I’ve had a link to the enigmatically named 7 Cups of Tea website in my sidebar for a while. The site is as enigmatic as its name in many ways, contradictory and difficult to sum up, though I’d still recommend it as a resource for anyone who needs support.
Here’s a review of some of the parts I’ve looked at. I’m planning a further review in a while.
The site is run from the US and operates 24×7, worldwide. It seems to be mainly in English but there’s a hard to find link to at least some Spanish content, which I didn’t explore.
The title 7 Cups of Tea is a reference to a line from a poem by Chinese hermit Lu Tong some twelve centuries ago. The poem and an English translation, along with a vast amount of historical context, can be found here: Lu T’ung and the “Song of Tea”
The middle lines of the poem, describing the seven bowls of tea, are often quoted on their own. Modern translators have added handles, as it were, to the traditional Chinese drinking bowls turning them into cups. Translators also disagree on the precise effects of the tea. In the translation I linked to above, after the sixth cup the drinker is at one with the immortal spirits, which might be a poetic way to say dead, so the seventh does not need to be drunk. In other translations this is not so clear.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink, feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
Anyway, the general idea is that the seven cups of tea represent a spiritual progression, and this is one of the many ideas that inspires the website.
Guests, members and listeners
People who visit the site are of three kinds: guests, members and listeners.
Guests don’t need to register or log in. They have access to self-help resources such as you would find on many other self-help websites. They can talk to listeners using live one-to-one chat. They can participate in a chat room and read the site’s many forums.
It looks like there are some restrictions on what guests can do, but I didn’t see clear information about this. For example, it’s implied that guests have a time limit on chats and that they can’t contact listeners directly. They can only use one of the chat rooms, and they can’t participate in the forums at all.
Members don’t have these restrictions. There’s also paid membership, but I didn’t explore what the benefit is and it wasn’t obvious. It only takes a few paid members to keep the site going, presumably.
Listeners are volunteers who respond to members and guests in live chat. They also participate in the chat rooms and forums. Listeners can also chat one-to-one with each other. They get some training, supervision, and support.
A guest’s experience
I recommended 7 Cups to someone who tried it out as a guest and later told me about the experience. He had had a relationship problem on his mind at the time, and he wanted to know what he could do about it.
Overall he found the site confusing, with too many options. It kept asking him to join, or to pay. At one point it asked him to choose from a list of problems, but relationships wasn’t in the list. He chose forgiveness because he has a feeling he needs to be forgiven, but the site assumed he wanted to forgive someone.
He found the language used on the site confusing at times. The examples he gave me didn’t make it sound like the problem was American English, but technical terms and other words used in special ways. For example, at one point he was asked about empathy but he wasn’t sure what that meant. One of the menus is labelled Solutions, and he hoped it might lead him to a solution for the problem on his mind, but it wasn’t that at all.
He got into a section of the site called the growth path, which presents a series of tasks. The idea is that you do one a day, but he tried several. When you first see your growth path it looks like there are seven steps or cups, but as you complete them more appear!
The tasks are the usual self-help stuff: questionnaires to fill in and meditations to listen to. It’s not clear that there is actual growth involved, or whether a limited number of tasks just cycle indefinitely.
My friend felt the growth path was trying to take his mind off the problem instead of helping him solve it.
Next, my friend tried the live chat. He was connected to a listener who briefly told him what to do about his problem, and then she went on to talk about the weather and dieting. He thought that was very unhelpful.
The site told him he might have to try several listeners, so he persevered. However, on the second attempt it took about a quarter of an hour to be connected. During the wait, the site asked him some questions and showed a series of cartoon drawings to fill in the time.
Eventually another listener turned up. This one refused to give him any advice, but apart from that she seemed genuinely interested and caring. He told me it was nice to talk to someone who listened, but he felt he was never going to get any help with his problem, so he soon made an excuse and stopped.
All users of the site have access to a collection of more than thirty self-help guides. Each guide is a series of web pages, and you often have to answer a multiple choice question based on the text in order to move to the next page.
Top of the list is an overall guide, 7 cups for the Searching Soul. It begins by describing what it calls:
The Infection – Denial and Distraction
The antidote to the infection is described in terms of 7 cups, representing seven things you need to do in life, like being attuned to love and exercising. I didn’t feel any of this was very clearly explained.
For example, although the term infection is used in the title it doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. If the theory is that denial and distraction are an infection, then it wasn’t clear to me from what I read how to avoid catching it. Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.
My friend’s impression of the site was that it was encouraging him to deny the problem he feels he has and to distract himself my meditating and thinking about nicer things. The first listener he talked to also seemed to take something like this approach.
