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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

Wicked Game, Chris Isaak

I was having lunch with my friend Ande a while ago, and the first thing she asked me when she sat down was: “What is a revelation you have had lately?”

Okay WOW, I was blown away. I had not been asked such an imaginative question in a while.

Around this time, my life had become a quest for the most beautiful question in the world.

It is now a day-to-day practice and discipline of mine to ask more thoughtful, provoking and invitational questions.

This all started with a poet asking me the most beautiful questions I’d ever heard, and me realising that I had missed many opportunities to do so myself.

A beautiful question always enlarges the context in which you’re living – deepening the horizon – and taking you out of yourself and into yourself at the same time. One of David Whyte’s personal definitions is:

A beautiful question shapes your identity as much by asking it, as by having it answered. It deepens your sense of yourself.

In this search, everything I know about asking better questions can be distilled into this:

Ask beautiful questions, get beautiful answers.

It is as simple and terrifying as that. And also quite hard.

How you ask a question is important.

If you’re going to ask a beautiful question, be prepared to actually listen to the answer. The job is only half done otherwise.

Sometimes the best question to ask is listening.

In Maps to Ecstasy, Gabrielle Roth writes:

In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions:

When did you stop dancing?
When did you stop singing?
When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?

Where we have stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul, Roth says.

These are examples of beautiful questions. Ones that lead us to more real, honest, and refreshing conversations.

There’s a brilliant video by Alan Watts where he asks: What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Alan Watts tells you to do that and forget the money. Anything you can be interested in will find others.

A beautiful question can completely reshape your life.

There is something so satisfying about a really good question like this. It awakens you, shaking off the sleepiness and inviting you to reveal something new.

A friend once asked me casually in a cafe: What would it take to be yourself?

I am always interested in the shape of your solitude: Can you be alone and do you like the company you keep?

And perhaps there are some questions that will always be unanswered like: What happens if I eat too many pappadums?

A real question is beautiful and a beautiful question is real.

We’re all just waiting to be asked.

Being engrossed in this pursuit of beautiful questions has led me to uncharted territory where I am map-making as I go along. Let me give you an example.

I was having lunch with my beloved mama on Mother’s Day last year and she asked me when I was going to give her grandkids. This is the most asked question in my family (after, where is the salt?) and a bit of a trigger for me. I have told them many times that yes, I wish to have children when I meet the person I want to have children with. My mum explicitly knows this, and yet – I was being asked the same annoying question again as if I could be spontaneously pregnant (like when she bought me a cute wooden tea set for, as I pointed out, the children that I do not yet have). Normally I would blow up, but this time I took a looooong breath and I said instead: ‘Mum, if you ask a beautiful question you will get a beautiful answer.’

We were silent for about thirty seconds. I resolved to not speak until my mum did. Then she asked: ‘What kind of joy do you want to bring into your life?’ Now THAT is a beautiful question and finally, we could have a real conversation.

It is true: joy is coming.

A beautiful question like this leads to a better foundation for understanding.

A real conversation is noticeably different to the humdrum of other ones. It will bring you to a new frontier of understanding yourself, and others as well.

As David Whyte writes:

There is no self that will survive a real conversation. There’s no self that will survive a real meeting with something other than itself… And after a while you realise you don’t want to actually keep that old static identity. You want to move the pivot of your presence from this thing you think is you, into this meeting with the future, with the people you serve, with your family, with your loved ones. It’s in this self-forgetfulness where you meet something other than yourself that all kinds of astonishing things happen.

Glorious as usual, David.

A beautiful question is going to leave you hungry for more.

An average question tends to get an average response.

As David Whyte writes in his 10 Questions That Have No Right To Go Away: ‘A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want. To do this requires vulnerability. Now we tend to think that vulnerability is associated with weakness, but there’s a kind of robust vulnerability that can create a certain form of strength and presence too.’

So, why is it difficult to ask a beautiful question?

I’ve been sitting with this very question for many months now, and have failed multiple times in the attempt (although they make great examples of what not to say).

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I found peace in the chaos, I found peace in suffering

PEACE, Anna Golden

I remember the first thing Tea said to me was: “Drink your tea and let the longing pour out”.

