The herbal teabag road to enlightenment
Breathe. Observe the breath. Follow the breath. Find the space at the end of the exhale. Unfurl as slowly as a fern; marvel at the spine’s design, your personal information superhighway cradled inside the supreme architecture of that serpentine curve. Stand firm as a mountain grounded by gravity; stretch skyward like a tree rooted to the earth. Feel life course through you, harnessed yet free. Arch and flex like a cat, lithe, poised, alert, deliberate, and detached. Stretch like a dog, ready, awaiting command, faithful, courageous, without fear. Let go. Awake! Stay aware. Watch yourself. Be mindful. Breathe.
I’m just having a quick look at The Way of Tea’s website while I’m downloading ‘OM, Deep Meditation Volume 1’. My local health food store has ceased to stock my favourite tea, ‘Bedtime Bliss’ so I’m going to buy it online. Then it can simply appear, almost as if by magic, flung blindly over my garden gate into my hopeful outstretched arms like a bride’s bouquet.
The Way of Tea’s website is more than just a website; it’s a place to come for guidance, a virtual school, a school of thought. It is a beautiful place to visit, a secret garden, a labyrinth of learning. All about herbs – beautifully illustrated, their Latin names, their remedial history, herbs in folklore, in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Available in giant teabags for the bath, or loose-leaves for bespoke, a tea to induce labour, one for fertility, to improve appetite, libido, to ease death (I made that up, but I bet if you emailed them they’d know). All about yoga – the Asanas illustrated, explained, link after link leading you deeper and deeper into a world of Gurus who can stop their hearts from beating and yoga breaks in Goa with strikingly good-looking and frighteningly flexible teachers who have a UK base in Brighton and offer one-on-one sessions if you dare.
But Yoga is for fit people who are good at gym, look fabulous in leotards and can already do the splits isn’t it? And it hasn’t exactly sorted out Madonna, has it? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! And lose that unbecoming celebrity Schadenfreude right now! It is very bad taste. Sleepers awake! Sleepers in the world of envy, stress, money and junk food, awake!
How’s the download getting on? The blurb states that: ‘During meditation, when we chant Om, we create within ourselves a vibration that attunes sympathetically with the cosmic vibration and we start thinking universally. The momentary silence between each chant becomes palpable. Mind moves between the opposites of sound and silence until, at last, it ceases the sound. In the silence, the single thought—Om—is quenched; there is no thought. This is the state of trance, where the mind and the intellect are transcended as the individual self merges with the Infinite Self in the pious moment of realisation. It is a moment when the petty worldly affairs are lost in the desire for the universal. Such is the immeasurable power of Om.’
I can’t really afford it; £7.99 for one syllable seems a bit steep, but no, that’s an old, outdated way to think. What I mean is I can’t afford not to. I used to think I didn’t have time to meditate. Old me: What the hell is the point of that? I’ll empty my mind when I’m dead thank you very much. What? Clear my marvellous head? Of my brilliant thoughts? Are you mad? Empty-headedness is not something I aspire to darling! Go ahead! Meditate away, if it makes you happy. But if you don’t mind I’ll just carry on cogitating, strenuously. But the new me needs this syllable. It’s what they call a no-brainer. Literally.
That’s what it says on Today’s Suggestion. Well, would you look at that? Internet intuition or what? Some inside knowledge of my downloading activity? My computer is alive! It is part of me now; my browsing history leaves an etheric wake, existing outside time and therefore accessible before the event. A digital déjà-vu.
Yes. I hear you. I give up I give in I obey. I have already haven’t I?
Once upon a time I thought I didn’t have time to. Now I know I haven’t got time not to. I’ve come round to it. The idea infused into the kettle-hot water of my steaming head by stealth, the very gentlest of hints, like scent on a breeze, an invisible seduction, little by little until the therapeutic level was reached, brainwashing in the nicest possible way, a gentle, delicate, cool, handwash-brainwash. A thousand teabags? Two thousand? No. Four cups a day for ten years makes 14,600 tea bags, by my calculation, and that’s not including leap years. Of course, two bags a day might be more of an average, all things considered: drunk days in love, drunk days out of love, too happy to drink tea days, comfortless days of tea free despair, tired caffeine days, any number of herbal tea free days for whatever reason, although even on the train now you can get mint. Fairtrade organic too.
