– Hello, my name is Misha, and I'm ... a tea drinker.
In this essay, I'd like to share about my relationship with tea, what role it plays in my life and how it keeps transforming me.
I was born and raised in Ukraine, where everyone drinks tea from a very early age. However, we are used to drinking tea as just a beverage, like any other hot drink. We add sugar and drink it with sweets and/or herbs.
We drink it to warm up and to pass the time, without paying attention to tea's taste nor giving much thought to it.
The tea-drinking that I want to talk about is a more conscious approach to tea.
How I started teaing.
Many years ago, I was lucky to meet a person who became my teacher of Tea. The discovery of tea changed my life profoundly, and it's a gift that keeps on giving.
I remember my first "real tea" experience with the tea-master Katya. It was Jin Xuan Oolong, and the fragrance of that tea blew my mind. What struck me the most was how that fragrance and taste changed with each steeping. Until then, I was never a person who paid attention to scents.
But once I had this experience, I decided to quit smoking, mainly because it affects the ability to sense odors. I started smoking as a teenager, and quitting was a gradual process with quite a few bumps on the road, but I have been smoke-free for years now, and for this alone, I'm infinitely grateful to Tea.
Now, when guests come over and it gets to choosing between serving tea or alcohol, 8 out of 10 times I choose to serve tea because the taste is more complex and interesting (though I do love and value good islay whisky). I cannot have both – the strong alcohol flavor is killing taste buds, and drinking tea is losing its point. Surprisingly, not drinking alcohol didn't kill the party vibe I like to have. On the contrary,
we are getting tea drunk, and our conversations stay coherent and interesting. We are able to stay on our feet for much longer and don't suffer from a hangover in the morning.
Right then and there, after my first tea session with Katya Chai ("Chai" means tea in Russian), I asked her to teach me Tea. Many years later, having traveled all over Asia, I find myself sitting on tatami mats in my New York apartment, sipping matcha in the morning, before meditation, and running a tea shop.
In China, most people drink tea just like in any other part of the world, the way I described above – as a simple hot beverage, often with sugar or sweets, without paying attention to it. However, there is a term for a different way of drinking cha ("cha" is tea in Chinese), called Qing Yin (清饮), "clean drink", pure tea – when tea is consumed for experiencing the clean taste of the tea itself.
There are four stages of Qing Yin:
• Drinking Tea (He Cha, 喝茶) – when one uses tea as a beverage to quench thirst.
Whenever I go on a road trip, hiking, or during cold weather, I take a thermos with me and drink tea. Sometimes I may even buy tea from a grocery store. Because hot tea is comforting and thirst-quenching (unlike coffee, by the way). It's not as caffeinated as coffee and contains L-theanine that no other beverage does. All in all, it is a wholesome drink.
• Tasting Tea (Pin Cha, 品茶) – when one pays attention to the tea color, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste of the tea as well as to the tea aesthetic.
Every morning I do a tea sitting. I turn off my phone, relax, and pay close attention to the tea I'm brewing. It's not easy in our age of short attention span and ADHD, but I try, and it is a practice. And I am rewarded with an amazing experience that wakes up all senses: a great taste that starts revealing various notes, an ever-changing aroma, the visual pleasure that I get from looking at the simple yet exquisite teaware, and the light-play in my teacup. All the intricacies, all the nuances – what a treat!
But what's even more important, it allows me to quiet down my ever-rushing mind, unclutters it, and sets it in a positive mode.
• Tea Art (Cha Yi, 茶藝) – when you set an atmosphere for the tea: music, light, exquisite utensils, graceful movement while brewing and serving tea.
Occasionally, I invite a couple of friends to a tea ceremony. I set the atmosphere: light candles, clean up the room, set up my tea utensils in the most visually pleasing way, put on relaxing music, and turn tea brewing into a captivating presentation accompanied by a conversation about arts, philosophy, history, or literature. – A great way to have quality time.
• The Way of Tea (Cha Dao, 茶道) – making tea practice part of your everyday life, cultivating morality, seeking inner peace, staying in touch with nature, and being overall mindful.
To me, this is probably the most important aspect of tea. And the trick is that it gets into your life very subtly.
Tea for the soul.
You start drinking tea slowly, without rush, you start paying attention to tea, and you start staying more in the moment, and by paying more attention to the present, you gradually become more mindful. By becoming more conscious, you start getting rid of bad habits and begin cultivating a healthier lifestyle and healthier relationship with the world around you.
By allowing yourself to pause and relax, you are allowing yourself to calm down, become kinder, more balanced, thoughtful and make better choices.
You may develop a healthier relationship with Nature. By understanding how tea is grown and produced, you appreciate the environment and farmers' hard labor. Start opening up to the beauty of tea leaves and teaware, and beauty starts filling your heart and gives you a desire to share it with the world and your loved ones.
You begin surrounding yourself with like-minded people. You start searching for more tea knowledge and find it on tea forums and in tea communities. And there you find people who have also opened up their hearts to the Art of Tea. There you find people who are, just as yourself, curious and open to new experiences. Anyone can drink tea as a beverage, but it takes a curious mind to dive into Gong Fu Cha.
Walking the path of Cha is also a very humbling experience. The more you progress, the more you understand how much more there is to learn and discover.
And what can be more exciting than the learning process? Discoveries excite us, and new achievements make us happy.
At some point in your tea journey, you realize that there are always things that you still don't know in the realm of tea. There are always people to learn from, even if indirectly. He who realizes that becomes less arrogant, starts boasting less, listening more, observing attentively.
"Tea, Zen – one flavor"
Tea is so simple and yet so complex. It has the soft power that can elevate without us even noticing it. We don't have to dwell much on tea's meaning and hidden powers. Just start drinking it, start paying attention to tea's taste and fragrance, and it will do the work and do it playfully. And maybe, one day, many years from now, you'll find yourself sitting on top of a mountain, looking down on the clouds, sipping tea in blissful solitude, feeling liberated and enlightened.