My tea story (from what I know) starts in 1914 when my great grandmother became a Belgian war refugee in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. She married my great grandfather in the Catholic church of St Mary, and gave birth to my grandmother in Sheffield as well, in 1916. From what I know, my great grandmother has always kept in touch with the family that hosted her after they returned home to Belgium. One thing that was very much linked to their time in the UK was having tea. Tea has not been very available in Belgium before (probably) the nineties, and the fact that my family owned a teapot is quite special. I still have this tea pot and it feels like an important family heirloom. The story that comes with the teapot and that needs to be told every time it is used, is that it needs one tea bag for each person who will drink the tea, plus one extra tea bag for the pot itself. The tea that was available was Lipton Yellow Label, and it was usually served with lemon and sugar. As a child I usually wanted to drink tea at family gatherings, and the only other person who would drink tea as well was my uncle (on mother’s side, not the teapot side), and tea would always be a special thing. The first time I tried tea that did not come out of the teapot, was when I was about 7 or 8, and my mom and I were feeding the neighbour’s cat. The neighbour had Twinings passion fruit tea, black tea with passionfruit aroma, and offered me a cup when we went to get a brief about the cats. I liked it, and since then my mother would buy these types of tea for me, which I would continue to drink until I went to uni. I did not know tea was so much more than this!
I have always had a certain fascination with tastes and smells, and wanted to learn more about tea. In 2013 I googled and found a course to become a tea sommelier, the course was in Bruges, and every month in the one and a half years that it took to finish the course, I went there for an immersion in teas and histories, terroirs and tastes. We were trained to smell and taste and name those smells and tastes. I also learned a lot about local traditions and the colonial history of tea. One thing that annoys me a bit about this part of current tea culture (the tea sommelier world), is that there is a lot of money involved. Tea and teaware can be really expensive and there is this culture of collecting as many different teapots and tea as possible. This makes it quite an elite group of people. I tried to rebel against this during my final exam, by putting emphasis on the tea itself and not on the teaware, using a plain ikea cutting board as a tea table, and simple white cups and gaiwan. I think some people really realised something then, and some found it really amazing, some were less impressed. This culture and my lack of money at the time made me forget tea a little bit and for a few years I only rarely used my gaiwan for the occasional cup of tea by myself. I did try to organise a tea tasting with a social group I was part of in 2016, but then the bombings in Brussels happened (1,5km from my house!), the whole city went into lockdown for several days and I had to cancel it last minute.
Fast forward to 2018, when I was looking for a room in Brighton. I had already decided on a room but still had another visit planned to a spiritual community who had the practice of drinking tea every morning in meditative silence. I could not see me living there but I absolutely loved how they had tea, simply in silence and with sharing at the end of the meditation. I said I would not move in, but I’d love to come for tea regularly. And so I did, about 1 to 3 times a week I’d climb up the hill and have tea with two people who lived in the house, Maria and Antonio during the winter and spring of 2019.
In summer 2019, the landlord offered me to stay in the tearoom in the house while he was abroad. It would also be possible to bring my cat over from Brussels and drink tea every morning. I’d be in charge to keep the daily tea ceremonies going as by this time both Maria and Antonio had moved out. So I moved, was trained to serve tea and held the morning tea ceremony every day in our cabin in the garden. This was in many ways a blissful time, until the landlord came back in the beginning of lockdown about 5 months after I had moved in. The mood in the house changed (the landlord being very needy and controlling), people were given 2 weeks notice, and I decided I did not want to be a part of the community anymore. Within 10 weeks of the landlord coming back, four out of five people had moved out, the fifth was given 2 months notice. Things were sticky and it took me a while to find my balance again. I found a new flat in the marina with my housemate Claudia, we continued holding tea ceremonies, although not every day. After I moved to my current flat (November 2021) with my partner Emma it took me a while again to start a regular tea practice, but now we drink tea regularly, most days. It really feels good to reclaim a practice that has been poisoned a little bit by our experience in the tea house, but my life is so much better with tea.
Tea as medicine
Working with tea as medicine is a journey of stillness, emptying the mind and opening the heart. Tea is a true heart opening herb and it has a cleansing effect, both on the body and on the mind. Sitting with tea allows our mind to go quiet, connect us to our own inner realms and appreciate slowness and stillness. I often get the remark at how different this practice is compared to breathwork, but to me they are very similar. Both create the space for inner stillness and connection to the heart, both allow for emotions to come up and both allow healing. Tea is very much ‘human medicine’, in that it reminds us what it’s like to sit together with others, share an experience and that share about our personal experience. An image that comes up for me very often is one of the old times, people sitting together in a tent/yurt, lots of animal skins, the sharing of warmth and being.
Unfortunately the culture of tea being expensive and the collection of different tea ware and tea also flows over into the meditative tea world, on the website of Global tea hut there are teas for sale at 60+ dollars for a sample, 700+dollars for a cake. On top of that, there is this thing of how older the tea, the better its Qi and the easier it will be for you to meditate/reach enlightenment (which in this case is sold for good money). And of course these teas are crazily expensive as they are quite rare. Tea is a good financial investment, and if you are able to buy a lot (usually 7 cakes) and can ‘age’ it properly in the right conditions, you are literally making money by waiting.
On my tea journeys I am mostly inspired by the author Aaron Fisher (Wu De) who wrote the book Tea medicine and approaches tea from a Zen Buddhist angle. I really love all his books, but Tea medicine is truly special. Here are some quotes that I find really inspiring, although I could truly underline the whole book, so I really recommend reading it.
‘Tea speaks to us in magical ways if we but learn her language. She doesn’t speak in words, but through sensations and inspirations, and sometimes visions. The visions are beyond reason. They come from a deeper place, more aligned with our Nature. Our deepest wisdom comes from before the intellect.’
‘A Tea ceremony breathes. The bowls come together, and then are separated to each of us. We are one, and then we are apart. The energy unifies and then separates in time and space, returning again to transcendence with each steeping.’
‘A healer can only help those that are willing to be healed. And the true healer is contractually obligated, to their own spirit and harmony, to devote their attention to those who wish to be healed. … The medicine is precious, and it doesn’t honour it to serve it to those who don’t want it and will reject it anyway.’
And to end this bit of writing, I would like to share an affirmation Wu De offers us for not getting stuck in mind-made views, which can cause disharmony and dis-ease in your life:
I am willing to organise my life in a way that is conductive to my growth
Wu De (Aaron Fisher) Tea Medicine