On the Importance of Teachers

When I first began making tea, I bought a travel gaiwan and practiced everyday. I would sit and exhaust the tea but I stood up unsatisfied every time. Eventually, my stock of vietnamese Dong Ding shrank to a quarter of what I started but I had grasped what I liked and disliked. It took over half a kilo to understand how to use a gaiwan to coax the exact flavor profile I first fell in love with. And it took a long time–nearly two months.

I eventually got a new shipment of teas. Less time was spent getting to know each tea intimately as I did with the Dong Ding and more time spent sampling the wide range of flavors possible.

A year of dreary self study later I found myself back in my hometown in NYC. I met with the owner of a wonderful shop tucked into the far corner of a quiet Nolita building, a rabbit hole in the wall. In this fairy tale, however, I left the discord of the city behind me and entered into serenity. Theresa Wong of TShopNY sat me down for quiet contemplation of my first Liu Bao tea.

The focus wasn’t on flavor, or even aroma. Many of you heicha or pu’er lovers will already know, Liu Bao has little profile in this regard. It’s all about the body. Your body. The focus was on the reactionary unconscious. I felt something I didn’t really have words for. That part of me remained steeped in swirling liquor. The lines that compartmentalize the “self” and “other” blurred. With newfound sensitivity, Theresa and I slipped into the wordless communication between tea and tea drinker.

A great deal was said in silence that day. The only break in the dialogue between the tea and body was the soft pitters of rain reminding me that there exists a beautiful world outside this cave too. New York has a tendency to drown nature out, but inside this blissful sanctum, nature drowns the city out entirely.

Ms. Wong has a quieting effect on people, much like the tea we were drinking. The fluidity in her teamaking silences and nurtures. We sat there listening to the rain for a long time. Long enough to hear the tea’s quiet remarks. I must confess, dear Reader, I tried to meditate on tea before by myself, but always found the noise of meditative silence deafening the tea. Having tea with such a lover of tea, however, opens up your inner ears.

My attention shifted inwards. It only took a short month drinking tea with her to gain a new sensitivity to my body. Is it possible to do this without a teacher? Absolutely, but it probably would’ve taken longer for me to internalize it without this kind of environment. A good teacher will know when to present the next lesson. Ms. Wong does so quietly with finesse and nuance.

When beginning your tea journey, practice skepticism often. Being told outright which teas are good does a little more than watering plastic plants. If you don’t really taste it but nod along, it’s much more difficult to reflect on later. That is not enough sustenance to nourish one’s journey into tea. Enjoy each tea and listen to the song of your own body. What is the dialogue between your body and the tea? Between mind and tea? Between body and mind? Is the song of the tea harmonious with your own? You are parched, dear Reader, but trust that this will happen eventually and as naturally as steeping tea. Ultimately, improving one’s skill with tea is about how much work you put in. Guidance here reminds us to make each experience drinking tea meaningful. Having a teacher outclasses chalk-stained fingers etching the same lessons over and over until the systematic becomes automatic. Teachers are friends, the lifelong companions with whom we share the most intimate cups of tea.

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