Recently, my husband Xin asked me to write about my thoughts and feelings (and experiences) of Japanese tea ceremony. He and I have taken lessons from a remarkable and kind teacher – he has attended lessons much more often than myself, due to my health issues – and I think I can comfortably say that the experiences we have had have been – overall – wonderful and interesting.
But for me, in general, it is just a little more complex. My health doesn’t really permit me to do a lot of things – I have had to step back from both University/class-based learning in general, as well as most forms of paid work. I can occasionally do some editing work from home, but I have to watch my stress levels and workload, otherwise I can inadvertently make myself even sicker. And so it can often be with tea ceremony.
I really enjoy tea ceremony and, more to the point, I think I am actually pretty good at it. I tend to pick it up quite quickly, as I am generally very observant, and the quiet, considered movements are very much in line with how I prefer to move. I love the ritual of it, I love the gentle friendship and understanding that have been extended to me by my fellow tea-makers and particularly by my teacher, and I actually really love (and miss) Japan, so being able to connect with traditional Japanese culture in this way is so wonderful to me.
However (you knew it was coming, I’m sure)… I have multiple conditions that make it hard to do tea ceremony regularly. And the tea itself – pure matcha (ie. pure green tea) – can be a real kick in the stomach (IBS) and heart (tachycardia) at times. The sweets, which are usually perfectly aligned with the season, and wonderfully sweet to offset the bitterness of the tea, often contain egg or gluten (foods I have huge issues digesting) or are actually just pure sugar (which, again, IBS, tachycardia…). My scoliosis sometimes pipes up, along with my fibromyalgia, when I try to perform the ceremony, or even when I am just sitting/kneeling as a guest while someone else performs. And I certainly have trouble assisting when my teacher and the other students do demonstrations/performances of tea ceremony at festivals – the sheer number of people and the (usually) hot weather conspire to make almost all of my conditions flare out of control.
So. Whilst I love tea ceremony, and enjoy doing it, and really enjoy being good at something I love, I have a bit of a complex relationship with it. It has come to be a point of contention for me – something that just inspires so many complex emotions inside of me that sometimes I go into meltdown mode just thinking about it. I want to be able to do it regularly, I want to be able to drink the tea and enjoy the sweet, and continue learning how to do this act that inspires such wonder and calm and connection within me. And yet, often if I even try to attend class, I end up exhausted, in pain, and frustrated that one bowl of tea has made me feel like I am actually vibrating.
It also makes me feel like I am a small child throwing a tantrum – ‘but I don’t care if it makes me sick!! I WANNA DO IT!!!’ Not exactly the dignified and harmonious feelings that tea ceremony usually inspire within me.
I think most people would advise that I quit cold turkey, having heard the difficulties that it causes me. I understand that point of view. And, actually, I have tried to do it myself before. I handed in my fan and my ofukusa (silk cloth, used in the ceremony, borrowed from my teacher) and tried to put it behind me as a fond memory. But with my husband still attending, and continuing to improve and learn different kinds of ceremony, I couldn’t help myself and returned to classes late last year. Because my teacher divides her time between Australia and Japan, there are times when she’s not in the country and so there are no lessons. When she is here, I want to go, but I just am never sure how my body is going to respond. I talk sometimes on my own blog (shameless self plug – I’ll put the URL below) about chronic illness and how conditions like IBS and ovarian cysts can make you scared of your own body or any food you may choose to put into said body – this is kind of an extension of that. It’s a pervading fear that is hard to shutdown, or sit with. ‘What if today I have extreme pain while I’m in class?’ ‘What if I have lie down when I’m there?’ Chronic illness is really complex, and often I don’t really know what is the right response to a symptom. Sometimes I still choose wrong. It feels like my body is constantly re-writing the rules – some days I can absolutely handle drinking a bowl of tea, maybe even two! And other days the mere smell of it sends my heart galloping around my chest.
And, thus, at the moment I find it hard to know whether to try and quit cold turkey again, or to just… persevere. And try to attend the odd class. I am leaning towards the latter option. I may have to deal with some frustration, and a lot of pain and exhaustion, but when it is something that I love so much, it is hard to just leave it behind. Plus, it is truly something beautiful to me. And I think we could always use a bit more beauty in our lives.
Beth’s blog can be found at http://butterfly-elephant.blogspot.com/