The Mindful Art of Preparing and Drinking Tea
Why do we practice mindful tea making and drinking? This simple attentiveness to normal everyday tasks lies at the heart of mindfulness practice. It gives us something to focus on, a place for our mind to rest and put aside all the hurry, worry, fear, and doubt that go through our heads at any given time.
Mindfulness is simply about having the mind be full of this moment: the smell of the herbs, the sensation of touching them, the memory of the plant from which they came, the practice of mixing the herbs, the patience of waiting for water to boil and tea to steep.
When the thoughts wander elsewhere, simply notice the wandering and say “thank you”. Then, come back to this moment, noticing what you notice, even if it’s uncomfortable.
By practicing mindfulness, we are freed up from the unnecessary burden of our challenges and anxieties so that we can truly enjoy such experiences as drinking a delicious beverage. As Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains,
“Tea meditation is a practice. It is a practice to help us be free. If you are still bound and haunted by the past, if you are still afraid of the future, if you are carried away by your projects, your fear, your anxiety, and your anger, you are not a free person. You are not fully present in the here and the now, so life is not really available to you. The tea, the other person, the blue sky, the flower, is not available to you.”
Tea rituals have been practiced world-wide for centuries. May these rituals inspire you to create one that’s in alignment with your own cultural heritage.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony (cha-no-yu, chado, or sado) is a traditional ritual in which powdered green tea, called matcha, is ceremonially prepared and served to a small group of guests in a peaceful setting. Cha-no-yu (“hot water for tea”), usually refers to a single ceremony or ritual, while sado or chado (“the way of tea”) refer to the study or doctrine of tea ceremony. The Japanese tea ceremony has its roots in early Chinese tea ritual (approx. 800 AD), influenced greatly by Zen Buddhism. However, the exacting formula for the tea ceremony we know now evolved years later, in isolation from the Chinese practice of taking tea. Every element of the tea ceremony, from the greeting of guests to the arrangement of flowers, even the architecture, is rigidly prescribed, requiring the host to be knowledgeable in a broad range of arts and disciplines. Even the participants of the tea ceremony must be familiar with the proper gestures, phrases and actions required of them throughout the ceremony.
Masala Chai (simply referred to as “Chai”) has been a tradition throughout India for centuries. This spicy hot beverage is a brew of Indian black tea with a unique blend of spices, typically including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and pepper, although the recipe varies region to region. Chai is consumed morning and afternoon by many Indian families, and is customarily the first thing offered to houseguests. So prevalent is the service of Chai throughout India that baristas, known as Chaiwallahs, can be found at just about every corner. These chai vendors are a staple of the community and their stands are often a source of news and gossip.
As with many cultures across the globe, the consumption of tea holds great significance in Moroccan life. This is demonstrated in part by the highly ornate teapots (often engraved silver), trays, and crystal glasses used in its preparation and service. Traditionally, tea is prepared in a samovar which brews strong, highly concentrated tea. Usually a gunpowder variety of green tea is used. After brewing, the tea is heavily sweetened with sugar and flavored with a touch of mint. The teapot is held high in the air while pouring the tea into the small, delicate glasses. This showy feat is made possible by the long and slender curved spout on the Moroccan teapot (and a lot of practice!). Moroccan Mint Green Tea is an excellent accompaniment to their rich and flavorful cuisine.
Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is credited with the origination of afternoon tea in the early 1800s. In Anna’s day, lunch was served at noon, with dinner often put off until well into the evening. As the story goes, Anna decided that a light meal over tea in the late afternoon would be the perfect solution to her between-meal hunger pangs. Given Anna’s social stature, the concept took off among the upper class, proving to be an excellent social venue. The term “high tea” is actually owed to England’s working class, who transformed the afternoon tea into their primary evening meal, serving much heartier fare such as meats, cakes, bread and pies. “High” tea is a reference to the table the working class sat at while taking their tea – tall in comparison to the low, delicate tables at which the gentry took their lighter, more formal tea. Queen Victoria introduced the English to the Russian custom of adding lemon to their tea after visiting one of her daughters in Russia – before that, the English took only milk with their tea.
Samovar and Russian Tea
Given the significant influence Asian culture has had on Russia through the years, it is no wonder that Russians are big tea drinkers. The samovar, which is somewhat of a cross between a hot water heater and teapot, is one of many examples of this influence – it is presumed to have evolved from the Tibetan hot pot. The function of this unique apparatus, and the Russian method of taking tea, is rather different than we are accustomed to in the west. Instead of heating tea water on the stove, wood or charcoal is traditionally burned within the samovar itself to accomplish this task (modern samovars often use an electric heating element, however). A small teapot sits on top of the samovar, in which a dark, concentrated brew is made, called zavarka. Hot water from the samovar is used to dilute this tea when served. Dark Indian or Chinese black teas are commonly used, often coupled with herbal or fruit teas. Russian Caravan, a blend of black teas with a slightly smoky flavor, is a favorite. To this day, samovars remain a focal point of the Russian home.
Liquid Vegetable of the Gaucho
Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is a small tree native to the subtropical highlands of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. In much of South America, leaves of this plant are infused in water in a dried calabaza gourd and sipped through a filtered straw, called a “bombilla.” This healthful brew is considered “the drink of the gods” by many indigenous peoples in South America, and is a staple in the diets of many South American cattlemen, or “gauchos,” being a food product that can stand up to the rigors of life on the range. Traditionally, mate is often shared among close friends and family. The gourd and bombilla are passed around and around, refilling from time to time, in an act celebrating companionship.