The first tea ceremony I attended was in early October in Topanga Canyon, under a large, shady tree on a private property off Route 27.
When I arrived, Ms. Elspeth sat cross-legged at its base. She had already arranged nine white seat cushions atop a tan woven rug, spread out in a neat semicircle. There was a brown mat directly in front of her, with a set of ceramic bowls to her left and a kettle on a brazier to her right. Somewhere, a Bluetooth speaker was stashed away and playing the kind of soft, dulcet melodies heard in expensive spas. There was an afternoon breeze and not a cloud in the sky.
The week prior, Ms. Elspeth had sent an email to the group — a collection of women who live in and around Topanga and who have found their way to meditation practices in recent years — with arrival instructions and an encouragement to wear “comfortable and natural fitting” clothes in “soft colors/earthy tones.”
“Our intention is to harmonize with the natural elements of nature that will be surrounding us,” she said. A little after 4 p.m., the women began to arrive in small groups, and everyone had heeded this request with care: There was a beautiful green jumpsuit, a dress that looked like a canvas bag with pockets but was somehow also flattering, and flowy, burnt orange balloon pants.
We took our spots on the cushions around Ms. Elspeth. She carefully picked up one ceramic bowl at a time, turned it in her hands (a sign of respect, she explained later, to deliver the bowl with the last untouched part of the rim facing the guest), and placed it on the mat in front of her in a line. First, she rinsed each bowl with water, which she later described as a “physical and energetic cleansing” for her guests to witness. Then she brewed the first pot of tea. She poured the first batch quickly down the line of bowls. It was the only part of the ceremony that seemed at all haphazard — like a bartender dumping a cocktail shaker into a row of shot glasses.
Ms. Elspeth then placed each bowl in front of its corresponding guest. The first time she did this, she made unsparing eye contact with everyone, and we each returned this gesture in some way. One woman clasped her hands together at her chest, another bowed slightly, others closed their eyes and nodded in silent, wincing gratitude. Once everyone had a bowl, we reached out with two hands and brought the tea to our grateful mouths. Some people smelled it, other people just let the vapors hit their pores. Finally, we took sips. It was hot and pleasant, and I tried to let it sit on my tongue as I would with a new glass of wine. But the flavor was, to me, as fleeting as the vapor. It tasted like hot water with something a little sour in it.