So, halve that number; halve it, tidy it up and call it 7,000. Seven thousand teabags and one full cell change, the turn of a millennium and my fortieth year. An influence as subtle as the stars, a pull here, a push there, nothing harsh, nothing strong, just some herbs in an unbleached teabag, hot water releasing an essence, a truth in a tisane, a little sacrificed to the Gods by steam delivery, the rest taking me by the hand and leading me down the Herbal Teabag Road to Enlightenment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Don’t worry; I’m not going to bang on about it, not going to bore you with my inner journey holiday snaps. And don’t think for a minute I’ve achieved some sort of yogi status, that I’m there. Because I’m not. Far from it. But ‘it’ isn’t the point at all, and even arriving at ‘it’ would only be a point of departure. BKS Iyengar said ‘the highest point of yesterday should be the lowest point of today’. Sounds like a mountaineer’s mantra, but for a person new to yoga, like me, it means tiny steps, breathing life back into that crumpled spine, fluffing up the down-trodden stuff of your old self, fibre by fibre. I’m an old squeezebox, my bellows tight and dusty; I’m an old rubber band who’s lost its twang. Or I was. Or I was going that way, but I’ve turned around. I’m going backwards to go forwards. I’m getting younger every day. Why not? Now I can do what a rubber band does, a fresh red one dropped by the postman. Now I can bang out a jig. OK, not yet. It’ll take a lifetime. I get the feeling it’s meant to. It won’t be easy, but nor will it be hard. It will just be. Ditch that gym head. Never count lengths of the pool again. Enough punishment already. Get your skeleton out of that cupboard and dance with it. It’s your New Best Friend.
Back to meditation. How’s that download doing? Blimey, it’s taking its time. And so it should. New me sees meditation thus: Mental Negative Space. Like in a picture. Putting yourself in some cosmic context. Negative is not a good word for it, it sounds, well, negative. ‘Relax’ doesn’t do it justice either. Relax means dossing in front of the telly with a pile of snacks and a can of beer, trying to find that elusive thing might halt the search, flitting from program to program like a hungry bee on a pot of plastic flowers. ‘Relax’ is written in my dad’s handwriting, with an exclamation mark after it, which makes it sound like an order, when I know now it was a plea, on a cassette box containing a tape of an American bloke with a scarily smooth voice inviting the listener to do just that, by clenching and unclenching toes and imagining an emerald lagoon with a crystal clear waterfall cascading into it which made me immediately imagine the terrifying long haul flight that I would have to take, that I was taking, to arrive at this place where the thought of the journey home would prohibit relaxation no matter how many pina coladas I managed to neck, fags to smoke, and men to … well let’s leave them out of this. Off the rails, calling it what it wasn’t, pretending that my self-abuse was some sort of reward for… for what? For nothing. I was lost, lost, lost. Too scared to even look at the map to find out just how lost… Why did I do that again? Why?
Ah, my tea-loving friend. Forgive yourself. That was then. This is now. Let go. Breathe.
So I prefer ‘still’ to ‘relaxed’. Be still, be calm. It is a cleansing, a wiping of the slate. Empty out the jug, chuck the dead flowers on the compost. Wash it out, turn it upside down on the draining board, let it rest there, in an inverted pose, opening, letting go, preparing itself for clean water and a fresh bunch of flowers. Yes. That’s more like it, and that’s why I’m going to listen to this in the bath, with a cup of tea.
The bath is running, I have added almond oil and twenty drops of lavender for relaxation, and the teabag contains Holy Basil, peppermint, liquorice, cocoa shells, cinnamon, spearmint, cardamom, ginger, cloves and black pepper. Amazing isn’t it? Notice the Holy Basil. Not just any old basil. Grown by someone who can sit in a full lotus for a decade. Is it wrong to have put lavender in the bath, when the tea contains cocoa shells? Aren’t they stimulants? Will they counteract each other? Doesn’t matter, no judgement, no castigation up of self even in the smallest way. Dismiss all mischievous thoughts. Shoo them out the door. All is well; all is perfect in my wor…
OH FOR GOD’S SAKE WHAT NOW?! ‘ Itunes has experienced an error and needs to close.’ What? What about my download? I’ve paid for that! Right. Reboot. Try again. My vintage computer creak and groans like a tall ship in full sail. Slow download, slow machine. Slow, slow, slow. It doesn’t do fast. It’s trying to tell me something. It’s way ahead of its time. Come on, come on! Now what? ‘Updates are ready to be installed. Windows recommends that you install these…’ No. Go away! Yes, you may ‘Remind me later’. Thank you. Double click on itunes icon. Double click triple click. Click click click click click click … OH NO THE SODDING BATH…!
