Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Living with Tea Medicine - The Fourth Session: The Great Connector Part II; Connection to Self

How we do anything is how we do everything, so do everything as if we are serving tea. So special these wise words are!
I feel so fortunate to have tasted Wu De's cooking! His cooking is just like his tea, transcendent and utterly satisfying. I feel so fortunate to have read so many of Wu De's wonderful words! His words are just like his tea, transcendent and utterly satisfying. It took experiencing just one tea, one meal, and one book from him to see that he was obviously someone who had figured himself out to a great extent. After imbibing this triptych of superlative tea, fulfilling food and wise words, I set out to change my own life accordingly, inspired by his example. Tea, food, and wisdom: what could be more fundamental to a happy life?
But wait a moment...
Hadn't I been cooking vegetarian meals for more than a decade? Hadn't I been writing my own style of introspective wisdom music since grade school? And although new to tea, wasn't I already finding great fulfillment in my own tea communion and service?
Yes! And no! Yes, I had developed these abilities to an extent. But just like the barrier that keeps one from fully understanding a Zen koan, wisdom that requires one's entire body and mind to understand, there was a very high wall between Mike the guy who did stuff because he knew intellectually it was good to do or simply because he had a desire to do so and Mike the guy who had become what he did. Here I will admit aspects where I had gone wrong in the past. My cooking often missed the mark - too spartan, too much oil, overcooked. Or how about the phase that had me unsustainably eating 100 bananas a week? When it came to music, how much music did I make that left me feeling that it was far from my best? How about that one album that cost so much time, money and energy and now languishes as something I cannot stand to listen to? And with tea, I can remember not too long ago leaving my kettle on the alcohol burner at all times because I thought the alcohol burner would do everything to regulate proper water temperature. And don't get me started on gongfu!
After reading my analysis of Mike in the past, you might conclude that I am being too hard on myself. Everyone goes through a process of refining themselves through a series of misguided attempts until they narrow in on what makes them hum, right? At this juncture in self-analysis, allow me to draw two slightly inaccurate but somewhat useful frames around myself that I'll call "Pre-Tea Mike" and "Post-Tea Mike". Pre-Tea Mike was utterly hard on himself. Nothing was ever good enough. Pre-Tea Mike expended tremendous amounts of energy trying to accomplish personal goals. He was always working on himself. Every day was another opportunity to push forward in an attempt to check items off a huge list of tasks, tasks that were required to be done in order to fulfill all the gifts he had been given in this life. Post-Tea Mike was saved from this Sisyphean horror. He learned to love himself just as he is, with all that stuff undone. He learned that he could be productive and accomplish a lot in a little time without having the feeling of being drained of energy. Post-Tea Mike worked hard at getting rid of himself. Would Pre-Tea Mike have gotten there eventually? Sadly, no. Pre-Tea Mike thought that there was somewhere to get. Post-Tea Mike knows he is already there and has realized and experienced that this is indeed the case.
It was in regular communion with Tea that I received a proper, natural connection to my best self. The mechanism by which this connection was brought about, in such a way that I could now divide myself between "pre" and "post", is perhaps a topic for another time. I can say that after years of properly striving with right effort, there was a sudden leap where in an instant I went through the wall into an entirely new me. And on the other side of this wall was a lot less me and a lot more Tea!
It is one thing to cultivate one's abilities within a life. It is another thing to cultivate a life within one's abilities, to become wisdom and then live that wisdom. This is the message of Chapter 4 of Tea Medicine. What kind of wisdom? In my case, the wisdom of Mikeology, where I am the only expert. And the chapter on Mikeology begins with "Did you do your homework this morning?" You might not know this at first, but the homework of drinking tea every day for a week is the start of a practice of connecting with your best self. The tea practice establishes the right conditions from which the best self can arise. Only Tea knows when the satori moment of the self is near. As a chajin, your job is simply to put one foot in front of the other and walk, tea kettle in hand.
Let me show you what cooking looks like for me now that I love myself and I interact with the kitchen as if I am serving Tea...
First thing always is bringing the meditative mind, calm and awake, into that which I am to start. I've done my sit and I've had my morning tea, having also passed through a simple breakfast and some cleaning. I have so much good continuous momentum to apply now in the kitchen, naturally. There I am, standing in the kitchen, tranquil, ready to bear witness to what is ready at hand, which in this case is lunch time. Ah! A can of chili beans! Ooh! A package of tempeh! A ha! A cookbook written by a fellow tea drinker! The basic ingredients and a helping hand and I'm about to start making tempeh chili for the family. I am mindful that the small children who will be eating this are the priority and they don't like pungent, hot things! My guests are the most important part of the equation. The cookbook gives me some nice guidelines, but soon I'm off on my own, fully trusting that I can put together something great with what we have at hand. I am fortunate to have previously applied my tea wisdom at the grocery store and the farmers market a few days earlier. What joyful experiences those outings were! What inertia I had to overcome to get in the car and go! Indeed! The farmers market corn is hiding in the back of the fridge. Let's start shucking! I set out a bowl for the husks and a bowl to wash the corn. I get a knife and lay it on top of a utensil holder. I get the water boiling in a large pot. Everything has its place, the chaxi is looking great and inspires me to work. Because of all the preparation and proper factors lining up together, this work is more like the play of a child. There's so much room for joy in the effort. Mindfulness is not something I have to do because a wise person said it was something I should do. Mindfulness is simply the state I hold: a mind full of nothing but exactly what I am naturally doing. I realize the tempeh wants to be steamed and that the peanut sauce I had been saving in the fridge for just this moment was calling out to me...
Bringing joy into the work and maintaining mindfulness does not mean that the work is always easy or distraction free. Difficulties are bound to come! Oh look, I am struggling to cut the corn with this slightly dulled knife that really needs to be sharpened. Too bad I forgot to bring the knife set to the kind mobile knife sharpening truck shopkeeper (yes, that exists somehow in my reality) at the farmers market because I wasn't mindful that when my calm and awake mind reminded me to turn the car around right as we set out on our journey and get the check that needed to be cashed at the bank, with children rambunctious and loud in the backseat, it was also reminding me to grab the knife set. I would see this only after it was too late to grab it. Now I am slightly suffering, albeit smilingly. It is so great that this is how things are playing out now. Yikes, my cell phone is ringing! Having been conditioned that a ringing phone is an urgent priority under any circumstance, I stop my process in the kitchen to run and get it. Drats! Telemarketer! And the water is boiling over onto the stove top! Oh my! Did I really just turn my back rudely on my tea guests, my chaxi, my joy, in heedless haste? Hadn't I been cultivating the habit of letting the phone ring until the proper time arrives to check on it? I forgive myself and start again, getting back to calm and awake and this kitchen tea session. Surely the food will still turn out well.
I can't speak for the food preparation methods of others. To some, it may sound inane, all these details about what are just normal activities we all do every day. Where's the Zen in that? Perhaps that is exactly what you have to ask yourself about your own life. Where is the Zen and Tea in your kitchen? Does it end up making it to the table? How would you know if it is there when you looked? There probably isn't a solid answer waiting in the wings. Do you like the taste of what you made? How did cooking feel? Can you tell that what you put into it is what you got out of it? If you cooked for others, what were their reactions? How did you feel after the meal when it came time to clean up? Was any point in the process, from cooking to eating to cleaning, better than any other? Was it enough? What's really going on?

