Afternoon Tea

I’m at a writer’s retreat this week in Malibu. It’s as gorgeous here as you can imagine. I’m nestled in a retreat center hugged by the Malibu canyons perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a multi-million dollar view with the size of neighboring homes and their amenities to match. It’s a perfect place to clear my mind and be mindful- there is plenty of time for me to think, pray, write and relax.

In the afternoon, when the morning clouds begin to dissipate by the warmth of the sunlight, the ocean becomes a brighter blue and the horizon becomes more clear and distinct, not mushed into the morning skies. As I look out and enjoy the beautiful scenery, I take pictures in my mind to take it all in, morsel-by-morsel. In fact, it’s almost too pretty here that I sometimes have a  difficult time comprehending and grasping the lush green landscape, the topaz blue ocean, the palm and eucalyptus trees swaying in the salty breeze.  I accustom my eyes to the beauty by bite-sized pieces, ingesting and digesting each, slowly.

Mindfulness practice skills are the same– like those bite-sized tea sandwiches at afternoon tea–they are to be enjoyed and savored, bit-by-bit. The first morsel in any mindful practice would be to start with breathing. Breath is a gift of God. God breathed life into all the animals, Adam & Eve, you, me, and us.

As the air fills your lungs, picture God’s love and grace filling and expanding into your body. Imagine that He is literally growing your capacity to breathe and take in the beauty and lush scenery of this moment. Then, hold the breath inside; take note of God’s presence and loving attention through your breath. Let it linger in your lungs, feel the air emanate slowly to those other parts of your body, like a soothing balm, calming those tight places in your physical body and constrictions in your soul. Let the air you breathe in be a meditation of you receiving His power and grace for this moment. Just for now.

Then breathe out. Exhale slowly while acknowledging that God is too big to be contained, too wise to be comprehended by our limited minds. Breathe out the areas of weakness and tightness–the cynicism and discouragement of the day. Exhale the insecurities and skepticism, and make room inside. Increase your capacity to receive and give.

If you find it worthwhile keep breathing in this way for a few more minutes. 5-10 minutes is a good starting goal but there is no judgment if you do it for just a minute.  Take a small bite each day. See if you can ingest more as you go along.

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Sometimes in your mindfulness practice the beauty of the day can only be taken one bite a time. Savor, take your time, ingest  and see if the horizon clears for you.

Steeped

The best cup of tea is made of good quality leaves and steeped in hot, not boiling water.  My father-in-law makes the best tasting cups of tea because he takes the time to allow the leaves to steep properly.

He first pours a bit of the hot water in the teapot and the cups we will use, then swishes it around a bit, and then finally, pours it out. These are not normal-sized tea cups; It takes two hands to hold these cups of tea and they’re almost as large as the pot. That’s also part of why they are the best.

My father-in-law pours all the swished water out because it has done its job of warming the pot and cups up. Now they’re ready receptacles for the tea leaves. He then gently places the tea leaves in their infuser; hot water is poured through and into the pot. The tea leaves are left to then steep in a very hot and very comfortable climate.

A timer is then set. Black and Green teas steep for at least 4 minutes, herbal teas, 5-7 minutes and maybe even a bit more.  Perfection.

Like the teapot and cups, my mind needs a bit of swishing before I can settle into a mindful state. Going from work tasks to mommy tasks to jumbled messes of tasks to be done (right now!) I need a bit of warming up of before I can settle and steep into a meaningful mindfulness practice.

Why is this?

Mindfulness is about steeping. It takes some time to build tolerance to the practice because if you’re anything like me, my mind buzzes and flits about, oftentimes very aimlessly.  Like Isaiah says to God, “my mind is not Your mind, my thoughts are not Your thoughts.” I know I need some of my thoughts to be swished out before I’m ready to be steeped. The steeping time is where things begin to calm down. In these moments, I’m steeped into a state of mind that is open and connected with God. Somehow, I’ve transcended time, reached out for God, and He seems ever present, ever attentive, as He always has been. I’ve warmed back up to Him again.

I do not claim to be an expert or scholar of Chinese Buddhist philosophy, but I’ve noticed that the concept of time is not the same as our western standard of time. Time is a construct that has little meaning. Chinese poets, artists and philosophers try to capture this idea through descriptions of nature standing still or moving slowly in their natural states–birds painted as if caught in mid-air, carp with bodies curved in serene motion through the gentle-flowing waters, horses whose manes flow up like a cirrus cloud. The creatures of earth are depicted in written and visual forms as representations of the middle kingdom of heaven, which is timeless.

For those practicing Buddhism, one learns that paying attention to time and our need to control it is an attachment to a world that does not reflect our ultimate reality.  For me as a Christian, I know that one day on earth is like a thousand to God.

So, the dilemma for me oftentimes is, do I take the time to steep, to be mindful, to transcend time and connect with a God that is timeless? Do I believe that this time is worthwhile?

steeped

Over and over again, for me, the answer is yes. I need time to steep and when I do, everything tastes better…

 

Why tea?

Tea comes from leaves that are cultivated, dried, and steeped in hot water. The tea drinking experience is ritualized in two cultures that perfectly sums up the goals of this blog–the same tea with different traditions.

My mom was raised in Hong Kong after leaving mainland China with her parents and siblings during the cultural revolution. In Hong Kong, there is a melding  of Chinese and British influences. In Chinese culture, tea is a regular part of each meal with loose leaves dumped in the pot, floating loosely and freely.  The British colonialists, who brought their tradition of porcelain teapots and afternoon tea to Hong Kong, provided tea infusers where the tea leaves are held in a captive embrace, protected and contained.

This summer I am embarking on a mindful journey of these two influences to help inform my research on mindfulness.

While I sit in quiet meditation in both Christian retreats and classes, I’ll be connecting in my faith identity; I predict that I will feel safe and free, infused with God’s Holy Spirit, in the faith I love. I also predict that the Buddhist classes will feel familiar yet challenging to me. My paternal grandparents exposed me to the beauty of the Amitofuo and I will learn its essential meaning to Buddhists, especially of the Mahayana tradition. Though I do not identify nor plan to espouse this religious tradition, I find the journey worthwhile.

Reading about traditions at the intersection of faith and spirituality, history and culture is limiting and confining. Experiencing the influences firsthand provides a knowledge and knowing that will be instinctual, and I hope, will be beneficial for others interested in mindfulness.

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Journey along with me this summer as I mindfully write about my thoughts and experiences. Sip your tea and read and stay with me awhile…

Sipping tea

Sipping my tea in the late morning helps me ritualize my practice of mindfulness. I begin with three breaths. The first, to experience and breathe in the warm steam. The second, to savor the moment–to define the present moment experience for today. Just today. The third, is to set my mind intentionally on God.

Quickly, I feel that I have created a sacred space– amidst my boys’ sounds of playing in the background, the looming to-do’s of the day, the emails unread in my inboxes.  The practice slows me down as I savor the flavor, warmth and smells of my tea.

I am fascinated by mindfulness practice because it is so practical, accessible, and yet steeped in ancient traditions. Mindfulness comes from Buddhist religious philosophy, which have become popularized and promoted as tools of self-help as well as a serious and effective tool to fight mental health issues like depression, anxiety and trauma.  Mindfulness is also steeped in the faith of my identity, the Christian faith.

Mindfulness renews my mind, relaxes my impulses, expands my capacity to think, feel and care.

These are all gifts from above, and helps me recall and reconnect with the God who does not change like shifting shadows. Like the tea heating up my mug, the warmth of His hands embrace me, each day and every morning.

May you feel His warm embrace as you sip yours today…teaphoto