meditation

Need More Self-Control? Try a Simple Ritual.

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A few days ago I posted a video entitled the Importance of Ritual and Matcha Making, in which I was sitting on my deck on a clear Seattle morning, capturing the my process of sifting and whisking my chawan of matcha before sitting down to meditate. Imagine my surprise when I find an email from one of my favorite magazines (sadly now only online), Scientific American Mind, declaring how any simple ritual can improve overall self-control. To add to my delight, the image was of a hand whisking a bowl of matcha. I guess science has now proven what we in the tea and matcha tribe have known all along - our daily ritual can improve our life.

Making Matcha

Making Matcha

My Morning Matcha on My Alter

My Morning Matcha on My Alter

 

One of my favorite classes to teach at Bastyr University was Myth, Ritual and Health, where we explored the power of both stories and rituals to influence, shape and heal our lives. During class, we took a closer look at our daily routines, and considered how to elevate our unconscious, mindless habits to the status of ritual, thereby infusing them with meaning and purpose. Together, the students and I soon discovered that the key is not what we do, but how we do it. For example, consider something you might do daily, like taking a shower. How do you take a shower? If you add it all the minutes, how much time have you spent bathing? And during all that time, how present were you? This, of course, begs the question, how present would you like to be in your life? Rather than mindlessly rushing through the process, you could engage fully in the moment by embracing all your senses: the feel of the water as moves across your skin, the fragrance of the soap, the texture of the towel as you dry off. Or you might meditate on gratitude: for the clean water itself, for the access to water, for the time and safety to bathe, for all those people who had a hand in ensuring that when you turned on the facet, fresh water spilled forth. Rather than viewing each activity as tasks to check off our list (a formula for stress), what if we were to have respect for every minute of our lives and honor each daily experience by showing up for ourselves in the present? 

 

How can you add more meaning and purpose into your daily life? 
Which daily habits would you like to elevate to the status of ritual? 

Meditation & Matcha on my Yoga Mat

Meditation & Matcha on my Yoga Mat

The Importance of Ritual and Making Matcha

I believe in the power of ritual. Most of modern life seems to be collection of leaping from one event to the next, often while doing something else like texting or checking one's schedule, preventing us from being present to the moment, missing our transitions and goodbyes. 

I am so appreciative that my daily morning ritual begins with matcha. While much shorter than a traditional ceremony, I still manage to practice patience and presence. I don't use a kama or a furo to hold the water. I don't use my hishaku to pour the water into the chawan. However, my process is still meditative, reflective and intentional. I sift the matcha slowly, pushing it through the strainer rather than scraping. Yes it takes time, but I try to be with the matcha. While whisking, I silently recite my morning intentions and prayers, infusing my elixir with meaning and purpose. Then I arrive at the rich and complex sensations which come from the first sip. Meditating on the physical sensations of taste is a wave that lasts for several minutes. Then I sit. 

How much of our day is spent mindlessly moving from one event, task, conversation or connection to the next without honoring the process or the people involved? Make some matcha, have a cup of tea. Take your time and savor the moment. Practiced daily, perhaps it will change your world. 

O-My, I Love O-5Tea

A month ago I was invited to speak at the naturopathic medical school in Vancouver, BC about my some of my favorite topic, mind-body medicine & the healing power of the breath. As is typical before any travel I take, I jumped online and googled "teahouses in the Vancouver area". Since neither close to my hotel nor the school, I was resolved to spend my remaining time in Canada drinking in the beauty that O-Five Tea Bar was, before returning to Seattle, and I am oh so glad I did. 

The O5Tea Bar

Being mid-day on a Wednesday, and armed with my gift of parking karma, I found a spot directly in front of the storefront. When I got out of my car, however, I became slightly disoriented when I looked up to see a DavidsTea in front of me. Immediately my heart sank, and I feared that O5Tea had been purchased by the larger company or was put out of business since people might mistaken one tea store for the other. However, looking around I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that O5Tea was still there. I have nothing against DavidsTea. How could I? A day earlier, I found one of their locations a block from my hotel, and grabbed myself a quick matcha latte before heading to teach. I have visited their establishment on several occasions when traveling, when unable to find a teahouse, or when I am on the go and crave a matcha latte. It is never a replacement for my morning matcha meditation ritual, yet it is still enjoyable. And I can appreciate that DavidsTea and other such chain stores are exposing more and more people to the joy of tea. That said, O5Tea is in another league.

