As a tea person, I am regularly asked whether there is a tea to treat anxiety. As a caffeinated beverage, I know that, on a chemical level, tea isn’t really the best to help someone to calm down and center the mind. However, I know that as I sit and focus on the act of mindfully making tea, the anxieties I may have seem to dissipate. This week I found myself in the grip of anxiety. While I regularly travel, I still harbor a fear of flying. Although not as severe as it used to be in my youth, still to this day, my mind cannot help but to think through all of the graphic scenarios of airborne perils that might await me.
It was at this moment, an hour or so before I had to head out to catch my flight, that I decided to make a bowl of tea. With not enough time to bring my 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) to a boil and set up my tea room, I decided to keep this tea setting informal. Filling my 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”) halfway with water, I set it within my antique 火鉢 hibachi (portable ash brazier).
As the kettle began to come to a soft, rolling boil I began to collect the needed teawares. A small grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan (“Ido teabowl”). A bamboo teascoop and 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk). A white linen 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth). Putting these aside, I then begin to sift a small amount of 抹茶 matcha powder into a finely-lacquered 棗 natsume (tea caddy).
Before I entered my small tea space in my apartment, I assembled every item and arranged them atop a red and black lacquered 盆 bon (tray). What I had in mind was to perform a simple 盆点前 bon-demae (“tray preparation”). While bon-demae is considered to be the most informal method of preparing tea in 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), this informality is balanced with a pervasive formality, both in the concentration in movement and in the subtle mental shifts between host and guest. I kept this in mind as I sat down to make tea.
Settling down into formal 正座 seiza (a posture where one kneels with the tops of the feet flat on the floor, and sitting on the soles), I set the tray down to the right of the hibachi. Next, I set down the 建水 kensui (waste water bowl), situating it just left of my left knee. I center my body and focus on my breath. Each outward motion is in conjunction with an outward breath.
As I bring the teabowl up to my center, I breathe inward. As I set it down before, I breathe out. Reaching for the natsume, I breathe out, lifting it up towards my center, I breathe in. As I set it before the teabowl, I breathe out. With each outward motion corresponds an inward motion. Energy I expend into the space, I return into my inner space.
This breathing continues as I purify each tea object. The natsume. The 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop). The chasen and the teabowl. As I remove each from their first setting, they return to a different spatial arrangement, their new placement in accordance with their action. The chashaku now sits atop the natsume, which has moved across the bon.
The chasen, having been cleansed and flexed in the warm water contained in the teabowl,…
now stands upright, its wetted tines stretching upwards.
Lifting the chashaku once again, I draw it towards my body, holding it parallel to my right thigh. With my left hand, I lean slightly downward to pick up the natsume. An out-breath. An in-breath. Lifting the lid of the lacquered tea container reveals the low mound of freshly-sifted green tea powder, glowing in the light of the early morning. Drawing forth three scoops of tea, I lightly tap the edge of the chashaku against the inside of the teabowl, removing any excess powder from its hand-hewn tip.
Placing the chasen over the tea, I let the hot water of the tetsubin pour through the thin tines, dispersing the water and producing a gentle trickling sound.
Whisking the tea, I draw-in my energy, center my body, and focus my mind. One smooth outward breath evens my hand as I move the whisk back and forth in a methodic, rapid motion. Rather than tighten my body, I open my chest, my arms, my center, offering everything that resides inside me into the bowl of tea.
Once whipped into a fine, even foam, I lift the chasen out of the bowl and return it back to the bon. Now, sitting before the bowl of tea, I can see every bit of anxiety and frustration looking up at me. I can imagine my fears, my self-doubts, and expectations. I can feel every time I said to myself “I cannot” or “I am not”… And in this very moment, I invite these sensations to join me in a bowl of tea. As I lift the bowl to my center, I breathe in. As I hold the small grey chawan before me, I bow to my anxiety. “Please accept this bowl of tea,” I say.
To drink this tea, one must first calm the mind. To enjoy the warmth of the bowl in one’s hands, one must be able sense this. To hear the faint bubbling of the matcha foam as it settles, one must quiet the mind. As I bow to my anxieties and invite them to have tea, these anxieties must come to the state to accept the tea. They may not fade away, nor may they entirely disappear, but for a moment, they must focus, center themselves, and be able to accept a bowl of tea. I and my anxiety, joined together, finally sit and enjoy the fragrant flavors of matcha. The smooth texture. The warmth that cuts straight to my core.
As I set the teabowl down, I begin to clean it again, finishing the informal moment I had enjoyed. Folding the chakin and placing it into the teabowl. Next come the chasen, followed by the chashaku. Before I place the teabowl back on the tray, I move the natsume over to the right, returning each object to its original location.
Everything now sits as it originally had, and, yet, change has occurred. Time has passed and actions have taken place. A kettle that was once cold has since come to a boil. Tea that was at once a fine powder has been whipped into a beautiful foam. This, too, has changed. My anxieties, while they still remain, have changed as well. Feelings that had once dominated my mind have since joined me in sharing a bowl of tea.
Just in case you were wondering, theanine and other chemicals naturally found in tea have actually been found to promote alpha-wave brain activity, or a meditative state of relaxed alertness. More information on this can be found in this 2008 research paper, titled “L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state”.