Few cite tea as a catalyst for focus and concentration, but tea enthusiasts know better. Like many customs that are taken for granted, the process of drinking tea offers benefits that we enjoy, but can’t always put our finger on. Why is it that after we’ve had a cup of tea, we feel more tranquil and cogent?
Without discussing the chemical and microscopic composition of the substance itself, I try to use the tricks and methodology of a social scientist to understand the process of tea drinking. Maybe you remember Geertz’s famous examples of thick description from college, but did you ever think of applying this methodology to the normal, everyday customs in which you participate – to, yes, something like sipping a hot cup of tea? For those of us obsessed with “the process,” whether in art, tradition, or routine, we might have already taken notice of our tea sensations, or “tea-sations.”
In comparison to other hot beverages, tea has the unique capacity to allow one’s mind to focus entirely, if only for a few moments. Even if one finds him- or herself in an unfamiliar place, like a bus stop (remember, I live in LA) or an emergency room, sipping tea still remains soothing, relaxing, and intoxicating. I have decided to record in minute detail – as a type of participant observation – what I do and feel while knocking back my favorite drink. It might seem a little like playing with one’s food:
1. Sometimes, if I am sitting in a chair with arms, I put my elbow on the arm of my chair and let the warm comforting tea cup rest against my chin.
2. I lift the tea cup closer to my face and nose.
3. I notice the steam entering my nostrils, first quickly and then gradually diminishing. (This works best if you have a cup and not a mug with a lid.)
4. After my breathing relaxes from the steam inhalation, I hold the cup in my hands underneath my chin and feel the slight condensation.
5. I lower the cup, breathe, and then take a sip.
6. If I catch myself holding the tea in my mouth too long, I’m probably holding my breath.
7. I swallow and repeat. Of course, most of this is unconscious unless I feel particularly meditative and stop to enjoy the pauses and abstractions.
Perhaps this may seem strange. “I don’t do anything like that,” you might think. You could be right, but next time see if you don’t take a mad inhalation of the cleansing steam before you take a sip. Even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter – as long as you enjoy it.