tea, zen and the complexity of mental illness

tea at nightmy good friend carol has a new blog, cha-cha-cha – adventures with tea.  she just published one of my melodramatic poems there, ode to tea.

tea – a neverending topic. reminds me a bit of the twitter and face-to-face conversations i’ve had in the last few days (with the ever-thoughtful ashok, for example) about  the yin and yang of the complexity and simplicity of mental illness, and of this bob newhart video about therapy, stop it.


because of the old english stereotype that everything can be made better with a cup of tea.

your dog died?  tell me about it over a cup of tea.  you’re scared senseless at the prospect of driving over a bridge?  have a cup of tea, it’ll settle you down a bit.  it’s been two weeks since you’ve washed your hair?  let’s sit down with a cuppa.

it’s crazy.  having a cup of tea (or going for a walk, or eating healthy, or other well-meaning advice) isn’t going to cure grief, phobias or depression.  mental illness, just like anything about the human condition, is infinitely complex.

and yet …

newcomer: “please give me guidance”

zen master: “did you eat breakfast?”

newcomer: “yes.”

zen master: “did you wash the dishes you used?”

with this, the newcomer was enlightened.

this is a well-known zen story, told by sensei ogui in his book, zen shin talks.

i think when it comes to mental illness – and again, to all of the human condition – it behooves us to reflect on the fact that it is both unimaginably complex and bafflingly simple.

perhaps this is one way to think about it: the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  and sometimes the journey out of the mindboggling chaos of mental illness can start with a simple cup of tea, offered by a friend with warmth and sincerity, and received with gratitude and the comfort of a fleeting moment of joy and pleasure.

image by dsevilla


  1. I *heart* tea. For me, like you described, it’s a bridge to a conversation. It, much like alcohol for some, lubricates the mind and the mouth. Or, maybe that’s just me.

    The art of making the tea, what it’s served in, what type of leaves you are using — All conversations that lead to something else.

    Thanks for this post — It was a great one, as always, and of course, always awesome to see you at the MEET n’ GREET!

    Tanya (aka NetChick)’s last blog post..“Hello NetChick Sent Me” Meet n’ Greet!

  2. hey tanya, thanks for dropping by! please DO visit carol’s blog, you’ll enjoy it.

    you are so right, tea is about conversations – and somehow different than coffee, maybe? there’s an expectation that conversations around tea are deeper, more profound, perhaps even warmer than conversations around coffee.

  3. Hey Isabella,
    Such a nice post. and so true. Life seems so complecated at times, like a maze and yet when you have an inspiration, it’s so simple.
    Thanks for a wonderful post.
    btw, I can never resist a cup of tea! 🙂

    Raj’s last blog post..An Italian present

  4. I love tea so much I need it to keep me sane. I know, because when I can’t get any I sometimes get antsy (and note this means non-caffeinated teas as well).

  5. Isabella,

    Although I prefer coffee (particularly ice coffee) for the caffeine value, I must say that I can understand where you are coming from.

    If a friend or relative had just died, it would be ridiculous to expect a cup of tea to solve your problems. Likewise, a cup of tea probably won’t make much difference in the scheme of things if you have just been fired or are undergoing marriage separation.

    That said, tea, coffee or beer (provided you don’t over consume) with a good friend or two does wonders for the heart.

    Andrew’s last blog post..A little about my life in Korea

  6. raj, gillian, andrew, good to have you here!

    both you, andrew and gillian, seem to be talking about the comfort value of tea. and of course that can be found in anything – beer, for example. taking a buddy out for a beer can definitely have the same effect.

    and let’s look at yet another angle:

    can any big problem really be “solved”? grief, for example – doesn’t it often more dissipate, rather than getting solved? and if it’s dissipation we’re talking about, then we’re back to small steps. small sips.

  7. Hi Isabella,

    Something for us to all think about.

    One of my greatest fears of the world becoming digital is the loss of face to face conversation. Many of our problems can be solved by simply having someone listen to our concerns.

    We could all use to work on our empathetic listening skills. The impact on many of those suffering could be far greater than many of the treatments available now.

    Perhaps with a little practice and a few pots of tea….


    Roger’s last blog post..How Does a Microwave Work?

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