With this in mind, I attended a tea ceremony class taught by Morgan Beard at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia. The experience left me with a new perspective on what it means to be mindful and present.
An Intro to Tea Ceremony
Tea ceremony is rooted in Zen Buddhism as well as the Japanese appreciation for tea; it is about stepping away from the churn of to-do lists and anxiety to focus on the here and now. The guiding principle is ichi-go ichi-e, the philosophy that each moment should be treasured because it can never happen the same way -- with the same people, in the same place, with the same things -- again; each experience is unique, so a mindful approach should be used.
During a typical tea ceremony, guests walk down a garden path to the tea room, then wash their hands to symbolize washing away the worries of the world. The tea room is simple with calm colors and natural light and usually has one "focus" area with a scroll or flower arrangement. The guests sit on the floor while the host -- who has carefully chosen and planned everything ahead of time -- serves sweets and prepares matcha green tea.
As the ceremony progresses, the guests will not only enjoy the tea, but they will also take time to admire the teaware, asking the host questions about its origins, and they will show marked consideration to the others in the room. Everything has a specified order, so both guests and host know how to act and what will happen next, allowing them to focus on the moment instead of worrying about what's going on. For the host, every movement is meaningful, from the whisking of the tea to the folding of the cloth; each sound, color, or texture is intended to invoke a certain thought or feeling for the guests and to keep their minds present.
People who have studied or attended tea ceremony say it’s like an active meditation that leaves them calmer, more focused, and more able to face the challenge of everyday life. One of the students I spoke with said that when she and her mother butt heads, they like to take a step back and say, “tea ceremony!” to remind themselves to calm down.
Mindfulness for Every Day
Practitioners of tea ceremony study for years before the many steps of serving tea become a mindful meditation -- but let's be realistic, you probably don't have time for that. So how can the average person bring the spirit of tea ceremony into their everyday life? It may take a bit of practice, but you can do it by setting aside a little physical and mental space.
Create a space that encourages you to be present. Employ simple, soothing colors and textures and soft, natural lighting. Keep out the clutter; one focus object such as a favorite piece of art is all you need. Indulge in quiet. This space can become a perfect spot to relax and unwind or to start your own meditation practice. Set a timer -- or, since you're relaxing, an hour glass -- and commit to being mentally present, in this space, for that amount of time.
Enjoy the moment you are in and focus on the people you are with. These could be your party guests, your friends at a coffee shop, your co-workers in a meeting, or your spouse. Follow the conversation and practice empathy instead of letting your mind wander to endless to-do lists. By being present, you'll show others that they are important, and you'll enjoy your time with them more, too.
Give yourself grace; don’t judge. Life, like tea ceremony, has a lot of rules, but in tea, you learn the rules in practice and do your best when actually serving tea in real life. If you mess up, you give yourself grace and keep going; you do not need to get frustrated or judge yourself. Your guests -- or, in most cases, the people around you -- will usually not care about your mistakes as much as they will notice your frustration and anxiety.
Take a moment for yourself. Instead of a "working lunch," put away all the distractions -- work, phone, social media, etc. -- and focus on enjoying what you are eating. If you don't have time for that, take a five-minute tea or coffee break. Step away from everything and concentrate on enjoying just that cup of tea. You'll feel so much better when you get back to work.
All photos are courtesy of the author.