Tea As A Spiritual Vehicle
Indian Buddhists tell of Prince Bodhi-Dharma, who meditated for nine years without sleep. Near the end of his vigil, he nodded off for a bit. When he woke up, he cut off his eyelids. From the ground where they fell grew the first tea plant. While tea holds a different role in various eastern religious practices, it's used is universally encouraged. The Mahayana precepts, for example, ban intoxication but expressly allow the consumption of tea. Daoists practice their tea ceremony (Cha Dao) as a moving social meditation event.
Matcha is a preparation of tea that is especially rich in organic compounds that promote mindfulness. A few weeks before the tea leaves used in Matcha are harvested, the tea plants are covered to keep them out of direct sunlight. This changes the way the plant grows, causing the production of several amino acids while turning the leaves a dark shade of green. After being picked, leaves are laid out to dry flat. The veins and stems of the leaves are painstakingly removed before the remaining tea is ground into a fine, vivid powder we know as Matcha.
What's Magical About Matcha?
A Japanese monk named Eisai is credited with bringing Matcha to Japan. During the Southern Song dynasty, he traveled to China to study Buddhism. When he returned after more than two decades, he brought Matcha back with him, exclaiming it to be the “Elixir of the Gods”. Matcha has been an integral part of both Japanese tea culture and meditation ever since.
What Does Matcha Do For Meditation?
Since its introduction to China in 2700 BC, tea has been used by many practitioners of meditation to reach heightened states of awareness and ward off fatigue. Sleep is the bane of quality meditation. Just a hint of tiredness can turn a fruitful session of inner-peace into a struggle to remain awake in a relaxed state.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that helps ward off tiredness. While several practitioners of meditation swear by their coffee, tea is a much more gentle vehicle for delivering caffeine to your body -- it's less habit-forming, generates calm instead of jitters, and is full of antioxidants and other healthy goodies. Matcha has *more* caffeine than a normal cup of green tea, but the effects of caffeine are balanced out by L-theanine.
When tea bushes are forced to grow in the shade, they develop a unique blend of amino acids that lends Matcha its distinct flavor. One of these acids, L-theanine, does more than just taste good. Research studies have shown that a blend of L-theanine and caffeine help "focus attention" during "demanding cognitive task’s" (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21040626). In other words, while caffeine makes you more awake, L-theanine makes you more mindful. This is perfect for meditation. With less” monkey mind" to worry about, you'll enjoy longer, easier and more productive meditation sessions.
Some Matcha proponents go further. They argue that the properties of L-theanine that promote mindfulness are even more potent, claiming that they help reduce stress and directly induce alpha-wave production in your brain. This is pretty much what meditation is -- you trick your brain into concentrating on something other than your daily troubles in order to get it to a state where it's comfortable producing alpha waves on its own. Because of this interpretation, it can be argued that drinking matcha alone creates a sort of "mini-meditation," making it incredibly easy for you to add on to that state with your own meditative exercises.
It's Good For You, Too!
Matcha is full of the same sort of healthy things you'd expect from a cup of regular green tea, including tannins and antioxidants. The stress-relieving properties of L-theanine aren't just good for meditation -- it can help you relax bring a bit of balance to your life. With all of these positive qualities, you owe it to yourself to try a cup of matcha before you meditate at least once or twice.
Buying And Preparing Matcha
Matcha comes in four grades. Kitchen grade matcha is recommended for blending into other drinks and recipes. It might taste astringent or bitter on its own. Cafe grade Matcha can be drunk straight in a pinch but is best served with blended with milk and other additives. Ceremonial matcha is the highest traditional grade and is excellent to enjoy straight. It's naturally sweet, smooth and delicious.
Traditionally, Matcha powder is strained into a bowl and then whisked with hot water with a brush to create a thick, frothy liquid. While some enthusiasts insist on preparing their Matcha like this (and it's certainly quite fun!) nobody will tell if you just stir the powder into a mug of hot water with a spoon. Your Matcha might not be quite as smooth and frothy, but it'll still taste great and will have just the right blend of L-theanine and caffeine to keep you concentrating during your meditation sessions.