How to Drink a Mindful Cup of Tea

A cup of tea or coffee is a nice break. Drinking it mindfully is a real break. Joseph Emet teaches us this five-step practice.

Joseph Emet
19 May 2024
Illustrations by Tomi Um.

Here is a homemade koan for drinking tea: Who is enjoying this tea?

Ask yourself this question with each sip. When you encounter that person, let them go. You need a break from their story now and then. Otherwise your tea break will not really be a break at all.

Constantly rehearsing the story of our roles, obligations, and commitments wears us down. Yes, we may be mothers, doctors, servers, or office workers, but at the core, we are more than these things. We are “breath-breathing humans,” as the Sufi poet Rumi said. Whatever your story, you are more than that story. Get in touch—and stay in touch—with the breath-breathing human you are as you enjoy your tea.

“Just this,” remind yourself with each sip. “Just this.” Sit and breathe like a flower in a meadow, enjoying the sun.

If you have ever watched one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, you have probably witnessed elements of tea meditation. Halfway through a talk, Thich Nhat Hanh will pause and pour himself a cup of tea. Then, as several hundred listeners watch his every move, he will slowly raise the cup to his lips and enjoy a few unhurried sips. He sometimes holds the cup with both hands as if to illustrate that his whole attention is on it.

Thich Nhat Hanh truly takes a break when he drinks his tea. He is not using the time to prepare his next topic. Paradoxically, taking a true break is more effective than using the time to think of your next move. As you disengage even momentarily from your surface mind, you access deeper layers of your self to include in your discourse or journey. That allows you to talk, move, and act more authentically as a whole person.

Thich Nhat Hanh can do this in the presence of hundreds. See if you can do it when you are having tea with someone (or alone, for that matter). Here’s a five-step practice you can do once your tea is ready.

Woman meditating with cup of tea

1. Pause

Take a few moments to sit with your cup of tea before you start drinking it. You want this time to be a meditation break as well as a tea break. Even if you meditated that morning, by 3 p.m. it’s a dim memory. With a few conscious breaths now, you can reconnect with that meditative space.

2. Touch the interbeing nature of the tea

See the soil, rain, and sun that went into creating this drink, and the women and men whose hands harvested, prepared, packaged, shipped, and sold it. “The entire universe can be seen in a flower,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Love Letter to the Earth. This vision is rewarding in itself, and is good training for seeing everything with the same eyes, including the person sitting in front of you.

Woman drinking tea

3. Touch your own interbeing nature

Your stress, happiness, and unhappiness are made up of your opinions and attitudes. In turn, your state of mind affects how others feel around you. Let go of your opinions and attitudes. Feel your stress dissolve. Feel it float away. Feel it drop to the ground.

4. Enjoy the first sips

“To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task,” says Thich Nhat Hanh in Being Peace. Let the aroma of the tea fill the space of your mind until there is no room for thoughts. Let the thinking mind become a tea- enjoying mind.

5. Relax and expand your vision

Be silent for the first few sips. Notice how expanding the context of your vision puts your momentary concerns and problems in perspective. When you are relaxed, you are more creative and see more possibilities in each situation. See this moment as an important and productive part of your day. If you can step outside the box for a few moments now, you will return to your task with a fresh mind.

Silhouette of woman in galaxy drinking tea

Breaks for meditation throughout the day act as pressure valves for emptying your mind and finding freedom. So you can apply these steps to other activities in your daily life, such as eating dinner, washing dishes, or even riding the bus. They are all great opportunities to practice stillness in motion, our natural condition on the spinning earth.

Joseph Emet

Joseph Emet is a Buddhist teacher and author of Finding the Blue Sky: A Mindful Approach to Choosing Happiness Here and Now (TarcherPerigee).