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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What Was Said To The Rose

All is well up here at Aro-Hā in Glenorchy. We’ve had more snowfall and winter storms, but also amazing blue skies, dramatic sunrises and this week, beautiful new bird-song. Two more retreats have come and gone, and guests have left feeling energised and with renewed purpose.

A friend here told me last week that, about a week after initiating a daily habit of drinking kombucha, she noticed that she really began to crave it. Simultaneously, apparently her desire for sugar and carbohydrates disappeared – she was suggesting that her body, her inner wisdom, was somehow communicating with her consciousness about what she needs to be well.

For a long time, the scientific community were unwilling to go along with this idea – that our bodies have an intelligence that informs us of specific nutrient deficiencies. But recently, there has been evidence that at some level this IS happening, and it’s happening not via our cells or nervous system but via our gut flora; the good and bad bacteria that inhabit our digestive tracts. The scientific medical community are even referring to our micro biome as a ‘second brain’. This is one reason to be motivated to improve your gut health – they say that the make-up of our gut bacteria can transform rapidly – within hours of a meal or drink!

I’ve always been interested in this idea of inner wisdom, or intuition. It’s really interesting to me that in many dharma traditions, the pali / sanskrit word ‘citta’ is translated at times as ‘brain’ and at other times as ‘heart’. We don’t really know where wisdom comes from do we…. maybe it’s also our guts!

Still on the subject of inner wisdom, I was thinking about all this today, while drinking kombucha and listening to a dharma talk given by Ed Brown. He was talking about a time when Suzuki Roshi said to a room full of his students: Continue reading “What Was Said To The Rose”

I Am Not A Chef

Earlier today I watched the episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, featuring the Korean Buddhist Nun, Jeong Kwan.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Kwan, here’s a very short intro. At the age of 17 she presented herself at the entrance to a buddhist monastery and asked to be ordained as a nun. Ever since she has lived at Baekyangsa Temple, 169 miles south of Seoul, and in addition to spending many many hours every day in meditation, she takes care of all the meals. She came to global prominence after Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert met her during his research trip to Korea. That was back in 2014, and Ripert has since brought her to New York to cook for the city’s foodie elite. It’s been said that her food is ‘life changing’, and on a par with the food being created at any of the world’s top restaurants today.

As I watched the episode, I became aware that I was yearning for the bit where we are offered something concrete from her repertoire – just one complete recipe maybe, or a close up of one of her gentle and elaborate techniques. How long did she ferment her kimchi for, and what exactly are those spices that she says are essential? But nothing was offered other than serene images of her tending her garden, adding the finishing touches to a lotus flower tea, or talking in the most compassionate and respectful terms about her parents.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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