In life, you’re given certain ingredients, says Edward Espe Brown. So when are you going to get cooking?
See cooking as a chore or a waste of time, and you will find the task tedious—so tiresome that you will probably not even get into the kitchen! See cooking as an opportunity to develop new skills, to learn as you go, to nourish and feed yourself, family, and friends, and your activity in the kitchen will likely flourish. Shift from your head to your heart and hands, your body and being, and you will tend to discover connection, a home ground for purifying your love, moments of meeting the Beloved, and opportunities for further renewal. What are you doing with your life? How will you choose to see things?
Often we characterize activities with all-embracing designations. Cooking is tiresome. Meditation is boring. Psychedelics are mind-altering. Surfing is a blast. Rock climbing is invigorating. A massage is relaxing. Sex is heavenly. Whatever we characterize with blanket descriptions, Suzuki Roshi reminded us, “It’s not always so.”
You are bringing the sacred alive.
At least as important as the activity itself is what we implicitly bring with us when we move into action: the way we see the world and how we go about doing things. Yes, we take to some activities and not to others. Yet one most basic point of emphasis in Zen (and Buddhism) is that when we think our happiness depends on manipulating our activities to maximize the pleasurable ones and minimize those we find unpleasant, we will suffer. Because it’s an inherently flawed strategy—it cannot be accomplished. The dishes remain unwashed and continue to stare back at you.
As you attempt to increase the positive moments and decrease the negative ones, you put yourself in the passive position of being powerless as experiences inflict themselves upon you. How then will you stand your ground with some strength and equanimity, digesting the various moments of your life?
The important shift here is to value the darkness as well as your capacity to develop skills to handle whatever the moment brings and to get to work—or start cooking, as it were. In other words, work means not just work in the world. You will also be working on how you see things, on what kind of effort you make, on whether or not you persevere. The activity is not in charge. You are. You have choice.
Sure, sometimes you turn to do something else. Yet other times you get to work, you work through it, you see it through, and in the process, you undergo transformation.
If cooking is “tiresome,” then while you are thinking that “this cooking is tiresome,” you will probably not notice any of the aspects of cooking that might be engaging, beautiful, or energizing. You will probably cook in a repetitive manner, completing assigned tasks without any sense of curiosity or discovery, without truly engaging your life-force energy, without understanding how to bring your body and spirit alive in the kitchen. In other words, cooking will be tiresome because you are doing it in a tiresome way. You’re only putting in your time until you can get to somewhere your awareness can be carried along, or if all goes well, swept away. Often then, when you return to the rest of your life, it can seem even grayer—because you still have more to learn about how to meet and engage the ingredients of life.
If meditation is “boring,” who said that? Who must be busy looking elsewhere for more energizing experiences rather than entering more deeply into the moment as it is? Who is not finding the way to connect what is inside with what is outside and instead is wishing for salvation or escape, whether it be in the form of the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock and roll or the allures of entertainment or enlightenment? Who is it that prefers something big and powerful to provide a sense of flight (or at least height) to coming to a standstill and having to be with oneself? And who might agree to work with this seemingly inadequate self? With careful examination, perhaps you realize that you are a great candidate for this work of re-parenting yourself, of becoming your own best friend.
Boredom can be a precursor to more intimately engaging with the present moment. Instead of busily dismissing the moment with a condescending, “Hey, meditation, you don’t do it for me,” you shift to, “What more can I find out? Is there something I’m missing? Tell me more.” You open, or allow, for something bigger.
While you are busy being bored—that is, not finding the excitement and stimulation you are looking for—often you will not be noticing how much you are abandoning yourself in the process. While you are busy looking elsewhere, what is apparent is not yet realized. Realization is everywhere. And you? Where are you spending your time? Daydreaming about being elsewhere? Or digging in and finding the black dragon jewel exactly here.
Naturally we find some activities uplifting and others troublesome, but we will discover more freedom for ourselves when we do not make universal statements that leave us out of the equation. When we realize that the things we do are not just things but our behavior, then we may also realize we have the power to change our life by changing the way we do things rather than what we do.
I know that changing what we do—breaking out of unsatisfying relationships or leaving jobs that don’t value our gifts—can also be an important life task, but when it’s our only option, we’re probably limiting our choices. Wherever you go, there you are, so finally, we’re deciding if where we are is a good place to work on our problems, to develop new skills or tools, or “to have the right kind of trouble.” Finding the space where you can learn and grow, entering the space where you can belong rather than just fit in means that your life can go forward. You are bringing the sacred alive.
Baking bread may seem like it’s too much work, but as one of my students once shared, “Baking bread seemed like a way to re-own my life from corporate America.”
Connecting what is inside with what is outside, the inner world with the outer one, is the work of a lifetime, work that is often carried on deep beneath the surface of a world of surfaces.
In outer reality, where images loudly shout their self-importance and claim undue amounts of attention, where will you choose to put your attention? On crafting your image? Or working with the ingredients you’re given, doing what you came here to do?
Suzuki Roshi would ask us to discover, “What is your inmost request?” Still I continue to study how to awaken ears to hear what is most intimate, to listen to the oceanic silence within. That I may follow that innermost unspoken resolve. That I may give it voice. Giving voice to our inmost request is pivotal for giving it life. Then we can make it real for all the world to see. Then the world comes forward to meet your inner vow.
Over the years, I have found one inmost request after another—and often my practice has been to work on these intentions in the kitchen:
I want to learn how to bake bread and teach others how.
I want to breathe easy.
I want to feel simply and reliably okay about being here, being at home here. Whether or not I have problems or difficulties.
I wish for intimate connection with others, with food, with the work at hand.
I long to sense what is sacred, calm, clear, and precious.
I want to stand my ground. Speak my truth. I will learn to love myself, others, and the world the way I have always wanted to be loved.
Spiritual work in this context means giving voice to what is innermost and connecting that to the outer world. We are called to be even larger-hearted than we could possibly imagine. Loving what is less than perfect. Let’s get on with it, shall we?
Excerpted from No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice, by Edward Espe Brown. Reprinted with permission from Sounds True.