OK. Fine. Breathe. Flood averted. Just. Not as hot as it could be, but too hot isn’t good. Moderation in all things. Right. What’s happened to my Om record? Oh, praise be to the Holy Basil it’s there! Right. Breathe. Boil kettle again. Eco-crime number whatever. My lovely teabag has a little tag on a piece of cotton that hangs over the side of the cup for ease of brewing and teabag removal and on this dear little piece of paper, that so easily could simply be left blank or simply display the logo of this brand of tea of which I have grown so fond, there is to be found what I, rightly or wrongly, call an ‘adage.’
Now, this is important. This is how I’ve got to this point. On The Way of Tea’s website all adages found on your tea tag (as I have called this bit of paper) are posted as the aforementioned Today’s Suggestion. Some of them are commented on in The Way of Tea’s forum. Some of them in the comments box to be found underneath, for example, in response to ‘See the divine in everyone’, someone who calls him/herself ZyGoatea writes: ‘That is going too damn far man! Get real!!!Have you forgotten 9/11??? Wheres the divinity in dumping a dog on the sidewalk in a cage with her pupps in a plastic bag outside that cage?????? Where’s the divinity in torturing a baby??????? If I’m 2 c the divine in everyone then the divine has got some serious Godamn issues!!!!!!!!!!!’
I consider replying with words to the effect of: But then if we were made in the image of God, if it’s a mirror image, it’s logical: consider yesterday’s Today’s suggestion: ‘The other person is you.’ But I don’t, because I’m not one for commenting in boxes or on forums. I have done, and always regretted it, having completely changed my mind about the issue, or at least soon revised my view. Commenting on forums is like revenge – best served from a cone. With a Flake.
What about ‘Rich is the man whose needs are few?’ Oh Yes, that’s me all right. All I need is a wireless broadband connection providing me with every bit of available information under, and beyond, the sun; a nuclear power station and a national grid to power it; a warm house in which to enjoy it; a hot bath in which to escape from it, courtesy of a clean and infinite water supply for that and a cup of tea. It’s the simple life for me!
Some people comment on the tea itself: ‘A little too much ginger for my taste’, or share knowledge of the restorative qualities found in the ingredients: ‘Black pepper is reputedly very good for stimulation of the gums’. Someone even left a poem, ‘A tea for every trouble, a tea for every care, a tea for every time of day, a tea for here or there, a tea to calm, a tea to lift, a tea to soothe the soul, a tea for you, a tea for me, a tea… Tea…Hey folks! Someone help me out here…!!!!!’
See what I mean? Should have waited, composed his ode somewhere else, copy and pasted it from a nice private word doc. A tea to…, let me see, bowl, coal, dole, foal, goal, hole… Hmm. Maybe he should have put heart, or spirit, or… Anyway, back to the tea tag adage. A cynical sneer, old me style, and a mocking eyebrow may once have greeted these few words, these rather smug instructions, this new-age baloney ‘The other person is you.’ Oh yes, that old chestnut, we’re all the same. I know that one. Learnt it ages ago, primary school probably. Who doesn’t know that? It’s obvious! ‘A relaxed mind is a creative mind.’ Oh really. Is that so? I think I have some pretty good ideas caffeined up to the eyeballs and raring to go thank you very much! ‘May your inner self be secure and happy.’ Whatever. What about, ‘Live for one another.’ Oh no no no no no no no! I’m only just getting the hang of being true to mine own self! This is one of those ‘many hands make light work’ versus ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ things. You just choose don’t you? Whatever suits the moment. Whichever suits the mood. Throwaway lines on throwaway teabags. That’s all they were.
