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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Tea as Meditation

I am not going to pretend to be a connoisseur of tea. There are many true experts out there, and I suggest you look to them for an "expert opinion." What I'd like to share with you is my experience of some quality teas I have recently discovered, coming from a spiritual point of view.

The first tea that opened my eyes to the meditative nature of tea drinking was pu-erh. A friend brought by a 12 year old sheng, meaning it had been stored green and allowed to age under the proper conditions for 12 years. He served it to me gongfu style, meaning he used a tiny yixing teapot and two 1-ounce cups, and made many quick steeps that each served just a few sips for each of us.

When I first smelled the tea it reminded me of earth. As I took the first sips, it was as if the Earth itself was entering me. I guess drinking old tea is about as close as you want to get to drinking liquefied dirt. Not that the tea was muddy at all. It was transparent and quite pure in that regard, with a deep reddish-brown color typical of a black tea. But the feeling of the tea was truly like taking the Earth into one's body. Pot after pot, as I looked out into my backyard garden and drank this tea, I felt more and more like I was camping somewhere, then like I lived in the woods, and then like I was a mere extension of nature myself, a walking tree.

I am not someone who can handle caffeine very well. My nervous system is hyper-sensitive. This serves me well when it comes to spiritual connectedness and healing work, but not when it comes to being able to enjoy nervous system stimulants. They put me over the edge into an anxiety that is utterly physical, like I need to jump out of my body, but I can't, so instead I just tremble with clinched muscles all over my body. Not exactly an afternoon treat.

Pu-erh is low in caffeine, lower than even green tea. Only white tea has less caffeine (and I will talk about white tea in a future article). Normally if I drink even green tea one morning I will have a hard time sleeping that night. It's not that the caffeine is still in my body that long, as caffeine is processed by the body in about 5 hours. It is more that the hyper-stimulation of my nervous system takes many hours to abate after the stimulant is no longer present. I had pu-erh around 1pm, and had no problem falling to sleep around 11pm that night. I share this aside for those of you who have avoided tea because of the caffeine.

There was a point when I was drinking the tea when it felt like I was hitting my caffeine limit, even with this low caffeine variety, and needed to stop or pass into jittery mode. My friend encouraged me to keep going. I rationalized that it was a Saturday, so what the heck if I was up all night. The fascinating thing is, two steeps later the experience came around full circle. Instead of further stimulating me, it actually felt like I was taking a nervous system tonic that was calming me, but in a way that was mentally crystal clear.

In meditation, what you are going for is to be fully relaxed and yet keenly alert. You are totally immersed in the bareness of what is, and at peace with it. A lot of people confuse spacing out or blissing out with meditation. I dare say, if there is any "out" involved, you're probably not meditating. Drinking the pu-erh brought me into a meditation that was so grounded in the Earth and yet as spacious as the sky. It was truly a phenomenal experience.

My friend left, taking his pu-erh with him, but a few days later I couldn't stop thinking about that tea experience. I have a daily meditation practice, but have struggled lately to keep it at three times a day. I always do my morning meditation and usually do my evening meditation, but have a hard time getting myself to break in the middle of the day for another meditation session. I work at home and set my own schedule, so there is no external reason I can't do it. I've just had a hard time getting myself to switch gears mid-day, even though when I do it refreshes and refocuses me so that I work better afterwards. I realized that if I had the tea I might take meditative tea breaks right after my "working lunch" and thereby get in my third meditation session each day. (As it turns out, even with the low caffeine, there is a degree of nervous system stimulation from the pu-erh, and I can only handle every other day. That's where the white tea comes in.)

Since my friend who introduced me to pu-erh was traveling, and I knew he got his from a shop near his home in Santa Cruz anyway, I had to hunt around online to find a good source for my own pu-erh setup. A key find was the Pu-erh Tea Community, which led me to Generation Tea, where I bought a 25 year old shou and sheng blend, and Imperial Tea, where I bought a 4 oz. yixing and gongfu tasting and aroma cups.

