Standing in her kitchen, it was the first time Eli and I had seen each other in some time.
‘Tea?’ she asked.
‘Of course.’ What else?
I occupied myself, surveying the pictures on her walls while she set a tray with china teapot and matching Chinese-style cups. She produced a jar from a cupboard. It was hand labelled ‘Ed’s Magic Oolong’. The word is out, it seems. After decanting a few grains and adding hot water, she swirled the contents before disposing of the wash brew in the sink. She topped the pot back up and we went to the living room to catch up.
As happens with good friends, we took up where we’d left off. Conversation flowed, free and easy. Half an hour later, Eli’s partner Toby joined us. I’d only met Toby once before, and then but briefly. The conversation hardly lulled. We were discussing my plans in the tea industry – with the blog and e-commerce – and they gave me sage advice. In fact, I should have taken a dictaphone because they mapped a masterful marketing plan. Finally, Toby levelled a question at me.
‘What I want to know though, Ed, is why tea?’
I had to think about it. So many possible answers.
It’s vogue to talk about the herb’s health benefits. Camellia sinensis is, it seems, a veritable panacea. Packed with antioxidants, some say it helps fight cholesterol, and it helps keep you trim, to boot.
Yet, I’m loathed to explain it rationally. I prefer to give an intuitive answer: to observe, like Lu Yu – the god of tea – that ‘the taste of tea is like nectar from heaven’.
If pushed though – if I have to break it down – I could draw many of the reasons I love tea out from the scenario described in the first few paragraphs, above.
Tea for Socialising with Others…
Tea brings people together. Hanging out, it’s nice to have a backdrop: an activity to punctuate socialising. A coffee shop or a pub is standard in our culture. I never drink coffee and alcohol rarely, so tea serves as a substitute.
The teapot, or tea table in Chinese-style preparation, acts the hearth fire – the focal point of the room. Its activity, like stoking the fire or watching flames dance, absorbs attention between exchanges of conversation. Likewise during a pause in talk, sipping tea provides a natural comma: time to absorb and process what’s passed.
As well as being a nice prop, tea also stimulates conversation. Early in its development the literati recognised for this quality. They lauded it for inspiring poetry and thoughts of high philosophy. Tea is fuel for the creative mind.
Tea contains high quantities of l-theanine. This amino acid counteracts the negative effects of caffeine on the nervous system – such as coffee jitters – while maintaining it’s enlivening effects. L-theanine is, perhaps, a factor in tea’s strength as a social drink.
… and with Yourself
Perhaps for the same reason, tea is also great to enjoy on your own. As we need an activity to partake in with friends, we often don’t give ourselves permission to sit and relax alone either. Tea provides that excuse for me: a pot of oolong means half an hour at relented pace.
Tea is also the perfect accompaniment to introverted activities. Having a full gaiwan sitting nearby provides a foil to morning training. And, while writing or studying, making a cup is an interval for you to process information and allow ideas to emerge.
“Some people will tell you there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims
Ritual and Mindfulness
To my mind, one of the reasons it’s easy to find peace while taking time for tea is the therapeutic nature the process. Rinsing the leaves, Eli embodied this notion.
Performing a prescribed process, a ritual, in a careful and considered way, is centring. This I find especially true making tea gongfu-style. You can tweak each step infinitesimal amounts, and even slight variations at each stage affect the end result.
It requires mindful attention.
In China, they say that ‘tea and Zen are one taste’ (cha Chan yi wei 茶禪一味). As with most Chinese idioms, there are many layers of meaning to this simple phrase. After all, Tea and Zen Buddhist culture have influenced each other in various ways. But, for me, the single-pointed focus of preparing tea brings with it stillness (and this helps me make sense of the saying). Tea was, and still is, prized as a meditation aid. Apart from the physiological effects, the mindfulness of its ceremony contributes to this position.
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.
– Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Golden Elixir
My final point: Eli’s jar has it right. My oolong is magic.
Daniel Reid wrote a book on this. In The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Reid observes that some see tea as soma, the legendary drink consumed by Aryans to contact their gods. Tea is, for him, ‘the golden elixir of life’, the jindan金丹. Not, he adds, in a medieval sense of a mystical substance turning base metal to pure gold. But rather a bioactive herb which brings health and induces a state change.
I agree with his assessment.
In answer to the question – Why tea? Tea is alchemical. It has the power to make everyday encounters precious, to transmute activities. It enhances conversation and deepens introversion. It acts as a catalyst for creativity and promotes peace. And, if you drink high-quality greens and oolongs, there are no negative side effects (unless you overindulge and get tea drunk).
Drinking tea is enlivening, yet I don’t feel dependent. Nevertheless, the tea set is the last thing I put away when moving house and the first thing I look for when all the boxes are unpacked. It’s a creature comfort that adds colour to life.