The Warmth of Autumn

Although the days are hot and sunny, I’m already conscious of the onset of autumn.

We are one week in to a 30-day retreat, and the atmosphere is calm and settled. I’m really appreciating seeing the ways that the retreatants are supporting each other; checking-in to see how everyone’s doing, having quiet conversations, sharing the chores, talking about the teachings. Everyone has slowed down (even the bumble bees) and the sun is getting up much later now too.

I was reminded of the time I was practising in one of the monasteries in Burma. Although we spent the day in total silence, around sunset we gathered in small groups of two or three and did our walking meditation outside in the cool air… and had warm conversation. In Burma I found this routine especially supportive, and I can see how the participants here are forming friendly, supportive bonds too.

Before this retreat, someone asked me what Lama Mark was like. Is he an angry person, was their first question! Continue reading “The Warmth of Autumn”

The True Spirit Of Our Food

I’ve felt a bit of an internal shift happening in the last month, and I’ve noticed some new and spirited thoughts & questions appearing in my mind. Actually there are two trains of thoughts chugging through, seemingly diametrically opposed, but somehow offering balance.

Today I’m sharing some thoughts on the first subject – it’s to do with learning, and to with sustainability and the environment. Because, hello people!, we are running out of time.

It seems uncanny now that I look back, that 2 years ago NZ’s Hospitality Business Magazine ran a 3-page article on me, the Riverside Cafe where I was head chef, and the S.O.L.E principles that I / we werehb_nov_2014_p26-29-copy practising. When they first telephoned me to inform me that they wanted to do the article, embarrassingly I had to ask the editor what SOLE stood for (sustainable, organic, local and ethical I soon found out!) I had never heard of that acronym before, even though apparently it was the year’s zeitgeist. I, and the community that owned Riverside Cafe and worked with me, were just managing the cafe according to what we felt were common sense ideas mixed in with our own personal sets of values. We weren’t trying to be trendy. It’s seems that article came from the future, to point me towards something that I hadn’t at the time fully grasped.

Continue reading “The True Spirit Of Our Food”

Invincibly Happy

Sometimes it seems like Buddhism encourages us, overly, to focus on the difficult. It’s all about the dukkha, so to turn our attention to the happy and the joyful moments in life is just not the way. I spent a couple of YEARS with that misconception, thinking that to enjoy dessert just wasn’t Buddhist… (please don’t make the same mistake!)

However, the Buddha talked a LOT about happiness, how to manifest it and how to relate to it. Yes, he talked about nirvana and the heavenly realms, but he spoke often about ordinary, mundane, human happiness too. In fact, the Buddha seemed to imply that happiness is so much a part of human experience, that actually, we can’t avoid it.

So, especially after last Monday’s earthquakes which ripped the South Island of NZ (and shook much of the North Island), I am in the mood to just count my blessings. I was about 275km from the epicentre, and still it was terrifying. But I am not hurt. My power and water weren’t cut off, I didn’t go without food, I drove home from Wangapeka on smooth roads that didn’t have gigantic crevasses in them like the ones in Kaikoura did, making them impassable.

roads

Continue reading “Invincibly Happy”

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.

suzuki2

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!!).

SONY DSC

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”

Life Affirming Actions part 1: Put The Kettle On

This morning I am thinking about something that Suzuki Roshi once told a group of students  – life is impossible. A student asked; then how do we do it?  You do it every day, Suzuki Roshi replied.

On these cold mornings I like to open the bedroom curtains a little then hurry back into bed and feel (imagine) the warmth of the early morning sun-rays whilst appreciating the cold beauty of the thick frosts. It’s a peaceful yet vivifying wake-up. After some time I’m ready to get out of bed, hopefully resist the lure of the internet (and all the tragic news in my inbox), and perform that supremely life-affirming action: I put the kettle on. The day may be full of emotional challenges, but it can still start gently… and with tea. HH Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, changing the world for the better begins with individuals creating inner peace within themselves, which requires warm heartedness. Start the day as you mean to go on, I say.

