I've come to find that the more mythology I read, the more I cannot help but feel that most of the myths from around the world were purely the result of "magic mushrooms" and other herbs of wonder. You simply cannot make up some of these stories while in your right mind*. Take for instance, the following tale:
The Indian prince Dharma was wandering the earth in search for truth. When he came to China he sought out the Buddha to pay his respects, and— while meditating at Buddha's feet after the long journey— quickly became angered by his own exhaustion. To avoid falling asleep and greatly disrespecting the Buddha, Dharma cut off his eyelids and threw them in front of him. To he and the Buddha's surprise, the world's very first tea leaves sprouted from those eyelids, and when Dharma made a drink from them, his exhaustion went away completely.
This, while certainly being the most colorful story on how tea came about, is not— as you can guess— the most accurate. The real origin of tea begins somewhere in the 2nd century B.C.E. with the Han Dynasty... something we did not know until last year, I might add, when researchers began looking through the tomb of Emperor Jing in Xi'an.
But the interesting thing about tea (a sentence I never thought I would write) is not where it began, but how fast it became popular around the world while other Chinese foods stayed put. Today tea is enjoyed by virtually every culture on earth. The Maasai drink it with milk and cow blood, the Russians take theirs with citrus and cinnamon, the British prefer their tea with biscuits, and Americans like it just plain cold and sweet.
I, however, used to feel that beverages existed as a binary. I drank soda a lot as a kid and then added alcohol to the equation when I became an adult. It wasn't that I didn't like tea, it was just that I never considered tea. Tea was never something that I thought about or wanted. If it didn't have bubbles or burn my throat and give me a headache, what good was it?
This changed when I went to Afghanistan.
Where I was, the soda tasted like soap (if there was soda present at all), because the soda was shipped in the same box as our soap. Without my bubbles, the only remaining choices for me was water and green tea. And since water bores the shit out of me, I went with tea having no idea it would become so addicting.
The famed 19th century Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzō once said that "Tea is a religion of the art of life." It's hard to know what he meant by that if you're not a habitual tea drinker, but allow me to explain, having now experienced exactly what he meant.
Within one to two weeks of drinking several varieties of green tea (cinnamon, apple, raspberry, and regular), tasks and situations that normally were very stressful to myself and those around me became a lot less so. Obviously it was not because the tea had the magic power of altering the severity of the environment, but rather, the tea was making a positive impact on my approach to high-stress environments. Like the Dharma, I was finding that my emotional exhaustion as well as my physical exhaustion, was being washed away.
After the third week of drinking green tea regularly, my daily mood started to drastically improve. And with my mood having drastically improved, my mind— for lack of a better word— began to "expand". I started reading two books a week instead of one book a month. I started writing more. Contrary to what I thought my time in Afghanistan would be like, I became more engaged socially in that country than I ever did when I was back home.
After five weeks, I saw that I had lost 15 pounds.
If the art of life— or mastery of life— is overcoming fear and stress, learning new things, and physical and emotional health, then it is easy to see how tea is its "religion"*.
Not surprisingly then, medical professionals are all about it: tea burns fat, reduces risk of stroke, and it's even a possibility that the antioxidants in green tea specifically interfere with the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, and pancreatic cancer. But more relevant to the few people who share my profession, tea has been shown to help curb symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (though not as well as another plant that need not be named, but need be legalized).
None of this is to say, of course, that green tea or any other type of tea is an alternative to modern medicine. It isn't. But it's still really really great for you. It's definitely been great for me.
*Immediately after I say this, my mind wanders to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, which is a place covered in Amanita Muscaria (a hallucinogenic mushroom), and the place where— incidentally— St. John wrote the book of Revelation.
*This reminds me of what Epictetus wrote in Discourses: "The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent."