How Tea Healed Me

Travis Cunningham L.Ac.


When people ask me, “Travis, why are you so into tea?” My answer inevitably points to my experience that tea is Medicine.

“You mean like, it’s good for your digestion?” they ask.

“Well, yes… but that's not quite the extent of it,” I say. It is at this point that words usually fall away from me. How could I possibly communicate just what tea has meant to me? What simple and precise words would paint a picture worthy of my own intimate experience? The truth is, that tea has changed my life. A story might be as close as we come to delivering our experience to another person. And so, If I know that person well enough, I usually tell them the following one:

The second time I drank tea with my teacher was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.

As I climbed up the steps to the mystical tea room, I was a mix of turbulent emotion. My heart had just been broken by a woman with whom I was in love. The sting of those final moments of her memory haunted me. She was everywhere I went and would be nowhere, ever again.

As I passed through the doorway, my teacher greeted me with a smile. “It's good to see you again my friend,” said he.

“It's good to see you as well,” said I. My smile was an act of protection while I shook his hand in greeting.

“How are you?” He asked.

“I'm doing alright,” I replied, showing nothing to the tea master. “How are you?”

He looked at me for a moment and then smiled. “Not too well, actually,” he said, almost humorously. “It's been one hell of week.”

“Yeah,” I said, now smiling back. “It has.”

He leaned forward slightly as if speaking to a child. “But I think,” he said, “things are going to get better very soon.”

At that moment, the second and third guest walked through the door and the night began.

As the first, second, and then third tea were served, I relaxed into the glowing atmosphere of support. I was upheld by the people at the table, the tea plants, and the master himself. He was flawless. Telepathy was an understatement. Every time I had something to say, he knew. He would stop his “orchestra” of service, and ask for my thoughts.

The teas pulsed within me. Currents of magnetic and electric force seemed to rearrange my twisted heart. They took me into a place that was foreign to my recent experience -- a place of quiet and a place of peace.

Was this the tea? Or, was it the master? Was it the room, or its people? It was impossible to say. All I knew was that it felt good to be me again.

As my awareness came back to the room, the master pulled out a container from one of his back shelves. “This is something that I never serve,” he said. “But for whatever reason, it's calling out tonight.”


As he placed the precious tea into a bamboo cup, my eyes lit up at their site.

“These are flowers,” he explained, “from very old trees. We're going to drink this tea and see what they have to tell us.”

The flowers were pink and golden. They were the tiniest of things, and they seemed incredibly delicate. I had never seen such flowers in my life, nor have I seen them since.

As he poured the water into the flower-filled pot, my mood shifted. I became aware of my recent experiences and the darkness that characterized them. I could feel my emotions clearly, but somehow was not a part of them. They were objective; detached from me, but still present. They were like the smoke from an incense stick.

The master poured the tea into my cup. It smelled sweet and floral, like plums and orchids. I sipped it and savored the flavor - so sweet! So kind!

My eyes closed and I went inward. And then, I saw...a field!

My vision was as clear as the room I was in moments ago. It was a field filled with plants, valleys and hills. Most prominently, it was raining. It rained and it rained. All of my dread became clouds, and my sadness, the raindrops. There was no sunlight, and no flowers. How could there be?

“When will it stop?” I asked. “Will it ever stop?” But it went on and on.

It was then that I saw something. I saw the flower of one little plant. Except, the flower wasn't there yet. It was as if I were looking at the spirit of the flower to be.

The spirit of the flower was in the stem of the plant. And the closer I looked, the more I saw. The rain fell to the ground and into it's cracks. It found the roots of the plant and quenched their thirst. As the rainwater was absorbed, the spirit of the flower rose.

Suddenly, I became excited. The rain wasn't blocking the sunlight, it was helping that light turn into flowers! With every drop, the spirit of the flower rose. And though the flower came into sight only when the sun shone, it was nurtured in every moment by the rain. The flower was as much rain as it was sun!

It hit me then, that my dreaded and painful experiences were just like the rain. They were helping me make flowers.

I opened my eyes and tears fell down my cheeks. I smiled and wiped my face, concealing my private journey.

The tea master closed with a final tea. It was grounded and full. Soon after, we all said “thank you,” and went our separate ways. Though I did not share my experience with anyone that night, I am forever grateful to those that were there. Several of them would eventually become my close friends.


For me, tea is a medicine of the spirit. It is a friend which has stood by me long enough for me to give myself a second chance. I think any friend that can do this is one worth keeping around.

I work with tea because it has become a part of me. Every time I pour it, I am saying thank you - for all that tea has given me. It has given me relationships, teachers, friends, fun, and the ability to look at myself.

Demolition Days: The Metal of Something New

The remains of the walls after Day 1

The remains of the walls after Day 1

As a modern American practitioner of Chinese medicine, I have often wondered just how relevant an ancient perspective can be in contemporary life. How much of the symbolism and language that we call “Classical,” can touch and feel our present situation? Is Chinese medicine, its cosmology and approach, able to grasp who we are and what we do? Or is it merely a relic to who we have been?

“Loud noises!” shouts my friend and business partner, Travis Kern, as he turns on a saw, that buzzes like a ferocious bumble-bee orchestra. I watch, as it cuts a line through the Sheetrock of the wall in front of us. There’s nothing quite like sharp metal going to work.

Our newly acquired clinic space is being rearranged. We are doing the “build-out” ourselves. And the first stage in the process? Demolition. The unnecessary walls have to come down before the new walls can go up.

Several hours before, I am standing in my back yard in a very uncomfortable pose. My neigong teacher and friend Brandon, calls it Wuji stance. Though you wouldn’t know I am uncomfortable by looking at the “slight smile” on my face, you might be able to tell if you looked close enough to see my entire body “slightly” shaking.  

Wuji is one of the first practices taught in traditional neigong. It is considered a basic practice, because it builds a kind of essential conductivity in the tissues of the body. Unfortunately, in order for this conductivity to be built, the body has to become song.

Song is a term in Chinese associated with the idea of relax or release. Brandon says that it is not just a quality of relaxation within the muscles, but a stretching of the tendons and fascia: “Like steel wrapped in wool.” If a person is able to become song, they can more easily conduct qi. Once qi can be conducted, then it can start to be worked with and used for other purposes.

In order to become song, the person has to learn to “sink the qi” downward. Downward, is always the first direction when learning neigong or tai chi. “Sinking,” is associated with the Metal element in Chinese medicine. And it always seems to be the most difficult.

Why is sinking so difficult? I’m not sure… maybe it’s because the modern body is conditioned by chairs and unnatural movement patterns to favor above and not below; maybe it’s because the modern mind is conditioned to exist only from the neck up; maybe it’s because modern culture worships expansion and growth and shuns contemplation, receptivity, and allowing. Why is sinking so difficult? I’m not sure. But trying to sink the qi sucks! It sucks big time.

In neigong, sinking the qi must be done first. If sinking isn’t done first, then too much qi can “rise” to the head, and cause problems such as insomnia, anxiety, and even mania or delusion (if extreme). This is because the goal in neigong isn’t simply to go up to the head, it is to go into (and become) the whole.

Becoming song, and thus “sinking the qi,” requires a person to give up all of the unnecessary tension that they are used to holding, in order to rest upon the basic structure of the body. Our points of tension are difficult to let go of, because they are what we have been using to “hold us up” for a long time. It makes sense then, that we have to let go of the things that hold us up, in order to sink and go down.

As I watch Travis’ metal saw cut through dusty Sheetrock, I am reminded that Sheetrock is made from gypsum or, in Chinese, Shi Gao. Shi Gao is used in Chinese herbal medicine to treat the Lung (which happens to be associated with the Metal element), when certain patterns of pathology “attack” the lung in form of a cold or flu.

Seeing that metal saw cut into the metal wall after trying to “sink my qi” (the direction of metal) all of that morning, provided me with a direct example of how the symbolic language of Chinese medicine is still relevant today.

There is something, perhaps innate, about beginning, that requires Metal. In the case of the clinic, Metal is taking down unnecessary walls and clearing the space of what was. In the case of neigong training, it is releasing the unnecessary tension and holding patterns of the body so that the tissues become more able to conduct qi. In both cases, we start with Metal.

As Travis and I sat back and enjoyed a not-quite-cold-enough but still enjoyable beer, we reflected upon the accomplishments of the day. Our work was shown back to us by the newly minted openness in our store, and in that moment, we drifted into feelings of serenity. As it turns out, “sinking the qi” is not always so difficult.