Tea and Ritual

I admit it, I travel with my teapot. Two of them, actually.

One is a small, sky blue, infuser style pot in which I brew my black tea, while the other is an Asian style cup of pale sage green porcelain (with a ceramic diffuser and lid) in which I steep my green tea. Yes, a box of teabags would certainly be easier for a traveler but they make for a poor cup of tea (albeit the newfangled posh ones with proper, whole leaf tea are a dramatic improvement).

I take my camellia sinensis rather seriously, you see. For nearly a decade now, long before I moved abroad to England—where most of the tea is, quite frankly, rubbish—a nicely brewed ‘cuppa’ has been a daily ritual for me. At the risk of sounding terribly English, there’s something wonderfully civilized about it (though I’d far rather be authentic, artisan, creative, old-fashioned or bohemian rather than ‘civilized’).

I do try not to get too precious about it, especially when traveling, but like many things, when you come to appreciate something, it doesn’t do to skimp or suffer a poor substitute. Admittedly, besides tea, there are a few things I can get quite pernickety about, including wine, dark chocolate, artisan bread and pastry (though sadly I don’t eat either of them anymore). And there’s a good little list of non-foodie items that collectively belie me as a bit of a sybarite.

In my Kailua kitchen, I’ve a cupboard that holds a variety of tins of fine tea of various sorts, from different parts of the tea-growing world; some come from my favorite vendors and shops on the mainland and abroad, and others are gifts from friends who know that I have a thing for fine, loose leaf tea. Whenever I open the tea cupboard, I get a little thrill just looking at all those luscious choices. (I imagine it’s how some people feel about a wine cellar but, alas, I wouldn’t know.)

The other day, running low on the black tea I’d brought along on my travels, I wandered letterboxteainto a popular kitchen shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea where, among the shelves filled with cookery tools, pans, dishes and ingredients, I spied some appealing tins of tea. In particular, my gaze was drawn by a red tin of Letterbox Tea (inspired I guess by the iconic, red English ‘letter box’, as the Brits call them), bearing an appealing postage-stamp label with an ornately stenciled hand, containing a chai blend called ‘Ritual’.

Chai, with its warming, pungent spices, is usually a morning drink for me in winter, and seldom an afternoon affair. Not feeling any attraction for the few other teas in the store, I debated it for a bit, carefully reading the ingredient list on the label, scanning for red-flag items such as orange peel or “fragrance”. I’m quite particular about chai, even more than other types of tea, and it has to be the real deal; often times, for want of finding something adequate, I have simply made my own. Chai has its own ritual—brewed on a stove (“hob” for my Brit friends) rather than steeped in a teapot, the “unscented” loose black tea and whole spices simmered in a pot, and then a bit of milk added for another two minutes of infusing. None of that sweet, liquid concentrated stuff, thank you.

Alert: tea geek moment. If you want to get really fussy about it, the preferred tea for chai is a grade known as ‘CTC’ (Cut, Tear, and Curl) which is a low moisture, heavily rolled leaf pellet ideal for boiling.

I wished I could open the tin to view and smell the blend inside, but in the end I took the plunge and purchased the red Letterbox. How could I resist the inscribed hand on the label and the allure of a chai ‘Ritual’?

Later that afternoon, when I opened the red tin and set about brewing a pot, I found myself thinking about tea and ‘ritual’—both the immediate context of a proper cup of tea and also the larger metaphor of personal ceremony. Usually twice a day, a cup of tea, whether black or green, offers a lovely little respite and ritual during my waking hours. It’s something that I pause for and invest some time in its preparation.

Compared to a high ritual of Japanese tea ceremony, it’s nothing at all. Utterly amateur. Still, the ingredients and how it all comes together matters: good, loose leaf tea; fresh water and the right tea pot (warmed briefly before the actual steeping of leaves); brewed with diligence and attention so that it doesn’t steep too long and offers its full potential of taste without being too tannic or bitter; and served in an appealing, attractive cup. Then I sit down to enjoy it, accompanied perhaps by a little nosh of something like a proper biscuit (in the European sense of the word, more akin to a cookie than those big, bland, doughy blobs we call ‘biscuits’ in America).

