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Book Review: The Wisdom of Tea by Noriko Morishita

When I visited Japan in 2013, I was struck by the harmonious aesthetics I observed everywhere, and the gentle and beautiful ways in which the Japanese people I encountered went about their activities. One of the key elements of traditional Japanese culture is living in harmony with the seasons. This sounds like a lovely idea; however, it takes time and experience to understand what it really means. The traditional Japanese tea ceremony, or ‘Way of Tea’ as practitioners refer to it as, exemplifies this element of Japanese culture both for the person who learns and develops tea skills, and those who attend the tea rooms as participants.

Noriko Morishita is a Japanese journalist from Yokohama who had studied and practiced the intricacies of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony for over 25 years at the time she wrote her book. The Wisdom of Tea details her journey of learning to master tea rituals in their many forms across the seasons and her evolving understanding of the Way of Tea.

Key elements of the Way include living fully in the moment, regardless of what is happening in life at the time; noticing and delighting in small details; patience and perseverance; and “allowing yourself to be, with an eye to the future” (rather than caught up in the past or stressing about what is to come).

This brief summary does not do justice to the message of the book, and Morishita wrote that the words in her book also did not fully do justice to the experience she had of learning tea, in fact, she excluded some of her most powerful insights and experiences from learning tea ceremony because she could not accurately convey them through words.

Application to Psychology

I was fascinated to see how much overlap there was between many of the key elements of the Way of Tea, and the skills that, as a Psychologist, I assist people to develop. In particular, being present, rather than caught up in the past or future, appreciating the moment, and practicing gratitude for what one has in life currently, are important skills to cultivate to improve mental health and wellbeing.

Psychological flexibility is another core skill that I aim to teach the people who see me - being able to recognise when a particular behaviour or way of thinking about a situation is not helpful, distance oneself from it, and cultivate alternative behaviours and perspectives that are more workable based on one’s own values and context. These alternative behaviours and perspectives are developed from reflection on experience.

I personally view Psychological flexibility as a dance between focus, energy and choice, interacting with the flow of life experiences that are outside one’s control. To perform this dance, a person requires awareness of their values, the many ways these values could be enacted in the present situation, how this could affect oneself and others in the short and long term, and an accurate view of emotions and thoughts that does not allow them to hijack one’s actions and life experiences.

I could see this in how tea ceremony practices include acceptance and celebration of the inevitable changes that occur throughout the cycle of the seasons. There is a different set of procedures, priorities and objects depending on each season and, for some elements of the ceremony, each year of the Zodiac cycle. As Morishita comments, there are certain ceremonial objects that are only used once every 12 years. She initially found this baffling, however, the longer she participated, the more she understood the inherent wisdom in the rituals.

Routine vs. ritual

Up until recently, I have held a strong belief in the importance of routine, both for my own wellbeing and for those I work with. Routine has been known to assist in recovery from trauma and anxiety, improvement in sleep quality and healthy habit formation, to name a few. However, I have personally found it difficult to maintain a routine over the last year, as I adjusted to the many changes that have occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an apparent increase in adverse weather events in Australia, and other life changes outside of my control.

My experience of COVID-19 has emphasised that certainty and control are, for the most part, illusions, which has led me to question how I can bring routine and order to life when I don’t even know for sure what my environment will be like tomorrow. To go further, I have also questioned how I can expect the people I work with to do this when I myself have struggled to.

Reading The Wisdom of Tea helped me to view this challenge in a new light. Tea practitioners do not try to forge ahead with summer tea rituals during autumn, but rather shift to a new ritual that celebrates the beauty that autumn brings, using a way of preparing and serving tea that is more appropriate for the season they are currently in. Additionally, rather than being focused on functionality, some parts of the ritual have more to do with presenting and appreciating aesthetic beauty, and cultivating an environment where participants can engage in personal reflection and positive connections.

This led me to reflect on how productivity-focused we often are in modern society, especially in Western countries. Most of my own personal routines have involved activities focused on outcomes – going running to get fitter, taking a vitamin so I don’t get sick and miss work, doing a meditation so I don’t get as stressed and can focus better, practicing violin so I play well in a concert. My routines have rarely involved activities that existed for the sake of the experience alone, as my mind viewed these as a waste of time and potentially boring.

Reading The Wisdom of Tea has reminded me that engaging in actions for their own sake, and for no other outcome, can be a gateway to a deeper, more reflective and joyful experience of life. It has also prompted me to notice the joy that can come from being in tune with the shifting environment and life’s “seasons”, whether they be related to weather or other life cycles, so we can dance with them, rather than be overthrown by them. After all, the only constant in life is change – we can meet this with stubborn rigidity, ploughing ahead with our eye on the prize, or with a kind of present-focused appreciation and acceptance, that might not tick a box, but can bring unexpected and invaluable moments of joy and connection.

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