living well

Why you need the British Tea Ceremony

7 Comments 30 July 2012


The only way I have my cup of tea–black, that is. It doesn’t have to be served in Wedgewood china!

We’ve all heard about Japanese tea ceremonies, and we have a vague concept of lots of specific aspects or parts to the experience. I researched it for an article I once wrote. The tea ceremony, or The Way of Tea, is meant to help us to do away with the discrimination that the ordinary mind makes: between man and nature, nobleman and commoner, priest and laity, beautiful and ugly, religious and secular. Nice concept. A great leveller of humans.

This levelling is reflected in all parts of the ceremony from the location to the utensils used: The tea hut and the path that leads to the hut is meant to heighten awareness of man’s oneness with nature. Many tea huts are designed so that guests need to crawl through an entrance, no matter what position they hold in society. The utensils are plain and simple, allowing our minds to transcend any distinctions between beautiful and ugly. No showing off, no judgements about class or wealth (or lack of either).

Distraction is discouraged. Everything about the tea ceremony is designed to bring the individual’s focus onto the Zen Buddhist concept of ‘living in the moment’ – and yet this doesn’t mean the tea ceremony has to be a religious event. It’s almost a meditation, I suppose.

While writing that piece I realised again and again how similar the basic concepts of The Way of Tea are to the British cuppa. Most people who have had a British cuppa know the power it holds–a hassling shopping trip? Boil the kettle and have a cuppa when you get in! A successful shopping trip? Boil the kettle and have a cuppa when you get in! Just received bad news? Boil the kettle and make a cuppa. Your friend has just received bad news? Boil the kettle and make them a cuppa. Just come in from a long walk? On goes the kettle; out come the cups and tea bags. Just got home from holiday? Someone put the kettle on, please! Moving house? The kettle, tea bags and cups will be in a box next to you in the car, not the moving van–the first box unpacked. Someone doing work on your house? Only the rudest house owners will not offer the builders a cup of tea.

Am I right? If you’re British, you’re nodding your head. I know.

The whole event from boiling the kettle, selecting the right cup, choosing the drink (a cuppa isn’t always English Breakfast Tea), pouring the water, handing out the cups or mugs, and sitting with the drink in front of you, or standing cupping it in your hands, and sipping while talking or contemplating, is all a ceremony repeated again and again. I like to think of it as a comma in daily life. A brief pause in between what’s been and what comes next. A chance to live in the moment, Zen done British style. And living in the moment means we can stop dwelling on the past and stop worrying about the future because this moment, right now, is perfect. That’s why we all need some form of the British Tea Ceremony.

I know I need it. I never really drank hot drinks, not even coffee before I moved to the UK. But over the years I slowly began to see the benefits of holding that cup, filling akward silences with a sip or making yourself stop spinning out of control in a moment by concentrating on drinking. I have been trying to live more in the moment and funnily enough, I’ve had more tea breaks.

The other British Tea ceremony, the Afternoon Tea, might be more formal (sometimes) but is actually less spiritual. With my sister and her family coming for a visit I was trying to explain the difference between a cuppa and Afternoon Tea and ended up writing an article about it over on Expat Focus. Afternoon Tea is less a Zen ritual than the cuppa, more an entertainment combined with a pleasant way to tide you over until a later dinner.

So put the kettle on, get a mug out of the cupboard and make yourself a cuppa while you click the link and pop over to Expat Focus for a read about differences between the Afternoon Tea and the cuppa!


Your Comments

7 Comments so far

  1. You’re right – it’s as much about the sociability – and it takes away some of the awkwardness – as it is about the flavour. Have to say I love hot drinks and sometimes I even drink hot water

    • Michelloui says:

      I do that too!! Sometimes it’s just the hot water, no flavour that I am craving.

  2. Expat Mum says:

    It’s hilarious the many different rituals Brits have when it comes to making tea. I’m pretty lax I have to say, and if there’s already water in the kettle, I just switch it on, as opposed to people who always have to boil fresh water. I have a small teapot which I often use just for that second cuppa, but I’m afraid I don’t warm the pot up first by sluicing it with the newly boiled water. I also let my kettle sit switched off, for minutes sometimes, before pouring the water into the cup or teapot, which my mother would not approve of.
    In short, my only real rule is that the water CANNOT be micro-waved, which seems acceptable to some Americans here. Harrumph!

  3. Nataliya says:

    I am Russian-American, who has lived in the States most of my life.
    Anyways, to say that tea is a ritualistic cultural pass time of Russia is an understatement.
    Of course, we have the samavari, social gatherings for hours, and zavarka (the tea part that you add to boiling water. The tea is black (tselonski), sipped with a teaspoon of varenya (perserves) in your mouth.
    Tea, I’ve found, is fading away to the American coffee. Even my father is keen on the java. It is quite disconcerting.
    Don’t look at me, I just got a gift card to Starbucks that made me giggle.

  4. Nataliya says:


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An American writer in the UK for over 20 years. Lives in Essex. A pretend extrovert.

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