“Try softer,” my martial arts master said, as I fumbled through learning new steps in my form. My mind was jumbled and confused, trying to remember the movements, my body stiff and tense. Trying harder, I muscle up on steps with tension, apprehension, and fear; “trying softer” is a way of letting go to allow the body-mind connection to come together in a more natural, productive way. This concept tied together my martial arts practice and tea studies in a way that I hadn’t yet realized. So incredibly simple, it is also supremely challenging to master, as anyone who has sincerely attempted this will attest.
Soshitsu Sen XV speaks of restraint in “Tea Life, Tea Mind” as a way to self-expression, manifesting itself in the negative space of paintings, music, Noh plays, austere tearooms, and Zen calligraphy. Practicing being present is key to this idea. In the tea ceremony, it is understood that the guest and the host aim to satisfy each other, but this shouldn’t be the goal at the outset of the event, because it will preclude participants from being present as the steps are performed.
Similarly, in my martial arts practice, we are taught not to fear what is to come, but rather to take each step as it comes, staying relaxed and focused, dealing with the shots as they’re delivered. Physical self-expression improved by restraint (“trying softer”) in martial arts and the tea ceremony ties together the body and mind in a way that results in nimbler movements and more creative expression from a freed and relaxed mind, more awareness of detail, and an intensified imagination.
Given this, I guess it’s no surprise that the words “kung fu cha” or “gong fu cha” contain the same words to describe a form of Chinese martial arts, because both require skill, patience, self-discipline, and focus so that they can be performed fluently, like walking. Only then can the practitioner have the freedom to accomplish one’s goals, whether it be conflict resolution, self-discovery, or creating a memorable, enriching experience for a guest and a host.
I always marveled at how tea tasted so much better when someone else made it for me, particularly matcha. Why didn’t mine taste like that? Secret ingredients of gratitude and love aside, I wondered if it had to do with my state of mind when I made and consumed my drink.
The moment of “try softer” made this clear in thinking about how to make a more satisfying cup of tea; there were times when I wasn’t fully present, wasn’t relaxed, and wasn’t breathing when making tea. Because of this, my body wasn’t allowing me to whisk my matcha as quickly as I could to produce a great froth, or to see clearly how much loose-leaf tea I was using. I certainly didn’t know that I could’ve started the relaxation process before I drank my first sip by simply breathing, pushing my shoulders down, and allowing my movements to be more fluid and precise and my sense of time to be fully intuitive.
Of course, making everyday tea for myself and many others doesn’t require the precise, controlled (yet relaxed) movements that my martial arts and tea ceremony practice require, but I have found that little pearls of wisdom gleaned from both practices can inform and be incorporated into the process to help improve the overall experience and resultant cup.