There’s nothing new about the ancient Japanese tea ceremony, but modern life rarely accommodates long, intricate rituals that may take a lifetime to master. That said, we can adapt these principles into our own daily rituals to relieve stress and bring a little calming zen into our lives.
The Zen of Tea
The first tea plants and seeds arrived in Japan during the Nara Period, around 710 A.D. Tea became a cornerstone of Japanese diet and culture, much like our coffee today. Then, in 762, when a Chinese Buddhist priest wrote the Cha Ching (a book devoted to methods of tea-making, including water temperature, etc.) a precise tea ritual, ancestor of the venerable Japanese tea ceremony, was born.
Later, during the 12th century, a Japanese priest, Myoan Eisai, travelled to China. Upon his return he began to establish the Zen school of Buddhism — the Japanese version of Chinese Chán Buddhism. He adapted every aspect of tea to mediation practices, from cultivation, to brewing and drinking. In 1211, Eisai wrote a treatise on tea that included stylized practices for tea leaf grinding, steeping, sharing, and drinking. The Japanese tea ceremony was born.
This is the nature of Zen — to turn the most ordinary actions into opportunities to develop awareness — thus the famous Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
When we deliberately turn daily activities into dedicated rituals, our routines become filled with precious opportunities to bring ourselves to calm awareness.
Three Modern Tea Rituals
Regardless of whether you’re making tulsi, green, or black tea, those few minutes while your tea brews can become dedicated mini-rituals. Good things come in small packages — here are three ideas for four-to-eight minute “steeping” practices.
We see and hear the word everywhere, but there is nothing ordinary about practicing gratitude.
In 2018, a group of researchers published a paper in the Journal of Psychotherapy Research describing their studies of a gratitude practice. 293 psychotherapy patients were divided into three groups. The first was a control group — they were not given any sort of practice or ritual. The next group was assigned “expressive writing,” recording their deepest thoughts and feelings. The third group was assigned “gratitude” writing.
The paper states, “Participants in the gratitude condition wrote letters expressing gratitude to others. At eight and 12 weeks, participants in the gratitude group reported significantly better mental health than those in the expressive and control conditions.” The researchers also stated that there were lower proportions of negative words and phrases in the gratitude group’s writings.
Think of someone you’re grateful to and take three, four, or five minutes to dash off a note.
The five minutes (give or take) that it takes to steep a cup of tea can become a simple, but effective, gratitude practice. One approach is to grab a pen and paper and list five things you’re deeply grateful for. Family? Fur babies? Beloved friends? A recent windfall? Nourishing food? Shelter?
Another approach is to try the technique used in the gratitude study — think of someone who you’re grateful to and take three, four, or five minutes to dash off a note. It doesn’t matter if you send it or not; it’s worth taking a few minutes to explore the nuances of your appreciation.
Last one — and perhaps the most challenging for many. What have you done for yourself in the recent or distant past that has supported you in this moment? For example, if you found time to make the bed this morning, you did something nice for your future self at your future bed time. Say “thanks” to past self. It’s pleasant to get into a nicely made bed at the close of day. Take nothing for granted — every small act of self-care counts.
Establish Heart Brain Coherence
Get your brain and your heart talking to each other. It’s easier than it sounds.
The HeartMath Institute was founded 25 years ago by researchers, scientists, and engineers who wanted to explore the mysteries of the human heart, right down to its electromagnetic signatures. They discovered that the heart has its own unique intelligence, and that we have the capacity to bring our hearts and brains into a synchronized, coherent state.
The benefits of practicing heart-brain coherence are countless; clearer thinking, improved memory, emotional resilience, and a sense of well-being. According to the HeartMath website, when we make that effort, “Simply stated, our body and brain work better, we feel better, and we perform better.”
While the HeartMath Institute offers technology and tools for building the habit of heart-brain coherence, they have also identified non-tech methods that quickly bring us to coherence. Here is the HeartMath Quick Coherence Technique:
1. Bring your attention to your chest and the physical heart while counting inhalation and exhalation to five seconds in, five second out.
2. Imagine your breath flowing in and out of the heart.
3. Invoke a sense of appreciation by considering someone or something you love, be it a family member, friend, a place, or pet. The website says, “Make a sincere attempt to experience a regenerative feeling such as appreciation or care for someone or something in your life.”
That’s it. By devoting three, four, or five minutes to this technique while your tea steeps, you’ve entered a state of optimal heart-brain coherence.
A Deeper Mindfulness
Many are familiar with basic mindfulness techniques — placing attention on the breath and observing thoughts without judgement. But it’s possible to take this method a step deeper.
While your tea steeps, let yourself energetically “settle” for a moment by becoming aware of the body and taking a few deep breaths.
Now let your awareness take a small step “back” to allow thoughts to come and go without engaging or reacting. Notice how when you don’t engage with them, they simply pass away as new thoughts arise.
Now ask yourself, “who is observing these thoughts?” Don’t exert yourself trying to find an answer — simply let awareness go into search mode. Stay relaxed. When the next thought arises, notice it and ask, “who is noticing this thought?” Don’t worry if your attention wanders at first — simply return to active observation of thoughts while inquiring, “Who is observing?”
If you like, before you begin, set a timer and continue while your tea steeps for the allotted time.
Tiny Efforts — Big Changes
The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen is all about introducing subtle, incremental changes that, over time, bring continual benefit and improvement. While the Kaizen system was developed in relation to manufacturing and business, we can adapt its principles to our daily lives. Never underestimate the power of small acts to change the world.