The Extraordinary Retreat

It’s been more than a week since I left the retreat with Edward Espe Brown, the Zen priest and beloved chef who has been such a inspiration and spiritual mentor to me for the last 10 years. Ed was the first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and many people will know him from his bread making bible “the Tassajra Bread Book.” Even though we had never met before, he has been like a friend reaching out to me through his books and online talks, so finally being on retreat with him was something very special.

Writing about retreat experiences, generally, is difficult. Even profound experience, in fact especially profound experience, is usually subtle and beyond words.

What is common for us humans is to seek out extraordinary experiences. This you could say is the ordinary wish. What is extraordinary therefore is to be content yet engaged, utterly at peace with the ordinary. That really is extraordinary, and in many ways, that is what Ed offered on his retreat. Continue reading “The Extraordinary Retreat”

Everything Is Waiting For You

Greetings!

Here are some reflections on Brené Brown’s Netflix show A Call To Courage, and also something inspiring I learnt about the exceptional poet, Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year. Both are calling me to be more vulnerable, and more courageous. And also a recipe for a yum Mushroom and Wild Rice Risotto!

Continue reading “Everything Is Waiting For You”

Take Rest…

In-between retreats, probably the most nourishing thing I do is spend a day (or more) by myself.

Many people seem to be confused by this; it’s pretty unfashionable to want to be alone! But I get things done; practical things like cleaning the house and doing laundry, nourishing things like cooking and practising yoga. All of these things and more, when done at my own speed and alone, add up to a deep feeling of rest. The best description I’ve ever heard of rest is:

REST is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. Continue reading “Take Rest…”

Temple Medicine

Possibly the most inspiring thing I’ve ever heard, and definitely something which has influenced my life’s journey, was told to me around 17 years ago. At that time I was neither a chef nor a Buddhist (or any kind of contemplative) and knew nothing of natural medicine or nutrition. I was at a university lecture on the topic of natural medicine (which I was contemplating studying) and the professor began his talk with a brief reference to Temple Medicine. Although I remember nothing else about that lecture, (or anything else particularly from 2002!)  the notion of Temple Medicine has never been surpassed in my mind as a model for healing. And I think my working life since has been a subconscious search for modern day equivalents.   

Dating back to the ancient Greek civilisation, these healing temples – known collectively as Asclepeion Temples after the Greek God of Medicine; Asclepius – were basically ancient retreat centres. These temples were often located in secluded locations surrounded by beautiful scenery, like modern spas or maybe a bit like Aro-Hā! Continue reading “Temple Medicine”

My World….

It’s been a year and 2 months since I’ve written on this page…. In that time I have done SO much cooking and have had plenty of adventures outside the kitchen too, but sadly I can’t claim there has been such progress in awakening!

Anyway, strangely, in the last 6 days 6 people have asked me if I am going to start writing again. I’m taking it as a sign, although I still have to contend with my self doubt, which ‘helpfully’ points out that although I’ve learnt an incredible amount in the last 18 months or so, probably I am just catching up on what the rest of the world already knows… Perhaps!! Thank you to the close friends this week who have encourage me to write again regardless.

Continue reading “My World….”

The Power Of Sharing A Meal

One the the first pithy Buddha quotes I heard was this one:

If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way

As a food lover and chef, I was immediately drawn to this succinct teaching; it seemed wholesome and relevant. But actually, I never really took it on. Maybe it seemed too easy, so I was rather skeptical. Wasn’t dharma meant to be more hard work than that? And it seemed kind of inconsequential. I wanted to change my experience of the world, not share my sandwiches!

But today, probably more than a decade later, this quote came back to me with new meaning. I had been listening to this Ted Talk about the secrets for a long and happy life. Susan Pinker was talking about several large-scale research projects that all pointed to the same thing. Yes, diet, exercise, clean water and not drinking or smoking all contributed to happiness and longevity, but they were lower down the list of influence than most people would expect. The top two influencers, not just for longevity but also for happiness were: close relationships and social interactions.

After chewing on this for some days, the thought came to me: maybe I could have the intention to never eat alone, thereby increasing my friendly social interactions. That’s when the Buddha’s teaching came back to me, and suddenly lots of loose ends to do with kindness, generosity and gratitude came together, and BOOM! Continue reading “The Power Of Sharing A Meal”

The Joy Of Cooking

Over Christmas I read the Book Of Joy, an inspiring and uplifting book based on a week long dialogue between HH Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on the subject of Joy. It’s my book of the year!

