Tea and meditation have associated themselves for centuries. One legend puts the birth of tea plants alongside the creation of a new form of meditation. The story goes that Bodhidharma tore off his eyelids after falling asleep seven years into a nine year wall-gazing meditation. His discarded peeper-covers fell in the dirt and became tea plants.
Tea has been an aid to meditation for centuries. The caffeine provides alertness while the theanine provides focus and clarity.
But can tea drinking itself be used as a form of meditation?
To answer this question, one has to have a clear definition of what meditation is and does. Is it an intellectual activity that engages the mind? Is its purpose to empty the mind? Is the goal to achieve relaxation? Or are there multiple purposes and goals?
One reason different answers are given to these questions is because there are different forms and traditions of meditation. Practices like mindfulness meditation, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), and transcendental meditation (TM) seek to cultivate greater awareness of the moment, or to sink deeper into the calmer levels of the mind that are believed to contain other realms of intelligence and “pure consciousness.”
So then, if tea drinking is to be a form of meditation, it would need to meet a few criteria:
1. It would need to facilitate the achievement of purpose.
Given the various philosophical traditions beneath different forms of meditation, there would need to be an alignment of practice and purpose. Looking at the stories of the Bodhidharma and others, the use of tea drinking as meditation would require more than a simple rest or awareness of stress on our bodies. Staring at a wall for nine years would be a physical challenge to say the least, but the spirit would no doubt be wrestling with its demons.
Henri Nouwen of the Christian tradition reminds us of this as well:
“We also think of solitude as a station where we can recharge our batteries, or as the corner of the boxing ring where our wounds are oiled, our muscles massaged, and our courage restored by fitting slogans. …. Rather it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.”
The Way of the Heart
2. The behaviors of tea-drinking must align with the activities of the meditation form.
Transcendental meditation would seem less compatible with tea-drinking, as the TM practice requires eyes to be closed and a degree of stillness.
3. Tea drinking as meditation may be better suited to contemplative and prayerful forms of meditation that engage the intellect and then go beyond.
In the Christian tradition, for example, meditation has most often been described as an activity that engages the full person in a relational activity with another.
Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, student of mysticism, and prolific writer offers insight on meditation as a relational activity engaging the full person:
“It is an intellectual activity which is inseparable from an intense consecration of spirit and application of the will.”
“True contemplation is, then, the experience of a union that is so purely and perfectly supernatural that no created nature could possibly bring it about.”
Selections from: A Thomas Merton Reader
Tea can be used for meditation when it aligns with the purposes and practices of the meditation form. Aside from the beneficial molecules tea may offer, the activity of tea drinking should work to enhance rather than distract from the goals of the meditation. Of the forms of meditation covered, MBSR more clearly demonstrates how tea-drinking could be incorporated into the practice. After all, if one can eat a raisin as a form of meditation, why not drink tea instead?
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