Had I not been so “lost” in my longing, I would never have found the Way. I had a lifelong dream to live in New York City after watching Home Alone 2 countless times as a child. Later in 2015, I was living in East Village and it was nothing like John Hughes had promised. I was adrift with no job, no family or community, and no prospects (I did try breakdancing though). I then experienced heartbreak when a beautiful Italian man that I met on a train to Colorado — who I had a one-way ticket to see in Florence — told me he’d met someone else. Welcome to my Saturn Return.

Walking into a yoga class at Sky Ting in Chinatown, I saw a poster for a “tea ceremony”. The steam rising from the bowls looked so peaceful, the total opposite of how I felt. A week later I shared tea in silence with a room full of people — surrounded by the immense noise and loneliness of the city. I remember the vivid feeling in my bones: I don’t know what just happened, but I love this. The person serving tea was Baelyn Elspeth and I found out she was the student of someone called Wu De. I tracked down a copy of The Way Of Tea which led me to this lineage.

From that moment, I looked for tea everywhere I went.

In Japan, I travelled to a tea farm in Wazuka (an 800-year-old tea village and the largest matcha producing region in the world) with only the loose directions of: “Follow the road between two forests past a shrine entrance.” In the Canadian Rockies, I hiked to two remote teahouses in the mountains, crossing frozen waterfalls and traversing up glacial trails to reach my version of Heaven – a cabin in the woods serving tea. ‘Synchronici-tea’ is very real in my life, and I will always cherish that.

I opened my first Global Tea Hut package in January 2020 at the intentional community I was living in. My first tea bowl was a shallow palo santo smudge bowl because that’s all I could find in New Mexico! I remember one magical day being snowed in and spending the whole afternoon in my room with music, writing, drinking Ruby Red and staring out my window to the white abyss.

Unknowingly, I was making a lifelong friend.

Forces beyond me landed me a last-minute spot at Wu De’s tea and meditation retreat at Esalen, California in February 2020 (read the full story in Bowls of Soul in Big Sur). Tea finally arrived, just not according to my timing, and it is much better that way. It’s like what Elizabeth Gilbert says:

“The truth is bigger than your plans.”

Nowadays, I live back in Australia by the ocean in Fremantle. My tea space is my sanctuary, where I tend to my inner home.

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How 'bout remembering your divinity?

Thank You, Alanis Morissette

I heard myself saying “I’m doing great!” when really I was drowning.

I see it in my friend’s eyes all the time. We do a good job of holding it together when actually we’re not.

In truth, I was in a sea of rush with a back-to-back-to-back schedule and competing commitments pulling me in different directions. I kept going to drink water from an empty glass on my desk… because I didn’t have a spare moment to get up and refill it. Which is crazy to me now.

I had developed this manic pace in my work week that felt like poison in my body. I even wrote down a list of how it felt on a given day (toxic, rushed, wired, overwhelmed, distracted, interrupted, constricted, scattered, not present — and thirsty).

I was enthusiastic about everything I was doing, but it was too much. 

And then on I hit a wall. Obviously.

On the day I declared I would start writing my first book, I started the day with 14 hours of old-fashioned sleep. I didn’t open my laptop for the next three days and three nights. My sheets were definitely not getting washed and it took me two slow hours to make lunch. I could feel I was teetering on the edge of a full-blown sickness. 

I would like to spend the rest of my days in a place so silent, and working at a pace so slow, that I would be able to hear myself living. — Elizabeth Gilbert

Here’s the thing: there’s always SOMETHING to do. Someone to text back or somewhere that wants your attention. Trust me. I’m a Vatta Virgo type and my alter ego (Turbo Teresa) is an all-or-nothing, hyper-productive, multi-tasking gal that eventually feels like that reel of a balloon floating along, deflated. 

I needed to recalibrate and decompress.  

Around this time, I came across that there are seven types of rest, beyond just sleep. There is physical, emotional, mental, sensory, creative, social and spiritual rest. I was lit up. This idea was originally pioneered by ​Saundra Dalton-Smith in her book Sacred Rest and TED Talk. She says poignantly: Staying busy is easy. Staying well rested — now there’s a challenge. I haven’t actually read the book or watched the talk, but I loved the concept immediately and started experimenting with it. Although I noticed that there was one missing. 

I call it: cosmic rest.

When you are bone tired and your soul is exhausted and you have nothing sincere to give. I knew I needed cosmic rest when I didn’t have the energy to sit for tea and not even a Sandra Bullock film could revive me.

