Tea mindfulness. I’ve written about it once before, but it seems to be the kind of thing that needs reminding to be remembered.
It came to mind recently as I was making my way through The Book of Tea, a classic by Japanese tea scholar Okakura Kakuzo:
Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities. We need good and bad tea, as we have good and bad paintings–generally the latter.
– Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea
We may need good and bad tea but we don’t have to make bad tea. That said, good tea doesn’t happen by accident–it takes practice.
Good tea isn’t rare because it is difficult to make–it’s not hard at all to pour hot water on dry leaves–but rather because it’s so easy to do without thinking.
Bringing a thoughtfulness and conscious level of effort to tea is what separates the average drinker from the enthusiast. It’s the “gongfu” part of gongfu tea. Being present, focused, and involved in what one is doing is what it takes to make good tea with skill.
Gongfu Tea Practice
Gongfu tea is both a method and an art. The method is simple enough, but the art of gongfu tea is one of cultivation, both of the tea and of the self.
The art of gongfu tea is to prepare the tea in order to express each steep’s evolving beauty. The only way I’ve learned to accomplish this is to approach gongfu tea with a single-minded focus on producing the best result possible. To achieve that focus, we need to work with our mind, our body, and our space to stay present and engaged with the tea-making process.
To me, this means we must have:
- Clean tools – teaware, scale, tea tray
- Clear space – no distractions, messes, or obstructions
- Fresh water – don’t taint your tea with old or used water that may have flavors or odors
- Quality tea – freshly opened or properly stored
- Brewing parameters – water temperature, tea-to-water ratio, brewing times
As far as choosing the tea, I don’t think it matters whether you pick a new tea or a familiar tea. Gongfu is great for exploring the experience of something new or experimenting with something you’ve had many times before.
With all the above prepped and ready, everything else takes care of itself! Ha, if only. The preparation is important, but the challenge is always in the brewing.
I like to go into a focused gongfu session with some kind of goal. Maybe I want to try a high amount of leaf with “flash” (fast) steeps, or maybe I’m interested in testing the effects of different mineral waters on a tea I’m familiar with to see how it changes the taste.
Sometimes it’s just as simple as trying to find time and space for myself to be alone with tea. Regardless, setting the intention before starting a session helps avoid the major pitfalls and challenges of practice.
Tea Mindfulness Challenge #1: Avoiding Distractions
When modern distractions abound, it’s difficult to be intentional and present for tea. The super computers in our pockets alone are full of distractions.
I’ve spoiled more than one session by giving in to the desire to snap an Instagram photo, because obviously the world needs yet another picture of leaves swirling in water. (This video is kind of nice though.)
The thing is, when I am able to sit and be with my tea, there’s more than enough there to keep my mind occupied for at least a half an hour, perhaps more depending on what’s in my cup.
Tea Mindfulness Challenge #2: Avoiding Boredom
If we’re not careful, tea can get a bit boring. When ritual becomes routine, it’s easy to forget what makes tea so special in the first place. When that happens to me, I look for fun or interesting new ways to mix it up.
Here are the best ways I’ve found to keep my tea hobby fresh and interesting:
- Change brewing parameters: Try a different temperate, mix up the leaves-to-water ratio, or try a new kind of water.
- Change brewing method: Try low (heat) and slow (time) or do flash steeps instead.
- Change brewing vessels: You a porcelain lover? Grab some clay. Always go green in glass? Check out tokoname.
Just the other day I spent my daily session trying out a black Bi Luo Chun in 3 different brewing vessels–one porcelain and two clay–to see which of them produced my favorite cup (a Duan Ni gaiwan won).
What Separates Good Tea from Bad Tea
If there’s one key takeaway here, it’s this: tea is different for everyone. What ultimately matters is that you enjoy what you’re doing. I admire Mr. Kakuzo and appreciate how much he cares about the aesthetics and practice of teaism (I also didn’t know tea had an -ism), but ultimately what’s good and bad is up to the drinker.
Every cup of tea doesn’t have to be an exercise in Zen discipline. Sometimes the bare minimum is all that’s needed. As much as tea is a feast of experiences for the enthusiast, it’s also a humble and practical drink for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with whacking some leaves into a tumbler and refilling it throughout the day.
There’s a reason why grandpas are always drinking their tea this way!
What’s your opinion on good tea and bad tea? Any tips or tricks for staying present in the experience? Would love to hear all about it in the comments. Thanks for reading!