… but I really wanted some cake!

As unlikely as this sounds (coming from someone who is a mindfulness enthusiast and a chef) I’ve never really wanted to explore mindful eating as a stand-alone practise. My predominant experience, being on the receiving end of this exercise, is to feel increasing frustration as I watch my meal getting cold. Meanwhile, the teacher talks reverently (and very slowly) about how mindfulness can enhance our enjoyment of the food we are about to eat. Rather than be encouraged to stay mindful of my feelings (which may have something to teach me) I am directed to delight in the food’s visual magnificence, and to contemplate all the people involved in preparing our breakfast and to feel gratitude. All I can think about is how much more grateful I would feel if the porridge was hot. And as a chef I can promise you, the best compliment is when guests tuck in with gusto.

It can be easy to lampoon ‘McMindfulness’ at times. When you’ve had a taste of the profound potential of mindfulness, being subjected to a “I know, let’s add on a mindful eating exercise to today’s lunch!” is as disappointing as limp salad that’s sat around for 20 unnecessary minutes. But I’m willing to re-think this and it’s been a very fruitful investigation.

Continue reading “… but I really wanted some cake!”

I Dreamt It Into Existence

If I’m honest, I’ve been ready for a change for quite a time. I have been living and working in the same (astonishingly wonderful) place for more than 3 years, and it’s so nearly my dream come true, but not quite.

Lockdown for me was such a rich period for reflection and for getting clear on what was important to me. Probably, even if you were busy working from home, or home-schooling, the very nature of the enforced change of routine prompted us all to do some serious soul-searching.

During the retreat (sorry, lockdown), I heard the poet David Whyte talk about a letter that John Keats had written to a friend, which included the line, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections”, and I immediately burst into tears.

Maybe you think Keats is referring to some romantic infatuation, but he’s talking about something way more important than that. He’s talking about what lives in our hearts as our fundamental truth. How, what we care about in this world, the path we chose and how we express ourselves, is nothing less than the actual conversation we are having with life itself. This is what we need to take incredibly serious. Holy AF.

Continue reading “I Dreamt It Into Existence”

Hermit Life

I was really grumpy this morning. It wasn’t my fault – someone really pissed me off (by email!!), and quite frankly they should know better than to be so rude.

I messaged a friend, suggesting that we continue the hermit-life for the long haul…. who wouldn’t want to continue living in solitude thereby avoiding annoying human interactions for, like, ever? My friend is up for some hermit goings-on, but I had a quick look online and retreat accomodation is outrageously expensive so it’s not looking like an option. Thoreau’s hut is almost certainly $500 a night on AirBnB, who can afford to be a hermit contemplative these days? Continue reading “Hermit Life”

Day 4: Hope

Today I offered to make some cinnamon brioche for the 8 bubble-buddies I’m self isolating with (sorry, on retreat with) for our breakfast tomorrow morning. I mixed the milk, butter, yeast, eggs, sugar and flour, and then spent the next 20 minutes watching the dough thinking, “I hope it rises”. Their breakfast, and more crucially my reputation was at stake!

I reflected on how often hope is beside me in the kitchen. Hope that the food delivery arrives, hope that I don’t drop a pan of soup or burn the quinoa, hope that the dishes taste yum and are ready on time. The more significant the situation, the more tightly my fingers are crossed.

I know that a lot of us have our fingers crossed very tightly right now, which got me thinking about hope. Hope doesn’t make it on to the list of the Buddha’s 10 Perfections, or the 7 Factors of Awakening, and it’s not a stage on the 8-Fold Path. From a Buddhist point of view, hope seems more akin to desire. Like a unsubstantiated wish, we can hope and pray for a good outcome all we like, but wishing doth butter no parsnips! Ordinary hope, like a fear that the brioche dough won’t rise, is also a subtle form of suffering.

 

Dostoyevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.” Is there a wise way to harness hope? Continue reading “Day 4: Hope”

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…”

Temple Medicine

Possibly the most inspiring thing I’ve ever heard, and definitely something which has influenced my life’s journey, was told to me around 17 years ago. At that time I was neither a chef nor a Buddhist (or any kind of contemplative) and knew nothing of natural medicine or nutrition. I was at a university lecture on the topic of natural medicine (which I was contemplating studying) and the professor began his talk with a brief reference to Temple Medicine. Although I remember nothing else about that lecture, (or anything else particularly from 2002!)  the notion of Temple Medicine has never been surpassed in my mind as a model for healing. And I think my working life since has been a subconscious search for modern day equivalents.   

Dating back to the ancient Greek civilisation, these healing temples – known collectively as Asclepeion Temples after the Greek God of Medicine; Asclepius – were basically ancient retreat centres. These temples were often located in secluded locations surrounded by beautiful scenery, like modern spas or maybe a bit like Aro-Hā! Continue reading “Temple Medicine”

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?

lumber

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”