So I decided to STOP. To feel the sun on my face for a beat. I am in a week of restorative rest to experience the seven types for myself and experience cosmic rest. The first night I laid in the dark with two candles burning and re:stacks on repeat, falling asleep at 7:30pm. Bliss. 

The first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness. – Mary Oliver

I could no longer allow myself to feel like I was always running late to the bus when there was in fact, no bus to catch. This is the modern-day equivalent of running from a tiger in Flight or Fight mode, but now instead of a tiger there is your pinging inbox. I needed to soften into stopping. Do away with my colour-coded calendar. Fill up my damn water glass and just be

If you think to rest is wildly privileged, you’re right — it is.

And to take rest is also your birthright to be well.

My friend Yas had messaged and after I said I was taking three days and nights of rest, she replied: “Like when you’re not sick? Never have I ever”. I know, it’s wild. A lot of us don’t give ourselves permission to receive rest. Taking time ‘off’ (I even resist saying this term because of our conditioning that being ‘on’ is productive; capitalism has made us into dancing monkeys) means saying no and saying no makes us uncomfortable.

But, in my experience, you won’t know the privilege of your health and vitality as your highest values in life until you are very unwell. So why not take a pause before that happens?

Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it. — Bronnie Ware

I literally have to stop and ask myself twelve times a day: What’s the rush, AJ? And think, as Henry David Thoreau so brilliantly said: “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” 

We all need to rest our body, mind and spirit from time to time.

I have never protected my serenity, joy, happiness, safety, nervous system, creative practice, self worth, or attention more than I have in the last three months. The boundaries it has taken to do this has been extremely uncomfortable. To give up people pleasing is not a simple act. The rewards are plentiful. The reward is a comfort within myself I have never experienced before now. The reward is expansive. — Marlee Grace 

I wanted to share how cosmic rest is a gamechanger and the seven types of rest that remarkably brought me back to life:

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I was so happy just to be with you, I would have said anything at all

McCormack's Wall, Glen Hansard

I quote David Whyte more than David Whyte quotes David Whyte.

​​Of all the things I love about David Whyte (and there are many, see below), I am most fond of the way he asks questions. Or as he calls them – invitational questions. Bold and thoughtful. Quiet and stirring. Courageous and refreshing, like throwing your face up to the wind and breathing in a sweet breeze for a moment. Beautiful questions that have enlarged my life.

I first came across the Irish-Yorkshireman poet and author David Whyte in 2014 when I was launching The School of Life pop-up in Perth. David is a modern-day philosopher and his book, The Three Marriages (about how work, self and relationships are our three core commitments) was in our treasure trove of a store with his poetry peppered throughout the classes teaching emotional intelligence and life manoeuvring to adults.

I recently dug up an old notebook to find one of the first things I wrote down from David Whyte – it comes from his poem Self Portrait: ‘I want to know if you know how to melt into the fierce heart of living, falling toward the centre of your longing.’ Audible wow. 

If you are thinking, David who?

You can start with his popular conversation on The Conversational Nature of Reality with On Being’s Krista Tippett (which he says is ‘his chief theme’, in his own words). If you want something short, try this mediative story on how ​​We Become The Places We Love – you won’t hear a more soothing voice today. There is of course his lauded TED Talk on A lyrical bridge between past, present and future (repeating lines is a poetic convention) or you could just pop on David reading his poem Sweet Darkness to you (the last sentence is my life mantra). My enduring favourite is The House of Belonging.

This is the temple of my adult aloneness and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life. There is no house like the house of belonging. — David Whyte

I really resonate with his entire oeuvre of work and gravitate towards his topics on courage, friendship, longing, and embracing the unknown as an edge that is beckoning us all. David’s words remind you that even in your deepest loneliness you are not alone.

Now to the question of questions.

Most of my life has been a series of pilgrimages and quests to answer questions. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, ‘There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.’ I am very versed in the former. I have been apprenticing myself to a word each year for some time now (current word: trusting). And to experience things first-hand, I have gone on many solo travels to places like Japan, Indonesia, Denmark (I had to visit Kierkegaard), Canada and the United States many times over.

Therefore, at any time of life, follow your own questions; don’t mistake other people’s questions for your own. — David Whyte

I tried for many years to attend one of David’s workshops in person when I travelled extensively for work but it never lined up.