But then, slowly as if by magic, as if by the Holy will of the basil things changed. My taste for these teas grew, the more I drank, the more I drank, and each time I opened a new box I seemed to pick out the bag containing the most mysterious adage, ‘The mind is given to you. You are not given to the mind.’ Excuse me? If it’s OK with you, I think therefore I am. So there. I just ignored this one, for months, but it just kept popping up, again and again. And I’d find the thought coming to me at random points throughout the day as if a seed had been planted in my head, its shoot boring through the compacted earth of my mind.
The thing about this thought, and maybe it’s obvious to everyone else, is that it seems to have some pretty serious implications. If the mind is given to you, then who the hell are you? Or should that be, who is you? If the mind is given to you then there is something else other than the mind. But who? God, I suppose. Maybe a great big brain predisposes its owner to create Gods. Maybe small brains do too. How would we know? It would seem to be a natural urge. Something to help you with something you can’t control. Like stabilisers on a bike, or a Zimmer frame. ‘The mind is given to you. You are not given to the mind.’ If not God, by nature then. That I can live with.That we can all agree on. The mind is given to you, i.e., a superior bag of bones, by 13 billion years of getting to this point. Fine. That’s that bit sorted. It’s the second bit that’s annoying me.
Where was I? The Om CD is ready to go. The tea is ready, the bath is ready, the candle is lit. All is well in my world. Nice. In I get and there I am, reflected in the mirror curve of the shiny chrome mixer tap. My butterfly body all little with head, thorax and abdomen and my great white bath-side snow-white wings. I might have said angel, but no, definitely insect. I like my tap. I spend a good deal of time contemplating it so I think it’s important that I do. I wonder if it could see me, would it see me thus, butterfly-like, a cabbage white, or some rather less dainty foreshortened human female?
Om emanates from the other room. The candle flame flickers. I prepare to empty my mind. Think permanent delete of all items in recycle bin. ‘The necessity of an empty mind’ gets a whole page on . I know, The Way of Tea sounds a lot better. Anyway, on this page there is to be found a story pertaining both to tea and to meditation so it couldn’t be more apt.
‘Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a University professor. The professor came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served the tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow till he could no longer restrain himself.
‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’
‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’
And so to meditate. To cleanse myself internally, which, instead of the professor’s cup, makes me think of colonic irrigation, which although is a yogic practice is not pleasant to visualise but visualise it I seem powerless not to do, my mind doing a quick scan of everyone in the world that I know and presenting me with a graphic depiction of them, naked, doing something unspeakable with a garden hose. Why? Because at this point in time it is safe to say that I am still utterly given to the mind. My mind likes to dance about snorting like a wild horse, very pleased with itself indeed.
Om. Breathe. This is the point of power. Sweep old thoughts from the huge white room that is your mind. You know, a bit like that oh so desirable space where John Lennon sat at that piano playing ‘Imagine’ with Yoko floating around, and I think she sat down next to him. Not sure. Firstly, dump that desire, and secondly, for God’s sake, don’t start singing ‘Imagine’. Don’t even think about those opening chords. Too late, it’s there. Brain’s downloaded it. Cancel, cancel! ‘The mind is given to you. You are not given to the mind.’ Think of another tune! Panorama, the Archers, anything. Om! For God’s sake woman! OM!!!!
I always liked Yoko. First, it was simply because other people didn’t, and I always identify with the underdog, even if they are a millionaire genius, or married to one. But later I did have a real reason. It was that story about when John Lennon first met her. She was exhibiting at some totally cool space in New York, and he had to climb this ladder to get to an apple, and when he got there, there was a little sign saying, ‘Yes’. I liked that. It could have so easily said, ‘Rotten on the inside’ or ‘Poisoned’ or ‘Fuck you.’ Simple, positive. Say yes. I wonder if it was about the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t I think of that before? Yes to knowledge, however dangerous. ‘Yes’. Brilliant.
