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Author Q&A with Noriko Morishita

11th August 2020

Author of The Wisdom of Tea Noriko Morishita spills her secrets of mindfulness and why the art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony matters so much to her in our Author Q&A. Translated by Naomi Mizuno.

Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to share your life learnings with readers? Was there a moment of epiphany?

After a period of several years from when I first started attending tea ceremony classes, I became aware of my senses, realising, for example, that the sound of rain and wind changes with the seasons, and coming to recognise the distinct smell of rain. These seem like small things, but in fact they were big discoveries. Sharpened senses transformed my outlook, adding a whole new dimension to the picture I had been seeing. I felt like I was appreciating the world for the very first time, seeing it expand before my eyes It was at that moment, while sitting in a small tea ceremony room, that I made up my mind to be here in the present, to live my life – feeling like being in the middle of a field, exposed to the wind.

I wanted to share with someone this newfound awareness of mine, to have my feelings recognised. I sincerely hoped to find that others had experienced a similar sensation during their tea ceremony lessons, and to talk about it with them. However, as soon as I tried to put my feelings into words, I found I could not express what I wanted to convey, which was very frustrating.

One day, during a casual chat with an editor friend, I mentioned the way the tea ceremony had heightened my sensitivity to the world around me and my frustration about not being able to express it. The editor had no experience of the Japanese tea ceremony herself, so she listened to me open-mindedly, enjoying and marvelling at my story, impressed by it. Encouraged by her reaction, I thought again about writing about it, hoping someone else could relate to the sensation I had in the tea-ceremony room, and say, I know what you mean.

Even so, while writing this book, I continued to worry whether anyone would really understand me. It wasn’t until it was published here in Japan, and I received many positive comments from readers, thanking me for putting their indescribable feelings into words, that I finally realised that I was not the only one! I was filled with happiness.

Mindfulness as a concept is widely discussed these days, but it’s often difficult to incorporate it into our everyday lives. Is there a simple way to get started?

OK, I will lead my life mindfully from now on, focusing on this very moment! People may resolve to do this, but it is not that easy to be mindful. As soon as you sit and close your eyes, you think, Oh, I forgot to buy some bread! or I needed to get in touch with my office. You find you can’t concentrate on that very moment, overwhelmed by mundane thoughts, regrets about the past and worries about the future. However, we occasionally find ourselves in a state of mindfulness, unintentionally, without realising it: those moments when we devote ourselves to doing something specific. For example, when we’re focused on cleaning the windows, or mowing the grass – when we’re being single-minded. On such occasions, we forget about our regrets and anxieties, and simply live in the moment by concentrating on whatever it is we are doing. Basically, I think the shortcut to ‘mindfulness’ is to get engrossed in something.

The tea ceremony is a traditional art form that focuses on the specific daily exercise of making a bowl of delicious tea. To do this, we build up a charcoal fire to boil the water, rinse a bowl, wipe it clean with a cloth, put tea powder in the bowl, add the hot water and then make the tea. The tea masters in the past introduced and finessed what we practise today as the tea ceremony by ordering these daily tasks to make them more efficient, logical, and hygienic, ensuring the aesthetic beauty of the practice from all angles, too, and so raising it to a supreme art form.

When I started my lessons, I was surprised to find the procedure was complicated and detailed. In order to carry out such steps properly, one by one, I had no extra space left in my mind to worry about anything else. How do I wipe the bowl in front of me? In what way should I pour hot water into this bowl? These were the only things I could focus on. As a result, when I was practising the tea ceremony, I was being mindful, which I only came to realise much later. So, although I think learning the way to make the most delicious black tea, in the most tasteful manner, is a simple way to practise mindfulness, it’s just an example – mindfulness does not have to have anything to do with tea. It could be dancing, singing, cleaning the house or walking – whatever you like to devote your attention to will be a way of practising mindfulness.

In what ways have you found putting into practice the lessons learned through the tea ceremony helpful for you personally? How do you think they will benefit western readers unaccustomed to such ceremonies?

A tea ceremony lesson’s purpose seems only to be to learn how to make tea or to learn traditional Japanese manners. But in reality, a tea ceremony’s lesson is not the method itself, but what we gain from that method.

Let me to talk about the experience of my friend who is learning the art of the tea ceremony. She used to be a teacher in a public junior high school. Back then, her school had been seriously troubled by some students’ resistance and violence, which made them difficult to teach. One day, after school, some students went on the rampage, breaking classroom windows. As a teacher, my friend had to stay late to settle things, which made her exhausted, both physically and mentally. It was the day of her tea ceremony class, but she phoned her tea master, who was waiting for her, and told her she would not be coming that evening: ‘I’m sorry, master. I had trouble at work so I’m mentally tired out. As I don’t feel like attending class today, please allow me to skip it.’ Instead of accepting this, the master invited her gently, saying, ‘Just come for a bowl of tea.’ When she eventually arrived at the tea ceremony class, her master was waiting for her and made her a bowl of tea. It was such a delightful bowl of tea, my friend told me.