Then I ‘met’ David Whyte without actually going anywhere.

Two years ago in early 2020, I was living in New Mexico in an intentional community. As I was writing my yearly list ritual, I had this very clear thought that I wanted to “meet David Whyte”. Strangely, I didn’t write this down as one of my intentions for the year (but I did write down ‘join a drumming circle’). It seemed too wild and impossible but oh boy, did I want this deep in my bones.

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Andjelka Jankovic Tea Ceremony

I know I haven’t written anything this past year here. I have written at least 383 things in my head (and also 144 posts on chicken).

It always takes me a bit of time to fully digest and process things in a new cycle. Looking back on 2021, I read many excellent books. I made Japanese miso from scratch and drizzled sesame oil on everything. I developed a pigmentation right on the bridge of my nose. I am yet to find the perfect comfortable underwear and I have not made peace with this. I washed and dried my linen sheets in the sun and made my bed, all in the same day; the definition of being an adult. And I picked up some new skills like growing oyster mushrooms from a log, the heartbreak that is tending to tomato plants in summer, and learning how to roll my own beeswax pillar candles (getting ready for cabin life).

I worked a whole year in hospitality and now my right shoulder hurts. I wanted to put the idea of ‘service’ into practice – in service to my brother and his dream, literally serving food, sharing tea in ceremony, and fostering five gorgeous kitties across the year. I now understand that being in service is about putting your ego out of the equation and mostly being invisible for a greater good. The act of service is the reward itself, not being recognised for it.

Service is never-ending and you have be wary of spiralling into a ditch because if you’re down there, you can’t help yourself or anyone really. I did nearly burn out a few times and so I made abundant rest a non-negotiable to survive the year; it wasn’t perfect but it was better than before. As my friend Si says, rest is a revolution. WE ALL JUST NEED MORE SLEEP.

I do not know if the soul survives physical death – and I do not care – but I know that to lose your soul while you are alive is worse than death. – Jeanette Winterson

I took great delight in beautiful dates with solitude. Matinee film screenings (Nomadland is a standout; “What’s remembered, lives”) with my dark chocolate sorbet and GF waffle cone hack. A seat at a Parisienne-feeling bar with half a dozen oysters and a bowl of frites. Hike days in the forest. And soaking in my bathtub with the moon and the serene nothing.

It’s my Jesus year apparently (I’m thirty three) and he was a revolutionary.

My music tastes have changed considerably this past year. Although indie folk and anything melancholy will always have a place in my bleeding heart repertoire, a large part of my music listening has been of atmospheric, neo-classical and instrumental tracks. My Spotify Wrapped says, “peaceful and wistful.” (I love that.) It might have something to do with my tea practice. This song by Luke Howard. This playlist by Alaskan Tapes. And my most listened to album of 2021 – Silencia by Hammock, an ambient masterpiece by a Nashville duo who I had never heard of. There isn’t a single lyric in the whole album, and if you know me, you know this is a big deal.

It was a year of lockdowns and creative concerts. Lie on the floor, put a speaker near your head and listen to Bon Iver songs in the dark. It sounds like Justin Vernon is in your house. True story. I also cannot be more OBSESSED with this magnum opus by Taylor Swift.

Many books were huge in my life: Braiding Sweetgrass is a must-read requiem for forgotten and wounded nature. Carl Jung’s The Red Book blew my mind as I read the details of his (and I’m still finding the pieces), as well as anything Martha Beck says or writes is hitting the sweet spot – highly recommend starting with The Way of Integrity, and let this word change your life too.

The exquisite risk – to be fully alive, open, available, living true to our heart. — Mark Nepo

A few things were quite radical to me; like Thinx period underwear. I transitioned to them for the first nights of my cycle and it is so liberating to bleed freely now (along with my moon cup) without using any plastic or disposable items. I learnt a self-compassion technique called R.A.I.N by Tara Brach at a silent meditation retreat in Denmark which I clearly needed, after having a minor meltdown when I arrived. I’ve also been slowly unpacking my beliefs and narratives around money, realising how unconscious the conditioning is and how hard (but worthy) it will be to rewrite new truths. I will also sing the praises of finally getting a pair of Blundstone boots and feeling pretty invincible.

My word for 2021 was listen.

I had no idea what I was in for.