This leaves me confused. I get the strong impression that there’s a well thought out philosophy behind the site, but I don’t see it explained simply and clearly. Maybe the impression itself is a false one.
Help for depression
A self-help guide on depression starts by advertising the site’s depression chat room, even though it isn’t available to guests who read the guide. The guide’s language is technical and clinical.
There are references, in the style of an academic paper, to Greenberger and Padesky (1995) but you can’t skip to the end to find out what that means because you have to answer multiple choice questions at the end of every page.
Assuming it means the famous book Mind Over Mood, whose authors and date (of the 1st edition) certainly fit, my copy says purchasers have only limited nonassignable permission to reproduce the handouts and forms. Maybe the hard to reach last page of the self-help guide acknowledges permission? Maybe the 1st edition is out of copyright now that the 2nd has been published? Who knows?
Anyway, I didn’t feel that the website’s free, abbreviated (and possibly pirated) version of self-help guides available elsewhere would be something I’d recommend to someone suffering from a mental illness. I’d sometimes recommend the actual book. (I really do sometimes recommend the actual book.)
These were the only self-help guides I looked at for this review. They didn’t impress me.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in the chat rooms, and I don’t have any information on how useful they are. I visited a couple but whatever was going on was incomprehensible and I didn’t feel able to join in.
Thinking about it, visiting the chat rooms gave me a feeling that must be quite like how it is to have social anxiety disorder. I usually understand how to participate in online and real life social settings, but these chat rooms were opaque. A few comments I noticed in the site’s forums suggest I’m not alone in finding the chat rooms difficult.
On the other hand, I got the impression that some people use the site’s chat rooms a lot. I don’t know how to make sense of this. Perhaps I was just unlucky to visit at the wrong times, or perhaps the people who the use chat rooms have gained their chatroom experience on other sites.
The forums are extensive, ranging from Addiction to World News and beyond. I had a look at some of them. They seem like a good resource for people wanting to share their problems of mental health and other areas of life that have emotional consequences. The Civil Servants Support Community was a little surprising to come across.
I saw just a few anonymous posts, which is odd because you have to log in to participate. Perhaps this wasn’t always the case.
From what I’ve seen I’d generally recommend the forums, although there are plenty of similar forums around. The special thing about these forums. I suppose, is that if a listener replies you can continue the conversation in live chat, although I didn’t try that myself.
Choices and contradictions
I’d say there are perhaps four conflicting philosophies evident in the site. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the site doesn’t make its inner conflicts clear to visitors, and the overall result is confusing.
One philosophy is the idea of personal growth. This is the idea linked to the seven cups of tea in the poem, although on the site you don’t wind up dead after six cups! It’s the idea that in life you choose to change and discover yourself. I saw nothing to make me think that this philosophy is actually implemented in any meaningful way. There’s a growth path but no indication that it leads anywhere.
Another philosophy is the idea that the best response to life is just to find happiness in the moment. It’s the idea that in life you choose not to change but to retreat within yourself. In another context it has sometimes been called “comprehensive distancing”. This conflicts directly with the idea of personal growth and with the poem. The steps along the site’s growth path seem to implement this philosophy rather than growth.
A third philosophy is that of academic psychology and manualized psychotherapy, which is reproduced in some of the self help guides. This is prescriptive and technical. It’s the idea that in life you don’t choose for yourself at all, you follow a programme devised by an expert.
A fourth philosophy is the idea that the best response to life is based around closeness with other people. It’s the idea that in life you crowdsource your choices by entering into relationships and by being part of a community. This seems to be the idea behind the live chat, chat rooms and forums…maybe. Not everybody taking part gets it, with the result that bits of the other philosophies can also be found in all those places.
Maybe the overall design of the site is very clever, and most people will find a philosophy that suits them. Or maybe the overall design of the site is simply chaotic, and most people will end up confused. As a reviewer I was confused, but most people won’t come to the site with my mindset.
I still recommend the site for immediate free online support through the live chat. It’s not always as immediate as it could be, and not always as supportive as it could be, but you could say the same about any service. Even professional support services suffer from wide variation. As a volunteer service 7 Cups is well structured, and I imagine it generally works well.
I’d cautiously recommend the other parts of the site as being worth a try. Some people will like them and some people won’t. I think the trick is to use the parts that work for you and ignore the rest.
Signing up to be a member probably has some value for anyone who plans to use the site regularly. Anyone who finds the site valuable for an extended period will probably want to give something back through paid membership or by volunteering as a listener.
In the next part of this review I’ll describe 7 Cups of Tea from the point of view of a listener. As anyone can volunteer and do the training, I signed up and I’m discovering for myself what being a listener is like.