Tea ceremony is Erica Ekrem’s medicine, her way to connect more deeply to daily life. Living off-grid, she was 2000 miles away from family when she had her first child in 2007. Her life was being Mother, immersed in “the rhythm of caring for her newborn and home” and overwhelmed by all that had to be done in this new life. She longed for joy and peace in the mundane and called for a teacher. With her friend and tea mentor Sati, Erica found tea, full of quiet wisdom, and tea ceremony which would “awaken her awareness to the sacred in everyday life.” She has said that “the essence of tea ceremony is hot water, tea leaves, and a bowl or cup to put them in. Anything else is extra.” The beauty of tea is getting to what is important, listening for the essence.
Your formal journey with tea and tea ceremony started 10 years ago. What has been the most profound discovery?
Growing up as a child in Western society shaped my thinking and way of relating to the world to a great extent. From a young age, I was influenced to always want more and attain more (things, relationships, achievements, etc), because if I succeeded in getting more and somehow being more I might possibly achieve a better life and a better me that would be more satisfying than what I was experiencing at any particular moment. All I needed to do was to buy this or experience that, and on and on the wheel would turn. It is one of the greatest mythologies of the modern industrial world. This incessant cycle of desire creates a great hunger of the mind– an impulse to want more, to be more rather than accept the self as it is in the moment.
I’m grateful for my practice. Sitting with tea offers the opportunity to quiet my mind and move to a slower rhythm. It allows the time and space to discern which thoughts are born from the well of my personal, authentic truth that arises in the here and now, and which ones do not. Likewise, tea helps me tune into the subtle energies within my body and recognize how well I am caring for myself and others.
One of the greatest gifts of preparing water with tea and sitting and accepting what is right in front of me, has been to realize how much energy I have expended in not accepting the richness of mundane, everyday, life. There is a ridiculous amount of wealth and liberty for many of those who live in the Western world and it’s literally crazy how much energy is expended trying to be more and to have more than we already are and do.
One of the greatest gifts of preparing water with tea and sitting and accepting what is right in front of me, has been to realize how much energy I have expended in not accepting the richness of mundane, everyday, life.
So a meditative tea practice has helped me to see more clearly and to cultivate gratitude for the abundance that has been taken for granted. It’s helped me to focus less on my desires, thus freeing up more energy to share with my children, family, community, and natural world. It’s helped me to be more grateful for the simple things: clean running water, electricity, the means to live in my own home, and to raise a healthy, connected, and free-thinking family.
You wrote that you were looking to reclaim joy, liberation, and peace in the mundane. How do you bridge what you feel is profane and what is sacred?
When I begin to feel stress in my body or static in my communications and life begins fraying apart on the edges, I remember that I need to put forth effort to create balance. And so, I tend my space, set the table for tea, light a candle, and invite in the Sacred. Or it can be something seemingly small, like reading poetry, spending time with the plants outside my door, making art, braiding my daughter’s hair, or talking with my son about the dreams he had the previous night.
Tending the Sacred can take many shapes. For me, it is remembering that life is really, really big and I myself am not the centre of it. It almost seems like there is a great mystery or life force that enjoys (or requires?) my attention. And in some way, to feel whole and to thrive, I need to remember to commune with this holy force and tend my relationship to it through prayer, meditation, gratitude, remembering, and offering creations of beauty. In return, I receive momentary peace, wholeness, joy, faith, trust, and temporary elevation from a state of suffering.
Tea ceremony is often held in silence with intention to create a refuge of tranquility and stillness to balance the quick pace of modern life. It can be a heartfelt, nurturing, or poetic moment. Or it can be exactly how you experience it– this is the beauty of Tea. She speaks to us individually, imparting wisdom when we become quiet and still enough to listen.Erica Ekrem
What does ceremony mean for you?
To me, ceremony is a symbolic act performed with intention. When potent, it can result in an expanded or shifted perception, and allow one to become aware and connected to other realms or states of consciousness. Or it can simply be a practice that helps me to remember that mundane life is more dimensional than it may seem. For example, in the physical realm, I may be faced with the task to fold laundry, but with intention and a symbolic mindset, I am being asked to bring order to the universe (even if it is my little portion of it) and tend the greater life force by performing one seemingly mundane act.
Tea ceremony is simply preparing water for tea. Yet, when done with intention and much practice it can transform an ordinary state of mind into an awakened one. It is a way I can show up day after day with consistency in whatever state of mind I might be in with the intention to accept what is– to stop labeling my world and my states of being, and simply be. It is a practice that helps me tend my mind and practice my ability to awaken to an expanded state of being.
This shift of perspective from realism to symbolism helps me connect to a deeper, more fulfilling purpose. And in this way, brushing teeth, changing diapers, feeding the parking meter, cleaning the toilet– all of it can be ceremony. With intention, life becomes ceremony.