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Person drinking Tea In A Canola Field

The sea was all in our minds

The Sea, Lily Kershaw (feat. Jon Bryant)

My top played song on Spotify last year was called Solitude No.1 by Ukrainian pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk. It’s a funny and welcome coincidence since this was the theme of my 2020.

I went from living in an intentional community in New Mexico to returning home to Australia and moving to Fremantle. It felt like l lived twelve lifetimes in those twelve months. A year that seemed as if we were all living towards the end of the world. A time of radical simplification.

Staying indoors. No touching. Isolating. Coming to terms with not travelling and no freedom, while group chats exploded along with existential dread, ceaseless snacking and Zoom fatigue. All our cancelled plans and possible futures gone, plus the renaissance of sourdough baking and puzzle making.

It was the year I discovered Phoebe Bridgers, learnt how to pickle zucchini and make apricot jam, watched anything British (Sliding Doors is still a filmic masterpiece), relished the Before trilogy again, and the arrival of my second nephew, little River.

I found great comfort in escapist fiction (highly recommend Where The Crawdad Sing and The Flatshare). I was shook by Normal People — the show of 2020. My half-decade Saturn Return also ended (it was a long one, folks) and with that came a new kind of ease and settling into my skin.

Most profoundly, I lived on my own for the first time. Subleasing a New York-style warehouse space that I’d searched my whole twenties for (even after living in the actual East Village). I started a newsletter for close friends. The world didn’t need another hashtag but I wrote small town travel guides (check out #AJlovesWA) for my road trips around Western Australia.

It wasn’t all upskilling and roses though — I didn’t work for most of the year, had a big wakeup call to my privilege, and fell into spells of despair (joy is coming). I also didn’t learn the tap dance routine in Fiona Apple’s Paper Bag music video, and I still don’t know how to play You Were Meant For Me by Jewel on guitar. I did collect a lot of interesting sticks and foliage though.

In February, just before everything shut down, a series of synchronicities led me to Big Sur in California to meet my tea teacher Wu De and learn the ancient practice of Cha Dao and tea ceremony. It was a culmination of a six-year calling that I had almost given up on and it came to fruition just when I had least expected.

Arriving home in March, I had no idea that the next year would be in total antithesis to the life I’d lived so far. None of us did.

Quest for truth only works if you’re prepared to take action on what you find. — Bruce Lee

My word for 2020 was transformation.

Straight up transformation is terrifying. Hard. None of it is necessarily comfortable.

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Polaroid of girl holding a Tom Waits record

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

White Wine In The Sun - Tim Minchin

What do Rodriguez, Queen, Okkervil River, John Lennon and Dido all have in common?

Unsurprisingly, not much except that — they have all released a Christmas song, either buried in their back catalogues or somewhere in their lyrics. Enter: me.

I’ve always had an enthusiasm bordering on madness for discovering indie Christmas songs and I’ve collected non-obvious holiday songs for over a decade in a rolling playlist (without a single mention of Santa). Come December, I play them on an infinite loop and this ritual makes me feel somewhat comforted in an otherwise unpredictable world.

Here are the essential B-side Christmas songs you should listen to from great musicians that just got a little greater…

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis — Tom Waits
I used to get my Waits mixed up with my Petty until I heard this rambling blues piano and pained husky voice (over a hundred times). In this song, a Christmas card written by a sex worker is sent to a former boyfriend of hers called Charlie. She tells him she’s pregnant, cleaned up her life, and has a happy relationship. By the last verse she lets him know: she’s back in jail, with no husband, and needs to borrow money for a lawyer. A brutally honest Christmas card delivered in the most unexpectedly beautiful way.

Fairytale of New York — The Pogues (feat. Kirsty MacColl)
Considered Ireland’s greatest musical contribution to the Christmas genre, this song starts all cozy and lovelorn and then turns into a glorious Celtic punk rock folk clusterfuck. It was famously censored on the BBC for slurs such as “faggot” and “slut”. A mainstay on any alternative Christmas music lovers list.

Holocene — Bon Iver
I will not be tripped up on a technicality, but this song mentions “Christmas night” so it’s an unintentional Christmas song to me (the best kind). This song sounds like winter, and because Justin Vernon makes it onto every playlist of mine — this stays.

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Girl sitting in tea ceremony

You gotta set your eyes on something you believe is true, it don’t matter what it cost

Made It Home — AHI

“Like you, I am scared to go within.”

