Improving the Self Over Tea
Not long ago I made myself a cup of tea. I was standing alone in my kitchen at the time, and as I waited for the water to boil, I ripped open the paper covering over the teabag so I’d be ready as soon as the whistling came. This is a ritual I perform often, always alone in my kitchen. But this time I noticed something different. At the end of the teabag was a little scroll. And on it were the words, “there is nothing more precious than the self.”
I buy Yogi tea for mundane reasons. Their tea, particularly the Egyptian Licorice variety I was holding in my hand that day, is of high middling quality. It doesn’t require sweetener if you let it steep long enough, and the flavor has a nice soothing complexity if you concentrate while drinking it. I should admit that the ethos of natural, organic products also appeals to me, and that I prefer to pay just enough for my tea so I can be sure it came from one of the post-counterculture hippie outpost-corporations in Oregon or California. I’m a sucker for the imagery of the Far East, and some part of me is probably comforted by the “Yoga Invite to Tranquility” on the side of the box, since this confirms Yogi’s hippie credentials. The invite is as follows: “Sit cross-legged or in a chair with feet flat. Rest your right elbow on right knee. Lean your right cheekbone on the palm of your right hand. Close your eyes and relax for 1 to 3 minutes. Your mind and body will thank you.” But (in smaller print) “before doing this exercise or participating in any exercise program, consult your physician.” The litigious warning was a little jarring, but I still tried the exercise. Enlightenment comes in many forms, I guess. But really I just like the tea.
I’m certainly within Yogi’s target demographic, and they’ve clearly sold me on their product. So why the need to indoctrinate me on the preciousness of the self? What was I meant to take from this message other than that someone down at Yogi headquarters (or rather, Golden Temple of Oregon, LLC) thought it might help sell more tea?
Anxious for the truth, I began ripping open the paper coverings over other teabags to see what further evidence I might find. “Empty yourself and let the universe fill you,” said one. “Be happy so long as breath is within you,” said another. “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” “May your mind learn to love with compassion.”
Maybe I was being too cynical toward the Yogi people. Maybe they really do want to teach me how to live in accordance with the larger principles of the universe and to be a better person. But why so much emphasis on the self? Why so much attention to the words “you” and “your”? Where does this language of the self come from, and why does it appear at the end of a teabag sold to a person like me in the year 2012?
The intersection between Eastern spiritual tenets and the American cult of self-improvement has been especially fraught since the late 1960s. This was when the two strains began to converge around a mass market of products ranging from crystals to health food, and “yoga” started to become a household word. Certainly many Americans have benefited from the influx of Eastern ideas and practices that this market enabled. But it has also aided and abetted our tendency to equate self-improvement with merely personal consumption.
There is much to be said for the meaning of self-realization in ancient Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita. But when this meaning is distilled, or rather translated, into an appendage to a mass-produced consumer good like Egyptian Licorice Tea, its original form and content have been surreptitiously altered. Whatever its other connotations, “there is nothing more precious than the self” becomes absorbed in the immediate act of drinking soothing hot liquid and feeling content. The result is perhaps a perfect synthesis of East and West. But is this what the saints and sages of ancient India had in mind?
With fresh cup of tea in hand, I went upstairs to check out the Yogi website: www.yogiproducts.com. There I found tabs for Yogi Tea, Yogi Cereal, and Well-Being. Just below “Tea Talk With Guru Hari” under the Well-Being tab, I clicked on “Yoga Poses.” Several of them looked interesting. Each pose was accompanied by detailed instructions and an attractive woman in stylish yoga pants and tank-top demonstrating what it should look like. I rolled out my yoga mat and tried a few of them. Looking up at my ceiling, I wondered if I was doing them correctly. Was this what “Yoga for natural comfort” should feel like? I tried to close my eyes and breathe calmly as the instructions said. But my eyes kept opening. Bending and rolling my torso across the floor in slow methodical motions, my thoughts kept returning to my self.