A Part & Apart - June 1, 2023
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A Cup of Tea: Mindfulness and Belonging

By Amanda Williams

Imagine standing in a crowd. You may be standing slightly to the side by a wall, watching the crowd move and flow. What are you feeling? Perhaps you are feeling anxiety; there are too many strangers,  and you are questioning if it is acceptable for you to be here. Alternatively, perhaps, you feel a sense of calm. You may be waiting for some friends to meet you, or you have some relationship with the crowd, be it an event or shared goal. 

The feeling of connectedness that comes from a sense of belonging, much like the example of feeling calm in a crowd, is hugely impactful to our experiences. Standing in a crowd could be a calming, even invigorating experience if we feel as though we belong, or it can be anxiety-inducing and alienating if we feel out of place. The external factors needed to have a sense of belonging can range from having solid relationships with a few people to sharing a common interest or goal with a wide variety of people. 

However, there are internal factors that are just as important in creating a sense of belonging. These internal factors range from allowing ourselves grace in situations to working through thoughts and emotions to reach an inner calm. As such, they enable us to do one of the most critical acts needed to gain a sense of belonging — allowing ourselves to know and believe that this feeling is genuine and sincere. I am not disregarding the external need for validation from a group or community to gain and nurture a sense of belonging.  Instead, I am drawing attention to the internal factor of personal acceptance and inner stability needed to accept external validation and create a stronger sense of belonging. Without some inner personal acceptance, the sense of belonging created purely from external validation becomes a facade.  

To further explore inner personal acceptance regarding belonging, I look to my experiences of design and being present. The act of design inherently works as a medium between the personal and the community as it starts from the personal factors of the designer and is later extended to the factors of the community. Additionally, the act of being present takes on many forms and meanings, but the core of this act is acceptance, a necessary piece to achieve a strong sense of belonging. Through the creation of my designs, I gain personal acceptance of my belonging. With a sense of inner belonging, I share my designs with the community and in partnership am able to achieve feelings of external belonging. Although the stages of personal mindfulness leading to community belonging change over time, the core points stated remain the same. Through creating and implementing my designs, I use this personal acceptance that I find through being present with my designs and within the design process to form a bridge to others, leading to a multifaceted sense of internal and external belonging.

Past: Being Present = Feeling Happier

Watercolor, pencil, and gouache painting

Being present correlates to feeling happier, as seen in a study where participants were asked to listen to classical music: those who were told to try to feel happy while listening ended up in worse moods than those who simply listened (Oaklander, 2015). 

As a designer who struggled with being mindful, I began exploring how I could bring the experience of mindfulness in everyday moments to my audience. At the time, my medium was watercolor and graphite. I took inspiration from Raku ware tea bowls: hand-made Japanese tea bowls that emphasize the process of making and embracing the imperfections in the clay.  

Although my work was static by nature, I wanted to capture the stillness of a mindful moment. The creation of images that evoke thoughts of mindfulness first acted as a medium to explore and achieve mindfulness within me, in this case, invoking feelings of happiness. Upon completing my piece and the start of acceptance within myself, my work transformed into a medium to create a community sense of mindfulness through happiness: and through a shared sense of mindfulness, the feeling of belonging.

Past: Stages of Mindfulness to Inner Belonging to Community Belonging

Mindfulness: I gain personal mindfulness by focusing on creating still images that widely reflect calm and peaceful moments and objects.

Inner Belonging: Creating makes me happy as well as mindful. With this mindset, I settle into a sense of belonging in myself. I accept my place in what I have created and begin to feel acceptance for myself as a designer.

Community Belonging: Through sharing my painting with the community around me, I hope to encourage mindfulness in others. From this mindfulness, I hope my viewers will share in the experience I had creating my work. As a result, this process creates a sense of belonging within my community.

Present: Being Present = Being Still

Screenshots from a video exploring the tea-making and drinking experience 

For many, allowing the mind to rest in the moment does not come quickly. As stated in “The Power of  Now” by Eckhart Tolle, “the mind has continual conversations with itself that are difficult to turn off. It has lots of opinions, but they are all based on what has happened in the past. This makes it difficult to experience things afresh in the present” (Tolle, 2004). 

Growing up in a society that constantly focuses on the future and/or past trains the mind to think of everything but the present. A study in 2010 used a specialized app with which people could enter their thoughts and feelings throughout the day. The experimenters discovered that a person’s mind would wander regardless of the activity and that people were less happy when this happened (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). 

Thus, being present correlates with feeling happier and being still: although stillness should not be mistaken for motionlessness. Stillness can be full of movement and change, but these changes do not interfere with being mindful. Referred to as a “flow state” in psychological terms, this describes the optimal experiences that are most enjoyable in human life while fully engaging in an activity  (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). For example, it is the state an artist or designer falls into when they are working on a piece, and suddenly hours have gone by without them realizing it. In this flow state, a  designer does not stop thinking, but time seems to become still while moving through their task.  Without the context of time, these mindful moments are marked by experiences and senses. With this in mind, I investigate the effect of mindfulness on the senses. 

Without meaning to, I found myself again drawn to mindfulness in the form of tea. As my design skills had grown and changed over time, I worked to craft this design through video. Outwardly, my video shows how to make a cup of tea. However, more than that, it gives insight into how to be mindful in each moment of making and eventually drinking the tea: applying all of the senses to be fully present 

As I worked to create this piece, I found inner mindfulness connected through the flow of the work: no longer was the sense of presence and acceptance gained through more concrete images. Part of this is from my change in medium. Before, there was no space between myself and what I created since I used watercolor and pencil to create my pieces directly on paper. By using video, the camera acts as a barrier or a screen, taking me one step away from the design. It is similar to the difference between cash and credit: the process is the same, but there is a disconnect. 

