Six a.m. I start my morning tea ritual, and as the well rehearsed movements begin the conscious mind is uncoupled, and decides to go off on a quick jaunt.
The first thing it encounters is a well known quote by American tea guru James Norwood Pratt…
“Tea is also a sort of spiritual refreshment, an elixir of clarity and wakeful tranquillity. Respectfully preparing tea and partaking of it mindfully create heart-to-heart conviviality, a way to go beyond this world and enter a realm apart. No pleasure is simpler, no luxury cheaper, no consciousness-altering agent more benign.”
Benign, and also subtle. The shift in awareness is so slight, that initially one is barely aware of it. One’s world has been tilted off its axis, but, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, whose own mythos relies so heavily on tea, by one billionth part of one billionth part of a degree. One needs the quiet space of the tea ritual to be able to feel the change at all – its signal can so easily be lost in the background noise of everyday modern life.
The words “consciousness-altering agent” and “a realm apart” makes me think of Scarlett Thomas’ novel “The End of Mr. Y“, the story of a world of pure consciousness called the “Troposphere“, one that protagonist Ariel Manto accesses by consuming a homeopathic tincture whilst focusing on a small dot on a piece of paper.
Whereas Manto’s portal opening elixir was composed of holy water and homeopathic vegetable charcoal, mine is nothing more than filtered water and the dried and slightly oxidised leaves of Camellia sinensis. Instead of a dot on a piece of paper, I have an adolescent seagull pirouetting in the matt-grey pre-dawn light.
The Troposphere is a surreal landscape constructed of individual experience and expectation where nothing is truly what it seems, the tea-place is very much of this world, yet offers a new, previously unknown vantage point from which to observe events, like seeing one’s home from the top of a previously un-climbed hill.
The Troposphere gives Manto the ability to read others thoughts. The tea-place allows you to better know yourself, the datum for all true understanding.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so what if a cup of tea is nothing more than a delicious beverage?
Strip Teaism of the mystical element, divorce it from all talk of Zen and Dao, and you are still left with a great tasting drink. In the words of the character Morpheus from the Matrix Trilogy you have the right to believe whatever you want to believe. The tea experience shares that much in common with the Troposphere – you and you alone determine the depth and scope of your relationship to the subject. No-one can tell you what tea is and isn’t. That is for you to decide yourself.
I, however, believe that I took Morpheus’ red pill the first time I made tea in a gaiwan, and ever since that moment I have been chasing an ancient Chinese sage through Wonderland, down this ever deepening rabbit-hole…