I have been deeply immersed in the tea world for more than eight years, since I started my tea master training in 2015. The daily act of steeping and drinking tea become an entrenched, indispensable ritual in my life. But more surprisingly, as the years have gone by, I have slowly realised tea has also been teaching me about life.
If coffee is the extrovert of the beverage world, tea is the introvert. Its quiet and understated nature belies the intrigue and magic that sits below the rough, dry surface of its leaves. I’ve said before that the labels ‘beverage’ or ‘drink’ don’t come close to categorising what tea really is. We could think of it as nature’s ‘nourishing nymph’ that transforms when plucked from the plant, when placed in the hands of the tea maker, when immersed in water, then inside our body. It creates an effect on us unrivalled by anything else. When you become connected into tea, your outlook on life changes.
Here I share a few reasons why I believe the experience of tea is so special. I share its wisdom and how it invites us to see the world a little differently.
Tea asks us to pay attention
When we open our pouch of tea, we also receive an invitation. An invitation to close our minds to everything except what is in front of us. To give our tea our full and complete attention. To notice what the leaves look like, smell like, how they dance in the pot with the hot water; what the infusion smells like, how it feels in our mouth, the sensation of it slipping down our throat and spreading throughout body; how it soothes our body and calms our mind.
In an era of persistent distraction (hello iphone), tea teaches us that each individual moment in our lives is better if we focus all of our senses solely on it and nothing else.
Tea teaches us to look beyond the exterior
Who knew that within a dark, wiry, spider-leg-like tea leaf, there could be such subtle and beautiful flavour notes reminiscent of chocolate and cinnamon?
Sometimes the flavour released upon contact with hot water is what we expect from looking at our tea leaves. But other times, the notes and how the tea feels in our mouths is unexpected. A delightful surprise. Or an unpleasant one.
It is human nature to make immediate judgements based on what something or someone looks like. We all do this.
But tea invites us to be curious. To note our immediate reaction but then probe deeper. To open our mind to the knowledge that our immediate judgement likely won’t be the full picture of this tea leaf, object, experience, or person. Or, that our initial impression could be completely wrong. Tea encourages us to pause and be pensive, and take the time to discover the complexity and beauty of the more complete and fuller story that lies beyond our first impression.
Tea invites us to accept – and even welcome - discomfort
When reading a tea label, we might decide that the tea inside isn’t for us. We believe we won’t like its flavour because the description is different to what we know we would normally like.
When I first started my tea master training, I didn’t enjoy green tea. But the more I tried different (better quality) green teas, the more I appreciated their unique flavour and effect on me. While black tea is still my preference by default, I can now genuinely say I love green tea and often crave it after exercise or when I’m eating ‘green food’ such a salad or sushi. All it took was an open mind, persistence and patience for my brain to become more familiar with green tea’s flavour.
Our brains are wired to prefer certainty because it makes us feel safe. Because of this, we often choose what is familiar – the ‘safe choice’. Tea teaches us that being open to sitting with discomfort for a little while can lead us to have an amazing experience that quite literally changes our brains and can change our lives.
Tea teaches us that life isn’t black and white
Tea is an experience created in partnership by nature and human. It is an endlessly fascinating encounter with ever-evolving and almost limitless tea variations and flavours.
As someone who educates people about tea, I have tried to simplify it to help it make sense to my audience. I talk about the six types of tea, how much tea to use in your pot and exactly what temperature to steep it at, for example.
But are there really six categories of tea, or more? Is this tea in front of me really a black tea, a dark oolong or a tea in between?
The reality is that tea can’t truly be put into categories. It can't be perfectly defined. It exists across a long, fluid, flowing, changeable spectrum filled with nuance. This makes it complex and sometimes hard to understand, but infinitely more fascinating.
Our human brains like a black and white world. We like things to be simple and sit cleanly in categories so we can understand them. Again, this is because that certainly makes us feel safe and comfortable.
But, tea teaches us that life isn’t binary; its much more intricate. A person isn’t good or bad. As much as we want there to be, there often isn’t one right solution to a complex problem. A past decision wasn’t either right or wrong – it was in between. While this can make us feel uncomfortable, there is a freedom in accepting that life is more like a labyrinth than a box.
Can we say the intricate, fluid and ever-evolving nature of tea reflects our experience at life? Can we instill the concept of 'wabi, sabi' - 'beauty lies in imperfection' - used in tea ceremonies in Japan, into our mindset, and know that our own complex, wild life is more beautiful and interesting when we do?
I have come to think of tea as one of my wisest teachers. The trick is to still my mind for long enough to listen to what it is trying to teach me.
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