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”

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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?”

What Was Said To The Rose

All is well up here at Aro-Hā in Glenorchy. We’ve had more snowfall and winter storms, but also amazing blue skies, dramatic sunrises and this week, beautiful new bird-song. Two more retreats have come and gone, and guests have left feeling energised and with renewed purpose.

A friend here told me last week that, about a week after initiating a daily habit of drinking kombucha, she noticed that she really began to crave it. Simultaneously, apparently her desire for sugar and carbohydrates disappeared – she was suggesting that her body, her inner wisdom, was somehow communicating with her consciousness about what she needs to be well.

For a long time, the scientific community were unwilling to go along with this idea – that our bodies have an intelligence that informs us of specific nutrient deficiencies. But recently, there has been evidence that at some level this IS happening, and it’s happening not via our cells or nervous system but via our gut flora; the good and bad bacteria that inhabit our digestive tracts. The scientific medical community are even referring to our micro biome as a ‘second brain’. This is one reason to be motivated to improve your gut health – they say that the make-up of our gut bacteria can transform rapidly – within hours of a meal or drink!

I’ve always been interested in this idea of inner wisdom, or intuition. It’s really interesting to me that in many dharma traditions, the pali / sanskrit word ‘citta’ is translated at times as ‘brain’ and at other times as ‘heart’. We don’t really know where wisdom comes from do we…. maybe it’s also our guts!

Still on the subject of inner wisdom, I was thinking about all this today, while drinking kombucha and listening to a dharma talk given by Ed Brown. He was talking about a time when Suzuki Roshi said to a room full of his students: Continue reading “What Was Said To The Rose”

I Am Not A Chef

Earlier today I watched the episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, featuring the Korean Buddhist Nun, Jeong Kwan.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Kwan, here’s a very short intro. At the age of 17 she presented herself at the entrance to a buddhist monastery and asked to be ordained as a nun. Ever since she has lived at Baekyangsa Temple, 169 miles south of Seoul, and in addition to spending many many hours every day in meditation, she takes care of all the meals. She came to global prominence after Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert met her during his research trip to Korea. That was back in 2014, and Ripert has since brought her to New York to cook for the city’s foodie elite. It’s been said that her food is ‘life changing’, and on a par with the food being created at any of the world’s top restaurants today.

As I watched the episode, I became aware that I was yearning for the bit where we are offered something concrete from her repertoire – just one complete recipe maybe, or a close up of one of her gentle and elaborate techniques. How long did she ferment her kimchi for, and what exactly are those spices that she says are essential? But nothing was offered other than serene images of her tending her garden, adding the finishing touches to a lotus flower tea, or talking in the most compassionate and respectful terms about her parents.

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Continue reading “I Am Not A Chef”

Imperfect, Limited and Vulnerable

I’ve recently started working at Aro Hā, a stunning, purpose-built retreat centre in Otago, south island New Zealand.  A new chapter, new colleagues, and new expectations to put upon myself.

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It’s so exceptionally beautiful here, that I actually think it added to the pressure I felt to create mind-blowing meals. For my first retreat, our food actually way exceeded my checked expectations. As I had been anxious to make a good impression, I was supremely organised and took care to oversee as much detail as possible. I got up pre-dawn and walked home under the stars, and had plans and checklists to cover every morsel that would leave the kitchen.

But midway through that first retreat, something I had given minimal importance to started to fester. Namely, I was putting so much effort into the food that I was simultaneously suffocating and ignoring my skilled and creative colleagues. You know, the actual human beings I was spending 10 hours a day with. The shameful thing was, I hadn’t even noticed that I was doing it.  Continue reading “Imperfect, Limited and Vulnerable”

Tea and Vegan Chocolate

I haven’t felt like writing for weeks. I felt like I have lost my voice somewhat, probably because I have not felt solid ground under my feet for what feels like the longest time (but in reality has been about 7 weeks!)

In that time, I have borne an abrupt split with my previous employer, travelled 1000km south to a new region of NZ (away from dear friends and the dog I used to co-parent), moved in with a new house-mate, started a new job, and joined a different community. Then, having not given any of these new seeds a chance to sprout, I flew ‘home’ to London for a overdue visit. Living predominantly in my parents house (with the unique challenges that brings) I feel more of an unsettled itinerant than ever.

Last week though, I had the opportunity to get out of the smoke for a while. I stayed amida2for 4 days with wonderful friends, Satya and Kaspa, who created and manage the Amida Mandala Buddhist Temple in Great Malvern. On Saturday, a small group of us did a day-long retreat; 3 hours of continual chanting in the morning, then an afternoon discussing and contemplating giving & receiving. (In the evening there was a ‘sharing circle’ which I didn’t attend because I still hadn’t found anything to say!) It was really wonderful to be in the easy, genuine and comfortable company of good friends, and to re-connect with the dharma. Listening to the dawn chorus was another highlight of the trip – in my years away from the UK I had forgotten how beautiful English bird-song is. Watching British TV comedy in the evening together with mugs of tea and Satya’s vegan chocolate was also fabulous!

In many ways, Satya and Kaspa offered me what Anne Lamott prescribes in the opening chapter of her latest book, Hallelujah Anyway:

Hallelujah Anyway jacket (Anne Lamott)When other people look hunched or pummelled, I know what to do and say, to help them recolonise their bodies and lives. I say: stop the train. Be where your butt is. I would say: Life can be painful, but I am right here, and you have a good heart… I would tell a person, “you have the right to remain silent. Would you like a nice cup of tea? Some M&M’s? Let’s sprawl, unfold those creaky wings.”

Sometimes we need to talk things through, (endlessly), or perhaps wail and scream, but also know that the ‘right to remain silent’ is an option. Continue reading “Tea and Vegan Chocolate”

Inspiration From All Directions

Our 30-day retreat with Lama Mark Webber finished last Thursday – it’s been an amazing month; I have learnt so much and feel very inspired. Of course I am inspired by the teachings, and the very presence and energy of Lama Mark, that goes without saying. But I have also been inspired by so much that has arisen in conjunction with that retreat; the people who were part of it, and the experiences that unfolded during the month as a result of my time at the Wangapeka. The vast amount & range of cooking that I wanted to offer in support stretched my imagination and repertoire in the kitchen… and as always, there were times that my patience and energy were also tested! Waking up to sunrises like the ones above and below were definitely part of the reward though!

On the evening that the retreat ended, by extraordinarily happy coincidence (whatever) there was a public talk at the Nelson Buddhist Centre given by Tara Choying Lhamo. She is a young Austrian-born dharma practitioner who has lived in retreat for over twenty years. For twelve of those, she lived and meditated in solitude, high in the mountains of Nepal in Lapchi, one of the retreat caves used by Tibet’s great yogi and saint, Milarepa.

I found her story and her presence equally astonishing. She was so clear and present, so open, grounded, poised and warm.  Continue reading “Inspiration From All Directions”