4 Life Lessons From Japanese Tea Ceremonies
In 2014, I spent four months in Kawagoe, Japan as part of a study-abroad program. My host mother brought me with her to tea ceremony lessons. In Japanese, it’s called sadou (茶道), or “way of tea.” I only had a rudimentary understanding of this cultural practice, but I was intrigued despite my initial hesitancy. The last thing I expected to discover was a unique approach to conscious living suitable for my quiet temperament.
Here are the things I took away from this experience:
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1. Slowing down is key to channeling mindfulness.
In Western culture, we’re led to believe we need to keep up on the latest trends, technology, and social practices to avoid being left behind. Maintaining this intensely emotional and physical speed wears our body and soul down over time. Finding time to slow down and take inventory is difficult and often frowned upon.
In the tea ceremony, going too fast is detrimental to the process. You might spill the tea or skip an important step. There is no emphasis on competition. Rather, slowing down is essential to creating not just tea, but an enjoyable atmosphere for drinking the tea. You can understand the moment if you mentally and physically slow down to catch it.
2. You don’t need a lot of tools to achieve a greater whole.
Utensils are involved in the tea ceremony, but they each have a purpose. There’s the chasen (茶筅), the bamboo whisk used to blend hot water and the green tea, called matcha. You have your tea kettle, the kama (釜), and the tea bowl, or chawan (茶わん). Other tools exist that are used depending on the season and the type of tea being made. The care and pride I witnessed for these utensils elevated their existence in my eyes.
So much of life is cluttered with tools marketed as absolutely necessary to help us create something. We tend to exaggerate and make things much more complicated than they are. It really doesn’t take a lot to create something amazing and healing. We can all learn to be more discerning when it comes to our tools for self-healing and living. Take notice of what is essential in your life and avoid what will bog you down.
3. You can still practice mindfulness even when you’re in pain.
One of the traditional ways of sitting in Japan is seiza (正座), which requires sitting on the heels of your feet in a kneeling position. It’s not the most comfortable sitting position, and only grows more painful the longer you remain in the position, especially if you’re unused to it. I sat in seiza for over an hour during tea ceremony lessons, and my legs were killing me. But I admired how my host mother and our instructor, or sensei (先生) maintained seiza while practicing calm and care in their movements. I tried to emulate them and realized that allowing the pain to pass by was more beneficial to me than focusing on its jagged edges. I accepted the pain but ultimately chose to focus my energies on the positive aspects of my experience, not the negative. The moments came and went while the pain stayed, but it was those moments I decided to live in.
4. It’s okay to be soft.
We are susceptible to letting the world or personal circumstances make us emotionally cold. We equate hardness with armor and strength against whatever we consider dangerous to our existence. But maintaining such a stoic front is wearisome. We can forget what we’re capable of if we remain closed from thoughts and experiences.
At the beginning of the tea ceremony, I was tense, afraid of slipping up or breaking something, acutely aware of the language barrier. A traditional tea ceremony room or chaseki (茶席) is very plain, absent of garish colors and modern decorations. The atmosphere worked its way through my body and loosened my joints. I let go of the belief I needed to present a hard exterior and gave in to the rhythm. I was afraid of learning, and by softening my mind and heart I was able to let go of that fear. I forgave myself for my language mistakes and moved on. We all start somewhere, and that’s okay.
The Japanese tea ceremony is more than making tea. It’s about creating a serene atmosphere with people based on spirituality and cultural aestheticism. You don’t need to be proficient in the Japanese language to achieve this harmony. You learn to appreciate not just the finished product, but the time and care given to creating that finished product. The happiness you feel when everyone enjoys the tea you made is incomprehensible. We can all learn to open ourselves to new experiences, especially if those experiences unlock a new way of approaching life.
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