Even as a child, a cup of freshly brewed tea has always been one of my greatest comforts. Hearing the hissing sound of the kettle as I padded downstairs from my bedroom was an instant dose of calm. I knew that I would soon be cradling a steamy cup of herbal delight.
Tea has continued to be a source of soothing and mood-boosting throughout my life. There’s lots of scientific reasons that we might have these reactions to tea (the polyphenols regulate insulin, which stabilizes our moods, the aromatherapeutic psychosomatic benefits of rose, neroli, mint, or lavender aromas…yada, yada, yada).
But if you ask me, I think that I’ve reaped these benefits by transforming mere tea drinking into a ritual steeped in love.
The Real Power of a Tea Ritual
The whole concept of a ritual has this ineffable sense of magic to it. The sounds, the smells, and watching the tea leaves dance as they steep all transform brewing into something much more meaningful — if you’re willing to see it that way.
In fact, there was a fascinating double-blind study in which around 200 adults were separated into two groups, matched by age, gender, and psychological traits. The participants were each given 1200ml of oolong tea each day for a week, while the researchers analyzed their mood fluctuations.
Half of the participants were given tea that had gone through a tea ritual performed by Buddhist monks. The other half received tea that had not gone through the tea ritual.
At the end of the week, the participants were asked whether or not they believed the tea they had been given had gone through a ritual. Those who believed their tea had gone through the ritual had a larger improvement in mood than those who believed their tea had not gone through ritual.
But what was even more fascinating was that those who drank the tea from a ritual had an improved mood — whether they believed it had been treated or not. But those that believed that their tea had been treated had an even larger mood improvement than those whose tea had been treated but who didn’t believe it to be. Now I know that sounds like total woo-woo nonsense, but this double-blind experiment proved that a tea ritual improved the mood of its drinkers — and improved it even more if they knew it had been treated. Wild right?
Whether or not you believe the science that a tea ritual can improve your mood (did I mention it was double-blind?), the benefits of this sort of approach are plainly evident. Taking the time to mindfully brew a cup of tea — even if it’s just a few minutes — can help to quiet the thoughts of your mind and allow you to become fully present in the here and now. Likewise, taking the opportunity to mindfully savor a delicious cuppa tea extends this mind quieting benefit! And if you don’t believe me, all you have to do is try it and see for yourself.
It’s because of this fact that tea is often seen as a form of meditation.
The Tea Ritual as Meditation
Tea as a part of meditation started in Japan around 1100 A.D. The tea, which a zen monk brought back from China, allowed the monks to remain awake during long hours of sitting meditation. As a result, tea became an integral component of the monk lifestyle and, ultimately, part of Japan’s culture, making it a holy sacrament of daily life.
Over time, tea naturally evolved into another beautiful form of meditation in the form of a formal tea ceremony.
The tea ceremony morphed into an elaborate, multi-day ritual teeming with poetry, choreographed movements, and expensive tea wear. While certainly beautiful, this formality and extensiveness made it less practical for a changing world. The modern iteration of the practice now allows for a greater level of accessibility. More importantly, it allows for greater enjoyment of the mindfulness practice itself. (If you want to learn more about the more ornate practice, you can check out our recent article on Chado.)
Creating Your Own Tea Ritual
The more modern iteration of this traditional tea ritual is a simple practice that you can perform daily without much fuss — unleashing all its mood-boosting goodness!
The practice is all about allowing each step to be performed in loving mindfulness. Regardless of how you make or drink your tea, do so attentively and with reverence, permitting yourself to be entirely invested in the tea the entire time.
Experiment as you explore the ritual – during the coming week, perhaps you’ll drink those 1200mL (4 cups a day) of oolong. What happens? How does your mood shift?
Here’s a step-by-step guide:
Boil Water. Regardless of what your grandma may have said, a watched pot does eventually boil! Take the time to simply sit, observe, and listen as the water slowly boils. As you wait and observe, what happens to your breath as you rest?
Inhale and exhale through the nose. Feel each breath moving through your entire body. How does it feel to be breathing in this body today?
Steep. After pouring your boiled water over the leaves, allow yourself to soak in the moment. Remaining with the subtly of the breath, focus on the steeping tea. As your mind begins to wander, lovingly draw it back to the breath, observing as the tea leaves dance, open, and unleash their beautiful colors and fragrances. Savor this moment of longing.
Pour. Pour the tea from the pot into your cup. As you do, take the opportunity to listen to your tea, allowing for your ears to also be a part of this mindfulness practice. As the tea cascades from pot to cup, listen to its sound filling the mug. Does it remind you of a stream rushing along? Savor the color of the tea, feel the heaviness of the pot in your strong hand, breathe in the kaleidoscope of the tea’s fragrances.
Give thanks. Before taking a sip, take a moment to express your gratitude for the team and your experience in making it. Give thanks to yourself for taking the opportunity to practice this mindfulness exercise.
Drink. Like a child full of wonder, allow the first sip of tea to feel as though it were the first sip you’ve ever taken. Revel in the feel of the cup pressing heavy against your lips. Notice the flavors, the warmth, and the feeling of the tea coating your tongue and mouth. Allow this to be slow and intentional. If you feel impatient or the desire to rush, simply acknowledge those feelings as they arrive.
Take it slow and be intentional with every sip. Continue on as long as you please (I find five minutes is often a good place to start!) to revel in the simplicity of the tea.