First of all, O5Tea is not your typical shop. It is a teahouse which pays attention to every detail. They are Obsessed with the Origin or source of their tea (the O of O5), and they are passionate about and care deeply about the earth from which the tea is grown as well as the people who farm the tea. Believing in harmony and balance, the 5 stands for the elements - Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and the Void. 

Due to their respect for balance, harmony and the elements, O5Tea encourages the meditative experience of tea. Walking through the door, the calm energy is palpable. The lighting is cool, the colors and materials (wood) are rich and deep. No cold or sterile feeling with bright fluorescent lights at all. This is where you can sit and savor the entire tea experience, and not just grab a paper cup of tea while on the run. 

As a matcha-holic, I felt as if I entered a matcha nirvana. Not only do they have numerous chawans on display, you are able to select the chawan in which you would like your matcha served, which only enhanced the overall experience. Being able to spend time holding, feeling and examining the bowls that called to me initiated the meditative experience.  At first making a selection was daunting since each and every bowl was a stunning work of art. Yet quieting myself, I was drawn to a specific few. Each had its own story and I was please to know others would be standing on this spot, repeating this experience of taking time to be present and examine the vessel in which they will drink their tea.

 

Matcha & Green Tea Menu

 

Of course the chawan was not the most important selection in the overall process.  I still had to choose my matcha. Fortunately my options were not as numerous. With only four on the menu, I still struggled nonetheless. Thankfully with a recommendation from Jacob who was preparing my matcha, and I settled on two - the organic Kirishima and the Okumidori. Then I sat down at the only table by the window, and patiently waited as my elixirs were prepared.

To my table were delivered two intoxicating bowls of thick, rich and vibrant green matcha. Whenever there is organic matcha to be tasted, I must try it, and the Kirishima did not disappoint. It was smooth and creamy with just a slight bitterness, yet it had a lovely sweet vegetal finish which lingered. I loved it. Then I tried the single cultivar Okumidori which whisked into such a rich broth, with a thick creama, and an intense smoothness without any astringency. The finish lasted quite some time and I could feel myself exhaling fully. Of course I couldn't leave Canada without my own supply. I wish I had stayed longer to try the other two matchas on the menu. Were they half as incredible as these... I can't even imagine!

You can select the chawan you want to use for your matcha. Each are a work of art.

The Process

Kirishima & Okumidori Matcha

 

Of course O5Tea serves more than just matcha. They carries a selection of greens, senchas, oolongs, blacks, pu erhs, and even kombucha. And of course, they know the land on which all the teas were grown, and the farms cared for it. Since I fell in love with the Kirishima matcha, I did decide to purchase a few grams of the Kanyamidori sencha from the same farm as well without even tasting it. Once at home, I made a pot and was intoxicated by its subtle aroma and sweet and earthy refined taste. 

I appreciate all that O5Tea has to offer.  If you are a tea drinker of any variety, when in Vancouver, you must visit this place. I promise you won't be disappointed. You can also order online which I plan to do soon as my supply is dwindling.  

 

Pu erh Selection

Making the Kirishima Matcha at Home

What I love about high quality matcha is not just the unique, incredible, and layered flavor profile, but also the way I feel mentally, emotionally and physically after a few sips. As the Zen monks, samurai and shogun have all recognized, matcha brings clarity to the mind-body. The entire process, from selecting the chawan, to drinking the matcha was an act of mindful attention. The matchas from O5 were incredible, and I with each sip I could feel my entire mind-body respond, as if exhaling completely and fully, releasing any tension and tightness. My mind clears and I am focused. This is not to say such clarity is absent the rest of the day; it is just enhanced. 

An important point about daily meditation practice, which includes my matcha ritual, is that it trains and re-wires the mind-body to respond in a particular way. If you want to cultivate peace of mind, mindful presence or even compassion, you must practice. As I sit here writing this, all my years of practice enable me to recall that sensation of release, even without tea, allowing me to settle a bit more.

One breath practice I often use to further that release of tension is to imagine the breath like a healing wave, traveling throughout my mind-body to the places that require attention. I envision my tension (physical, mental or emotional) as the seashore riddled with footprints, seaweed or small shells. This healing breath washes over those places of tension, wipes them clean, then carries any debris out to the vast eternal ocean and transforms it to peace. Thus with each inhale, I invite in healing and peace, and with each exhale, my mind-body softens and soothes.

