Recently I broke out of a spell of intense consumerism. I describe myself as a minimalist, which I view as a freedom from consumer culture. Minimalism is the recognition that the West is plagued with a problem of compulsive consumption of things that individuals often don’t want or need (e.g any infomercial) , and the conscious effort to find freedom in escaping that pattern.
So, the other day I have my tea tray set up, my kettle is boiling water, and I’ve weighed out 8 grams of Tea Urchin’s Lao Man E 2011 Spring to brew for myself. I almost always brew my tea gong fu, and tea drinking is always a very meditative experience for me. Most of my tea drinking for 2 months or so had been very different, however. Immediately after decanting the first infusion, I pulled out my laptop. I opened the “tea” folder in my browser, which gives me over 50 different tea vendors to worry myself over. I get on White2Tea’s website wondering when his 2017 tea line will be available, and wondering if I can get my hand’s on the 2017 Nightlife before it sells out, then I head over to Crimson Lotus’s website to see if they’ve put anything new up, and start to put a shopping cart together knowing that I’m not going to purchase anything in that moment, but just saving it to see if I still want the same teas in the future. Then I go to Tea Urchin’s website wondering if they’re still active and looking for teas that look like good deals. Then I go to Yunnan Sourcing’s website to see which 2017 cakes look best and look at all of the new teas that Scott’s made available there, thinking to myself that I need to break out of my cycle of drinking almost exclusively oolong and puerh, and then I go to Theasophie’s catalog to convince myself that I can spend more money than what I’ve budgeted for and that maybe I should just sell some of my possession’s to get some more tea. Then I go to Bitterleaf’s website to convince myself that I need more gaiwans, or maybe I should just break down and buy an yixing pot finally, or maybe I should just buy 8 or 9 yixing pots to season them all differently. So then I go back to Crimson Lotus’ website because I’ve heard that the yixing that they sell is good, and then I think that maybe I should start drinking more old puerh instead of so much young material, so I go over to Bana Tea Company’s website and browse their collection, and then I think that maybe I should just buy some factory tea to age for awhile to see how it turns out. Then I go to Taobao and start doing some mental math to calculate how much tea I need to buy to make the shipping worth the purchase. Then I go over to Floating Leaves’ website to see if they have any new teas available because I need to drink more oolong, and so then I go to Taiwan Sourcing’s shop to see what oolongs they have available and wondering why that site feels so much more professional than Yunnan Sourcing’s. Then I realize that I’ve not had much experience with Japanese Green teas, so I go to Hibiki-An, and Yuuki-Cha, and Ippodo, and Yunomi and I start trying to figure out where I can get the best kyusu, and whether I should start out with gyokuro or ease into it after drinking quite a bit of sencha. Then I go to… you get the picture.
My tea is weak, I have no idea how many infusions I got out of it, and I can’t tell you a thing about it, how it tasted, or what my experience with it was like. I just wasted perfectly good tea that I bought, and rather than feeling calm and relaxed, my mind is rushing and anxious about how I’m going to most effectively spend my money on my next tea purchase. Surely I can’t be the only one who’s fallen into this habit before?
After I finally woke up to the reality of how I’d been perverting the thing in life that I’m most passionate about, I realized that this is how I had been drinking tea for the last several months. I’d been distractedly wasting my tea and making myself wound up and anxious about all of the different combinations of potential purchases and how they would impact my financial security and future happiness.
But this happiness that I was hoping to buy was just an elusive idea. I think that subconsciously I’ve placed this responsibility on myself to be the “tea guy” and that if I hadn’t tried all of the new buzz-worthy teas I was somehow not fulfilling my duty.
Being a poor college student, I have a tendency to be irresponsible with my money. To save on shipping, I tend to save up money and buy $600-$800 worth of tea, following the spring and autumn harvests each year. After all of the samples come in the mail, I try to drink as many of them as I can as fast as I can. I’m always thrilled for about three weeks after I receive them, but then it’s always back to the same old routine. Browsing tons of vendor’s websites, putting teas in shopping carts that I’ll never check out with, and looking at the same teas over and over. It’s easy to do, simply because the teas that I don’t own always seem to be more appealing than the teas that I do own, and there will always be teas in the world that I haven’t tried.
Don’t get me wrong, I love tea for what it is. The reason that I feel so passionately about it is because of the truly wonderful experiences that it’s given me. For me, that feeling isn’t something that can be explained, only experienced.
I think that there are many parallels between the consumerism trap of tea, and the new thoughts about tea characteristics floating around the tea community. What I mean is that recently there’s been a great deal of discussion in the community (notably led by newer vendors such as Paul Murray of White2Tea) about letting tea speak for itself. Who cares if it’s Gushu? Who cares if the tea was aged for 40 years? Who cares if it’s Lao Banzhang? That’s not to say that these features don’t contribute to making a tea exceptional, but they can very obviously cloud a drinker’s experience. A person’s experience with a Lao Banzhang tea will probably be very different depending on if they taste it blindly, or go into the tasting thinking to themselves “Wow, I’m about to drink Lao Banzhang!” The point is that, in my opinion, to experience tea as it was intended to be experienced, one must begin drinking it with a clear and open mind.
This concept is the same with the consumer trap. I think it’s easy to catch myself thinking that because there are so many teas on the internet that are marketed as older than the teas I own or made with better material, mine somehow become undesirable. The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose.
There’s no point in drinking tea if the whole time I’m going to be focusing on buying other teas that I eventually won’t be paying attention to either. I still have tea samples in my collection that are untouched that I purchased two years ago. I don’t think that I’m ready to buy more tea if I haven’t experienced and valued all of the one’s I already own. Rather than worrying about how much the tea I’m drinking costs, where I got it from, how limited it is, or what others have to say about it, I should let the tea tell me the story that it has to share. Despite the fact that I was planning on making one of my two annual tea purchases this week, I chose to save my money for the time being, finding peace in knowing that there will always be desirable tea waiting for me when I am ready for it.
So, fellow tea drinkers. Don’t engage in the same practices that I’ve found myself in. Enjoy the tea you have. That’s not to say that you need to drink all of the tea you own before buying more, rather don’t neglect the tea that you’ve already purchased and previously placed value in in the pursuit of your next, supposedly more desirable purchase. Be content with what you have, and don’t make your tea experience about the next thing that you’re going to buy. If you’re like me and have found yourself in the same pattern I have, just remember: you will never buy any amount of tea that will cure your insatiable desire to buy more. Be still and drink your tea.
“The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature… it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly” — The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzō