Category Archives: Food

Beginner’s Mind

When my yoga teacher asked the class to set an intention for the day’s practice yesterday, the words “beginner’s mind,” floated into my head. It’s a phrase I have heard a few times since I began mindfulness meditation a year-and-a-half ago, but being a meditation novice, it hadn’t meant very much to me. Here it was making an appearance on my yoga mat, a place where I have spent many hours and developed more than a beginner’s mentality.

Beginner’s mind is a Buddhist notion that encourages a person to constantly look with fresh eyes. The famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Suzuki Roshi seen above, opens with this saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

While trying out beginner’s mind, I experienced a different yoga class than I expected. I practiced as if I had never done it before, asking myself questions like, “What is this pose trying to get me to do with my body? Where should my foot really be? How is my breathing now? What does this feel like?” At one point I looked over to the clock and the 75 minute class was almost over. It felt like I had been there for half the time.

From Suzuki Roshi’s book:

In the beginner’s mind, there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

To my surprise, the intention carried forth outside the yoga studio and throughout the rest of my day. When it came time to cook dinner, I considered ordering Chinese food because I felt fresh out of ideas and inspiration. Then “beginner’s mind” popped up and I went to the pantry, pulled out a jar filled with orzo, and decided to make something with it precisely because it was an ingredient I had not used much before.

Forty minutes later I sat at the table with my two kids eating steaming bowls of orzo risotto and peas. I like this beginner’s mind. It feels spontaneous, open, and curious. Suzuki Roshi says the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. “This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner,” he writes. “Be very, very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”

No Judgment Day

For those waiting for the Rapture, this weekend was pretty much a bust. Personally, I wasn’t expecting much by way of the end of the world, but I have been thinking lately about accountability.

At a recent Buddhist meditation class, the teacher led us all in a recitation of the five precepts. These are Buddhist ethical guidelines that describe the effort to live a harm-free life. When spoken out loud, the practitioner sets an intention not to kill or take life, not to steal or take that which is not freely given, not to use sexual energy to manipulate others or disturb intact relationships, not to speak in a manner that is harsh or untrue, and not to take intoxicants that will cloud the mind from seeing clearly.

The precepts are considered to be recommendations, rather than commandments, offering the practitioner some direction in life without the threat of a judgy God watching over. But it isn’t as simple as do it or don’t, if you feel like it. There is, in both Buddhism and Judaism, a sense of accountability.

In Buddhism, there is the well-known concept of karma, which identifies that there are future consequences for our moral actions. On its surface it seems like a cause and effect idea, where the choices I make now will produce likely outcomes. If I am a liar, people won’t trust me. If I steal, I could be arrested, etc.

But what happens if the transgression isn’t overtly realized? With no judgy God, is there accountability? I am coming think the answer is yes. I went to hear a talk the other night by Howard Cohn, who leads the Mission Dharma of San Francisco. He said the way to begin to have happiness–the kind the Buddha taught, that is lasting happiness–is to live a good life.

Cohn talked about the reverberations that come back to us from actions that are harmful. Whether these are thoughts, words, or deeds, if they are greedy, angry, or lustful, they result in our own agitation and suffering. To help quiet the mind, develop concentration and mindfulness, it is very useful to think and act in ways that produce more calm effects.

In this way, accountability is largely with yourself. You can create more suffering for yourself or not, based on the moral choices you make. The precepts described above give guidance on how to create less suffering for yourself and others in your daily  life. In this essay on karma and reincarnation, it says that moral accountability is akin to other natural processes.

At its core, therefore, Buddhism has a sense of moral justice, though there is no overseeing arbiter or judge, and no judgment day as such. It might be better to see the process of karma as a natural phenomenon. If you look after a fruit tree carefully, pruning it at the right time and feeding it appropriately, good fruit ensues. If you fail to look after it properly then it will not bear fruit or the fruit will be sparse. In short, we reap the rewards of what we do that is wholesome, and suffer for what we do that is unwholesome.

In Judaism, there is a notion of responsibility which also speaks to the cause and effect of our actions. In the book, Everyday Holiness, which describes the Jewish spiritual path known as Mussar, it says, “We humans are unique among creatures in being able to anticipate consequences to the extent that we can, and as a result, we bear responsibility for our actions…the message here is clear that each of us is called upon to take responsibility now for what we will cause to happen after.” What matters most, Mussar teachers say, is how we relate to other people. So in addition to having responsibility for the moral consequences of our actions, we also must “bear the burden of the other,” or seek the benefit of the other in every possible circumstance.

As a parent, there is something that resonates with me in this concept of responsibility. I find myself every day doing things I don’t necessarily want to do, but that I do anyway to benefit my kids or my family. I have come to accept that I am part of something greater and even though I am sometimes frustrated, annoyed, or grumpy about my obligations, in my finer moments I am grateful for the role I play in this family unit.

I think this is probably a model for how I could come to feel as a human being in general, feeling connected to and serving the greater good of all people. And perhaps, as the Buddhists teach, not only for people, but for the benefit of all living beings. The teachers say this is the way towards happiness. Maybe even, a form of rapture.

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Cooking in the Dark

In a fundamental way, I feel at home in the kitchen. It is the place where I can get my bearings. If I’m agitated and anxious, I don’t really want to be there. I don’t want to be anywhere, but when I face the stove, suddenly I know this. I can start to deal with it. Likewise, if I am happy and want to spend some time doing something I love, I will often begin to dream up food I want to make.

I discovered this one summer working as a cook at Farm & Wilderness camps in Vermont. F&W is a Quaker place, where silent meetings are held everyday and simple work is valued. It was there in the kitchen, without music or radio to distract me, that I began to sense the connection between making food and some core truth in me.

Food is an important part of spiritual practice. In Judaism there are strict rules around the acquisition, preparation, and eating of food. The rules, known as kashrut, are the body of Jewish law that deal with what foods can and cannot be eaten and how those foods must be prepared. It is not a cuisine or a style of cooking.

In the chapter called “What Jews Eat,” in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant writes: “Perhaps the most compelling explanation [for the rules of kashrut] is the idea, restated in modern times by Martin Buber, that kashrut hallows the everyday. The intent of kashrut is not to deny the body’s needs or pleasures, but to turn a natural function into a holy act.”

Another explanation is that it is meant to instill a reverence for life, especially animal life. “The biblical mandate not to ’cause pain to any living creature,’ has been cited as an explanation for the rules of ritual slaughter and as a justification for Jewish vegetarianism,” she writes. Importantly, the rules of kashrut require paying attention to what you are doing.

I recently attended a class on Mindful Eating, taught by a longtime practitioner at Seattle Insight Meditation Society. She introduced us to the work of a number of Buddhists who have a special interest in food and cooking. One of them, Jan Chozen Bays, is a Zen priest and pediatrician, who writes and teaches seminars on the topic.

Bays talks about the seven hungers in the body. These hungers exist in the eyes, nose, mouth, stomach, cells of the body, mind, and heart. How food looks, smells, and tastes can all lead us to eat, regardless of the hunger in our stomach. Our sudden cravings for certain foods when our bodies need a specific nutrient and our emotional needs that we try to meet through food also contribute to our eating habits. Within these, there is ample room for developing mindfulness, Bays says. Why am I wanting this food right now and is this a desire I want to pursue? Can I meet this need or hunger some other way that might be more satisfying?

Our teacher also introduced us to the work of Edward Espe Brown, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and an accomplished chef. In this article, he talks about becoming mindful in the kitchen. He begins by describing the Zen notion of “feeling your way in the dark,” being careful and sensitive to what is happening. “Your capacity for cooking will grow and develop from your devotion to being in the dark, not knowing what to do, but carefully finding your way,” he writes. “You enter the kitchen and become intimate with cooking through cooking.”

Our ordinary effort is to dream up a picture of how we want things to be, and endeavor to make it come true. Now, in the dark, you feel your way along, and your wisdom flashes: a salad, a soup; the virtue of spinach, apple, and walnut speaks to you. The body becomes alive because you are doing something. Yes, it’s good to stop and sit and allow the usual impulses for motion an opportunity to move inwardly instead of outwardly — beautiful work there. Yet the hands love to be hands. You give them life by allowing them to find out how to do things — how to wash and cut, stir and knead, ladle and mop.

He advises cooks to put recipes aside and instead engage directly with ingredients. In this Q&A article, he discusses how to do this. “In cooking classes I emphasize adding one ingredient at a time and tasting before and after, so you start to know for yourself what each ingredient is doing,” he says. “If you just put everything in the pot and taste it, you don’t know why it tastes like it does. You don’t know what each ingredient is doing. If you add one ingredient at a time and taste it, you start to know what a spice or seasoning can do.”

I am generally a cook who likes to follow recipes. It will be different for me to find my way in the dark without that guidance. I think I’ll start with that eggplant in the fridge.

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