Walking into O5Tea was like breathing in the healing wave. My mind-body calmed, I settled, and I enjoyed the experience.  The next time you sit down with your bowl of matcha or cup of tea, my you find peace and tranquility in the moment. 

History & Health Benefits of Matcha

抹茶 - matcha

Perhaps you are new to the world of matcha, or tea, or you simply are curious and want to ask,  Why matcha? 

As I have written about before, I have never been a coffee drinker, despite living in the land of Starbucks where coffeehouses are found on every corner. Nor do I consume alcohol. Since starting medical school and discovering Teahouse Kuan Yin, tea is not only my favorite beverage, tea reflects a way of life. You don’t hurry with tea, you sit, you reflect, you converse, you meditate. Matcha takes this to another level. 

By many accounts, the Zen Monk, Myoan Eisai/Yosai (栄西 ), commonly known as Eisai (1141 - 1251), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, is credited with the origins of matcha, although tea itself had been in Japan for quite some time before this. Born in Japan, Eisai, a Buddhist monk, grew displeased by the practices of his order, so he set off to discover new teachings in China. Upon his return from one such trip in 1191 from the Sung-dynasty in China, he brought home with him the seedlings of a new type of tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which he planted throughout the grounds of his Buddhist temple. Camellia sinensis is in the family of flowering plants called TheaceaeCamellia is the genus, or generic name, in the binomial nomenclature, while sinensis is the specific species of the plant. This can be further broken down into varieties or cultivars. A cultivar is variety of the plant reproduced asexually (cloned) to ensure the qualities and characteristics of the mother plant are maintained and pass along, which is beneficial for mass production. The most common cultivars of Camellia sinensis are sinensis and assamica. Sinensis typically refers to cultivars grown in China, Taiwan and Japan, and is smaller in stature and leaf. Assamica, on the other hand, are the cultivars traditionally found in India, which are studier and larger in size, both in height of plant and size of leaf.  As any gardener knows, tending to plants is a meditative act. When Eisai took the tender leaves of his tea plants (of the sinensis cultivar), and rather than steeping them as was tradition, he ground them into a powder and added boiling water, matcha was born. The word itself, matcha, 抹茶, is derived from the words ma, which means powder, and cha, which means tea - hence, powder tea. Eisai shared his new drink with his fellow monks, extolling its healing and meditative properties, and it soon became a staple in the promotion of meditation.  In 1211, he wrote his two volume book on the health benefits of tea, entitled Kissa Yojoki (喫茶養生記 ) - How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea.  According to Eisai, Tea is the elixir of life... Tea the ultimate mental and medical and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.  In 1214, Eisai presented his book to the shogun warrior, Minmoto no Sanetomo, after hearing how he was suffering from ill effects of nightly consumption of alcohol.  Reading about the positive health effects of tea, and how it can reverse the effects of alcohol on the vital organs, improve mental clarity and cognitive function, and prevent fatigue, both the Shogun and Samurai soon adopted tea as part of their customs and ritual. 

The matcha of Eisai's time has changed significantly compared with the matcha of today. One of the most vital steps in the matcha process is shading, which began somewhere between the 15th and 16th century as a way to prevent frost damage in the months of February and March, before the tender spouts appear. Originally the shading structures were constructed using reeds and covered with straw, but now various material are used to shade the plants from sunlight. Today, shading occurs once shoots appear, not before. For the highest grade of matcha, the tea plants must be shaded for at around three weeks. When grown in low light, chlorophyll production is stimulated, polyphenol content is reduced (responsible for the bitterness and astringency of tea) and the breakdown of the amino acid L-theanine is interrupted (which creates matcha's mellow taste), although these were not the initial reason for shading.

In early to mid-May, the first flush of young leaves are picked by hand. The leaves are first given a “light" or "shallow steam,” known as asumushi (the word mushi in Japanese means to steam) for about 15 - 20 seconds (longer steaming methods are used for other tea preparation, some lasting 90 seconds or longer). After the steaming, the leaves are dried. At this point, the leaves are called aracha, but the process is only half way complete. 

Next, the veins and stems are removed from every single leaf, a methodical and labor intensive process done by hand. Dried once more, the remaining leaves are now called tencha. At this point, the tea master often tastes the tencha to ensure quality before proceeding to the final step, which involves grounding the leaves. While machines have been used by some companies to create the powder, the traditional process involves stone grounding at a very low temperature. If the process creates excessive heat, the color and chemical constituents of the tencha will be effected, and quality will be lost. The resulting powder tea, or matcha, is extremely fine, often under 10 microns. The entire process can take up to an hour to ground as little as 30 grams of matcha. Talk about a meditation practice!

