Meditating with a Cup of Tea
Since ancient times, tea and meditation have been closely associated. Way back when, Buddhist monks in China cultivated and harvested tea plants, made tea, then consumed it to stay alert during long hours of meditation.
Biologically, the caffine (an alkaloid and a stimulant) in tea works synergistically with L-theanine (an amino acid that promotes relaxation) to help tea drinkers feel a calm alertness. A state helpful for meditation.
Recently I was really excited to find another connection between tea and meditation. I was watching a program called "Ask the Doctor" on the Japanese NHK station, where the topic "Managing Stress with Meditation" was discussed.1 As I watched the doctor introduce a method for mindfulness meditation, I realized that this was similar to what I do (or at least try to!) when I drink tea.
I wondered if the method would work vice versa. If I practiced mindfulness meditation when drinking tea, can I improve my ability to appreciate tea's subtle flavors?
It's worth a try. But first let me recap how this mindfulness meditation method works. Five different sounds were introduced - waves, train, birds chirping, sounds of a busy city, clock ticking. The sounds were first presented one by one, then simultaneously.
- Step 1: Focus on each sound separately, for 30 seconds each.
- Step 2: Repeat step 1, but shorten the time interval to 10 seconds each.
- Step 3: For about a minute, listen to all the sounds at the same time, trying to be aware of all of them.
Because these steps gradually increase in difficulty, you need to engage more of your psychological capacity. This makes it more difficult for distractions to occur. (To view this program, click here.)
Applying the above method to tea drinking, I had to organize and simplify. With tea, there are a lot more than five stimuli affecting your senses at the same time. As a starter, I separated "Flavor" into its component parts:
FLAVOR = TASTE + AROMA + MOUTHFEEL
Let's start with TASTE. The separate components of TASTE are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and "umami." Applying the above method, I find it easier to detect sweetness because of my focus. Acidity and bitterness are also both relatively easy to identify.
I do not usually detect saltiness. It is probably there, its presence enhancing the sweetness you taste. But if you taste saltiness distinctly, then either the tea is not well made or you need to reconsider the water you are using.
Umami is also hard to detect separately. That is because it often occurs together with saltiness and sweetness. It also merges with mouthfeel, because it creates a sense of "roundness" and "smoothness" in tea. I have experimented with umami by tasting MSG (e.g. Accent) or other flavor enhancers separately. But when presented with other tastes, my poor taste receptors still get quite confused.
Let's move on to tea's AROMA. There are so many aromas present in tea, so I try to organize and simplify. I group the aromas into clusters - e.g. Green, Floral, Fruity, Roast, Sweetness, and Others.2
I use these clusters to experiment with mindfulness meditation. If more specific items pop into my head, such as "jasmine" under "Floral," I make a note of it. But I try to stop myself from trying too hard. I don't want to get into a painful exercise of word recall. (This happens more easily than you think. Not sure why, but sometimes you feel that your pride and intelligence are on the line.)
A note here. Based on scientific studies, there is a limit to how many smells you can detect in a mixture. The limit is 4.3 So don't worry or feel bad if some people claim to identify 5+ different aromas, and you don't. Everybody's different, and sometimes people can get quite imaginative.
With MOUTHFEEL, I again try to focus on the basics - astringency, fullness, smoothness (or sometimes referred to as "creamy.")
Conclusions? I found mindfulness meditation to be very helpful. Separating the components to give them individual attention, being a little more systematic when I tasted ... all this helped me to better evaluate the tea as a whole. This exercise also helped me gain a better grasp of the word "Balance." Would I consider this tea well-balanced? Or where is it off-balance? After these exercises, I find myself better at articulating my sensations.
It is a lot of work to stay focus and disciplined with meditation. But like taking tea-tasting notes (another recommended practice for tea drinkers), this effort pays off when you notice how better aware you have become!
(1) NHK clip (translated into English): "Ask the Doctor: Stress Management: #4 Mindfulness Meditation"
(2) More specifics under aroma clusters:
- Green: grassy, vegetal, seaweed, green beans, mossy, forest ...
- Floral: jasmine, osmanthus, lily, magnolia, rose ...
- Fruity: peach, tropical fruits (mango, pineapple, lychee), citrus/lemon, apple, melons ...
- Roast: fire, smokey, burnt ...
- Sweetness: honey, caramel, toffee ...
- Others: milky, woody, spicy, nutty, earthy ...
(3) Page 69 of "TASTE", Barb Stuckey (copyright 2012).