The clear distinction between mental and physical health is something that is recognised as being distinctly post-Cartesian and European. Some movement has started to emerge in recent years to dilute this dualistic distinction. The Kings Fund has highlighted new strategies encompassed by the strap-line “no health without mental health” that aims to achieve parity of esteem between physical and mental health and emphasise the interconnections between mental health, social welfare and well-being and physical illness demands upon health services ( www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2011/02/will-governments-new-mental-health-strategy-succeed ).
Despite this, catergories and distinctions still remain as emphasised in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, known more commonly as ICF, which defines seperate but inter-related domains of health and include the bio-physical domains and personal/environmental domains.
It is therefore a challenge somewhat to discuss in real terms and paradigms the role of tea medicine in mental health as in discussing such it assumes a degree of separation of mental health from physical and social health. Equally culture and social practice as we have seen with the last 100 years in Yoga has more and more become over-medicalised, something that Tea culture has not remained free from. But when we talk about tea medicine we are not just talking about the medical value of tea but the value of tea in holistic terms in contributing to being an antidote to the negative accumulations of human life both internally and externally and how it can mediate in the relationships and interactions of humans in their environment and being in the world.
It might be worth starting from the view point of mental health in traditional chinese society and working backwards. Diagnosis of mental disorders and the treatment prescribed by traditional healers are often based on the indigenous beliefs and cultural interpretations of the problem peculiar to each local culture (Shankar,Saravanan & Jacob 2006) and Traditional Chinese Medicine is not unique in this. More traditional beliefs in strong inter-familiar groups can explain that mental illness is visited upon the present generation as a punishment for of their ancestors(Pearson 1993). Thus mental illness is construed as a highly shameful indictment of the whole family, and extraordinary measures can be resorted to in order to keep the matter hidden from neighbours and colleagues or to attempt to redress the imbalance. When we look beyond terminology and the boundaries of tradition and culture it is not really so different than more “scientific” approaches to mental health embedded in western medical practice and european culture. Mental health is still a stigma globally in all cultures and different approaches to it medically or culturally is often easily separated into key themes and views of “disturbance”,”imbalance”, “damage” and “social marginalisation”. All of which is somewhat true. Whether a medical or social or psychological model is used these key themes or views appear in all.
Hsien-Ch’inh (1980) differentiates between “psychology” which is a century-old science developed in the West without parallels in ancient China, and “psychological thought which includes theories about the mind, which is definitely represented in traditional Chinese thought.
In the Taoist work “Huai Nan Zi”, “body”,“qi”, and “mind” are composed of three treasures of life. These namely “jing” , “qi” and “shen”. Jing (精) which can be best described as “nutritive essence, essence; refined” and resides in the kidneys, is yin in nature and is said to be dense and the material basis of physical body and hence likened to DNA and inheritable substance. Qi (氣) or “vitality, energy, breath” is more familiar, especially as we discuss cha qi or the qi obtained from different plant extracts or material, and hence I could spend a whole blog on detailing the qualities and attributes. Simply put it is the moving principle, the flow of energy that resides in living phenomena, the breath of life and the what differentiates a corpse from a body. Indecently the Chinese philosopher Mozi describes it as the fumes or vapor leaving the dead body. It can also be seen as the metaphysical or subtle substance of blood itself and the blockage or disruption of qi moving through the meridians leads to imbalance and illness. Another way of understanding it is through the principles of Qigong, which is basically translated as the effort or work of qi. In Qigong the Dan t’ian or “red field” is located in the area where there is a vast amount of blood vessels are encapsulated in the omentum and mesentery tissues and where energy and nutrition is absorbed from food, hence this enrichment of blood that occurs is also an enrichment of bodily qi.
Shen 神 often translated as “spirit; soul” but also “mind” and said to reside in the heart and departs first at death. Interestingly, the translation of shen as “mind” is perhaps because of the understanding that most dis-harmonies that have their equivalent in western psychiatric medicine are attributed to heart disharmony in traditional Chinese medicine. However, it is in fact the disturbance of all these three treasures that leads to decline in mental health.
What we should therefore realise is that the tea medicine that is embedded or intricately woven with traditional Chinese medicine does not distinguish or discriminate between body and mind. The body and mind are non-separate and inter-related, the mind is somaticised i.e. embodied in the physical. Something we all can recognise when we get “butterflies” from being anxious or nervous.
Therefore tea medicine for the body is also tea medicine for the mind as well as the soul.
If we are particularly considering tea medicine for the mind then we can appreciate the social aspects of sharing tea that addresses the isolation and loneliness that often leads to imbalance in health. We can also consider that taking time out through tea practice gives us a break from the busy and hectic modern lives we lead that only keeps us agitated or “ready” or “switched off” rather than relaxed and focused. Such hectic lives without balance only leads to jing depletion, qi expenditure and imbalances, and shen lassitude.
Equally there is direct medicine from tea medicine that address such imbalances. If we consider something akin to a Heart Shen disturbance, that might present as restlessness, agitation, insomnia and worry and diagnosed as an anxious disorder in western medicine we would approach it by delivering a tea that strengthens kidney and tonifies the stomach. Cornelian cherry is well known for its effect on the kidneys and might be incorporated into a tea medicine alongside snow chrysanthemum, but equally old traditionally ripe stored tea that has softer cha qi and nourishes the stomach could be the focus of our tea practice.
When I first started to write this blog I wanted to convey how within tea there is all medicines and hence it fulfills Shen Nong’s description of tea as “king of medicines”, however as it is not always easy to find the exact tea for the right need, without a lot of experimentation and practice then I reiterate that it is through practice that we ultimately master the medicine yet along the way we need support of other medicines such as other herbs, practices and artifacts. Perfection is indeed in practice.