Modern notions of ‘nutritional value’ aside, there’s something deeply nourishing about this little act of morning and afternoon tea. It offers a pause, a chance to stop and savor something—the well-brewed tea, the tasty biscuit, the fleeting moment of the day, the wind in the trees outside, the birdsong or the sirens and noise of traffic, the way the afternoon light dances on the wall, etc. It’s a conscious and deliberate choice to inhale the moment and open the senses; indeed that’s what makes it a ritual. Or a ceremony, if you prefer.

I tend the use the word ‘ceremony’ and ‘ritual’ interchangeably, though technically they represent slightly different elements (a detail that isn’t really worth getting into here). Whatever word we employ, rituals nourish us in some way. Often they help root us in the moment, inviting us to be ‘present’ and more fully in the here and now. In so doing, they also tend to create a sense of expansion, openness and possibility in the bodysoul.

When it is something we do repeatedly in a similar way each time—a morning meditation, a daily prayer, weekly attendance at church, a full-moon drumming circle—ritual can form the cornerstone of a practice that aids our personal transformation and evolution.

As a practice, ritual focuses our intent. It signals to the Source/Greater Mind that we are present and available in a meaningful way. Ceremony and ritual help us send the message to the Universe, yes, I am listening. As the Buddhists will tell you, even something mundane as a daily chore—washing the dishes, hanging out the laundry, pulling weeds, making tea—can become a ritual if we enter into it with the appropriate frame of mind. And while some ceremonies and rituals can certainly be active, overall they help shift us from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ (which is deeply valuable in our haggardly disconnected lives).

Ritual feeds the soul. It affirms the deep essence of who we are and connects us to something larger. Much larger.

We are nearly all of us busy and swept up in the details and demands (and sometimes the drama) of our days. Many of us don’t take the time to adequately nourish our body, let alone the mind, spirit and soul. Even living somewhere beautiful and alluring, perhaps where semi wild nature beckons right outside our windows and doors, we can fail to pause and notice. As with anything that becomes familiar, we quickly habituate and no longer really see (or smell, hear, taste, feel) it.

What do we make time for in our busy days that nourishes the soul?

Friend, if we desire it to be present in our lives, we have to make room for the sacred. We must choose to welcome it, to set aside time for it, to celebrate it. In our modern culture, this doesn’t arrive automatically. I would even dare to say that, like a potential lover, the sacred and soulful needs to be courted.

A cup of well-brewed tea might be overly simplistic when speaking of ritual; it’s not an obvious or typical route to the holy, is it? Yet what if you had a practice of taking a pause during your day to reconnect with your self in some nourishing way? What might it look like? Perhaps it is stepping out to greet the dawn. A bit of yoga or movement. Meditation. Journaling your dreams (or simply journaling, in general). Breathwork. Some inspirational reading. Doing a personal tarot reading. Standing/walking barefoot on the earth. Creative, artistic expression. Playing music. Gathering flowers from the garden. Walking in your neighborhood, looking for beauty. Preparing a nourishing meal. Sitting down for a cup of tea. Rubbing your beloved’s feet. Really, the possibilities are endless.

When we create ritual in our days we live more deliberately and intentionally. We send a message to the Field of Possibility that we are choosing to participate in a conscious, awakened way. Our senses are ajar. In seeking to be expansive in thought and body, Soul Artists understand the relevance of creating rituals, ceremonies, and small, private celebrations that invite them to be present in tactile, sensuous ways. Amid the busy hours of the day, they pause for beauty and gratitude. Wonder and awe, too.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you’ll decide to create a personal ritual(s) for yourself, something that nourishes your bodysoul in a meaningful way. It needn’t be elaborate; in fact, simple is probably better. You need only choose to pause or engage in an activity where you unfurl your senses wide, descend into your bones and breath, and welcome the sensory richness of the moment. When we are open to possibility, possibility opens.

Don’t forget to pack your teapot for the journey.