On Tea and the Art of Doing Nothing
Commonplace Newsletter #89
It is a rare person who can do nothing- purely and without guilt- especially in our current culture of busywork. Even meditation- which is ostensibly the practise of doing nothing- is now timebound and purpose-driven, is reduced to another metric to be tallied, another endeavour to be gamed and hacked for the purpose of improvement and getting a leg up on the supposed competition. The situation would be funny were it not so sad. It would be a deliciously ironic ruse were the app subscribing meditators not so deadly serious in their can’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees pursuit of being enlightened, or centred, or at one with themselves or whatever it is that the airport self-help books are touting as the benefits of meditation in this year’s rebranding of it.
At this point, when I encounter such motivational speaker bedazzled people I just shrug and leave them to it. Why bother trying to change someone who simply doesn’t get it to such a profound degree?
But anyway, I’m getting off track here. The point is that even if you are the kind of person who wants to do nothing, the world today will seemingly not leave you alone to your languid contemplation and staring out of the window nothingness. It is unacceptable, it’s bad for the economy, it’s somehow letting the side down. So in my pretty vast experience of being an idler in a world of strivers I have found that you need some sort of prop to handle while doing nothing. This explains the enduring, never-to-be-fully-extinguished appeal of the cigarette break and it’s more wholesome cousin, the subject of today’s discussion, the lovely cup of tea.
You see, both allow you to appear to be doing something while in fact you are in a pure state of loafing. So let’s put the kettle on and talk about the gentle art of having a cup of tea and why it is a whole different beast to the more popular act of bolting coffee.
Paul Erdos once famously said that ‘a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems’. And therein lies the problem- coffee is a work aid, it is the original study drug, it is there to help you increase your output and work harder. As Erdos’ formulation implies- coffee is for the busy, the serious, the striving. Coffee has its function, and that function is to primarily give people a boost to do work, especially of the tedious, repetitive deskbound kind. This helps to explain the runaway popularity of coffee as a commodity1, and it makes me wonder what came first- the coffee culture or the culture of grinding (forgive the pun) through work all day? Or perhaps it is cyclical- the coffee leads to a certain work culture which leads to more coffee which leads to… and so on.
I can only speculate.
Tea, on the other hand, has no such purpose. If you are sleep deprived tea will not give you a jolt of fleeting alertness to get through another day and help delay confronting the issue that you aren’t getting enough quality sleep. If you have masses of work and a tight deadline, tea will not give you a Limitless2 style ability to get it done despite the odds. If anything tea could slow you down. I can’t envision a montage in one of those interminable, never-ending TV series where the group of lawyers or programmers or detectives have to pull an all-nighter beginning with the team getting out the single origin Assam and their best China.
Now, coffee has its place, don’t get me wrong. For the occasional bout of intense mental activity or, even better, for getting wired in a café and having a heated intellectual discussion with friends, coffee is great. I’m not a moraliser here, I’m not trying to attack any individual’s sacred daily vice. If you want to keep hammering the coffee and riding the caffeine rollercoaster, then be my guest. I have no caffeine-free coffee alternative as a sponsor, nor do I have a Why Coffee is Bad and I am Right eBook to plug. Nor am I going to give you an angry testimony of how I was once duped by Big Coffee, and how caffeine withdrawals were the worst thing ever but now I am a new man and I am here to spread the good news and a vision of a life minus the demon bean.
I am trying to let go of the urge to give advice.
But be that as it may, the point I do want to leave you with- and this is another variation on the same thing I essentially talk about in all of these essays- is the idea that you can question accepted assumptions. It’s okay to do this no matter how ubiquitous and embedded something- in this instance coffee- seems to be within the surrounding culture. I also want to highlight yet again the idea that choosing reflectively to do nothing can be the wiser option over reactively feeling the need to do something.
I once saw a mug in a gift shop that said ‘Don’t just do something, sit there’- and this phrase still strikes me as the height of wisdom and truth. We don’t often have to react immediately to a given situation, we usually have time to ponder the potential outcomes of our potential actions.
Tea metaphorically touches on both of these points- questioning the inherent assumptions of the coffee-fuelled GOGOGO culture and also advocating for quiet contemplation, for being rather than simply doing. If tea has any health benefits they may be a by-product of the state of unhurried calm that the ritual of stopping to enjoy it facilitates. I suspect this is why from China and Japan to here in the UK, slow and elaborate practises have formed over centuries around the proper way to drink tea. Rituals that the takeaway cup and drink-at-the-desk culture have been unable to entirely erase.
We intuitively know that the tea itself is probably a nothing in and by itself, and that it probably does nothing in and by itself3, but that this a nothing we can ritualise and return to as a refuge from the pressures of the day to day. In a world overstuffed with disorder and frantic activity, calm is found not in a location but in a ritual. It is found by enjoying an end-in-itself pleasure that promises nothing but itself. And that’s all it needs to be.
Until next time,
The Commonplace is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
For the record, the claim that coffee is the world’s most second traded commodity behind oil is untrue. I don’t think it even cracks the top 100. However, the fact that this often quoted second place factoid feels true is in itself telling.
I find it funny, in a morbid way, that many unremarkable knowledge workers, journalists and tech people particularly in the US are using Adderall, modafinil and other ‘cognitive enhancers’. It’s like taking anabolic steroids without doing any serious weight training. Surely you become a better thinker and creator by, you know, taking more time to stop and think rather than getting wired and cranking out uninspired prose or code or paperwork.
Talk of antioxidants and what not misses the point. Who cares, really? And more to the point how many people have any idea what an antioxidant is or does outside of some newspaper headline that is based on a layperson’s sloppy reading of some poorly designed and executed ‘scientific’ study.