These were the first words that Wu De spoke at the beginning of a week of Cha Dao at the Esalen Institute earlier this year.

I had tried to attend a course at the Tea Sage Hut in Taiwan for many years, but the busyness of my life always seemed to take over and I could never align the time to go. This came to a head last year, when my work in marketing for one of the world’s biggest food brands was becoming increasingly unfulfilling and an inner voice telling me that I had a greater purpose was practically screaming. I decided to take a career break and go on a quest through North America to ‘live into the answers’ (in Rilke’s stirring sentiment) to the questions of my life. Unfortunately, the moment I left my job, sold almost everything and moved the last of my possessions into my brother’s shed, it was also announced that the Centre would be closing.

All I really wanted to do at that point was get lost in nature, so I went hiking, traveling all the way from the top of the Canadian Rockies to the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains range in the US over the next six months. During my trip, I learned that Wu De (of Global Tea Hut) would be holding a meditation and tea retreat at Esalen in Big Sur, California. However, by the time I went to sign up it was sold out — naturally. I am not one to give up easily, so I persisted and pursued the gracious (read: patient) staff at the Esalen Institute reception over the coming days and weeks, hoping that a spot would become available. However, after about the sixth phone call, one of them politely told me: “Look, you’re fiftieth on the waitlist; I’d forget about it”. It was not happening, so I had to let it go.

And I did…

But a few months later, in February, I got an email out of nowhere that a last-minute spot had opened up on the retreat. I was volunteering at an intentional community in New Mexico at the time, and getting to Big Sur would be a logistical nightmare, not to mention my visa would be ending soon — but I was overcome with such a strong feeling (that could only be described as a ‘full-body yes’) that I took the opportunity. I booked my ticket and decided I would figure out the rest later — like how I was actually going to make it back to L.A. after the retreat ended to catch my flight home to Australia (ultimately, a Russian tea sister gave me a ride).

After two flights and a scenic bus ride along the famous Highway 1, I arrived at the edge of the continent — literally. Esalen is built right on the cliffs of the Pacific Coast and is one of the most staggeringly spectacular places I’ve ever been. A pioneer in holistic health and spiritual healing, Esalen is like staying at an upscale ashram that’s also a wellness haven for the senses. It is surrounded by the wildness of the ocean, a painting-like sky, giant towering trees and an invigorating sea breeze that makes you close your eyes and pause just to take it all in. The year-round fruit and vegetable gardens, bounty of flowers and bees, and the untamed redwood forest surrounding the property put nature at the centre of our immersion with Wu De and the Way of Tea.

Walking into the hall where we would convene every day, I caught sight of the retreat schedule, which would have had any tea lover in rapture: meditation, tea class, tea practice, discourse, and mealtimes repeated across the next five wonderful days. I was coming into the experience curious and eager to uncover why I’ve always felt a strong pull to tea. I’d looked for tea ceremonies everywhere I traveled and attended memorable ones in Japan, Canada, and the United States. Back home in Perth, I’d tracked down a copy of Wu De’s book The Way of Tea and it resonated with me at a bone-deep level. It was the Truth with a capital T. But I didn’t know where to even begin with my own tea practice. And so, I kept searching. I came to the retreat with the intention of integrating tea into my daily life and learning how to share my love of tea with others in ceremony.

In retrospect, I was starting a deeper relationship with tea and with myself as well.

I was also excited to meet Wu De in person after listening to a few of his conversations on various podcasts, including Life of Tea. I am almost certain I accidentally gave him those “oh my gosh, it’s Wu De” eyes when we first crossed paths in the dining hall (a look he later told us that he doesn’t like, as he would prefer to be anonymous). Hearing Wu De speak is a real treat; he is eloquent and self-aware, and I was drawn to his humility and humour, as well as his masterful storytelling. In real life, he is just an ordinary person — in his words, “I am just a dude. I am broken and dented too.” But as many of us know, Wu De is more than that. He is a student at heart and a sometimes-reluctant teacher, with a special ability to articulate Buddhist concepts with contemporary relevance and weave in cultural and poetic references with illuminating gravitas. He is also deeply in love with life, which makes him someone to whom many people are drawn. Like the Dao, you can’t explain Wu De so much as you have to experience him.

