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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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Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call and I'll be there

You've Got A Friend - Carole King

A relationship to anything deep and intimate is often inexpressible.

It occurred to me recently that my memory is catalogued in smells and tastes, and most of them come back to tea.

Tea is a lot of things: a warm beverage, an invitation, a moment to yourself, a chance to connect with someone, and a way of life.

Tea is said to have roots that go back 6000 years, she is ancient and wild. But let’s go back to before I knew that, to the beginning of me and tea.

My earliest memory of tea is of my mum making me a cup of chamomile when I was sick. She would add honey and it would taste like sticky sweet goodness. As a child, I would sometimes open the box of teabags in the back of the cupboard just to get a whiff of that flowery meadow scent. Chamomile is still my go-to when I am unwell or need comfort.

When I was 19, I left Australia to study abroad at Queen’s University in Canada. I lived in a giant Home Alone-style house with ten people and one of them was an English rose called Amanda. I met her while she was unpacking and noticed she had a giant ziplock bag of teabags. I asked her what they were, and she said “PG Tips”. She had bought a stash with her from London in case she couldn’t find them in our small college town. Amanda made a cup with a dash of milk and sugar and it was like a warm liquid hug. We became instant friends. To this day, the smell of English breakfast tea takes me straight back to Amanda’s room and the giant autumnal tree outside her window.

In Kington, where we lived, I was introduced to jasmine dragon pearl tea after Amanda gifted me some from a charming tea store downtown. This was 2008 and I had never had proper loose leaf tea before this point! I was enchanted by the smell of the fragrant jasmine buds and would sometimes poke my nose in the bag just to get a hit. When I went back to Canada seven years after my exchange, I went looking for that very tea shop on the main street only to find it was no longer there. A heavy sadness came over me. It’s no coincidence that I wear jasmine scented perfume to this day and always stick my head in every flowering jasmine bush that I pass.

When I was 26, I went on my first 6-month solo trip (or ‘quest’) across North America. I made a point to visit Portland and discovered it to be the tea capital of the US, and later had a tea and tarot session at a teahouse in Burlington, Vermont. I ended up going to a sacred spirituality festival called Beloved in the Oregon woods. I went for a walk after setting up my tent and came across an altar covered in crystals and gems with a man called RonJon sitting behind it. He was serving tea to anyone who pulled up a cushion, all day and all night. I sat down to drink tea and ended up staying for hours chatting openly with strangers. One particularly memorable night, I made my way to the tea circle around 3am and RonJon served us a special tea with palto santo shavings and coca leaf. It was magical and I had one of the best sleeps of my life.

After months of travelling across the US and Canada, I ended up living in New York’s East Village in a 15th floor apartment with no elevator. I had a lifelong dream to live in Manhattan and so I had to see it through. However, it quickly started to show itself as not being my place. The hustle and grind of the city, the everpresent noise and sirens, the community you could see everywhere but never get into, and the lack of nature and trees (two things I need!) really got to me. And frankly, I had no idea what I was doing there.

One day, I saw that my yoga studio was hosting a ‘tea ceremony’. I didn’t know what that was exactly but I was drawn to it. I was going through a particularly hard time with my health and I wanted a feeling of peace. The tea gathering was hosted by Bealyn Elspeth who is better known as All Matters of Spirit. As I sat in a semicircle with about twenty women drinking bowls of tea, I didn’t quite know what was happening, but I liked it. At the end, we shared our experiences with each other. I can’t remember what I said but I did feel connected to something for the first time since I got to the city. Several people in the group broke down and cried. They said the silence made them anxious and they didn’t know what they were meant to do. That’s the thing: we were just drinking tea and not talking. I then realised that for so many of them, being native New Yorkers, they had never experienced such stillness in their entire life.

From this moment, I was in rapture with tea and the ritual of ceremony.

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They say what's buried in the winter is found again in spring

When I’m With You, Joshua Radin

Humans really cannot do two things at once. The majority of times that I try to, like talking to someone while sending a quick text or typing on my laptop and trying to listen (or my pet hate: someone scrolling on their phone while we’re talking) – I invariably miss something, or most likely – everything.

Earlier this year I had two choices: go to Sri Lanka or experience intense presence in silence. My curiosity won and I went on a 7-day silent meditation retreat with Spanda School in coastal West Australian bushland.

There is such richness to be lived offline. I found it incredibly humbling and healing to not speak for seven days, and I experienced a lightness of being I cannot explain.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. – Naomi Shihab Nye

However, being completely in silence did have its challenges. The list of what I couldn’t do was long (no talking, no reading, no phone, no music, no eye contact, no internet – to name a few). Only writing was allowed. And write I did.

My intention for going off the grid was to ‘unravel’. I filled up an entire Moleskin notebook with words from my stream of consciousness. In it is one attempt at poetry, lists, personal explorations, some things I probably don’t want to reread, and letters to the great loves of my life (I knew there would be an ex-boyfriend day!).

Every next level of life will demand a different you. – Leonardo DiCaprio

A lot of people have since asked me if I was bored or challenged or scared. Yes, yes, and yes. I have been doing Vedic meditation for two years, and yet I was still quietly worried if I would ever feel my legs again after four to six hours of meditating per day on the retreat. I had willingly signed up for no connection, no communication, no screens, no books, and essentially – living in flight mode. I quickly realised there was no way to Command T my way out of this.

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Be here in this moment. Sacred, I'm saying your name.

Give Me Tonight, Dustin Tebbutt

The Japanese have a saying ‘ichi-go ichi-e’ (一期一会) meaning ‘one time, one meeting’. It roughly translates to the idea that we live ‘each moment, only once’ and that the value of each encounter is that it happens only once in a lifetime.