These steps outline here are required for ceremonial grade matcha, which should be microfine and vibrant green in color. Numerous grades of matcha exist, yet lesser grades can contain veins and stems, could be ground at higher temperatures or might not be finely ground. These, according to purist, such as myself, are unfit for drinking, as the result leaves a bitter and astringent taste. Since matcha is sensitive to the elements, it is best stored in an airtight container and away from light, heat and air. Thus refrigeration is suggested, provided the container is firmly sealed. Furthermore, matcha is best consumed the year it was picked since it is easily degraded and oxidized by air, light, and heat. 

While the health benefits of matcha are numerous, one fact about matcha that resonates with my naturopathic sensibilities is the fact that drinkers of this elixir are consuming the actual leaf. While extracts, tinctures, teas and tisanes all have healing properties and carry the energetics of the plants, I find something truly powerful about ingesting the leaf material itself. Consuming the plant material increases the health benefits. Tea contains several polyphenols, known as flavonoids, which contain antioxidants. One group of flavonoids found in tea are called flavanols, of which epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is often the most studied for its antioxidant properties. Of all the various catechins found in the green tea leaves, EGCG (also found in fruits, vegetables and nuts) comprises around 60% of them.  A recent article in Frontiers in Endocrinology in May 2014, called Effects of Physiological Levels of the Green Tea Extract Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate on Breast Cancer cells, demonstrated that low levels of EGCG, around 1 - 7 μm (microns), was sufficient enough to not only prevented growth of breast cancer cells, it could also lead to cancer cell apoptosis (cell death).  However, healthy cells were unaffected. Green tea has 2 - 3 times more EGCG and antioxidants than black tea, and matcha is significantly higher than green tea. While some people tout how matcha contains 137 times more epigallocatechin than green tea, this may erroneously be based on a 2003 study, Determination of catechins in matcha green tea by micellar electrokinetic chromatography, which compared the EGCG levels found in matcha powder with that of China Green Tip teabags from the Tazo® Company. The researchers found that Tazo® China Green Tips tea contained only 0.42 mg of EGCG / 1 gram, while matcha powder contained a whopping 57.4 mg of EGCG / 1 g of matcha. Thus matcha contained 137 times more EGCG. However, compared to other quality green teas studied matcha contained only 3 times more EGCG. Nevertheless, matcha is high in antioxidants.

L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found only in tea, some forms of fungi (the mushroom Boletus badius), and one of three holly trees, Guayusa, that contain caffeine and sometimes used to make tisane. As mentioned above, the L-theanine level increases when the tea plant is grown in shaded conditions, and is responsible for the sweet, grassy, vegetal flavor, also known as umami. Unlike other forms of green tea, the L-theanine content of matcha remains very high, up to five times higher than regular sencha (20 mg compared to 4 mg).  L-theanine impacts the nervous system by stimulating GABA levels, which down regulates the sympathetic, or fight or flight, system. L-theanine has also been show to increase serotonin and dopamine levels, which elevate mood and the sense of wellbeing. Since L-theanine can lead to an increase in alpha brain waves, matcha drinkers benefit from an increase in focus and concentration. Furthermore, matcha has been praised for its ability to reduce blood pressure, however, this may have more to do with the caffeine and L-theanine combination which is said to burn fat and increase immune functioning. Regardless, in some studies, drinkers of matcha have been shown to have a reduction in hypertension. Finally, matcha drinkers often do not experience the same caffeine crashes seen with coffee or other types of tea. This is due, once again, to L-theanine content. Keeping all of this in mind, no wonder Eisai suggested monks drink matcha before sitting for hours in focused silent meditation.

But when it comes right down to it, the ultimate reason I love matcha is for the experience of it. From preparing the matcha (something I will cover in another post) to savoring that intense sweet, umami flavor to the after effects of clarity of mind, matcha is a meditation in patience and presence. 

 

 

Want to join me for a bowl? 