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Skilfully edited by Douglas Abrams, the book works both as an interesting biography of two truly amazing men, who are also great friends, as well as an exploration of what joy actually is and how can we create more joy in our lives. Their conversation is punctuated with teasing, banter and laughter, and also goes into detail of the challenging experiences and spiritual practises of these highly realised and joyful humans.

I found myself talking to my kitchen team about how the book had inspired and fascinated me, and as a result we ended up bringing a little of the book’s content into one of our cooking classes with our guests last week.

HH Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu agree there are ‘8 pillars of joy’, which are mind states & heart states that are the foundations of joy. Both men are very clear that they believe that joy itself is a by-product, or side effect, of these other states. When we go chasing or striving for joy it seems elusive, but when we cultivate these other qualities, joy spontaneously arises. What are the 8? Continue reading “The Joy Of Cooking”

Not Always So

I am still thinking about ‘not always so’, one of Suzuki Roshi’s trademark expressions.

“Not always so” was never far away in Shunryu Suzuki’s teachings. He prefaced much of what he said with the word “maybe”, and yet he did not seem at all unsure of himself. When he said this sort of thing, it seemed to come from a deeply rooted strength. (David Chadwick)

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As I sat with a coffee and almond croissant this morning (outside my favourite cafe, in the early morning sunshine) I was thinking about how this position, the position of not knowing, potentially brings so much ease to our everyday lives. The question of nutrition and the latest diet trends are still a significant topic around these parts. I am the head chef in one of the world’s top rated wellness retreat centres for goodness sake! Yet, here I am drinking a latte and eating an buttery, flaky, sweet and delicious almond croissant, and quite frankly feeling fabulous. Are almond croissants the new superfood? Definitely not always so.

I spent the afternoon working in the kitchen, preparing for the next retreat. I started thinking about the ever changing dynamics of my work environment, the people, the produce, the schedule. My mind. When everything is in flux, what do we hold on to? Last month’s menu, which we thought we’d nailed? I don’t think so!

The Japanese have a saying ‘tambankan’. It translates as “man who carries a board on his shoulder”. Because he carries a long plank on one shoulder, he cannot see the other side. As soon as we say ‘it should be this way’, we pick up the plank – we have immediately created duality. So what should we say?

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Continue reading “Not Always So”

Everything Changes

In the field of Nutritional Medicine, so much has changed since I graduated with my BSc degree in 2003 that I wonder if my years of study and clinical practise are of any use these days at all! They were wrong about low fat foods, they were wrong about cholesterol, and they were way too confident in the results of clinical trials that ignored the emotional, inner life of unique, complex, ever changing human beings. But of course they were ‘wrong’. Buddhism 101 – everything changes.

One of the (many) things I’ve taken to heart from the teachings of Suzuki Roshi, is that things are Not Always So. It was one of his trademarks – he would contradict himself even within the space of one lecture! Continue reading “Everything Changes”

Y’Know What I’m Saying?

If you are interested in exploring the teachings of the Buddha, the good news is that his teachings are for the most part very straight forward. Much of his advice was presented in the form of lists which are unambiguous and easy to comprehend. One such list is the 10 Unwholesome Actions which are, obviously, to be avoided. Here’s the list – does anything jump out at you?

  1. Killing Living Beings
  2. Stealing
  3. Sexual Misconduct
  4. Lying
  5. Sowing Discord
  6. Harsh Speech
  7. Idle Gossip
  8. Covertousness
  9. Ill-will
  10. Wrong View

Isn’t it something to contemplate, that 4 out of the 10 are to do with the way we communicate?!  I had to look up the list again this afternoon to remind myself that, as lately I’ve been aware that the ways I communicate have sometimes left me feeling unsettled.

One of the joys of working here at Aro Hā is being part of a large team, many of whom also live here in community. The retreat centre is spread across 8 sub-alpine hectares, and staff work in shifts starting before 7am and ending after 10pm. So, there is a lot of handing over information, passing on messages, and the official (and unofficial) debriefing that happens when we are both on and off shift, at home, and out socialising. IMG_2553

This last week or so, I’ve begun to pay more attention to my speech (and emails, and facebook messages). I’m thinking that if I could bring better awareness to my speech it would result in many more mindful moments throughout the day, simply because I spend so much of the day communicating in one way shape or form. I’ve already noticed the uncomfortable feeling when I’ve said something that’s untrue or unkind, and retrospectively it’s not too hard to feel into the motivation behind much of my speech – it feels like this could be an interesting place to practise.

Continue reading “Y’Know What I’m Saying?”