the cushion. It’s about intentionally making space for yourself, to empty before you begin again. The body remembers, the mind remembers, this kindness that you pay yourself when you make time.
For this, you’ll need a comfortable place to sit, a loose leaf tea of your preference, a small tea bowl or rounded mug – something that feels good to hold between two hands – and a kettle to heat water.
We’ll practice simple bowl brewing, which I think of as an intentional, mindful iteration of traditional “grandpa / grandma style” brewing (ie: leaves in a glass of hot water).
Make yourself comfortable to sit, carefully moving aside any distractions where you are sitting with your tea. Create space for yourself, then start your hot water heating and come sit down.
Listen to the sound of the hot water heating. Notice the smooth change in sound, starting with soft crackles, then a lower rumble. Invite yourself to consider this sound a mindfulness bell, a call to tea.
Turn your attention to the tea you’ve chosen. Hold your tea with both hands, either in the pouch it comes in or pour some of the leaves onto a small dish. Bring the tea close to your nose and breathe normally. Try not to sniff the tea or search for something. Just breathe and notice what the warmth of your breath releases from the tea.
Place a small serving of leaf inside your tea bowl. Use your thumb and first two fingers to gently pick up a spoonful size of tea, noticing the sensation in your fingertips.
When your water is “hot enough” (precise temperatures are not necessary here – simply “hot enough” is just fine), pick up your kettle and, pausing intentionally to feel its weight in your hands, slowly add water over your tea. As slow as your kettle will allow, so that you can see the twist in the ribbon of the water. Observe the end of the stream as it interacts with each and every leaf.
Setting the kettle down when you are done, turn your attention to what is happening inside the bowl.
Observe the steam curl and rise from the surface, the beads of mist collecting just inside the lip of the bowl. Rest your gaze in the center of the bowl and notice what you see. The color tone of the leaf as it slowly soaks up water, unfolds and releases. Leaves that float at the surface, leaves that rest at the bottom.
Bring the bowl to your nose and breathe the tea. Reminding the seeking, analytical brain to rest a moment, gently turn away from the urge to name, classify, label what you find in the aroma. Just breathe and allow the sensory body to connect.
When the temperature seems ok, you can sip the tea from a space that appears in the bowl. Notice that the presence of the leaf still in the water slows you down. This is a good thing. Sip, rest, and notice.
What is the texture of your tea like today? Where do you feel its presence in the mouth? How does it feel as you swallow? Just take small sips at a time, and rest between, holding the bowl of tea.
As you get closer to the leaves, drinking the water level lower, you may notice the character of the tea changes, in any number of ways.
Notice your reactions to these changes, observing them without trying to change or rationalize or explain. Just sit with what you’re feeling, without expectation or judgment.
Take your time taking in the tea. There’s no need to rush. There’s no “there” to get to right now.
Whenever you come to the end of your bowl, or the end of your 15 min (if you would like to keep a timer), set the tea down and pause. Witness what remains, what the body feels like as you intentionally rest in this stillness.
Tea reminds you that you are enough
“Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”
– Brené Brown, author, researcher, psychotherapist
In time, new connections start to form in our brain, consciously and subconsciously, as we simply gaze at gently unfolding, unwinding tea leaves in water. Connections that signal to our nervous system that it can let go right now. Release.
When we sit with tea, we actually imbibe a manifestation of release. We become one with the tea, a reflection of your unspoken self. Watching the leaves, we also learn how to apply these metaphorical observations in our daily life. How can we become more abiding and patient, yet gently persistent, like the tea?
Most importantly, when we sit with tea and experience all the countless ways that every cup, no matter how different from steep to steep or day to day, is always just what we need, we learn this: There’s no need to try so hard that we break ourselves. Tea helps you see that you are always enough, just as you are now.
Practicing tea meditation in a guided manner, or in community of others, can make a powerful difference in the consistency and depth of your practice.
Here at Being Tea, there are opportunities for both. I teach weekly, live on Zoom tea meditation sessions – in our Tea & Contemplation series, and also Quiet Tea Sundays.
And my Being Tea membership program also has a growing library of more than 100 full-length (60-75 min) class videos, covering both theory and elements of the practice, as well as calming, guided sessions for anytime use. I would love to see you for tea sometime!