Om. It’s not working. Thoughts be gone! Out! And shut the door behind you! Leave me alone. Leave me in peace to observe my breath. In. Out. Feel the water moving, like a little tub time tide, lapping at my pinken shores. Pinken. I know it’s not a word but it sounds right. Pinken. It’s poetic. Pinken thoughts run amuck in my pinken mind, like a litter of happy squealing pinken piglets. Them and a couple of Japanese Zen masters, Tibetan Buddhists, Hindu Gods, Uncle Tom Cobley and all are having a high old time in my crackpot cranium. Off their nuts on some very special blend. Oh woe is me! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! I am a victim, a struggling fly trapped by the World Wide Web. There’s no way out! Help! Stop it! Try harder! Try without trying. Breathe. Observe the breath. Follow the breath. Be mindful. Be watchful. Be. Just be. Do not be a anything. What would you rather bee or a wasp? Don’t panic. Calm yourself. Forget the emerald lagoon. Focus on the flame. Om.
That’s better. Now I’m drifting, drifting in the bath, drifting further and further away, I’m helpless now; I’ve gone too far, as usual. Maybe I will just slip away into the past, just a dream, just another idea, and you know what they’re like… Ten a shiny new penny. Live for one another instructs the tea tag adage. Live for one another. Doesn’t say how though does it? Doesn’t come with an instruction manual, this life. Well actually it does, it’s just that there’s so many of them to choose from, it’s all so tangled up. Could it really be as simple as Live for one another?
Om. Well, I think by now you can see that I am utterly given to the mind, and not the other way round. But I’m new to this game and what might have taken a few minutes to read flashed across my mind very very quickly indeed, in literally no time at all. Sorcerer’s apprentice I may be today, but tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow – look out sorcerer! Get ready to pick up your pension because I will learn! I am willing to change! The point of power is now! The water is still hot; the bathwater clock’s time is still on my side so I begin again. I return to the breath. I hold my hand to my throat chakra and pronounce to the spider who lives on what does look like the pretty sterile promontory of the bathroom ceiling and as far as I know, hasn’t eaten for at least five months (but then who know what she gets up when I’m not around), that, in case she isn’t a mind reader, ‘I am willing to change.’
I am willing to change. Willing and able. Willing, able and ready. Do you love life? Do you thrill with wonder at the wind and the sea? Do you smile when you see a happy child, or a bird with a tuft of fluff in its beak? And does that then make you want to save the world? To preserve and cherish the Earth? If yes, then why not you too? Love yourself. Love the encapsulated bit of nature, of precious, miraculous life that is you! Be proud of who you are. Unfurl as slowly as a fern; marvel at the spine’s design, your personal information superhighway cradled inside the supreme architecture of that serpentine curve. Stand firm as a mountain grounded by gravity; stretch skyward like a tree rooted to the earth. Feel life course through you, harnessed yet free. Arch and flex like a cat, lithe, poised, alert, deliberate, and detached. Stretch like a dog, ready, awaiting command, faithful, courageous, without fear. Put some music on and dance, dance!
It’s bloody well stopped! Just as I was getting the hang of it too! Honestly, I really was! The Om, the tea, the water, the flame, the breath, it was happening. And then Om just stops. The bloody thing’s crashed again. Oh well. I don’t have to let this annoy me because everything is perfect. In its imperfection that is. This is the point. ‘The mind was given to you. You are not given to the mind.’ Do you know what? I think I’m getting it! The mind is like a car that you can drive like a maniac in some demented whacky races, or like a responsible citizen, or, if you really must, like a senior citizen, for that will test everyone else’s power that they hold over their own minds. It doesn’t mean that there is necessarily something else looking down on your mind, and on you, grappling with it, wrestling your grey matter to the ground like a cowboy bringing down a buffalo, it just means you’re in the driving seat. I know, I know, I’ve been a passenger of my mind for so long, sulking in the back seat, too stubborn to look out at the view.
Om. The other person is you. Live for one another. Hang on, if the other person is you and you are living for one another then that means you are actually living for yourself because the other person is you and it’s funny because I was just thinking about the spine and being an embryo in the womb probably because I’m in the bath and that maybe because we all start off the same that means we have a deep memory of when we were newts and toads and cats and dogs and whatever and that’s why water and yoga feels so good because it reminds us of when we were something else a very very long time ago and so maybe then it should be I am therefore I think and not I think therefore I am and…
Om. Add some more hot water and breathe, breathe, breathe.
Photo: Drew Taylor