Tea Time for Turbulent Times

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Guest contribution by Alex Thomas

There is a Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, mind you – not a blessing. Indeed, for better or for worse, we live in interesting times. Whereas life moved rather slowly like a turtle in the past; today it’s like a jack rabbit on steroids. The stuff to make your teeth clench. There is a lot of turbulence in our world today and it does not appear we are digesting it well. Watching the news before bedtime is a recipe for bad dreams.

Enter tea time. If you have ever experienced or watched a Japanese tea ceremony you will probably have noticed how slowly things proceed. The entrance into the tea room. One. Step. At. A. Time. The handling of the utensils. Preparing to make the tea. Making the tea. Serving the tea. Everything unfolds carefully, slowly, and mindfully. There is nothing else to consider except the present moment of what is experienced now.

Words like grace, peace, or simplicity all accurately describe different aspects of the experience. Which, of course, reflect some of the spiritual ideals of Zen expressed through the ceremony. What is not stated but which is implied in the experience is spiritual presence. It refers to that part of us that simply exists in its just-as-I-am state of mind experiencing the just-so-ness of life. No resistance to what is. No clinging to things that are impermanent. Simple moving with the flow of life.

How do we manage ourselves in these restless times? There is political and cultural unrest. There is fear and anger and helplessness. Yet in our own tea ceremony we can create a sanctuary inside this turbulence, similar to entering a temple off a busy street. We are not talking about dropping a tea bag into a cup of boiling water and using it as an adjunct to something else we are doing, like driving a car or typing busily at a keyboard.

Washing the leaves. Warming the cup and teapot. Waiting patiently during the infusion. And then sipping the tea. This is the time to stop and pay attention to ourselves. Yes, the world out there is not exactly something to dress up for now. But right now. In this very moment. Am I ok? Sure there are bills to pay and obligations to meet. But right now. In this moment as we taste the tea, can we find that spot inside that just simply is what it is right now? Can we rest in these moments of enjoying our tea with nowhere to go except to be here now? Can we become still – just like one of those rocks you see in the raked dry landscape of a Zen garden.

As a psychotherapist I work with how the world out there becomes real in the human mind. Our brains encode the data touching our minds into self constructed narratives filled with beliefs, expectations and desires. Our stories about our lives can be funny and loving and meaningful. They can also be nightmares.  A friend of mine recently stated that she felt like the world right now was against us. Covid fatigue was setting in. The effect of her narrative: the world is not what I want it to be. Here we have resistance to what is, resistance to impermanence, clinging to ideals of how things should or could be. And ergo, as Buddha would say, you have suffering.

And so we return to the present moment of sipping tea. Some of us are seekers of the Tao within. Now is ample time to go very deep within. Are we aware of what kinds of narratives we employ to make sense of the world? And can we relax them right now and simply drift in sense experience as we consume our tea: What it tastes like. What sounds we hear. What we look at (does it have to be a computer screen or tv?). What about just staring off into the distance? What do we feel now? Can we sense that quietness within that is just around the corner from our never-ending stream of thoughts?

If we listen carefully we can sense something very subtle within.  It is nebulous and not something you can describe easily because in its essence it is without quality. How would you describe emptiness? It is there as a self-existing state, like a blank screen in a movie theater reflecting the endless data of life. If we can sense this we drop into a form of pure essence and for a few moments we are just like that rock in the Zen garden.

Tea Time for Turbulent Times - Photo of a Japanese temple with a zen garden

I once read somewhere that in the early Chinese imperial court, coffee was well known and so was tea. But the Taoists who were attendants back then recognized how agitating coffee can be in contrast to the calming effects of tea. They won the coffee/tea battle and tea became the official beverage at court. And here we are, us “teaists,”—at least those of us in the west—living in a coffee world.

Our bodies are our own imperial court in which we sit like emperors or empresses watching the goings on at the court. We get involved with all the attendants doing this and that. And there is time to just simply sit. Just simply sit.

Image is from PixaBay under free for commercial use license with no attribution required by photographer “DerWeg.”

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