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

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