Taylor Cowan • June 12, 2024

Devotion: Commitment and Relationships

"With every breath, I plant the seeds of devotion; I am a farmer of the heart."


The tea plant is a study in devotion: it takes a newly planted sapling roughly five years to grow into a state of maturity hearty enough for harvesting. Five years of taking care of a garden with no bounty. With patience, the total yield of a single five-year-old plant, once dried and refined, is about five grams. You quickly see why having a field of tea bushes, or multiple fields, is essential. Even with more acreage there’s no protection against pests, blight, or any of the extreme weather patterns brought on by climate change (e.g. drought, heat, excessive rainfall). For those few and steadfast farmers who wait for seed-planted, baby trees to become old, it takes fifty years to see a notable uptick in value on the market, and a century for a tree to obtain the vaunted gushu status. Like all trees, the fruits of devotion may not be realized in the planter’s lifetime. 


"But what can be done, the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves."

Mikhail Bulgakov

Loyalty, trust and love are recognizable enough aspects of devotion, but why be devoted in a world where changing, adapting, scrapping the plan and pouncing on opportunity are so valued? Suffice to say, devotion is not the default. We love choices and we hate making them. FOMO is the order of the day. Bored with this? Get that. Don’t like that? Swipe past. This is especially true in our expendable culture, where every thing seemingly has planned obsolescence, even to the extent that repair services are rare: “Your fridge broke? Don’t try to fix it, we’ll just send you another one.” Actually, the refrigerator is a prime devotion symbol. You ever live in an apartment that had a 30+ year old refrigerator with no water filter, no ice dispenser and barely any drawers? These hulking beasts last forever—nothing seems to stop them. It was made well once, it was made well forever.


But a living symbol of devotion can also be found in many of our own homes: Canis lupus familiaris. The dog is such a quintessential incarnation of devotion that it veers into the heroic and tragic (unconditional love is a complicated and sometimes problematic axiom). The bounties of canine devotion touch us to the marrow. The heartrending story of Hachiko is one such example, but it goes as far back as fabled Odysseus’ dog, Argos, waiting twenty years for his master’s return. Argos watches the sea while dozens of suitors come and go, consuming all the food and wine in the house, aggressively courting Odysseus’ wife: the devoted and unswayed, Penelope. When Odysseus returns disguised as a beggar, his dog not only recognizes him, but collapses from happiness, finally able to die now that his beloved human returned: a stark reminder of the wages of commitment and the bonds of love. 


To put it frankly, devotion is hard. Since most of us don’t like change and don’t appreciate being uprooted or jolted from our day to day existence, isn’t that a kind of devotion to the status quo? Not at all. Thoughtless repetition, non-questioning, and comfort are the sworn enemies of devotion. Sometimes, the mere conscious acknowledgement of how undercurrents of emotion, years of hard work (sometimes over generations), and a near-miraculous confluence of events transpired so that you could be here in this moment, is itself devotion enough. It’s a reminder you deserve to be here, you have a people, you belong to something bigger than yourself. 


"Picturing myself as Dharma I ask myself, 'What is this? Nine years facing a wall?' I answer: no answer is my answer."

Sen no Rikyu, progenitor of the Japanese tea ceremony (calligraphy)


So why all this talk of fridges, saplings, and dogs? Sticking to our principles and not sacrificing what we value has been central to our legacy at Spirit. As we round the corner on ten years, we haven’t changed a thing about our sourcing ethos and, if anything, have only become more refined and quality oriented. This would not be possible without the longstanding commitment to our producer partners, the talent responsible for the tea we carry. It would have been easier at any point in our history to pad our menu with flavored teas, or “health blends”, or to conceal and horde sources, not show our work or showcase who we buy from, give our teas hyped names that more closely resemble sneaker drops than a very difficult, inconstant and endangered agricultural product. It’s the disposable, cool culture that sells, but the devotee, grounded in the meaning of their cause, is not swayed by opportunistic, convenient, or profitable distraction.


We live in an ever worsening climate. Though problems vary from site to site, nearly every single small farm we work with is facing huge challenges in the year 2024. Any agricultural product will yield differently harvest to harvest, but climate change has brought severe oscillations in quality. Importer labels like Spirit are faced with a couple of options: 1. You can choose not to buy that harvest and buy somewhere else that had better luck or cupped better at the table. 2. If you have enough land, labor and skill, the producer can attempt to make a flavored tea or “field blend” or something from byproduct e.g. “hojicha” or “genmaicha.” 3. You buy it in spite of its flaws, because you believe in the producer and what they’re doing. Nearly all (though admittedly not all) of our relationships in the nine years we’ve been a tea company fall into category 3. You might call it the long game, except there’s no game. Putting your money (and therefore your power, privilege, and influence) where your mouth is as a tea company means sticking it out through thick and thin with the very real producers who are doing hard work. Let your menu be the proof of your ethics, your praxis, and your devotion. Simply put, you invest in the future of tea you wish to see. Picking number three means foregoing a good “business decision” or buying what region/style is popular or had a good year, in favor of culling longevity in your relationship with a producer. It’s strange, in a sphere that speaks so much about “sustainability,” that this isn’t discussed more.


In tea sourcing, devotion takes practice, patience, and acceptance. In our personal lives, it’s maybe even harder. We expect devotion, yet rarely question how we ourselves embody it. When we see the way ahead is arduous, it’s not only natural, but human, to fold or seek another way. But if we’re willing to become, it is possible to do so through practice, the rite of devotion. We hone ourselves through practice. We don’t usually change without it and it can sometimes feel like things are happening to us rather than having agency in our own lives. What happens to all those unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions and forgotten daily routines? Devotion is a requirement for those seemingly impossible long goals.


Though the 10,000 hours trope has been thoroughly debunked, it’s fair to say that mastery takes time, repetition and intentionality. It’s as much a function of the brain as it is the body. Watching the effortless work rate of Kobayashi san or Ms. Wu it can seem like they’re not trying at all. But the consistency and excellence of their tea reveals true mastery; the silent substance of years of deliberate practice. The ease at which they taste, process and refine tea is not luck but a time-honed and exacting skill. Becoming a tea master requires memory, advanced agricultural knowledge and an attunement to the rhythms of nature. Many of our producer partners are the scions of generations of tea masters; devotion that spans centuries. 


Life is very long and we grow, willingly or unwillingly, along the way. As you get older, the circle of people in your life shrinks. The ones that remain sometimes do things that irk us—they make mistakes or hurt you—whether its your friend of your lover. Most often, and particularly virally now, people tell you to “set a boundary”, move on, cut them off etc. (and make no mistake, some acts should not be forgiven) but even in the course of ordinary human life people make mistakes, our honeymoon phase dwindles, friends wax and wane. Are you still friends with the people you knew in high school? Yet to those who approach life with patience, understanding, and compassion—real vision instead of “burn the bridge, see where we go next”— understand the wisdom only devotion can teach. It takes a willingness to step out of our “new and shiny” culture to sit in your life, to be present with your choices and to contemplate the decisions that have led you to where you are. It can be extremely frightening, but also the basis of enduring happiness. Caring for ourselves and for the planet are essential. Don’t just burn this one down and take your chances on the next. For those of us who have been hurt, you know well, there may not be a next. The choice is ours: will you be the tape-covered, shiny replacement plastic fridge, or the steadfast and accountable bulwark, proudly chilling in your thirty-fifth year?