Coffee Meditations

Coffee really is a marvellous thing.

In the 16th century, Sheik Abd-al-Kadir wrote:

Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility….Take time in your preparations of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. 

Since visiting coffee shops wasn’t an option during the pandemic lockdown, I have become very devoted to, and appreciative of, my dependable espresso machine at home. Making a daily flat-white has taken on an almost sacred significance that I’m reluctant to set aside.

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Continue reading “Coffee Meditations”

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. 

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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….”

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”

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”