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Exploring the benefits of tea : Blog 1 : Ritual

Throughout the months of January & February we are exploring themes around tea & wellbeing.  Every Monday in January Michelle & Camille came together to discuss gentle resilience on our IGTV and, linked to this I, Rob, am exploring the incredible tea plant & how the tea leaf & tea, the drink, can be a major positive in our lives.  My blogs will explore the the benefits of tea through three lenses : Ritual, Chemistry & Community.  I hope you enjoy these short explorations.  

Blog 1 : Ritual

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts exploring the incredible tea plant & how the tea leaf & tea, the drink, can be a major positive in our lives.  In these changing & sometimes challenging times,  I [Rob Comins] will, in this first blog, be looking at how tea provides us with a ritual and why, this often simple step, can be the basis for a healthier life.

So what is ritual?

Quite simply a ritual is a series of actions undertaken in a set order, these can be basic or they can be complex. It is something that is often repeated, but the key is that it becomes familiar and something you don’t necessarily have to think about doing, almost like being on autopilot. This in turn creates time and space for our minds to be involved in other activities. At this point it is important to mark the distinction between rituals, habits and routines. Habits and routines are something we do regularly, without thinking, actions that just have to be done. Rituals are something that we do regularly, but most importantly consciously and with intention.
Like rituals,  good habits and routines also have their benefits. How you get up in the morning might be habitual, allowing your brain time to awaken and focus on the days tasks. There are many sports people who are well known for routines and habits - Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking routine, Rafael Nadal’s actions before he serves. Both of these people always make the same series of movements;  giving them a base and a level of control which enables them to perform at their best. Perfecting habits and routines can therefore be very beneficial, but the positives in these scenarios are all about performance or function of a particular task or set of tasks.
With rituals there is mindfulness and intention, you are fully present and engaged in the moment and are aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgment. You are not thinking about the next task of the day, but fully involved in what you are doing. This is often hard in today’s world - full of distractions and reasons to be 'busy'.

Rituals do not have to be spiritual or religious...

The word 'ritual' does not necessarily mean meditation or chanting.   Simply applying mindfulness to daily routines is a great way to create rituals. For example having a shower can become a time to become mindful of your body and its connection to your mind. Focus on the feeling of the water on your skin and the way your mind is clearer and thoughts come to you. Another example of this and one that has stuck in my mind for many years is from the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. In his book In The Miracle of Mindfulness, he talks about how being mindful can transform washing dishes from an unpleasant task into a ritual we enjoy. He writes about two ways to wash the dishes - washing the dishes in order to have clean dishes and washing the dishes in order to wash the dishes.
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either.” 
So perhaps the answer is to be present and mindful in whatever you are doing and in doing so create a ritual rather than continuously thinking 'what's next'...

The effect of rituals on the body and mind is complex....

.....but one striking example is the lowering of cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a naturally-occurring steroid hormone that plays a key role in the body's stress response. Cortisol is involved in the regulation of many of the bodies functions and is important for your body to function normally, but too much cortisol can be bad for your health. It’s most well known function is in the bodies ‘fight or flight’ response to a crisis. However, compared with ancient times when this crisis was the appearance of a bear, a wolf or having your shelter destroyed in a storm, today’s causes are not as clear cut. Modern life can be extremely stressful, often for long periods of time, often without us realising, thus an excess of cortisol is produced. This in turn can lead to issues such as serious chronic illnesses, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. The space and time for the mind created by a ritual means that this state of ‘fight or flight’ is controlled, slowed and hopefully stopped. The cortisol level along with the heart rates is lowered, thus bringing a calmness that was not there before.

The ritual we at Comins are passionate about is, of course, the ritual of making tea....

Tea has been drunk for at least 5000 years in China, possibly for even as long as 15000 years, but the earliest written mention of a set way to drink tea was in the Chinese Tea master and writer Lu Yu’s book ‘The Classic of Tea’ around 1260 years ago. Before this time tea was most probably drunk in a ritualistic manner, but this was the first time it was recorded. Lu Yu wrote about how exactly tea should be processed, prepared and brewed, but also that the process should be treated with deep respect, as an art in its own right. Now in this time tea was made in compressed bricks and then ground into powder so the methods were a little different than we recognise today. However, most of the the items Lu Yu recommends as essential for brewing tea are still used in the ‘Gong fu cha’ tea practice popular today.

Gong Fu Cha.... a Chinese method of brewing tea which we use a form of in tea service in our teahouses. I say a ‘form of’ because Gong Fu can be undertaken in may ways, from simple personal brewing up to what is most commonly called a ‘ceremony’ (more correctly a practice) involving a tea master and a seemingly complex set up of tea ware and movements that flow beautifully and where the drinker is served delicious tea in tiny bowls. The key is using a good amount of leaf brewed in small vessels - either a small teapot or gaiwan (lidded tea bowl). The leaf is brewed for a shorter time, but is reinfused many times. I have included a full description below which references the small yixing teapot which will be familiar to those of you who have visited the tea house or perhaps already use one at home.  

The preparation of Matcha

Another ritual that is well known is the preparation of matcha. Japanese chanoya or ‘the way of tea’ began in the twelfth century and continues to this day. Again we prepare matcha in our teahouses in a much simplified version of this creating a simple but beautiful ritual that many of our customers tell us they enjoy at home on a regular basis

The use of the Gaiwan, Kyusu & Western Style Teapot

At Comins, for selected Japanese, Chinese and a variety of other teas we also use the Chinese Gaiwan [lidded bowl] & Japanese kyusu (teapots) - details on these can be seen below :-

We also use what would be considered 'western teapots' to serve and brew tea for our customers. Although not as complex [and to many at the Tea House perhaps not so exciting!] the time taken to choose a tea and infuse to perfection still provides a simple ritual that many tea drinkers tell us they love.  

Whatever method of preparation you choose the aim is the same - to provide incredible tasting tea and allow the drinker to get the most out of their leaf, Whether this is a single infusion brewed perfectly or multiple infusions which you can adapt to your taste, each ritual draws the full changing beauty of the tea out.  A simple understanding of these methods makes tea accessible whilst also providing endless brewing possibilities to personalise the tea experience for the more experienced drinker - an exciting proposition for tea lovers.

The benefits of 'taking tea'

We have now been fortunate to have seen and experienced the joys and benefits of ‘taking tea’ every day for over eight years in our teahouses. We have watched as drinkers begin with confusion and sometimes even disdain over how to brew in the tiny teapot of the gong fu to then those same people talking passionately to new customers on the joy of the ritual. And this is what it can become. Once the panic of what to pour where or ‘how do I hold the gaiwan?’ disappears after a few visits the actions are performed without thinking. Then the mind is given space and this can then lead to mindful drinking. Our teahouses are places where people tell us this can happen, with no music, calm decor and lots of natural wood tones. We even have a short meditation by our friend Camille on the back of our menu should people wish to explore it.   These paths are open to us all but of course on some days all we want is to simply have a good cup of tea - we should never put pressure on ourselves - that would be contrary to the calm that sits at the heart of the tea ritual.

In this time of lockdown due to the pandemic we have found great comfort in taking tea regularly. We also know from emails, messages and conversations that a lot of other people are too. We (myself and Michelle) start the day with a moment of contemplation over tea and then have several more times throughout the day when we sit, brew tea and take a moment. Ideally one of these will be outside, in nature - something we have been sharing in over on Instagram in these first few weeks of 2021.  So, wherever you are and whatever the shape of your life is we hope this may have inspired you to somehow let tea in and see where this most simple of rituals may lead you.  Until next time! 

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