Caffeine and Consciousness

coffee tea

Like a number of things, coffee, or rather caffeine, seems to be good for you and then bad for you depending on what year we are in.

Currently, caffeine “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” Says who? Says food, drink and psychedelics writer Michael Pollan.  Caffeine has been shown to improve focus and memory, and even your ability to learn. Did you pull some caffeine-fueled late-night study sessions in college? Did it work?

Caffeine doesn’t help most people sleep. I avoid it after 3 pm but my wife can have an espresso before bedtime and sleep the same.

I don’t know if I’m so much a caffeine fan as I am a coffee and tea fan. I even like herbal teas (no caffeine and technically not tea but tisanes) and decaf drinks. But considering that caffeine keeps me awake at night, I suppose that my morning coffee must do the opposite. I do know that when I tried going decaffeinated I experienced severe headaches for a week. Withdrawal from cold turkey.

I have read a half dozen books by Pollan and written about him before. He is a good, serious and interesting writer. Pollan wrote Caffeine: How coffee and tea created the modern world as an audiobook. It’s not that the Enlightenment occurred because of coffee but “Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan… and Voltaire apparently had 72 cups a day,” writes Pollan.

Ah, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution. Big things that owe something to the coffee house. These places appeared London around 1650.

Coffee houses quickly found their clientele which gathered around interests, like literature, and professions, like writers, poets, philosophers and scientists. There was even one dedicated to selling stocks. Eventually, that one became the London Stock Exchange.

Sober and civil drinking – pub – changed the way people thought and worked. Well, alcohol was safer than most drinking water. But boiling water had benefits then too.

Pollan has also written This Is Your Mind on Plants which is a broader look at how we rely on plants. They give us sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber. But the book’s focus is on how they change our consciousness. Plants can stimulate or calm. They can temporarily tweak our consciousness or completely alter it.

We don’t think of caffeine as a drug. We don’t consider daily users as addicts. Well, it is legal, socially acceptable and readily available. Pollan wants people to rethink that. Drug or medicine? You can make a drink from the leaves of a tea plant and that’s fine. Make a drink from the seed head of an opium poppy and you break a federal law. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan goes deep into three plant drugs – opium, caffeine, and mescaline.

It probably seems odd to you to group caffeine in with opium and mescaline. It seemed odd to me considering those first London coffee houses were almost the opposite of the pubs and opium smokers. And those philosophers like Kant, Voltaire and Kierkegaard weren’t just having a cup with breakfast. They were mainlining their caffeine and it seemed to work.

I’m writing this at 6 pm. No caffeine since 1 pm. I wonder what I would have written after several 16 once dark roasts at 11 am.

Listen to Michael Pollan talk about how he gave up caffeine entirely for three months while working on his audiobook, Caffeine, and he says “I recommend it. I had some great sleeps.” But he also had an unexpected loss of confidence and lack of focus as he went through withdrawal.

Tea As Philosophy

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful
among the sordid facts of everyday existence.
It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity,
the romanticism of the social order.
It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect,
as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible
in this impossible thing we know as life.”
― Kakuzō Okakura, The Book of Tea

I enjoy tea. I’m not alone, as it is the most popular beverage in the world after water.

It can be a simple thing to make and enjoy. But it can also be complex.

From a simple cup of the very common orange pekoe to a more unusual pu-erh tea, the choice of teas even in tea bags has become an almost overwhelming series of grocery store shelves. The way it is made and enjoyed can also be complex and even ceremonial.

I came under the spell of The Book of Tea (which is really a long essay) when I was a college student. It was originally written in English and was meant for Westerners.

In the book, I learned that tea began as a medicine and later became a beverage. But in fifteenth century Japan, it was elevated to a religion of aestheticism known as Teaism.

Teaism is not merely the appreciation of te but an adoration of the beautiful among the sordid in everyday existence. It worships the imperfect.

This “philosophy of tea” is far more complicated than this short post can summarize. It involves ethics and religion, our relationship with nature, even cleanliness and economics.

I saw it described as “moral geometry” in that it tries to define or refine our sense of proportion to the universe.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough
or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis

But that cup of tea, if you go deeper, is more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have imagined. Perhaps you simply drop a tea bag into a mug of hot water or put it into the microwave, but tea is still hand-crafted and treated like a bottle of wine, in some places and by some people.

Can tea have a positive effect on your brain, mood and attitude? Perhaps.

Can reading the tea leaves predict the future. Probably not.

Can you follow the way of tea? Absolutely.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves –
slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

green tea incup on rocks

Reading the Tea Leaves

tea readers

This morning, I brewed a little pot of tea in the old way and so I ended up with some tea leaves in my cup. And I did a bit of reading the tea leaves.

You’ve probably heard about that and I’m not claiming that tasseography (or tasseomancy or tassology) works, of course. But divination by interpreting patterns in tea leaves is quite an old practice.

