A Leafy Way of Life

Can tea provide a path toward enlightenment?

The next time you settle back in a comfortable chair with a steaming cup of hot tea, or find yourself sipping a glass of iced tea on a warm afternoon, you may notice that besides quenching your thirst, you're beginning to feel a bit more focused. At the same time, you may also detect a deepening sense of calm.

The reason for this dual reaction is that the tea plant (Camellia sinensis, to be botanically precise) is a mixture of elements--the only one of its kind in nature--that simultaneously stimulates and soothes the nervous system. This ability to foster states of alert tranquility helps explain why tea plays an important role in many contemplative practices designed to increase mindfulness as well as calm the spirit.

Of course, people drink tea for more than its meditative qualities. Devotees are attracted by its rich and diverse flavors, its widely heralded health benefits and its capacity to infuse social gatherings with a harmonious spirit. It's no wonder that tea, a plant cultivated in more than 30 countries, is, next to water, the most frequently consumed liquid on the planet.

Tea Here Now: Relax and Rejuvenate With a Tea Lifestyle--Rituals, Remedies and Meditations, by long-time tea connoisseurs Donna Fellman and Lhasha Tizer, is a short but heart-felt synthesis of interesting facts, traditional wisdom and personal experience, extolling the virtues and versatility of tea.

Fellman, owner of the Bodhidharma Tea Company, teaches classes about tea and directs the Tea Education Alliance. Tizer, a wellness counselor who works at Miraval Life in Balance Resort in Catalina, conducts seminars and coordinates tea ceremonies and other tea-related events. This book, they assert, is an effort to engender "a new tea wisdom."

Sprinkling their text with quotes and poetry from an eclectic mix of tea aficionados, Fellman and Tizer guide readers through a crash course in all things tea: its history as a domesticated crop from early Chinese legends to its 17th century arrival in Europe; its contributions to health (research suggests that tea's favorable effects range from lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease, to slowing the aging process and mending DNA damage in smokers); fascinating factoids (some tea plants are capable of producing leaves for literally hundreds of years); the characteristics of different varieties of tea; and a helpful resource section that includes lists of Web sites, reading material, recommended American teahouses (including Tucson's Seven Cups Tea House) and sources for high-quality teas.

This information, while engaging in its own right, is primarily context for the book's theme: Tea can be a significant aid to self-actualization.

"Tea," the two women write, "has been our bodhisattva, a spirit that's free to enter the realm of liberation but that remains steadfastly earthbound to guide us through life and toward enlightenment."

I must say, I've never heard that leafy substance referred to with such veneration, but Fellman and Tizer insist that something akin to alchemy occurs when tea and heated water converge. However, it's not so much the tea itself, they say, that is a catalyst for transformation as it is our approach to it.

"When we endeavor to master the art of making a proper cup of tea," they affirm, "or anything else, we find that what we really master is our own self. The tea, the water and the teapot remain essentially the same. But we change."

Tea-brewing excellence, they declare, involves a lot more effort than simply plopping a tea bag in a cup of hot water. It requires care in measuring the amount of tea, selecting the best water, monitoring water temperature (ideal steeping temperature varies by just a few degrees depending on the type of tea) and determining when the tea is ready to drink.

Fellman and Tizer assert that the making and drinking of tea can help us to live more consciously by beckoning us into the moment, honing our ability to focus and opening up our senses while quieting our minds.

Nowhere is this more evident, they say, than in chanoyu, the Japanese tea ritual. A fusion of Taoism, Shintoism, Zen Buddhism and the cultures of China and Japan, chanoyu, is a "symphony for our senses," emphasizing simplicity, graceful movement, introspection, attention to detail, humility, generosity of spirit and the beauty of the ordinary. Chanoyu is the template for most contemplative tea rituals, but Fellman and Tizer encourage readers to develop personal ceremonies that express their hearts' "innermost longing."

They tell us that whether we follow a traditional tea path or one of our own making, we can't help but grow.

"Tea consciousness," they write, "begins to steep into the fiber of our muscles and our being. The way of tea becomes a way of life."

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