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”

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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”

The Most Important Point….

I’ve been living on a greatly reduced income for a couple of months. Unlike millions of people who actually never know when their next wage is coming, I knew this ‘gap’ was ahead, so I made some calculations and gave myself a meager daily budget to make sure my money would stretch.

The first 2 or 3 days were the most challenging – I felt I was in a self-imposed prison of deprivation and worry about the future. And boredom.

But before long I saw these weeks as an experiment: I have a bit of a stubborn nature, and I wanted to prove to myself that I had the discipline to live simply and renounce some very unnecessary habits (usually involving a trip to a café!) When it was reframed like that, it became more interesting. But what was the point, really? What was I trying to prove, or achieve? I have a credit card and guaranteed work ahead, why didn’t I just put a big food shop on credit?

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Suzuki Roshi taught that, “The most important point,” and here he paused to make sure he had everyone’s full attention, “is to find…out…” another pause, “what…is…. Continue reading “The Most Important Point….”

Trying To Be A Straighter Cook

There is an instruction in the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s teaching on Loving Kindness) which says one should be ‘straightforward’. Sometimes the Pali is translated more strongly as ‘straight, very straight’. I understand this to mean not fickle.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about being committed to mindful awareness is seeing the myriad erratic and inconsistent ways that I act out, having been a slave to foolish thoughts, baseless opinions and old and outdated fears and conditioning.

At Wangapeka last weekend, when a certain person helped themselves to a handful of pistachios from the cook’s pantry, which is officially off-limits, I experienced a lot of judgement. The next day, when someone else helped themselves to a whole bowl of almonds and put it on the breakfast table for the group to share, I thought “ok, well, good on ya!”

Several people that weekend abbccakesked me for the recipe for the Roasted Banana Cheesecake we had for dessert. It IS pretty epic! Depending on my mood, my relationship to the person, how busy I was, how long since I’d last had a cup of tea, and/or the way the wind was blowing, I either joyfully wrote it down with genuine enthusiasm and delight, or I said “no, sorry” and various options in between. I couldn’t help but get curious – why was my response so variable?

Following the most wonderful 10-day retreat with Sister Viranani at Te Moata last month, I’ve been chanting the Metta Sutta twice a day at the end of my meditation practise. Perhaps it’s my intention to be more ‘straight’ which has meant I’ve started really noticing all the ways that I am not straight. In fact I’ve realised just how jagged I am.

When I am feeling challenged and hurt, it’s an old habit to close my heart and try and control things. I hope that somehow, by noticing my temperamental responses, witnessing and (reluctantly) accepting this is a part of who I currently am, the kinks will start to smooth out.

Anyway, here is the Roast Banana Cheesecake recipe. I offer it with MUCH happiness and an aspiration to always make the time to share what I have. Because I have so much, and because I know that none of it is really mine anyway. And it never feels good to be stingy.

Continue reading “Trying To Be A Straighter Cook”

The Heart of Practice

Last night I was sent a link to a TED talk – the researcher Brene Brown was talking about connection and love. She had spent around 6 years analysing 1000’s of stories and 100’s of in-depth interviews, looking into people’s responses to belonging, heartbreak, love and connection. She found that there was only ONE variable between the people who claimed they felt a strong sense of connection and belonging, and the rest – the ‘connected’ people had the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable. Brown concludes that meaningful connection happens as a result of authenticity.

I’ve heard the Zen teacher Ed Brown greet a room of students on the first evening of retreat, and share that he is feeling, in that moment, anxious. “But you’ve been doing Zen for 40 years and you still feel anxious, what’s your problem?” he mockingly berates himself. “I’m a human being” he reminds us. Don’t you love it when senior Buddhist teachers are comfortable in revealing their human-ness?!

I have started to notice a theme – Brene Brown calls it the Power of Vulnerability.

At Wangapeka we have just finished a 5 day retreat which ran with the title “Choosing Freedom”. There was a lot of deep contemplation of what those words might even mean – what is choice, and what does it mean to be free?

Language is so clunky a lot of the time. I wondered, eventually, if ‘choosing freedom’ was a potential red-herring. As soon as I choose freedom, there is something controlling, ego-driven about it. I think the purest, freest moments have been when freedom has chosen me. Or rather, freedom has chosen itself and I have gotten out of the way.

Suzuki Roshi said that our dharma practise is just to be ourselves. When we do not expect anything we can be ourselves. That is our way, to live fully in each moment.

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Continue reading “The Heart of Practice”

Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

I don’t like making mistakes. I learnt when I was very young that the way to get approval from my parents was to do well in school exams. So I studied hard, and regurgitated the info that the teachers gave me… and got lots of A+’s. I wasn’t really learning anything fundamentally useful, but that didn’t seem to bother me or my parents. I wasn’t making mistakes, and that seemed to be important.

But this strategy isn’t working for me anymore. I can devise a menu plan and work on my recipes, but with so many variables (mainly of the human-kind) there is always a dish waiting to be ruined. The belief that I’ve failed feels kind of raw. It’s very unpleasant. My first reaction, the reaction to the feeling of raw vulnerable-ness in my heart, is obviously (!) to blame someone else – the kitchen assistant, the person who distracted me at a critical moment – or even something else – the oven, the blunt knives, the humidity (yes really!!).

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And of course there is no one actually to blame but myself, but that’s even more painful. Who wants to feel that incapable? Maybe I should never have been hired as a Chef, I am definitely, totally incompetent.

Pema Chodron chose the topic of failure for her commencement speech at Naropa University in 2014.  Her speech was entitled Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. I thought it was interesting that she wanted to prepare these young adults for the failures they would experience, and not take the more usual approach of emphasising the desirability of success. Classic buddhist! Continue reading “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”

Earthquake! Tornado! Armaggedon! 

It could happen any time.

Earthquake, tornado, Armageddon.

It could you know.

Or: sunshine, love, salvation.

It could happen.

That’s why we get up in the morning and look out.

There are no guarantees in this life.

But there are some bonuses.

Like morning, like noon. Like right now.

Two days before my partner and I were about to head off for a month-long holiday in Indonesia, we both had the same question arise in our minds – why? Continue reading “Earthquake! Tornado! Armaggedon! “

Pure & Perfect Soup, The Great Teacher

I’m going to share with you an old Italian soup recipe. It has only 5 simple ingredients and simmers for just 10 minutes. It costs less than a dollar per serving, yet is a life-changer! What are your expectations? I came across it on Food52 who labelled it ‘genius’ – opinions are divided.

The recipe is credited to the father of the legendary, Italian-American cookery writer Marcella Hazan. Marcella was born in 1924 in northern Italy, so we can confidently say that this recipe belongs to a certain era and tradition. It’s said, that from necessity as well as inclination, Marcella’s father, Giuseppe, was an extremely frugal cook. At the time, apparently the most expensive ingredient in this soup was the salt. The context is important and should be taken into consideration before we judge it.

Or on the other hand, we could decide to not judge it. We could just cook it and offer it with love and sincerity. Receive it with love and sincerity. Maybe it’s a bit bland, or maybe it’s heavenly, but we are a step closer to magnanimous mind. But it’s soooo hard not to judge, isn’t it?

In the Tenzo Kyōkun, Zen Master Dōgen taught that we should handle all food with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor. ‘A dish is not superior because you have made it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens,’ Dōgen teaches. Why is this attitude so important?

Continue reading “Pure & Perfect Soup, The Great Teacher”