By exercising my mind and gaining the ability to think about things in a new way, I’ve noticed a deepened relationship to and enjoyment of everyday, mundane activities. Folding laundry, washing dishes, and cleaning windows can be a dull, monotonous chore that I ‘have’ to do, or with a shift in perspective it can be an act of purification, an offering or a tending to the holy. This shift of perspective from realism to symbolism helps me connect to a deeper, more fulfilling purpose. And in this way, brushing teeth, changing diapers, feeding the parking meter, cleaning the toilet– all of it can be ceremony. With intention, life becomes ceremony.
You offer both Forest Tea and Chado Bowl tea ceremonies. While both are inspired by Taoist/Zen tradition, the ceremony is quite different. What does each offer?
In my limited understanding, both ceremonial forms share an origin in ancient China. Both forms are meditative paths that assist practitioners in awakening one’s presence to the here and now. So the essence of both ceremonies are one and the same and when I perform either ceremony, my intention is the same: to be of service by creating an environment that will help myself and others connect with self, community, and nature, and to essentially, awaken into a state of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
The individual procedures are quite different. And, honestly, at this point I am much more intimate with the Japanese ceremony, and so I will share it’s story which will reveal it’s uniqueness:
Other than flexibility in location and loosening some of the guidelines of etiquette, the ceremony has retained its centuries-old form. There are over 150 steps in making a single bowl of tea! The steps are very precise and require a deep awareness in body movement, and mental state as well as specific tools and tea ware to serve the tea, which is Matcha, a powdered tea made from spring-picked tea leaves.
That said, there is a time and place for both ceremonies and both forms have the potential to be incredibly detailed. Chado, the Chinese Daoist form that is newer to me, is one that I have been practicing daily. The essence of the ceremony is simply tea leaves and water in a bowl. When served in this basic form, the practice is approachable when one has just a short window of time each day to sit and practice. Also, I find it ideal when serving a greater number of guests. I can serve up to 13 guests at a time and because of the steeping method in either a bowl, pot or gaiwan, there is an option to offer a spectrum of tea varieties: green, yellow, oolong, red, black, puerh, for example.
I’ve found Forest Tea to be an idea form for serving a smaller number of guests at a time. The ceremony is quite elaborate and requires a number of utensils and tea ware to perform it, and so it requires a great amount of preparation time to honor the ceremony in it’s true form.
The question is, when does the ceremony begin? When does it end? Truly, if one were to steward the tea plants, pick and process the leaves, then begin the steps to prepare and serve the tea, then the ceremony lasts through all cycles of a year.
What are the teas you most connect with? What have their teachings been?
In the cold, wet winter months, I really enjoy the earthiness of certain puerh varieties and the way they expand and radiate in the heart area. They do a good service in chasing the cold from my bones and softening my heart and mind.
Oolong varieties can be incredibly fragrant, and tend to rise up into my mind and stimulate my creative pathways, so I choose this tea for moments when I am creating artwork or finding solutions for a challenge or problem I am facing, or simply to experience the sweeter, more fragrant face of life.
I have a long personal history with matcha, and so I find I’m drawn to this tea during transitions or celebrations. My husband and I shared matcha during our wedding ceremony, and so it is woven into our commitment with one another. I also prepared it regularly when I became a first-time mother and during the formative years of my tea practice and so, the leaf in this form, has been one of my first teachers and greatest allies.
In the past year, I’ve been focusing on varieties of red tea (which is referred to as black tea in the Western world) to learn more about the complex processing and the way it alters my experience after consumed. There is something very joyful about red tea. It tends to pick me up and help me more steadily navigate and flow through daily tasks. It also can be sweet and honey-like and help carry me forward when I feel stuck, as well as appeal to my sweet tooth.
Today we speak a lot about mindfulness. Ceremony goes beyond being present. Why do you feel bringing ceremony into people’s lives is good for all of us, including the environment?
My wish is to slow down, get to know my fellow humans more deeply, and share bowl after bowl of tea and meaningful conversations with one another.
Erica has a deep reverence for Nature, “paired with a fierce will to protect plants, animals, and places still wild.” She grew up on stories told by her grandmother during “long South Dakota winters” and was “shaped by the quiet strength of the prairie.”
Erica offers Tea Ceremony for all who are called, in gatherings celebrating life transitions, milestone events, new and full moons, and as retreats and meditation. She continues to delve deeper with her studies of Usucha (ladle tea). Her teachers include Hilary ‘Sati’ Walker (Forest Tea lineage/Ryakubon ceremony), Kandis Susol (Urusenke lineage/Traditional Usucha ceremony), and the generous chajin of Global Tea Hut community & beyond (Daoist Chinese tradition.)