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MINDFUL LIVING: IN THE KITCHEN

Let Your Passion Cook

Mindful cooking is not detached or subdued, says EDWARD ESPE BROWN. It’s cooking with your whole being engaged—mind, body, and emotions. And remember, it’s better when you’re feeling your way in the dark and asking what is the most important point?

 

At a weeklong meditation session one year,  I think it was 1968, my teacher Suzuki Roshi lectured about how to practice Zen. “Zen,” he said, “is feeling your way along in the dark. You might think it would be better to have more light, to know where you are going, and to get there in a hurry, but Zen is feeling your way along in the dark. Then you are careful and sensitive to what is happening.”

Later I asked him (young man that I was), “Hmm, feeling my way along in the dark… Now that the program is over, what if we have a party?”


“If you do it with that spirit, it will be perfectly okay,” he said.


“Wonderful,” I thought, and started to get up from kneeling in front of him, when his voice brought my movement to an abrupt halt. “The most important point is… ” and he paused, while I prompted myself to listen intently as the words slowly came out, “is to find out… what is… the most important point.” And I thought he was going to tell me! Only he had—and years later I continue to investigate this.


One of the places where I have studied this is in the kitchen. When we’re cooking, what is the most important point? As a meditator there are many ready-made answers: being mindful, being silent, watching your mind, being calm and peaceful. All well and good. But did anyone say, preparing food? Or, feeling your way along in the dark? We do well to study how we do what we are doing, and ask ourselves, What is the most important point?


“Be mindful in the kitchen while you work,” people often say. Perhaps useful, but unfortunately the word is overused, and often inaccurately. When people do not pick up after themselves, they are not being mindful. When they are gossiping while cooking, that’s not mindful. In other words, when someone is not doing what they should, they are not being mindful. So be mindful becomes do it right, the way you are supposed to.


I’m not sure, but I think that being mindful is to experience your experience without judging good or bad, right or wrong. Being mindful in this fashion, you might notice dishes, crumbs, or scraps on what was formerly a clean surface—and this could be followed by choosing how to respond. Saying that the people who left those items were not mindful is another way of saying they are bad, that it is wrong. That does not sound like mindfulness to me, which is to be aware without judging.


Do you want to prepare food, or to be mindful? And is there a way to do both? I’d like to offer alternatives to the usual explanation of “being mindful in the kitchen,” but I would caution the reader to feel your way along in the dark and to investigate the most important point. In others words, find out for yourself how to make working in the kitchen a source of awakening.

When I asked Suzuki Roshi for his advice about working in the kitchen, he said, “When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup.” Though very similar, this is not the same as, “be mindful in the kitchen,” which makes it sound like you have two things to do: washing and being mindful, cutting and being mindful, stirring and being mindful. What would that mindfulness part look like? Probably a bit stiff, as your impulse will be to move slowly and carefully so that only a moderate amount of energy and emotion arises to meet the circumstances. In other words most people hear be mindful as keep yourself in check.


Yet what is magnificent and magical is finding out how to manifest the cutting of carrots with your whole body and mind; how to wash the rice with your eyes and your hands, connecting consciousness with the senses and the world—not just going through the motions. This brings me to a pivotally important point. When you stop going through the motions and manifest the stirring of soup, alive in the present moment, emotions may surface. While some find this problematic and seemly recommend dispassion, my suggestion is to invite your passion to cook.


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