Tasseography comes from the French word tasse for “cup” (which comes from Arabic tassa) and the Greek suffixes -graph (writing), -logy (study of), and -mancy (divination). You get a bit of history by looking at the word and see who practiced this art. It is also done with coffee grounds and wine sediments, but tea leaves are the most common method.

I know there is no scientific evidence that the future can be determined through any method, so you can view this as just a party game – but I do have an affinity for things that are interpretations of synchronistic events.

The methodology is simple: pour a cup of brewed tea made without a tea strainer into a white cup and drink the tea. (I don’t think you should just pour it out.) Some things I have read say to shake the cup but that seems like some deliberate changes to the leaves, so I leave them be unless they are all in a lump. I did give a final swirl before I finished the last sip. There aren’t that many rules about what to see and much of the interpretation is in the eyes and mind of the reader.

Look for a pattern: a letter, a shape, a face. There are books that give clues, much in the way that dream interpretation books suggest meanings and symbols. But the meanings are supposed to be so personal that you need your own system to interpret your future.

Guides will say that a heart means your love life, a snake is falsehood, a spade is good fortune, a road or mountain is a journey, though the mountain might be an obstacle along the way. Pretty standard interpretation stuff and far too generic to have much personal meaning. Maybe, for you, a heart indicates actual heart health. Maybe snakes are pets to you, or perhaps you just saw one in your garden this morning. Meanings are personal. You could certainly anger some people by saying that a cat represents “a deceitful friend or relative” while a dog is “a loyal friend or relative” as I read online.

I was taught (by a girlfriend in college) that you read a cup starting at the rim by the handle as the present, and down to the bottom as the future. If you’re able to do it, some readers can see not only images in the dark tea leaves, but also the reverse images in the white negative spaces (the dark leaves are then the background).

tea leaves

What did I see of my future in my cup of plum tea?

I think near the handle I do see a mountain.
Those two blobs to the left? Clouds?
On the bottom, I see an alligator with its mouth open at the left. Not sure what is below it.
So, am I facing a mountain that I must climb soon? One obscured by clouds or something?
To the future, that alligator doesn’t bode well. Unless, it’s a lucky dragon.

I think I’ll stick to my casting of the runes.

A Brain Hack in a Teacup

There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.

A Sense of Place

The French have a word, terroir which comes from the word terre  meaning “land”. It was originally a French term used in discussing wine, coffee and tea. It denotes those special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place puts into a plant.

The soil, weather conditions and the farming techniques all contribute to some uniqueness in a crop. Most people probably don’t taste it when eating a potato, but in wine it has become critical.

You can also loosely translate terroir as “a sense of place.” It was that more general sense of place that I was thinking of last month.

I had reconnected with a former student of mine via Facebook.  Chris Donatiello had been a student in one of my middle school English classes back in the mid-1980. I also taught his brother, Guy, and sister, Lisa. All good students and good people.

I discovered from his profile that Chris now owns a vineyard in California.  His C. Donatiello Winery is known for its small lot and single vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays focused on the Russian River Valley.  Looking at photos of the vineyards in the Sonoma wine country made me think that owning a winery seems like a pretty Romantic career.

When a box arrived from Chris on Easter weekend with four bottles of wine, it took me in a number of directions.

I went online and started reading up on the winery and the wines. When I started reading  reviews, it made me feel wine-stupid. But as a teacher, I could figure out that getting a 90+ is an “A” – and there don’t seem to be many perfect scores out there. (Tanzer Ratings for a few of his wines: Chardonnay, 2008 Orsi Vineyard 93 pts, 2008 Maddie’s Vineyard 93 pts. Pinot Noir 2008 Windhorse Vineyard 92; 2008 Floodgate  Old Vine 92)

So, I don’t know much about wine.  I can’t talk wisely about all those characteristic qualities of a wine that are described as being related to the local environment, but I had heard earlier of terroir through being a bit of a tea connoisseur.

That began when I read The Book of Tea in college. The book is Okakura Kakuzō’s 1906 essay linking the role of tea (Teaism) to the aesthetic and cultural aspects of Japanese life.

And I think that this sense of place applies to people.

In my own philosophy, where and when you grew up, and they way you were nurtured, determines almost everything. I don’t argue about whether it is “nurture or nature” that matters, because I think it is clearly the combination of the two. And, for me, the “nature” in that equation is very much the place.

I see some of that in Chris’ approach to wine. Watching a video with him, he talks about growing up in New Jersey, wine at his grandparents on Sundays, and his family’s own home winemaking. That’s something I remember very well from my Italian-American neighbors as a child. The grapes arriving in wooden crates  (I rescued many of those crates and built many things from them.) and the crushing and pressing (which I got to participate in), and the hidden magic of the fermentation and clarification being revealed and the bottling.