Mauna Kea Tea Farm

The Tea Fields at Mauna Kea Tea Farm 

Before every trip, whether traveling in the US or internationally, I scour the guide books and the internet to discover if my destination might have local places that serve tea. At the very least I hope to find for a spot to grab a cup of tea. If luckier, I might discover a quaint little teahouse. If truly blessed and I find nirvana, some place is serving (unsweetened) matcha in a real matcha bowl. Although I knew of many types of farms on the islands of Hawaii, I never Hawaii was home to several tea farms. I never heard of Hawaiian tea. But now I was not only going to go on vacation in the SUN, I was going to tour Mauna Kea Farm, an organic tea farm on the Big Island.   

The Tea Fields at Mauna Kea Tea Farms#2

When I arrived I was greeted by Kimberly Ino, who started the farm with her husband, Taka, about 10 years ago. Kimberly walked us through the sloping fields and shared the story of Taka's passion for  nature farming and tea.  Wandering the crops of camellia sinensis at various stages of growth and development, with the mid-morning sun cascading over the trees, I was in heaven. I realize that being off the mainland and unplugged from my daily life had such a calming effect. Yet the plants were calming as well, and Kimberly had me taste a few of the fresh tender leaves. 

 

Fortunately, that was not the end of the tour. Kimberly took me inside for a proper tasting of their harvest. At Mauna Kea they have several levels of tea, and we tried them all (even the blended teas, which I usually don't like, but more on that in a bit). 

Mauna Kea Premium Green Tea

Mauna Kea's Premium Green Tea is considered their "queen of teas,"  where they harvest only the tender bud and top two leaves. Next down in price point is their Island Green, which also has the bud, but also the top three leaves.  And finally, they have their Sweet Roast, where the plants are mechanically topped in the final harvest. And I loved them all (I bought some off each, including their blended teas), savoring each for their different flavor profiles. 

As I write this now, I am sitting here, on a snowy day in Seattle, sipping their Premium Green. It is clear, light green in color, very smooth, not astringent at all, and delicious. I don't recall tasting a green tea quite like this one, and I immediately calm and and settled. 

 

 

 

The Sweet Roast is also very unique.  In lieu of my afternoon Dragonwell, I have started drinking this unusual blend. This is the last harvest and the leaves, stems, etc. are mechanically topped off before roasting. 

 

 

 

As I mentioned, I tend to not be a fan of blended or flavored teas. Being a bit of a purest, I find mixing green tea with anything is sacrilege, although I will indulge in a matcha latte from time to time. However, Mauna Kea Tea has two amazing blends - one with Coconut (and I am not talking about synthetic coconut flavoring, but real dried coconut) and the other with Turmeric and Ginger. Home timely that I purchased these since a week after returning from Hawaii, the cold I so valiantly was fighting got the better of me. Not want to be completely without green tea, yet craving some warming spices, I found my healing solution right here - their Sweet Roast blend with turmeric, ginger, coconut, cinnamon, and black paper. In my mind, it aided in my healing time. 

I remember learning about a Hawaiian reconciliation practice called Ho’Oponopono. This practice was used to heal relationships, whether within a family, a community, between neighbors or with the gods. Ho'Oponopono invites you to make amends, thereby addressing the true cause of dis-ease - fracture relationships. Some believe that all illness stems from the tears in the fabrics of our relationships. By healing these rifts and making amends, we heal.

While often done in the presence of those with whom you are having difficulties, Ho'Oponopono can be practiced as mantra meditation, where you recite four simple phrases repeatedly, much like Metta Meditation. 

I'm sorry.

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you.

  1. Make a commitment to yourself (and your loved ones) to heal. Ask yourself, if I truly want to improve this relationship, am I willing to put in the time and effort to do what it takes.
  2. Set your intention. Call to mind the person or persons with whom you wish to create a more fulfilling and positive relationship. However, you can work on creating a more healing and supportive relationship with yourself. How often do we repeat negative comments to ourselves, criticizing and chastising ourselves for not being good enough, productive enough, smart enough, creative enough, etc. If that is the case, you can call to mind a quality you would like to cultivate in yourself, for instance more compassion or kindness. 
  3. Blame less; take responsibility. Release any story of right or wrong, who is at fault, and or what is wrong or right that keep you stuck in the past. To take responsibility means to take action and begin the practice. 
  4. Practice. Practice. Practice.

So after a few sips of my Premium Green Tea, I sit down on my cushion and begin. Breathing out and breathing I say silently to myself:

I'm sorry.

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you.

Try these steps and see what happens.  I would love to hear about your experience.