Guy, who was the Land-Caretaker at Wangapeka for several years, has just published a fantastic book of humorous, engaging and heart-warming short essays about his experience, which speak to this. Here’s one of my favourites:

Continue reading “Life Affirming Actions part 1: Put The Kettle On”

How To Cook In The Dark

Suzuki Roshi said that Zen is like feeling your way along in the dark. I think this means – go slowly, go carefully. Keep all your senses open, feel your way with tenderness. Pay more attention to where you are now rather than focusing on the destination.

I’ve been hibernating of sorts lately and not doing much, or so it would appear. This is not that typical of me really, I am often more of a “get out of my way I have somewhere I need to be!” type of person, and how different it feels to take tiny steps (or no steps) instead of rushing forward. I can’t really say I am able to see any progress at all.

There is an expression in Zen – take off the blinkers and take off the saddle bags; i.e.  you’ve arrived. Unpack. There is no further destination to focus on, your belongings can spill out of the saddle bags. Sit still. Take a look at what you’ve got. What serves you? What might actually be unnecessary baggage?

Cooking wise, I’ve been loving Emma Galloway’s latest book A Year In My Real Food Kitchen and have made many successful meals, led by her hand. It can sometimes feel too much of a stretch to try out brand new recipes when we’re low on energy, doubtful, but I also find that following the guidance of someone you trust feels very supportive, a way of being kind to yourself.

Continue reading “How To Cook In The Dark”

Beauty is life unveiled

In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote “beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil”

Winter in NZ is just as beautiful as any other season, and with some time off work I find myself nourished by beauty, along with a feeling that I have been in a beauty-drought for some time (although actually I have just been too distracted, too veiled, to notice it.)

When I pause to appreciate and even celebrate beauty – in nature, in art, in music, in people, then I relax a little more, feel more connected, feel more joyful. So how to connect with the beauty of this life without getting all graspy?

Continue reading “Beauty is life unveiled”

Matariki – happy new year!

In the Māori language, Matariki is the name of the Pleiades Star Cluster, and, the season of it’s rising which happens in NZ’s mid-winter. For many Māori, it heralds the beginning of a new year. Traditionally, Matariki is the time to ‘prepare the ground’ for the coming season, but the emphasis actually is on our inner ground – it’s a time to seed our own intentions, re-connect with old skills, and set new goals.

The three lovely parts of this can be to; first practise being present. Secondly, reflect on your purpose, what’s important to your being, and re-orient yourself as necessary. And lastly, give thanks and feel gratitude for the privileges and blessings in our lives.

When times are tough it doesn’t come easily to have these kind of positive reflections, but today I just did a simple mindfulness of breathing practise, and ended with some gratitude, and it really re-charged me. The line from the William Stafford poem ‘Cutting Loose’ came to me – “Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason, you sing”.

I have spent the last 2 weeks cooking for back to back retreats at Wangapeka. It’s a beautiful place any time of year but MY GOD it was cold at night! When I look back now at the quickly snapped photos I took of some of the meals, I’m kind of stunned how colourful everything was. Even in the ‘bleak mid-winter’, there were bursts of rainbow colours in every meal, and heaps of gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. Always something to smile about seems to be the message.

I didn’t get a picture of our Ginger-Roasted-Pumpkin à la Emma Galloway, but here is the link to her site with the recipe and some gorgeous pictures. She serves it muddled with quinoa and herbs, but on this retreat I served it with couscous and all the beautiful rainbow chard shown above. Perfect winter lunch.

I sign off with William Stafford’s poem, and all my best wishes for the new year. May all beings be happy.

Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason,
you sing. For no reason, you accept
the way of being lost, cutting loose
from all else and electing a world
where you go where you want to.

Arbitrary, a sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound
will tell where it is, and you
can slide your way past trouble.

Certain twisted monsters
always bar the path—but that’s when
you get going best, glad to be lost,
learning how real it is
here on the earth, again and again.