It was the first wine I probably ever tasted. I didn’t like it, but I liked drinking it, because I knew how it was made and I had played a small part in creating it.

The concept of terroir is the basis of the French wine Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been the model for appellation and wine laws across the globe.

It’s all about believing that the land imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region, but it is still hard to control all the elements when some are beyond the control of humans.

You grow up in a country, in a region, but really it’s a macroclimate – the Russian River Valley, the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy or Livingston, New Jersey. And for wine, there may be a smaller mesoclimate. For people, a neighborhood. Most importantly, I suspect there is even a microclimate – a particular vineyard or row or grapevines. Your home.

People have some control over these places. But many winemakers believe that whether or not that grape variety will produce quality wine is an innate element of terroir that may be beyond human influence.

Some grape varieties, and some of us, thrive better in some areas than they do in others.

I liked reading that Chris plays rugby. I always wanted to play rugby. Never did.

I like that his winery participates in Cellar Angels, a group of wine loving friends supporting good causes one wine bottle at a time.

I like knowing that someone I knew as an adolescent seems to have found his place in the world.

I probably will never feel comfortable saying that I can taste fresh red berries and flowers on an expressive nose and open-knit red fruit flavors that show a primary, slightly jammy quality and no rough edges.

I will follow Chris and his wines online, as I follow some of his classmates. One of them is writing bestselling mysteries, one is an actor,  another is a governor.

And there are a lot of less famous ones doing good work and raising families. I hope that they all found or can still find their sense of place.  As a teacher, I hope that I helped them have a good vintage year.

The Way of Tea

Yes, I love tea. But I really find the tea plant itself to be rather  incredible. There are so many kinds of tea. So, how many species of tea plants are there?

That’s what I find so appealing. There is really only one tea plant.*

The Chinese Camellia sinensis is the species of plant whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce Chinese tea.  White tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from this one species. There is also a kukicha (twig tea) that is harvested from that plant which uses twigs and stems rather than leaves.

It is where the plant grows and the way the leaves and buds are processed that changes the tea. ( The plant is also referred to as the tea tree and tea shrub.)

Maybe you have heard the term terroir which comes from the French word terre meaning “land”. Usually, the term is associated with wine, but it is also used with coffee and tea used to denote the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestow upon a plant.

Yesterday, I wrote about the philosophy of wabi-sabi and how its practitioners were connected to the Japanese tea ceremony. When that simple ritual that had come from China became an ornate Japanese ritual and way to show off one’s wealth in the 15th-century, there was a reaction to the other extreme of simplicity.

If understanding emptiness and imperfection is a first step to enlightenment, then the tea ceremony might be a way to understand that. Those who see tea as more than a drink and the tea ceremony as a way to foster harmony in humanity and with nature, and as a way to discipline the mind and quiet the heart, then see the art of tea as teaism.

Teaism is our term for “chadao” which comes from two words, the word for tea and the Chinese tao/dao.  I like this word and the related “teamind”, which is that sense of focus and concentration one has while under the influence of good tea.  I’d like to think that I am a Teaist.

I once attended an authentic tea ceremony, but my practice is largely solitary. A tea ceremony is a very ritualized form of making tea with particular tools, gestures, etc.  It seemed to me to be much too artificial, abstract, and formal to fit in with what I saw as most attractive in Teaism. The Victorian-era “high tea” also seems that way too with its proper equipment, manners, and social snobbery.

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo was first published in 1906 and has since been republished many times and is the text that often starts people to learn something about Teaism. He covers how tea has affected Japanese culture, thought, and life. The book is meant as an introduction to Westerners. (It was written in English.)  He emphasizes that  Teaism teaches  simplicity.I don’t claim enough philosophical knowledge of  Teaism to explain it to you. It is a synthesis of Taoism, Zen, and tea.  Kakuzo says that the ceremony has “a subtle philosophy” behind it and that “Teaism was Taoism in disguise.”

In Tea Life, Tea Mind by Soshitsu Sen, he relates this story:

“Once a tea grower invited Rikyu to have tea. Overwhelmed with joy at Rikyu’s acceptance, the tea grower led him to his tearoom and served tea to Rikyu himself. However, in his excitement his hand trembled and he performed badly, drowning the tea scoop and knocking the tea whisk over. The other guests, disciples of Rikyu, snickered at the tea growers manner of making tea, but Rikyu was moved to say, “It is the finest.” On the way home, one of the disciples asked Rikyu, “Why were you so impressed by such a shameful performance?” Rikyu answered, “This man did not invite me with the idea of showing off his skill. He simply wanted to serve me tea with his whole heart. He devoted himself completely to making a bowl of tea for me, not worrying about errors. I was struck by that sincerity.”

So, tea may be much more than a drink. This is the way of tea.

* Okay, to get really technical, there are two major varieties of tea plant and variants that characterize this species and recently someone has come up with some hybrid, but…