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”

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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…”

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….”

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”

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”

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”