One of my favorite things to do is overcomplicate things.
I say that like it’s something I knowingly choose to do. That’s certainly not the case. I can’t stand my endless attempts at boiling the ocean.
No, it’s not that I choose to overcomplicate things–I have a habit of overcomplicating things. Not just some things either. Everything.
I can’t clean the counter in the kitchen without cleaning the entire house. I can’t start a blog post without trying to turn it into a book. I can’t post on Twitter or Instagram without making it the best post I’ve ever made.
I’m sure you can imagine how living like this is exhausting, even debilitating.
Ultimately, it’s what made me seek out chanoyu in the first place back in 2019. Starting that journey is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
Why? Because it helped me realize one critical truth: life is simple.
Easy to say, but it’s taken me thirty-five years of life, nearly three years studying chanoyu, plus a global pandemic to come to this realization.
That’s the definition of a hard-won lesson.
In a world where everything is uncertain.– Ryan Holiday
Where things are changing quickly.
Where chaos reigns.
And very little is under our control.
What we need is simple.
Now I can say I understand what tea has been trying to tell me all along: there are few things we need to make our lives full of satisfaction and content.
COVID-19 forced me to reckon with this truth. Stuck at home, but thankfully employed, I worked myself to the bone. When I realized how tired I was, I had to ask myself: how did this happen?
I had done it to myself. Without healthy boundaries in place to keep me balanced, I did the only obvious thing left for me to do–work myself to death. Turns out I’m the architect of my own suffering after all.
Fortunately for me, I also spent considerable time during the pandemic reading. I revisited one of my favorite books, The Practicing Mind, and helped myself to a healthy dose of “keep it simple, stupid”.
What the book helped me remember is, while life is simple, the true challenge lies in keeping it that way. All of us alive today in the 21st Century can attest to how hard it is to keep things simple, can’t we?
An antidote to this modern malady is forming a practice that reminds us of life’s simplicity on a regular basis. Although this can be anything (or many things) in our lives, I would add this practice should be something we can enjoy, keep us focused and present in the now, and offer us a path we can grow in and take with us through all of life’s ups and downs.
What makes tea a good practice?
It’s easy to start, immediately rewarding, and endlessly customizable; it’s perfect as a focal point for keeping ourselves present; there are a great many things to know about tea and various other arts surrounding it (eg. calligraphy, cuisine, ceramics); and it is something we can do for our entire lives without ever reaching the “end”.
However, tea doesn’t come as a ready-made practice out of the box. What elevates it from something we simply do to something we practice is intent. Our intent to use tea as a life practice is what allows it to evolve into something that vitalizes us.
Sen no Rikyū, the godfather of modern day chanoyu, had this to say about it:
Tea is naught but this.
First you make the water boil, then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.– Sen no Rikyū (千利休)
Sounds easy. How hard could it be? Well, have you ever seen someone make tea in the style of chanoyu? If not, here’s an example:
Yeah, that’s a 26-minute video on making tea and drinking it.
How exactly are we supposed to “just make tea and drink it” while we’re trying to learn everything else that goes into it? In chanoyu, there are hundreds of choreographed movements, names and lineages of art and teaware, seasonal or situational variations of style, and so on.
Chanoyu literally takes a lifetime to master.
As it turns out, that’s kinda the point. Although the goal of chanoyu is to seek simplicity, it is a simplicity that is only accomplished after lengthy study.
In the words of Sen no Rikyū, we can call this “returning to the original one”:
Practice is / starting from one / coming to know ten / and returning from ten / to the original one– Sen no Rikyū (千利休)
We start as a beginner. We know nothing, so we just make tea and drink it. As our knowledge grows, so does our self-awareness. We begin to struggle with simply making tea, as our mind goes to every aspect of its preparation. Finally, as we grow in experience, knowledge, and mastery, our mind essentially “forgets” all the parts and we return to a place where we can, once again, “just make tea”.
Here’s the trippy part: all things in life are forms of practice like tea–including life itself.
We are born as blank slates. We spend a while as children, joyfully and openly exploring life. Everything we do, we do for the purpose of doing that thing, only. Each new experience has something to teach.
Then, we grow into adolescence. Our knowledge of the world and the ways of being in it are growing. We must learn all the forms and functions of being a human in the world. We start to have expectations for ourselves.
As we begin to age the truth of life’s simplicity should begin to appear. We ought to shed the ideas, behaviors, and beliefs that weigh us down and focus only on what matters.
Everything in life is a cycle of learning and mastery–including life itself. All paths through it bring us to the end, which is to say, back to the beginning.
And that’s why I love tea as a practice for life. Chanoyu‘s focus on working towards simplicity helps keep me focused on what matters and what doesn’t.
Take some time to think about your own engagement with tea. Is it a practice for you? Do you want it to be? How will you use your practice to stay focused on life’s simplicity?
All you need to start is a little extra intent.
Good luck and happy drinking.
(Note: This article contains a few referral links. I hope you’ll consider using them if you find the resources helpful.)
(Photo credit: Unsplash)