Life Lessons: Seeing the Cloud in Our Tea

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The world is full of stressed-out people on a sprint between unending responsibilities, and I’m one of them. My face is usually in my phone, and my thoughts are always stuck on ‘what's next’. Although technology has given us access to the sweet salvation of internet distractions, our attention spans have been ravaged, and we’ve been left in a state of perpetual anxiety. I think we could all use some alone time with nothing but our minds, and I’m happy to say that mindfulness — the act of bringing our focus to the present moment — might be the way.

I first learned about mindfulness when I was studying Socially Engaged Buddhism in college, and that’s also when I encountered the works of the Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a Vietnamese monk and a mindfulness master, renowned for his worldwide humanitarian activism, but even more well-known for his teachings on mindful living and loving kindness. In his lectures, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the strength of small things like a smile, urging us to appreciate the wonders around us, and one technique he uses to achieve it is the Tea Meditation -- otherwise known as 'seeing the cloud in our tea'. Here's what that is, and here’s how it can help us reflect in the midst of our stressful, distracted lives.

Imagine…

You are sitting outside in a garden, and on the table before you is a cup of hot tea. The porcelain glints in the light of the sun, and a small wisp of steam snakes up over the rim — the surface of the liquid is broken only by the tea leaves and stems within it. You reach forth to cradle the cup in both hands, feeling its warmth spread into your palms, and after a steady inhale of the sweet aromatics, you look down into the cup of tea.

Should you look past the steam and the stems and the liquid refraction, back into a past that you’ve probably pressed off to the side, you might begin to see the tea plant from which the tea leaves were plucked. Look deeper, and you'll see the plant's tangled roots, and you might see the soil in which those roots were born. Look even deeper than that, and you'll see the droplets of rain that saturated the soil to give the seeds life, and trace the path of those droplets back up into the sky, you'll see the blankets from whence they first fell.

There, in the garden, peering into that simple porcelain cup of warm tea, you've seen the cloud.

With practice, we can do the same with ourselves. If we put down our smartphones for a second or two to look into our minds, past the stems and the leaves and the tangling roots, we'll find the best parts of us. Yeah, life’s full of suffering, and our days are clustered with stress and anxiety, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to push pause, to give ourselves a hug, to take a deep breathe, and to appreciate the beautiful things in life -- even if it’s only a smile, or a cloud in the depths of our tea.