This is the second time I am mentioning the term "sheng," so let me explain more about that now. Basically, sheng pu-erh is green tea that has been allowed to age under the right conditions, while shou pu-erh is a fermented tea that has been manipulated by man to have the taste of a very old sheng, though it is actually quite young. Needless to say, shou is cheaper, but sheng is for the true connoisseur. The blend I got of the two was a compromise. I spent $28 per ounce and got a tea that tasted 25 years old and that carried the energetic quality of 25 years of aging, even though the quantity was "extended" by shou "filler."

From Wikipedia's Pu-erh page: "Pu-erh tea can be purchased as either raw/green (sheng) or ripened/cooked (shou), depending on processing method or aging. Sheng pu-erh can be roughly classified on the tea oxidation scale as a green tea, and the shou or aged-green variants as post-fermented tea.... Unlike other teas that should ideally be consumed shortly after production, pu-erh can be drunk immediately or aged for many years; pu-erh teas are often now classified by year and region of production much like wine vintages."

I have come to truly love my midday breaks with this tea. I use it as an entry point into meditation. I spend about 30 minutes enjoying multiple steeps of the tea, then meditate for 20 minutes. I start my meditation from a mental state that is already very close to what meditation produces, so that my 20 minutes deliver quite an effect.

Last week I got to share the tea with my Buddhist teacher. We have tea together rather frequently, but usually he is the one sharing tea with me. This time I got to introduce him to pu-erh, a tea he had never even heard of. First I checked that he was okay with having a Chinese tea, since he is Tibetan. He said that tea was universal and he had no problem with enjoying it. And enjoy it he did.

At the first sip he was visibly affected and his literal response was "oh! This is very good tea." He drank more and then added, "I can feel this is really doing something for my body. It is very cleansing." We drank for about an hour before we even spoke about anything else. We simply sat enjoying the tea and each other's presence. As we sat, it was as if our Buddha Nature expanded. I felt like I was at day 3 of a meditation retreat. We then began to converse, but the conversation took a very different form than the sorts of things we normally talk about. For the first time, I felt I was sitting with a dear friend, and not just a teacher. He has often described me as a friend and himself as my spiritual friend, but I never really accept that, and always refer to him as my teacher. Yet in that moment, I sat with a friend, and we spoke of his life as friends would.

I will end this introduction to the meditative qualities of pu-erh here, though really I could go on. I would invite you to go into a Chinese tea shop and experience the tea for yourself if you are near a Chinatown or an Imperial Tea Court (Berkeley/San Francisco). The investment to get started if you buy everything like I did would be about $100. I was willing to spend a little more than that because I had already had the tea served to me. It is a big leap to invest that much for your first cup. Though I suppose you could get away with just buying the tea and using it with your current teapot and teacups. Drinking it gongfu style is recommended though. That truly is a part of the meditative quality of the overall experience of the tea, and also changes how the tea tastes. Brewing a pot and pouring it into a 6-12 oz. cup is simply not the way to drink pu-erh.

You can watch this Gongfu cha dao How-to video to get a good introduction to the method, but you don't have to be a total purist to get the benefits of the method. Just note how he uses the aroma and tasting cups and uses a very small teapot and small teacups. He steeps the tea many times, and truly the most delicious pot of pu-erh to me is generally around the 4th or 5th steeping. You simply steep the tea longer each time, starting with about 10 seconds for the 1st steeping, which you pour off (it contains most of the caffeine, and also washes the leaves). The second steeping is generally around 30 seconds, on through the 6th, which is generally about 3 minutes. Again, this is just a guide and how I like it. You must experiment for yourself to find your "sweet spot" based on personal taste, the variety of pu-erh you purchase, and also how much tea leaf you are putting in the pot. You can read more about gongfu cha dao on Wikipedia. Enjoy.

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