One of the great modern migrations is currently underway in North America. No, not herds of caribou or flocks of geese. What we are witnessing is the migration of millions of people away from unconscious stressful living and towards a consciously healthier lifestyle.
Leading the way on this trek (along with a host of body/mind awareness systems such as yoga) is a very unassuming beverage called tea. Unassuming until one looks into the history of tea--it’s been involved in war, revolution, international trade, colonization, the evolution of ceramics and shipbuilding--and the vast number of health benefits attributed to it--550 substances in the camellia sinensis tea leaf help to fight cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis and many other diseases.
Much has already been written about tea’s intrepid past and health giving present. So this short article will look at an aspect of tea drinking not often highlighted.
In an age when being social means clacking away at a computer keyboard, sending emails through cyberspace, or lurking in chat rooms, there seem to be fewer opportunities to be social in a contemplative way, in a way that offers the possibility of thoughtful and artistic dialogue, face to face with other human beings. The taking of tea with friends or family can enhance the possibilities for relaxed social interaction.
Why tea? It has half or less the caffeine content found in coffee (zero in the case of herbal teas), making for a more gentle sense of alertness. At the same time an amino acid present in tea, L-Theanine, serves to calm the brain--the perfect combination of relaxation and stimulation, characteristics tailor made for healthy social intercourse.
Excessive consumption of alcohol dulls the senses and may harm the body. Coffee over stimulates the system with its high caffeine content. But tea offers a sense of well-being inherent to a positive and stress free lifestyle. And so it is ideally suited as an antidote to our anti-social, and rather cynical modern mentality.
The art of ‘taking tea’ invites beauty into our lives. The aesthetics of the Japanese green tea ceremony, for example, illustrate how far this can go. The concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ (respect for age and imperfection) is incorporated into the design of the Japanese tea house and tea room. The tea room itself is usually quite small, with a low entrance (placing both king and pauper on the same level), a tokonomo (small alcove) in which is hung a scroll with sacred writing, a vase with ikebana arranged flowers, and perhaps one or two other simple objects. The tea ceremony itself takes about four hours to complete, making it a profound meditation on the nature of time, aesthetics, community, and spiritual life. It is one of Japan’s cultural treasures.
Tea drinking around the world draws to it the idea of beauty. Think of an elegant porcelain tea set from 19th century England, a beautiful silver Russian samovar, or exquisitely crafted Moroccan tea glasses. It makes the idea of ‘to go’ cups seem downright Neanderthal!
And so, people are seeking out, not only higher quality beverages (gourmet leaf teas, etc.), but also environments that encourage mindfulness and a feeling of well-being, while offering up possibilities for social engagement. We’ve seen the results of this in the proliferation of new tea salons, tea houses and tea bars all over North America in the past 10 years.
In the face of technology’s overarching grip on global society, the sharing of ideas over a pot of tea has become a kind of human refuge, a small, but not insignificant rebellion against a world that seems hypnotised by the quest for speed and efficiency at the price of human contact.
So, the next time you bring a cup of tea to your lips and smile at the sunrise, know that this humble act is more important than it appears. The history of tea and its health benefits are indeed relevant, but the encouragement of the very idea of community itself may be tea’s most revolutionary contribution to social life. Reason enough to drink this most extraordinary elixir.
Harry Posner is co-proprietor of zencha tea bar, 166 Hurontario Street, Collingwood, Ontario. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a list of outstanding teas and instructions on how to prepare the perfect cup of tea...check out this brochure.