A few days ago, I had that kind of weird realization that seems embarrassingly obvious afterward but in the moment, it washes over the consciousness with a distinct profundity; I simply realized that I’m ALWAYS doing something.
Even when I’m sleeping, my psyche is picking through an intricate tangle of emotions, the details of my life and other strange artifacts. The moment I am roused from the depths of slumber, my monkey mind is busy tinkering with the thinking of conscious things–recalling and analyzing dreams, having random memories, reviewing tasks that need doing. Thoughts crop up like invasive weeds at increasing speed in what could be the wonder-meadow of my ideal morning. Such a morning would start with stillness, gently progress into alert focus and the blossoming out of bedcovers. I would have time and space for the satisfactory completion of an assortment of important tasks, dappled with natural bouts of lightness and play. I’d be free from both chaos and restraint and I’d be leisurely effective. I wish that this metaphorical meadow was my state of eternal return but that’s not how I’ve designed my life or my mind’s default setting–I need to build more thorough organization and confidence into the structure.
I am lucky and grateful to live this life of my own design and I prostrate myself before whatever deity is responsible for my good fortune. Unfortunately, my perception of the pressures that this life entails usually inches in from the future and robs me of much enjoyment. We all have the power to refine our perception and change habits but it must be consciously invoked. It’s a challenge to remember to do so consistently enough to make a change. Most days, when my feet hit the floor, I suddenly become a wound-up matryoshka on a litanical parade of multi-tasking: chores and texts and emails and schoolwork and “work” work and body maintenance, preparation of meals and, and…my hands are mostly doing stuff. Or my eyes are. Or my brain is. It seems each hour of the day is shorter than the one before it. But I am neither toy nor machine, so when do I get to levitate and frolic in the sweet beams and airs of my meadow? Sighhh.
In the din and fray of our modern times and especially as a denizen of our extraordinary, industrially developed cities, there is so, so much to do. We’re busy. It is a feat just to slow down and remember to live in the present of our lives. We can ask ourselves if we’re participating in a design that serves and satisfies us, even including the general activities that apparently must be done. It’s just that there are galomphorously wonderful opportunities in the world, so much so that when I’m not meeting the demands of subsistence, I want to be out riding bikes, tromping the parks, perusing flea markets, tasting new stuff, meeting strangers and dancing with friends til the wee hours. These are blessings to take pleasure in and yet, being super busy–even with things we want to do–can be…well, stressful. The stress of such ameliorating activities falls within the category of “good stress” by psychological standards, right along with big decision making and its subsequent changes. Eustress vs. distress. The good stuff still causes effect, albeit potentially beneficial ones if we perceive it properly.
When the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is exposed to stressors, such as low light conditions or ravaging, salt spray winds, the plant responds by shifting its suite of chemicals this way and that, sometimes producing new ones altogether. These chemicals can actually end up benefitting the flavor immensely. Unless such factors hinder the plant to its detriment, they tend to cultivate more complex aromas, unique flavor profiles and an increase in both chlorophyll (makes for a deeper green leaf) and the compounds that bestow upon our minds that beloved sense of energized calm. In Japan, producers of a highly regarded tea called Gyokuro actually fascimilate filtered light conditions with the timely addition of a tent-like covering, usually made of straw or mesh, thereby reducing the sun’s rays to between five and twenty percent, respectively.
A special wulong tea called Gui Fei (translation: imperial concubine) is the product of an insect’s bite; paoli leafhoppers (Jacobiasca formosana) nibble the tea leaves, inciting the plant to change its chemical composition and therefore, its aromas and flavors. Gui Fei is renowned for its gustatory and olfactory pleasures, often boasting spiced fruit and wood notes. The area around the Beipu village in Hsuchin county, Taiwan has allegedly foresworn insecticides in order to preserve both the leafhoppers and the profitability of this infestation. Humans have devised their own tricky responses to take advantage of these natural phenomena–we can be quite clever when we’re not being dummy blubberheads.
A parallell realization is that humans are affected by the conditions of our environment–i.e. the way we live our lives and what we are exposed to–and, like most other organisms, we also respond chemically. When we are stimulated by stressors, our cortisol levels leap up and sometimes we experience surges of epinephrine (adrenaline) to help us defeat or remove ourselves from the stressor. I know this feeling as that ever-nagging, uninvited guest Anxiety, who falls under the “distress” category. At the same time, if we’re not at least a little challenged we get bored by the stasis and our lives may even start to lose their lustre.
Other ways in which we experience stress are a bit gooey: when we gaze into the eyes of our sweetheart, oxytocin and dopamine douse us with sensations very similar to that of an addict’s high or the pendulous moods of a schizophrenic. Being in love is very stressful, both physiologically and psychologically but it is an often pleasurable experience that may nudge (or shove) us toward growing stronger. When we are challenged by something and feel we can surmount it, we benefit from the stimulation of this positive stress in that the chemicals we produce can help us to become generally healthier; for example, they strengthen our immune system, keep our memory healthy and can even contribute to our overall satisfaction with life. Our perception of the stressor is the key.
Any of these elements can change the flavor of our experience and of who we become, so it’s important to acknowledge the characteristics of what we’re brewing in the context of our lives. What’s in yours? Is the flavor to your liking? Does it nourish you and replenish your energy? If not, perhaps it’s time to create some balance. What do you need to make your life more satisfying?
I return to the sanctity of my metaphorical meadow at tea time. I personally enjoy the preparation of tea itself as ceremonious, informal meditation; I try to execute each movement and step with exceptional attention, grace and precision. This shift in consciousness is a break from my more common smash-and-grab mode. I use beautiful implements to enhance the celebration of such Good Things–a practice I’m playing with which is similar to the concepts of Cha Xi.Taking the time to consciously step out of the rushing river of our day to make and savor tea (or anything, for that matter) is a shift that announces, “Self, I think this ‘slowing down and enjoying’ thing is a worthwhile priority!” It could help. Plus, then the tea itself can work its own special magic from inside of you.
Through millennia of subjective research, humans have found that some of the tea plant’s chemical arsenal are effective at heightening a sense of well-being and mitigating stress levels. Scientists have proven that C. sinensis contains L-theanine, a charming amino acid that is reputed to produce alpha waves in our brains, which are common in deep meditative states. When combined with caffeine, L-theanine offers a balance of calm and clarity to bolster our weary minds, effectively manufacturing the products of a meditative state. Indeed, Buddhist monks were the first champions of tea and they used it to help them stay awake through long sessions of meditation. They didn’t dedicate a huge branch of their spiritual practice just for its ability to keep them awake, though. Tea has revealed itself as a spiritual ally and there is much to be honored in our 5,000 year partnership with this plant.
“Agony of the leaves” is a phrase addressing the unfurling of tea leaves as they steep. Anyone can dunk a teabag into a microwaved cup of water and drink it–that tea might might even taste good to someone. Everyone is allowed to like what they like. It is my duty to deliver the news that there’s so much more to enjoy than that. However, nothing is free–it comes at a price. You get what you put in. If you want to taste liquid gold…if you aspire to prepare exquisite teas of superior quality, you must honor the need for attention to detail. It is an art and a science that is more accessible than it sounds. I hope you’ll let me tell you all about it in the next post. Stay tuned!