A Life of Tea Practice: Tranquility

Wu De says "Tea wants us to be quiet". I will add to this. Tea wants us to be quiet because She has a lot to tell us! The problem is, we don't always want to do what it takes to ready ourselves to listen. Meditation is paramount to developing tranquility. Fortunately, tea has properties that bring about a state of mind that is naturally meditative, one through which you can let go of you so that you can be filled with Her. You in this case is anything you might be adding to your experience of the present moment with your mind, unnaturally, forcibly. Let the seeking mind go. Let the natural and spontaneous mind of Tea arise. Often this mind can be loud! And yet, you are still filled with tranquility and you listen. Can you find this state in your morning practice where you are very quiet and Tea is very loud?

Ask Yourself: What do I know about myself? Really, deeply know?

If you are anything like me, you'll find eventually that a huge stockpile of things you thought you knew about who you are turn out to be basically irrelevant to your potential for experiencing happiness. What you can truly know about yourself can only be found in your moment-to-moment experience of the ever-changing physical and mental flow of your life. Insight only arises here. Be here, with Tea, and find your own wisdom.


  1. Mike, I love these posts! I have only discovered them now and savouring them every day like the best meal or the best tea... Can you write more about "The mechanism by which this connection was brought about, in such a way that I could now divide myself between "pre" and "post""? I am REALLY interested!

  2. Talking about this mechanism is a little like taking the lid off the teapot in the middle of steeping the tea, but I can spare a few words and I don't think my tea will be harmed.

    The mechanism by which such a transformation takes place cannot be sought. Being interested in it at all drives it further away from being able to show up.

    Being transfixed, and willing to be so endlessly, on the ordinary is the way that one will leap over into a new modality. Each individual has to work in the way their karmas dictate they must work, with no end in sight. Resigning yourself to an infinitely ordinary life is how the mechanism gets triggered. It was a long process upon which I encountered tremendous unpleasant sensations, the disdain for which I had to overcome in a radical fashion.

    Tea points at this timeless way of being.