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Women in Wellness: “Why We Can All Benefit From A Tea Ceremony” with Helen Lee Schifter

…How about a movement of aesthetic appreciation? Art has great power to heal and inform.

As a part of my series about women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Lee Schifter . Helen Lee Schifter is a former arbitrage trader on Wall Street, as well as a former editor at Hearst and Condé Nast. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Amherst College, she attended both during their pioneering transitions to coeducation. Helen lives in New York City.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Socially, physically, economically, New York is intense and fast-paced. While I do spend some weekends at my home on the east end of Long Island, an anytime “escape valve” is important — a way to mentally recharge. About 10 years ago, I began to read a lot of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry — Mi Fu, Su Shi, Su Tung-P’o. This led me to a study of Zen Buddhism, where I discovered Chado, the Japanese tea ceremony. It’s an ancient aesthetic and spiritual practice, and is considered the physical manifestation of the Buddhist philosophy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

I study Chado with a society called Urasenke, from Kyoto, which dates back to the 1500’s. Urasenke came to NYC 50 years ago, and acquired a large carriage house on the upper east side. They brought master craftsmen from Japan to create a complete, formal tea house — tatami mat rooms, fountain, gardens. Once inside the front door you are transported to Japan. In an incredible twist, this house was originally the studio of the brilliant artist Mark Rothko! Urasenke purchased it directly from Rothko‘s estate. When looking up from the garden you can see the rafters and skylights of his studio; and it’s incredible to think that we are studying tea in the same place where Rothko made so many masterpieces. It’s a hallowed space.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My biggest mistake starting out was a sense of impatience. There’s a natural “western“ urge to learn quickly, and to compete. Chado is not about destination — it’s about journey. The Japanese aesthetic is so refined, so measured. For example, if you were to study karate, you might spend a year just sweeping the floor of the dojo first. I have been studying Chado eight years and I am still a beginner. I never want to lose the innocence and awe of the “beginners mind.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My sensei, or teacher, is a wonderful example of fortitude and patience. Aside from the very detailed and complex ceremonies she is teaching — the physical, elegant “performance” of serving tea — there’s a simultaneous wealth of poetic and intellectual teaching — each and every gesture has a meaning rooted in Zen philosophy.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

The tea ceremony brings the world benefits on two levels — physical and mental. Physically, green tea or matcha has a myriad of health boosters, as it’s full of antioxidants called catechins. Studies show it drops high blood pressure and lowers bad cholesterol. Matcha is also a much cleaner “buzz” than coffee, with smoother energy, more long-lasting, due to the amino acid L-Theanine, which has a sustained calming effect. Mentally, the four spiritual pillars of the tea ceremony are purity, tranquility, respect, and harmony. If we could all reflect upon those concepts for a few minutes each day, the world impact might be immeasurable.

Can you share your top five“lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

  • Develop something spiritual in your life.
  • Read an actual newspaper, to cut down on screen time.
  • Practice inversions, i.e. headstands or handstands from yoga. Or just lay on the floor and put your feet up on the wall. Anything to raise your feet over your heart’s level.
  • Eliminate excess noise — I always wear earplugs when using a hair dryer!
  • Reduce harsh lighting — lampshade light is the softest light, much better than glaring overhead spotlights.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

How about a movement of aesthetic appreciation? Art has great power to heal and inform. I love and collect scholars’ rocks, ancient objects of contemplation and meditation.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

One thing I wish I’d known was the importance of commitment — pledging to oneself the time, energy and drive to begin any new endeavor.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

The environment & sustainability, or climate change, is #1. This is the biggest issue the world is facing today. My friend the designer Nicole Miller fights against single use plastics. My favorite new company is Blueland, which is a game changer for cleaning products — you buy a forever spray bottle and refill it with safe cleaning tablets and water.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

My website, Helenleeschifter.com

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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