I was introduced to the concept of ichigo ichie at a Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto. Being a tea lover, I jumped at the opportunity to sit inside a century-old tea room and experience the artistic display of tradition and hospitality. Our tea hostess was captivating – a graceful lady in her sixties with an unhurried elegance and a quiet passion. I intently watched her transfer the hot water from a cast iron cauldron with a wooden ladle into ceramic bowls before whisking the matcha tea and serving us. I was overcome with the feeling of beauty and intense presence.

The Japanese have a way of doing things – it is slow and measured, with everyday gestures being undertaken with reverence and intimacy. I frequently got goosebumps while traveling in Japan, like when watching someone gift wrap something for me in a shop or when sitting at the counter of a tiny restaurant and seeing my meal being prepared.

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But you’re still, and you’re bright and you’re quiet

Unwritable Girl, Gregory Alan Isakov

Japan is a truly incredible place that is both years ahead in some ways and centuries behind in other ways. It is also one of the most culturally fascinating and culinarily interesting countries to visit.

I fell in love with basically everything from the sakura cherry blossom, to onsen bathing, to the kindness and reverence of Japanese people, and the ‘what just happened in my mouth?’ food experiences. Think: yakitori, inari, sashimi, miso eggplant, ramen, soba, unagi, umeboshi, plum sake, mochi, bento, okonomiyaki, and green tea galore. Hungry yet?

Japan caters to everyone. If have a lot of money to spend, you can in Tokyo or Kyoto. If you want to eat street food that blows your mind but not your budget, you can in Fukuoka.

And then there’s the nature. It’s a little-known fact that 60% of Japan is made up of mountains all the way along the Northern ‘horse’s back’ when you look at a map. The untouched forests, majestic cliffsides, and lush tea fields are some of Japan’s best-kept secrets.

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Never more alone or more alive

Shasta, Mat Kearney

The concept of time baffles me. I cannot explain how seven years can feel like seven minutes and how three weeks feels more like three months have passed. I’m currently travelling around Japan by myself, a concept that baffles some people that I meet. The ask “Just you?”, wonder “Where are your friends?”, and want to know “Is your husband joining us?”. I don’t travel alone to make a point out of it. I simply want to have adventures and experiences that I cannot have at home, and at the moment that means doing it solo.

The inevitable highs and low of travel are amplified when you have no one to share them with. When you are travelling alone you get these intense moments of personal pride. Like navigating a complex subway system with no WiFi, and ordering a meal in a foreign language using hand gestures. It’s a chance to celebrate the things you did all on your own.

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Because our hearts don't beat the same as they did before

Oh My My, Garrett Kato

Byron Bay is the Bali of Australia. A cross between a small country town, beach getaway and wellness haven – Byron Bay has the magical combination of ocean air, understated glamour and laid-back hospitality.

It is the kind of place you’ll love the minute you arrive. Byron Bay should be renamed Byron Babe for the ridiculously good looking roam everywhere in this coastal New South Wales town, a 2-hour drive from Brisbane and 800kms from Sydney.

Locals rise early to catch the surf before work and retreat to bed early, while tourists are the ones out late at night. Synchronicity is ever-present in Byron Bay; I walked past an ordinary looking chalkboard that read ‘Gareth Kato – Tonight, 8pm’ being one of my favourite Canadian singer-songwriters playing a free gig at the local Byron Bay pub the day I arrived. For the gluten-free traveller, Byron Bay is a bounty of health elixirs, local produce and nourishing delicious food.

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And I know you wanted to for some time now

Into the Sun, Sons Of The East

If you eat an abundance bowl but don’t share it online, are you still #blessed?

I’ve been wanting to learn Vedic meditation for quite some time, and recently travelled to Byron Bay for a retreat with The Broad Place at The Atlantic. Initially, I was planning to only go phone-free for the four-day immersion, but then I decided to go offline for the following week to figure out what is real. A sort of ‘detox’ from digital dopamine.

Digital dopamine is a term I like to use to explain the feelings of reward and pleasure from constant online communication, Facebook likes, Instagram hearts and Twitter retweets. It’s that rush of satisfaction and self-worth we all know. But more and more, I/we are using social media to kill time and that is literally what it does – kills it.

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I'll be dreamin' of the next time we can go into another seratonin overflow

Love On The Weekend, John Mayer

I’m the sort of diner chefs don’t like. Waitstaff consider me a nuisance, and friends flash apologetic eyes while I decipher menu acronyms at Da Vinci Code speed.

I’ve been called a lot of things: nightmare dinner guest, self-diagnosed poser, fake allergy sufferer, fad follower and a food snob. But my favourite one is ‘glutard’ [noun: gloo-tard] meaning someone who has an immune reaction to gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye), and will never be able to taste the latest dessert craze. From here on in, let’s call us the GFF (gluten free friend).

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There’s two WA ingredients on the Noma Australia menu that you’ve never heard of.

Not keen to join 27,000 people on the waitlist at Noma’s pop-up restaurant in Sydney? Get your fix of a bucket list food experience in the West.

Chef Paul Iskov’s Fervor pop-up dinners use native ingredients and locally sourced produce to tell edible stories around Western Australia. Paul worked with Danish chef René Redzepi in 2012 at Noma, ranked four times San Pellegrino’s Best Restauraunt in the World, on a two month unpaid stage (an industry term for free labour) in Copenhagen. “I was going to Noma thinking what is all the hype about?” says Iskov. “I was picking the same herb for six hours around a table doing 16 to 18 hour days. I was lucky enough to do service and see the test kitchen, and they really are next level. At that time they were starting to play with lacto-fermentation, grasshopper gum, and the ants.”

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