The more significant reason for a change in my journey to inner acceptance is a better understanding of my mindfulness. In the past, I strove to put mindfulness into my work. However, I realized that the mindfulness I gained from my designs was in the flow state I achieved while creating, not the finished piece. Thus, once I shared it with others the experience was centered on connection and togetherness rather than working collectively to find mindfulness.

Present: Stages of Mindfulness to Inner Belonging to Community Belonging

Mindfulness: I gain personal mindfulness from the flow state I entered in my creative process.

Inner Belonging: Gaining mindfulness in my flow state encourages feelings of inner belonging, not from the finished piece but from the process. By trusting my choices made during the creation process I begin to find inner belonging through trusting myself.

Community Belonging: I once again connect to the community around me by sharing my video. However, the shared experience that connects me to the community is not the end state of gaining mindfulness like before. Now I gain a feeling of belonging from the community by sharing in the process to a state of mindfulness: through my video guiding the viewer through the process of being mindful through tea drinking.

Future: Being Present = Accepting uncertainty

Digital painting from a photograph

Using more digital mediums opened my work to the unknown influences of various technologies. This is inevitable, and I welcome it. After all, the effect of being present means accepting change.  Furthermore, adding the unknown into my design makes my job as a designer more compelling since it gives my design space for what I know and what I do not know. With this in mind, I venture into a new idea: being present corresponds with accepting uncertainty. 

Much like achieving mindfulness, accepting uncertainty is much easier said than done. Thích Nhất  Hạnh, a Buddhist monk and a significant influence on Western practices of Buddhism and mindfulness, stated, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering out of fear of the unknown.  They prefer suffering that is familiar” (Rasheta, 2016). Studies show that intolerance for uncertainty is a significant factor in developing anxiety and depression. Much evidence also suggests that mindfulness is an essential factor in improving mental health (Nekić & Mamić, 2019). To explore this new concept, let me walk you through a scenario. 

Imagine you are a tea drinker. You are visiting me, and I offer you a cup of tea from a pot I have made. If we dissect this scenario, it is full of uncertainty. You can see the cup that holds the tea, but you do not know what kind of tea is inside it. You cannot see the pot which brewed the tea, so you do not know if I just made the tea, and so the tea is boiling, or if it has been sitting a while, so the tea is cooler and possibly, stronger. You do not know if I have added sugar, milk, or any additional ingredients to the cup or if I will offer these after you take the cup. You have not touched the cup yet, so you do not know if there are places on the cup that are too hot to touch. 

The uncertainty of this scenario seems overwhelming. However, although some of these thoughts may have crossed your mind, you would accept the cup and take a sip of tea instead of falling into indecision. If you are a more cautious tea drinker, you may have asked me what kind of tea it was. Nevertheless, in the end, you would have accepted the overall uncertainty of the situation with little to no worry, confident that you would discover the answer to these questions soon, or you would not know the answer, and this would be okay. 

Keeping this scenario in mind, I digitally painted the image of the offered cup. The drawing is still my personal experience, and I still find moments of mindfulness through the flow of the creation of this drawing. However, the drawn cup is a photo of a cup, a relic from the shared experience of drinking tea together. It is a shared experience that involves the acceptance of uncertainty in the situation and the present experience of enjoying the tea/enjoying the image of the teacup. We share in the uncertainty and the acceptance of the uncertainty even though our paths toward this shared experience differ.  Moreover, through the creation of this experience and by personally accepting uncertainty, we can reach out to each other to share and accept validation, creating a sense of belonging.

Future: Stages of Mindfulness to Inner Belonging to Community Belonging

Mindfulness: I gain mindfulness through accepting uncertainty.

Inner Belonging: I gain a sense of inner belonging when I accept uncertainty. 

Community Belonging: Unlike previous experiences, I gain a sense of belonging from my community in tandem with the stages of attaining mindfulness and inner belonging. Through the shared experience of uncertainty and validation created in the tea-drinking scenario, I gain a sense of belonging from my community. The design and creation of the design serve as a piece of the shared experience as opposed to what drives the experiences. 


Amanda N. Williams is a graphic designer and multimedia artist in the Raleigh NC area. She holds a master’s degree from North Carolina State University in the Graphic and Experience Design program. She previously received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina Asheville with a double major in art (focus in drawing) and new media (double concentration in animation and video production). Aside from a newly found interest in data visualization creation, Amanda is interested in artificial intelligence and its role and implications in the design world as well as the possibilities it offers in designing for accessibility.



Works Cited

Cheron, G. (2016, December 6). How to measure the psychological “flow”? A neuroscience  perspective. Frontiers in psychology.  


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row.  

Gordan, K. (2003, April 1). The impermanence of being: Toward a psychology of uncertainty S. Sage  Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022167802250731  

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science330(6006), 932–932. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1192439  

Nekić, M., & Mamić, S. (2019, December 3). Intolerance of uncertainty and mindfulness as  determinants of anxiety and depression in female students. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/2076- 328X/9/12/135/htm  

Oaklander, M. (2015, October 1). Why chasing happiness might be making you miserable. Times.  https://time.com/4057287/why-chasing-happiness-might-be-making-you-miserable/  

Rasheta, N. (2016, November 22). The Fear of Uncertainty https://secularbuddhism.com/the-fear-of-uncertainty/.  

Tolle, E. (2004). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Distributed to the trade by  Publishers Group West. 




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