We started each day with meditation and three bowls of tea in silence. And each day, when those first few sips of hot liquid entered my mouth and moved down my throat, I felt them go all the way into my roots. So profound in its simplicity, a sense of “calm joy” (as Wu De often says) washed over me and an aliveness arose in my spirit — an embodied presence that had rarely touched my life before, except through music and being in the mountains.

Over the next five days, we — a group of fifty eager students of the Leaf — immersed ourselves in tea, Zen philosophy and community. For us first-timers, this meant practising and fumbling together while taking notes and imprints from the more experienced Chajin on the retreat. And at the end of each day, groups of new tea friends would come together to bathe in the healing mineral waters of the Esalen hot springs. I remember one night sitting there looking up at the constellations of stars in contemplation, wondering if life could actually get any better than a day of tea ceremony, meditation, wild nature, amazing farm-to-table food (I’m still thinking about that sourdough rye bread), and connecting with beautiful beings.

Seven Lessons From a Cha Dao Retreat

At the time of this writing, I have been back home in Australia for six months. Since my return, I have been cultivating a daily tea practice and have just started serving bowl tea to family and friends. I still have many more quest(ion)s and the forces that got me a spot in Big Sur will forever be a mystery. However, I know that whenever I sit on my cushion, take a deep breath and start boiling the water, a calmness washes over me and it feels like a homecoming every time.

Many of Wu De’s words come back to me often, in waves of remembrance or in moments of recognition when I am sitting with Tea. It is of course impossible to remember everything that Wu De said at Esalen, but these are the seven lingering lessons that stuck:

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female at edge of grand canyon

But what I've learned, I learned the way no one tells you about

Some Days - Ira Wolf

I’m here to tell you that everything will work out.

But at first, it won’t.

You’re made redundant (twice). You break up with the person you thought you were going to marry. Friendships end. New ones begin. Health problems arise. Anxiety, depression and panic attacks hit. Money is scarce. Then comes the near-death experiences. Family issues. Rollercoaster romances. Moving away. Moving back. Childhood pets dying. The feeling that you might also die any minute. Bloated, burnt out, and having a breakdown about almost everything and I AM JUST GETTING STARTED.

Do you feel like your whole world is falling apart? Welcome to your Saturn Return — it’s real.

So what is Saturn Return exactly? Saturn (the planet) was in your natal sign when you were born and it takes about 26 to 28 years (give or take) to circle back around into your chart. When Saturn returns to your sign, it brings with it a great reckoning.

I’ve been there.

One minute I was elated living la vida loca and the next my life was a mishmash of shattered dreams and hopeless prospects with no desirable future in sight or clue about what to do. I was sleep-deprived, highly anxious, lonely, sad, confused, frustrated, exhausted and frankly some days it felt like crawling on broken glass just to get through.

Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My god, do you learn. — C. S. Lewis

Saturn is said to be the great teacher and also the great destroyer — of paradigms, belief systems, addictions, habits, and patterns. In short: anything that doesn’t serve you. Yes, it sucks. We, humans, want to feel comfort and homoeostasis at any cost. If your life is not in alignment, Saturn will have no trouble showing you (sometimes quite harshly) what needs to change. It’s up to you to recognise the signs and take actions to transform or risk repeating the same lessons over and over.

The Saturn rollercoaster is real.

Let’s use my life as an example. I’m a Virgo but my Saturn is in Sagittarius or the ninth house (you can find out your Saturn sign and Saturn return here). This tells me that ‘Cross-cultural relationships will be your learning grounds and you may become “adopted” by a culture different than your own at some point in your life. If you haven’t travelled extensively, your Saturn Return would be an ideal time to live abroad’. Correct. I’m also told that Saturn came back around into my natal sign since birth from 23 December 2014. Correct again. Around age 26 is precisely the time when my life upheaval began.

Each Saturn Return is said to last between two to four years but for me, it was FIVE YEARS AND ONE MONTH (until I was 31) so rest assured that I know a thing or two about what it brings.

How do you know when your Saturn Return is over?

I met a Vedic astrologer and had a reading in Ubud, Bali in May 2019. He told me the exact date that my Saturn Return would end: 20 January 2020. HALLELUJAH, I rejoiced (also how’s the symmetry). Honestly, it felt like I was on a double Saturn Return bender that I thought I’d never come off. The Vedic astrologer also said that when Saturn leaves my birth chart in early 2020, there would still be “aftershocks” for the months following. This was again, very correct. 

