The Essentials

Easter greetings from my bubble to yours!

Life is pretty simple right now. “Stay home, break the chain, save lives” has been the message of our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and overall the level of compliance to the lockdown in NZ has been remarkable. Simple is good; we can all understand simple.

Two weeks into a lockdown, we’ve all been distilling our lives into only the essentials and it has been an interesting journey. If we are not in the health services; connected with the food supply chain; a scientist or a vet; then most likely we are currently deemed non-essential workers and we’ve been told we must stay at home. I, along with 130,000 other hospitality workers, am part of that non-essential set. How does that make us feel?! Anyone whose self-worth is enmeshed with their job might feel a little rattled.

This is certainly one way of looking at ‘essential’ and it’s foolhardy to argue against the NZ government right now considering how they are currently not just flattening the curve but squashing it. 

Continue reading “The Essentials”

4 Week Retreat – Day Two

Welcome back to the most infrequently written blog on the internet! Thanks for opening the email, I’m certainly happy to reconnect with you all.

I don’t want to write about you-know-what; I want to write about the 4-week retreat I have just started, here in my staff-house at Aro-Hā.

Day One of the retreat was a bit bumpy. It was hard to be away from friends and disengage from the life I had planned.  My mind was very restless. I was still figuring out the schedule, the practicalities of cooking, cleaning and exercising, and how to use the space I share with my house-mate wisely so neither of us triggered an outburst of afflictive emotions in the other; if at all possible. The fact that I hadn’t signed up for this 4-week retreat contributed to Day One being a little vexing.

When I think back a couple of weeks, how I had imagined this month playing out is just about as far removed from today’s reality as is possible. It’s fair to say that I thought I was in control of some very exciting and well laid plans that had been years in the making. Anyway, not so much, it turns out.

Day Two of the retreat has been way more relaxing, clear and calm. Why? Because I have stopped calling this situation a lockdown. This shift has been the biggest help. The re-framing of my physical isolation has triggered a shift in my mindset in other ways too. Continue reading “4 Week Retreat – Day Two”

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”

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….”