Before the Dawn

Photograph by Paula Codoñer


words by willow defebaugh

The slow, focused act of drinking tea can also be an opportunity to practice remaining present, unveiling what a gift time can be given the space to unfold.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh

I’m seated cross-legged on my floor, in the same spot I always choose when I sit for tea. A pothos vine reaches overhead, stretching toward the light now beginning to stream in through the window to my left. I feel time’s immediate attempt to pull me in different directions. I woke up later than I wanted to this morning; I have a deadline to meet and a flight to catch this evening. There’s a slight pulsing in my head from the wine I had the night before, seemingly in sync with the sounds of the city waking up outside. I remind myself why I’m here: to be present.


I start my practice as I always do, closing my eyes and thinking of something I’m grateful for, so that I’m not starting from a place of emptiness. I breathe in the scent of sandalwood incense. After a few cycles of inhales and exhales, I watch the steam recede from the spout of my kettle currently resting on my rug. I lift the lid of my smaller side handle pot and look at the dried tea leaves there, a strain of red tea named “Before the Dawn.” I flood the leaves with water from my kettle, replace the lid and wait a few beats, giving it time to steep


In a spiral motion, I pour from the pot into my teacup. I watch the golden liquid cascade against the backdrop of the swirling green and white pattern of the clay, speckled with spectacular imperfections. I lift the cup to be level with my heart, with my left hand flat under the base in order to lift and my right fingers framing the lid in order to eventually tip the cup. I reflect on the water in my hands, the heat flush against my flesh, the air in my lungs, the leaves the earth bore. I breathe some more, until it’s time to take a sip.


I continue on like this, taking sips and attempting to focus on the tea even as those distractions fight for my attention: my headache, the street noise, all I have to do today. Years ago, when I had a specific idea of what meditation looked like, they might have bothered me. Now, I see them as a reminder that carries through my practice: don’t take it so seriously. I think of how my head hurts because I was present with joy, celebrating my friend’s birthday the night before. I think of how beautiful it is that my neighborhood is stirring awake, all the lives outside my window. I think of how I will get to write today, and a smile tugs at my lips. 


Darkness edges the corners of my internal vision as I slip into the rhythm. I keep pouring tea and letting it slide down my throat. I keep getting distracted and pouring my attention back into these acts. I reflect on how incredible it is, this plant I’m spending my morning with: Camellia sinensis. A small evergreen tree or shrub of the family Theaceae, it produces white and pink tinged flowers—but it’s most well known for its leaves. A process of withering, rolling, in some cases fermenting, and drying these leaves determines the varieties we know today: fermented (black or red tea), unfermented (green tea), and semi-fermented (oolong or pouchong tea).


It’s believed that tea was first used in China as early as 2700 BCE, with the earliest account of planting, cultivating, and drinking it published in 350 CE. Thousands of years later, it spread to Japan in the 13th century, then Taiwan, Europe, India, and so on. By the 19th and 20th centuries, it had spread to most of the world, including Russia, Africa, and the Americas; sometimes by cultural exchange and commerce, others by colonization. In the time since, it has been used across the globe for medicinal purposes, ceremony and ritual, attuning with nature, and fostering community. According to the ancient Chinese materia medica, “Tea is to brighten the eyes.” 


I flutter my own eyes open, see the incense has burned out and know my practice has run its course. As often happens after I am able to empty my thoughts even for a small stretch such as this, words come flooding in: the aqueous shape of this missive forming in my mind. I look to the window where the light is shining brighter now. I see my dog who has been waiting patiently, his head resting on his paws, eyes watching me, tail patting against the bed. I feel what a gift it is being present, what time gives back when you allow it the space to unfold. I greet the day.

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Common Origins,Fabricating Change,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,