After the first time I spoke publicly about the abuse I survived, I closed my laptop and turned off my phone. I had spoken on a podcast in the US while in the first month of lockdown in Jaipur, India. A headache throbbing with an intensity which bordered a migraine attempted to dismantle me. Originally, I intended on writing or editing immediately after the podcast (as walking outside was still prohibited) and I was desperate for any sort of distraction. Instead, I found myself leaving my glasses behind in the all-female dorm and transporting my traveling tea kit downstairs to the communal kitchen area.
Brewing tea in a relaxed suiyi gongfu 随意功夫 style has become second nature. Perhaps my routine of the ritual merits it as sacrilegious treatment. While writing and subsequently editing each day, I place my laptop atop of the chaxi and crowd a gaiwan, fairness pitcher, filter, and small tea cup in the remaining half of the cloth. It’s a movement which keeps me motivated: Every number of gaiwans I must stand and stretch to refill the water to boil (and again to retrieve the kettle). It encourages movement that I would otherwise neglect when I am too ensnared by writing.
Yet as I laid my chaxi out, alone, I focused on the individual aspects of the ceremony. I inhaled deeply and exhaled shakily, albeit calmly. At the time, I did not consciously devote myself to a “therapeutic” steeping of tea; however, now that over a year has passed since that moment, I can reflect on the overlap of therapeutic exercises and a relaxed gongfu tea session.
For trauma survivors, dissociation is a coping mechanism which removes us from ongoing trauma and the surrounding world. While it is a mechanism which helps us survive, once we are no longer in life-threatening situations, the body’s automatic response to disassociate can continue. Through therapy, healthy relationships, and in other activities one can learn grounding techniques to combat a coping device that is no longer necessary. One of the simplest grounding techniques is to utilize one’s senses to “return” to one’s body. In a conventional therapy session, this may look like holding the upholstery of a chair, tearing up a tissue, or holding onto a lucky charm–such as a necklace.
Beyond touch alone, some grounding techniques will invoke all of the senses. One such technique is a count-down method called the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique. Essentially, an individual under emotional duress would be encouraged to identify 5 objects by sight, 4 things by touch, 3 by hearing, 2 by smell, and one by taste. Personally, I could never remember in which order the senses derived and would settle for mentally stating one of each of the senses.
With that said, the tea ceremony automatically invokes all of the senses. So I encourage readers who may need extra encouragement in grounding to bring pen and paper alongside their tea set. Using the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique, write down sensations inspired by tea. I’ve included my observations below and invite you to write yours down in the comments.
- A kettle quivering with steam
- The teaware contrasting against the tea stage
- The bamboo packaging surrounding a wild tea
- The darkened halo surrounding a black tea after the first steeping
- Leaves unfurling – story by story, steeping by steeping
- The dip in the top of the lid of the gaiwan against my index finger
- The thin rim of a hand-crafted tea cup gifted by a friend
- Porcelain against pursed lips
- Returning the cup to the tea stage, pinky first contacting the black canvas
- The hiss then gentle rumble of water as it boils
- The satisfying splash of water as it fills the gaiwan
- The soft settlement of the silver filter as it’s laid atop the fairness pitcher
- Dry tea leaves: wired curls of forgotten calligraphy, dark as midnight’s forest path
- Wet tea leaves: tangible manifestations of smoke’s wisps
- Finally, the aroma of tea on the tongue
Images provided and copyright held by author
For a collection of our articles on a similar topic, check out: T Ching Classics: Tea for Mental Health