Typically, in the practice of tea, we hear a sound like wind blowing through pine trees (which tea masters call matsukaze), coming from the kettle of boiling water. When we add cold water to the kettle, the sound of matsukaze stops. Then, after a period of silence, it comes to life again, starting to make a small sound. While my friend was lost in this sound, she felt her broken heart, her tired-out spirit, recovering.

I too had many experiences during tea classes after a bad day at work, finding my mood slowly calmed and my worries lifted as I made good use of all senses during my lessons. Although I learned ‘how to make tea’ in the literal sense during these classes, I also learned how to concentrate on a task so now, whenever I’m feeling agitated by the world outside, I think of those lessons and am able to calm my mind and restore my mood. The art of the tea ceremony is full of wisdom, empowering those who practise it.

There’s been a huge trend in the last few years towards learning more about popular philosophy and mindfulness, and going back to those ancient traditions that underpin such thinking. Why do you think this is so?

Mindfulness, meditation, Zen, yoga… As far back as I can remember, these activities’ popularity has come and gone. I don’t really know how different they are one from another – I think of them as alternative routes up the same mountain. Perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre and Plato were aiming for that summit as well? Japanese warlords of 400 years ago lived in an age of uncertainty. By making one wrong decision, they could lose their country, their family and their life. Their minds could not rest, even when they slept at night. The practice of the tea ceremony was conceived during that era, and just like today aimed to teach its devotees to ‘live for the moment, not for the future or the past.’ I think this must be an eternal goal for us human beings, weighed down with anxiety as we are all our lives. I think this is the reason we always return to those ancient philosophies and practices, in whatever form they may take in our particular era and however advanced the society in which we live.

Your honesty about your personal experience is a wonderful way of showing readers how they too can put into practice your measured approach to life. Do you think such openness and honesty is an important part of learning to be more mindful?

I have written several books to date, and have always taken a simple approach, writing my personal experiences with honesty. I think that’s because the starting point of my career was as a non-fiction writer. These days I write essays, but whatever I write, I do so from a journalistic viewpoint based on my life’s journey. This was especially true for THE WISDOM OF TEA, which is my individual story: the twenty-year-old girl who becomes a mature woman through twenty-five years of practising the tea ceremony. As such, it was important for me to be completely transparent with readers, to disclose my personal experiences as well. By opening myself up, I wanted my readers – who live with the various stresses of life too, of course – to sit in my tea room, to see what I see, to hear what I hear; to go on the same journey of the heart along with me. It is during those times of living in the moment that we are most open and true to ourselves. When I focus on making tea, I sometimes feel like I’m having a conversation in my mind with someone very close. Who is this person? One day, I suddenly realised that that person was me, my inner self – my true self.

If you could offer a single piece of advice as to how we may start living more mindfully in our fast-paced modern world, what would it be?

We live in a high-speed society where we’re constantly overloaded with information. Although there’s essential news to be found within that information, there are also plenty of unimportant things – including intentionally provocative and often unfounded opinions and rumours to inflame our anxiety. If we listen to all these unnecessary voices, we reduce the time available for listening to our true selves and so lose track of the realities of our own lives as individuals. I think we have a clear choice: either be carried away by the whirl of miscellaneous information, or instead listen to your own voice and live your own life.

Here’s a suggestion: Try, once a week, for a few hours, to switch off the TV and your smartphone, then completely detach yourself from the noise around you. Indulge yourself by doing whatever it is you enjoy, remaining conscious of the five senses. Some of my favourite things to do are digging for clams at a sandy beach and picking edible weeds in the field. For me, feeling a part of nature is the epitome of mindfulness. And of course the tea ceremony lessons I attend once a week are a mindful time for me, too.

Although it’s true that modern life moves at tremendous speed, we have only to look outside to slow it down: see spring flowers blossom, hear cicadas chirping in summer and insects buzzing in the autumn garden. The earth rotates on its axis as usual, and seasons pass without fail. When we remind ourselves of these facts, we’re able to feel the speed of modernity fade into the distance like it’s an illusion.

One editor friend told me she really enjoys the time she spends walking her dog in the park. The leash in her hand is tense, making her feel the excitement of her beloved dog heading for the grass. In such moments with her pet, she feels she’s rediscovered her real self.

But when we can’t go outside, there are other ways of practising mindfulness. Kneading clay or plasticine is a good example; any activity where you put your energy into creating something. During such times, it’s important to appreciate your capacity for sensory experience, paying attention to what you hear, what you feel, and what you remember as thoughts come to mind – these are perfect moments in which to restore your true life.

The Wisdom of Tea is out now.