Saturn as a planet is said to represent a father figure, and not in the physical male body sense but more in a protective, grounding, and looking-out-for-you kind of way. The energy of Saturn is asking you to be the ‘father’ of your own life and take responsibility for what you’re not learning. I knew it was time to be the Saturn of my own life when I was so sick of repeating old patterns, feeling stuck and caged, and had a feeling in my bones that the time was ripe for something new.

Growth is simply learning how to suffer gracefully, elegantly and not letting your pain completely tear you apart. — Nikita Gill

What we resist, persists.

This is a frequently repeated adage in spiritual communities and I can’t deny it. When I resist change and sidestep the “work”, I suffer more and whatever is causing me pain me persists. I get it: transformation isn’t easy. Many of us flag it in the “too hard” basket. But maintaining the status quo over following your truth (or just the plain facts on the table) is a way to be alive on the outside yet dead on the inside. I know this first hand. Everything seems easier than doing that one thing you know you really need to do. The true price we pay in suppressing our integrity and aliveness is not fulfilling our highest purpose in life.

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign language. — Rainer Maria Rilke

My own Saturn Return was tumultuous, thrilling, and by the far the most painful yet transformative period yet. When I embraced Saturn Return for what it is — a great cleansing and levelling up — I noticed that my life started to change dramatically.

I started questioning everything, saying no more confidently, letting go of ideals that I didn’t agree with and reassessing values that didn’t resonate with me anymore. It’s also when I decided that there are a lot of expectations that I have no interest in living up to, so I don’t. A fun thing that came out of my Saturn Return was deciding to live each year by a word and this is when I learnt the true meaning of grace, flow, reverence, soften, and alignment.

Saturn will return again.

It will come back into your sign around your late 50s to early 60s. Ever heard of a mid-life crisis? Or a delayed call to adventure? It is said if you don’t learn the lessons in your first Saturn Return, you can bet they will show up in your second (or third). I consider doing the inner work the first time around a HUGE HELP to your future self. The work requires a lot of self-inquiry and reflection, as well as bravery in facing the unknown road ahead, but the reward is remarkable.

We live in a world where to admit anything negative about yourself is seen as a weakness, when it’s actually a strength. — Jon Hamm

I wish I could console my late twenties self and say ‘it will all work out, even better than you expected’ but she wouldn’t have listened. She was too busy trying to hold her public life together (career, relationships, family, self-care, identity, the future) while privately wondering why the questions of her soul’s deepest yearnings wouldn’t go away. Ultimately my heart won, but not without a lot of heartache.

And while you’re in the clusterfuck of Saturn.

It bears repeating, everything will be okay. Maybe not right now, or tomorrow, but eventually. I know that might be hard to believe, so I’ll believe it for you.

Here are thirty one bits of advice from someone who made it to the other side:

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book with flowers

Too forward, too fine, too patient, too wise, now look at you shine

I Won't Run From It - Big Red Machine

1. What do you hope greets you at heaven’s door?

A tray of warm cinnamon scrolls with Justin Vernon playing an acoustic set and every cat I’ve ever loved running towards me.

2. What is the best thing you have ever overheard?

Do the next right thing’ at a cafe in Sedona, Arizona. Also “all my needs have been met” at a farmers market in Santa Barbara.

3. Your biggest karaoke fail?

Africa by Toto in an Athens karaoke bar – there are definitely two extra syllables in the chorus that I didn’t know about until I was singing it to a room full of unimpressed Greeks.

4. What fascinates you to no end?

Dreams, sex dreams, the perfect potato to salt ratio, how the postal service actually works, the mystery of attraction, the universe.

5. Is there anything that people would find surprising about you?

I have a seemingly bottomless reserve of blind faith and almost every Ed Sheeran song can make me cry.

6. A fun fact about yourself that no one really cares about?

I am told my name means ‘apricot tree jewel fruit’ in Japanese!

7. Which childhood game misled you about how adult life would be?

Tetris, bastards.

8. The best song to play when stuck in a traffic jam?

Walking In Memphis, every time.

9. Confound me?

I hate being cold and I love winter.

10. Which film would you make devoted to an entire subject matter?

How people actually meet – synchronicity.

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