I recently had occasion to think about tea as a multi-sensory experience that goes beyond taste. I also thought about the act of making tea as a form of meditation. These two facets of tea are clearly connected.
The classic five human senses as delineated by Aristotle are hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. Meditation can be thought of as a purposeful practice that alters one’s level of consciousness toward a more relaxed state. Meditation relaxes the body, as the practitioner feels an increased sense of well-being and peace. Many people practice meditation as medicine for stress relief, while others do it to help them achieve higher levels of spiritual or mental consciousness.
A few years ago, I began to realize that the act of making and consuming tea had become a form of meditation for me. I recognized others who did the same thing, and I sought their company for sharing tea. For us, tea is much more than a delicious beverage, a medicinal herb, or a qi delivery system. For us, tea has become a way of life. Through the most stressful of times, tea has become our rock.
What is it about tea that causes us to embrace it in this way? Tea contains theanine, a rare, naturally occurring amino acid derivative that crosses the blood-brain barrier and increases feelings of mental and physical relaxation in counterpoint to the stimulating effects of tea drinking. But I don’t think we are simply seeking a theanine delivery system when we prepare tea or we would be drinking Gyokuro, the tea reputed to have the highest levels of theanine. In fact, my tea friends and I only rarely drink Gyokuro. What we do drink is a lot of gongfu-style Puerh tea.
Puerh in the gongfu-style, as we practice it, involves repeated rapid-fire steepings in gaiwans or small clay teapots and drinking the tea from very tiny tea cups that easily get hot to the touch when filled to the rim. We usually use a knife to separate the tea to be brewed from its compressed shape, typically a brick or bingcha (disk). We occasionally brew a loose-leaf gong-ting (Imperial Puerh) or a medium-size tuocha (bird’s nest) or other form. A well-stored compressed form will yield distinctive snaps and crackles as the tea separates away with the piercing and twisting action of the knife. The firmness and appearance of the compression reveals whether the tea is machine compressed or stone-pressed in the traditional manner. Machine pressing tends to be much firmer, making a form that will take longer to age through and through since air and moisture cannot easily penetrate it, which impedes the living organisms that ferment Puerh.
I love it when we examine the dry leaf first and then pass around the steaming hot teapot or gaiwan of wet Puerh after a quick initial rinse. The hydrated leaves expand to many times their dry size once fully wetted. The texture, color, and aroma of the wet leaves hint at the aging style (wet vs. dry stored; years of aging), production method (raw vs. cooked), origin, and genetics of the tea since wild and arbor-tree leaves have distinctive characteristics. Small Leaf Tea and Big Leaf Tea are more easily discernable from each other in the wet state as well.
The early steepings are typically very strong, yielding a deeply colored, murky, and complex brew that gives a lot of information about the age, characteristics, and quality of the tea while the final steepings are often so weak they are barely colored. The speed at which the steepings become clear also speaks to the quality of the tea. Dust-free, well-prepared Puerh with few broken leaves yields crystal-clear steepings sooner.
We call the weak final steepings the “hydration phase,” reflecting the hope that these steepings will replace some of the water lost from our bodies during the earlier, more strongly diuretic steepings. We want to extract as much of the minerals and nutrients as we can from the tea that others have worked so hard to produce for us and we enjoy experiencing the changing flavor profile as the tea successively steeps. The later steepings are usually much sweeter and less pungent than the earlier ones as the brew loses complexity and more of the flavor comes from the woodier portions of the tea. It might take thirty or more rounds of steeping a high-quality compressed, cooked Puerh in a tightly packed, small Yixing teapot before we stop brewing the leaves.
Soft music is usually a background element, but other times the music can be the focus of our attention, such as the amazing time we blasted the Jimi Hendrix LP (yes, vinyl) “Are You Experienced” through the rafters at the end of a three-hour steeping session. It was hard to say if we were drinking tea or dancing tea by the end. Our group of tea friends entered the most blissful state you can imagine. You had to be there to understand.
We read poetry or philosophical passages to each other, especially in the later rounds when the tea needs to steep longer and longer as it “steeps out.” This can be counter-productive. If the discussions become too excited or argumentative or if the content alienates some of the listeners, the relaxed mood dissipates and it cannot be easily retrieved. The facilitator of this type of tea session needs to be very attentive and able to subtly steer the conversation.
Tea is a physical act that requires focused concentration and brings us into the present. The ergonomics of using small, boiling-hot, clay teapots and porcelain or glass gaiwans to serve tea into small cups can be challenging, especially after serving for two to three consecutive hours, as we often do. There is a lot of rinsing of tea and teaware and moving of teaware around with tongs. Mistakes can lead to dropped teaware and burned participants.
Even the brewed-out leaves are interesting to pick up and examine. Now, fully rehydrated and pliable, they are close to their original size. Good-quality, raw Big Leaf Puerh leaves are pliable and spring back if rolled up into a ball. They are thick and are often rubbery in texture. Cooked Puerh leaves are usually thinner, more broken, and ragged along the edges due to the manipulations and rapid fermentation they have endured during this processing.
I hope describing all of this helps illustrate how multi-sensory the gongfu-style tea experience can be. There is a lot more going on than simply tasting the brew. It is easy to forget the stresses of the day while concentrating so intently on all of this.
The five senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch are all being intentionally utilized. I have no doubt that the conscious practice of gongfu-style tea service can alter one’s level of consciousness towards a more relaxed state and facilitate building a community of people dedicated to sharing tea together in harmony. There’s good reason to believe that other styles of tea service and other types of tea can be used similarly.