Anything can become a mindfulness practice when you slow your roll and give each move an ample amount of intention. Tea ceremonies are an ancient cultural activity, that originated in China and Japan, which turns the act of making tea into an artful exercise of consciousness — like a moving meditation that results in a delicious cup of tea. It’s a chance to immerse yourself in the presence and practice celebrating even the simplest moments.
Shiva Rose hosts many a tea ceremony on her LA property and we love the way she’s mastered the elegant and energetically soothing ritual. Shiva wrote all about tea ceremony in her new book, Whole Beauty, and we’re sharing a few insights from its pages plus our guide for making your own modern tea ceremony…
I was introduced to the way of tea—cha dao—by my tea sister Tien Wu (Baelyn Elspeth). I had a very visceral reaction the first time I sat in on a tea ceremony. I didn’t understand why we were sitting in silence and why we were drinking this tea. I was frustrated and agitated, and I didn’t think I would be participating in the tea ceremony again anytime soon.
Because a lot of the sisters in my community practice tea ceremony, I soon found myself sitting in on my second ceremony, and this time my reaction was a complete reversal, as I had pushed through my previous resistance. I started crying, and I found myself deeply moved by the presence and power of tea. Rather than being annoyed by the silence and the stillness, I became aware that this was the very purpose of practicing tea ceremony: to slow down enough that you become one mind that is fully present and in the moment.
You hear a lot of talk in the media about mindfulness, and the tea ceremony is a mindfulness practice. You have to be totally present as the water boils, as the leaves steep, and as you pour and drink the tea. As I began to appreciate and understand the tea ceremony, I realized how wonderful it was for me. I have a very active mind, and this ceremony gave me a focus for my meditation. It allowed me to let my feelings pass without judgment and to remain still and calm.
I practice tea ceremony with an organization called Global Tea Hut, and my teacher, Wu De, often talks about the tea ceremony as a way of connecting to nature. Many of us live in fast-paced urban environments and often fail to take notice of the natural world around us. The tea ceremony allows us to slow down enough to connect with the spirit of the earth. When I went to China to learn more about tea, the group that I traveled with worked on organic farms, harvested leaves, processed them over fires, and even visited the studio of a master potter who makes beautiful clay vessels that we drank from. This trip deepened my love and appreciation for the process of preparing tea for ceremony, because I got to experience firsthand how labor intensive producing it really is. We could pick leaves for a full day and still barely have what we needed for a pot of tea.
Wu De taught me a simplified version of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Ancient Chinese and Japanese ceremonies celebrate nature by incorporating all of the elements: water, the fire and air used to boil the water, and the earth represented by the tea itself and the clay cups. Sometimes we will also burn incense during the ceremony to represent ether. We often practice outside, and a few years ago, I commissioned a craftsman from Ojai to build a small teahouse in my backyard, which has become my refuge. I drop into a deeper place when I am listening to the birds and feeling the breeze purifying me. I always see butterflies fluttering by and hear frogs singing. Drinking tea in my teahouse feels like entering into a whole new realm. Tea is a medicine, and it brings people together. It makes it possible to sit down with a stranger, share a cup, and develop a connection without saying a word.
Starting your own tea practice is very simple, and you don’t need much equipment. Begin with organic tea from a reliable source such as Global Tea Hut or Living Tea and clay cups/bowls that are nontoxic and pleasing to you. My favorite cup was given to me by Tien Wu. It was a gift when I first started practicing, and it means a lot to me.
It took me years of being the water bearer for Tien Wu before I felt confident enough to serve tea. Although the practice is very simple and made for anyone to do, it also requires specifics that come from putting in the hours to learn and absorb all of the details.
How To Build A Modern Tea Ceremony Practice
Step One. Gather your tools. You will need: Spring water, a teakettle, a nontoxic clay teapot, nontoxic clay teacups, organic tea, incense, and an offering (like a flower in a vase) that helps to decorate the space for the ceremony. It is best to use teaware that is beautiful or meaningful to you.
Step Two. Prepare a peaceful space where you and your guests can enjoy the tea ceremony. Guests should be seated across from and facing the host. Set up your tools and tea Light some incense if you desire.
Step Three. Be sure to warm and purify your tools before preparing the tea. Traditionally, this purification occurs during the ceremony itself. The host should pour warm water onto the instruments and the bowls, as this helps keep the tea hot longer when it is poured.
Step Four. Set an intention for the ceremony, either silently or aloud. Take a moment to connect with your guests (even if that just means making eye contact) and absorb the moment. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to have a tea ceremony. While truly traditional tea ceremonies vary from culture to culture and are rich with nuance, as long as you are truly mindful in the process — meaning you pay close attention to the way each movement feels, looks, smells and sounds — any variations are acceptable.
Step Five. To prepare the tea, heat the water in a traditional teakettle until it is just about to boil, then transfer it to the teapot that you will use for the ceremony. Put a few tea leaves in each cup/bowl, and watch them unfurl when you pour in the hot water. According to Shiva “as with every practice, preparing tea becomes a ritual when you bring in mindfulness and intention. As the tea blossoms, really take in the history of what you are drinking. Sit outside if you can, and empty your mind of everything else by paying attention to what is around you: the sounds of nature, the feel of the warm cup in your hand, and the taste of the tea on your tongue.”
Step Six. Serve the tea. Traditionally, only one bowl is used to serve all guests — each guest takes a sip then passes it to the next until it arrives back at the host. Alternately, the tea can be prepared in one bowl and can be poured into individual cups or bowls. Once the tea has been brewed and served, the host should invite the guests (verbally or with a small hand gesture) to enjoy the tea.
Step Seven. According to Shiva “when you are done, make an offering to tea and the earth by tossing your leaves on the ground, rather than in the trash.”
Excerpted from Whole Beauty by Shiva Rose (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photographs by Ngoc Minh Ngo.