Wu-Wei: How To Brew a Good Cup of Coffee (Part Three of a Four-Part Series)

Ving, right, poses with the author.
Ving, right, poses with the author.

As I begin probing Ving for why it was that she is willing to make the sacrifice to become a better barista even after seven years of brewing endless cups of coffee for customers, I returned to the Chinese Taoist concept of wu-wei. Ving told me that she travelled to Taiwan to learn the techniques and know-how of what it took to become a good barista.

However, that was just the beginning.

Ving went on further to state that she would not hesitate to pass on her knowledge, recipes and techniques to me if I were interested in becoming a barista. However, this will turn me into a barista. So what would I need to do then, I asked? Ving explained to me that she learned the knowledge of what it took to operate a café and brew cups of good coffee from her own apprenticeship in Taiwan. But what helped her to become the barista she is today was practice. There is no substitute for practice. Endless focused practice followed by the mindful tasting and critique of one’s own work. I can teach you about water temperature, timing, how to grind and pack the beans, she said. However, what I cannot pass on to you is the feel and intuition required to the art of coffee brewing. That you must learn on your own by constantly brewing and tasting endless cups of coffee. Take the simple act of even-pouring to extract the flavor out of your beans. I can show you the technique, she said, but one must practice to get the feel of the pour, which makes the critical subtle difference in a good cup of coffee.

The same principles apply in the important steps of packing the coffee ground. As you can imagine, the density of the packed coffee ground will impact the rate of the hot water flow which in turn impacts the taste of the coffee. There are presses that will allow one to adjust the tension of the press. Uniformity and objectivity! However, experienced baristas prefer simple presses for it is important for them to develop their own feel for the press and thus better control the tension of each press. “If you do it enough, it become second nature and you learn to adjust on the fly,” Ving explained. The science of the water temperature, coffee grind, and press tension is important. But it is the art of the human touch and intuition which decides subtleties of a good cup of coffee. And this art can only be achieved with practice.

It takes about two to three minutes to brew a cup of coffee. Numerous important steps are packed into this short interval of time. Thus, one must be focused in order to execute the required step at the required time for the necessary period. Even though the time is short, one must not rush. It is the paradoxical act of waiting in anticipating. All of this reflects the spirit of Zen and the Taoist concept of wu-wei. One must be intentional in one’s practice, and yet the paradoxical goal of all this practice is to be able to execute unintentionally. All of this reminds me of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which is the author’s story of his own experience under a master of the Japanese bow. I came across the following passage in Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen. Watts wrote the following section describing focus and intentioned non-intentionality:

The major problem of each of these disciplines is to bring the student to the point from which he can really begin. Herrigel spent almost five years trying to find the right way of releasing the bowstring, for it had to be done “unintentionally,” in the same way as a ripe fruit bursts its skin. His problem was to resolve the paradox of practicing relentlessly without ever “trying,” and to let go of the taut string intentionally without intention. His master at one and the same time urged him to keep on working and working, but also to stop making an effort. For the art cannot be learned unless the arrow “shoots itself,” unless the string is released wu-hsin and wu-nien, without “mind” and without blocking, or “choice.” After all those years of practice there came a day when it just happened–how, or why, Herrigel never understood.

Herrigel’s intentioned non-intentionality reminds me of why Ving is continuing on her journey of becoming a better barista. She cannot explain exactly how her skills improved as a barista. She cannot explain exactly the feel of the even pour or the right tension for pressing the coffee ground. She knows that she has improved, but she also knows that she must continue to learn and practice if she is to continue improving. Herrigel spent five years to achieve the feel of the arrow shooting itself. He cannot explain how or why it happened. It just did. He came to the point in which he can really begin. I can’t help but think that perhaps this is the same with Ving. After seven years, she came to a point in which she can also really begin to attain the unattainable. It is the same with me and dancing. Through numerous lessons and hearing (often times without understanding) how one must dance from the inside out, I finally was able to occasionally feel and experience what my teachers were trying to communicate to me.

And this is what I’m trying to achieve with my students. I too urge them to paradoxically keep on working and working, but also to let go of their desire to change their clients and “trust the process.” My own moment of such awakening happened serendipitously during internship when I heard myself utter a phrase similar to my graduate school mentor without even trying. The words just flowed through my mouth. I shocked myself! I had internalized him without trying. It just happened ironically enough after I left for internship. Listening to Ving, reading and educating myself regarding wu-wei and Zen, and my own dedication to practice helped me to learn and teach about the paradox of intentional non-intentionality. Ving’s dedication to her art inspires me to similarly dedicate myself to my own pursuit of becoming a better trainer and therapist.

Finally, my conversation with Ving takes place in the context of Ving’s soon-to-close café. Behind the counter stands Christine, Ving’s apprentice. After a year of working under Ving, Christine has plans of returning to her hometown to open her own café! My friend Evone tells me that Christine has improved as a barista after brewing and tasting countless cups coffee herself. So Ving’s work and dedication ripples on through Christine who is also intentionally traveling along her own path of pursuing the art of the unintentional.

— Mark Yang

Read more stories by Mark Yang

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