What was once one of the most celebrated holidays in the United States next to Christmas has become an increasingly discussed subject of controversy. Most of us are familiar with the tale. It was 1620, and the English pilgrims, we are told, struggled for survival, aided greatly by the generosity of some local Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe. The next year, they were able to grow their own food, and so to return the favor, they celebrated with a feast, inviting the Native Americans to partake.
Whether or not there is any truth to this story (and to be sure, there is some), the idea of spending a day reflecting on our good fortune over the year, spending time with friends and family over a feast, and learning to appreciate everything in our lives a little more is a good idea. But there is no reason this should be restricted to one day out of the year, and in fact, many of these thankful and thoughtful attitudes can be found in the tradition of drinking tea.
One of the most unique qualities of the tea drinking experience is to be found in the ritual of tea preparation. Whether you prefer the elegant process of gongfu style tea or settle for using an infuser placed in your favorite mug, the act of making that perfect cup is one of the most relaxing rituals of the day. Many who switch to loose leaf tea for the first time enthusiastically comment on how it changes their daily routine and reduces their stress. It invites us to slow down for a moment, pay attention, breathe in the aroma from the tea leaves, observe their colors, and listen to the sounds of the water coming to a boil, all of which makes for a soothing, calming experience.
But besides tea preparation, there is also tea drinking, which can be a time of reflection and thoughtfulness. In some monastic traditions, it is not uncommon to partake in lengthy stretches of meditation with nothing more than a floor pillow and a single cup of tea. It is said that as the monk would begin to lose focus from fatigue, he would take a sip of tea, all while doing his best to maintain a mindful state.
There’s more to this monastic practice than moving your limbs and picking up any drink in an effort to stay awake. In addition to the caffeine in tea, which can help promote alertness, there is also the amino acid known as “l-theanine,” which helps promote a sense of calm. While tea partially provides the benefits of coffee through its lower caffeine content, it also balances that stimulation with l-theanine, creating the perfect conditions for the ability to focus without feeling overstimulated or anxious.
Both chemically and historically, tea has proven ideal for introspection and mindful observance. With every careful sip, one finds oneself invited into reflections on the past, hopes for the future, and love for the present. In the act of drinking tea, we give thanks, not to the idols of abundance and excess, but for the joy from the richness we discover in the moment.
What is more is that this is something that we can share with others. Those of us who are passionate about our tea are always eager to invite others into the experience with us as well. To this end, drinking tea is a selfless act, for it inspires us to extend that joy we discover to others. One is quick to realize that there is something both humbling and gratifying about preparing a cup of tea for another and serving them. It is an act that helps promote unity, understanding, and love.