Yesterday, I spent the morning as a volunteer, cooking lunch for a day-long meditation retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center. It got me to thinking about service, silence, and letting go. About support, refuge, community, and the best way to be helpful.
All these thoughts (and more!) gathered in the steam like angels or ghosts as I stood at the stove, stirring a gigantic pot full of split pea soup. Zen kitchens are basically silent, with a few concessions for functional speech like giving directions and asking questions. You are also encouraged to only do what you're asked to do, nothing more. The instructions are often very precise: scrub these carrots with this particular brush in this specific sink; cut them this size, fill the container up to this line; label the container like this, put it on that shelf.
This precision, this attention to detail, is on one hand very practical, especially when serving eighty people three meals a day, but it's also a training in mindfulness, in caring for everything, even the carrots, even the brush you used to scrub the carrots.
There's also a sense of refuge in that precision. I don't have to figure everything out for myself. I can drop, if even for a few hours, the need to be vigilant and in control, and just focus on the simple task at hand. There's a sense of peace in doing this, a letting go of self-concern that I've grown to value and appreciate.
Where it can get sticky or veer off in the wrong direction is using that precision as a marker for right or wrong, correct or incorrect, perfect or a horrible mess. Precision is not something to measure ourselves up against. It's not perfection. It's just a request to pay attention and take care the best way you can.The spirit of a zen kitchen is to treat every task equally, be it peeling carrots, making coffee, sweeping the floor. The idea is to be present to your experience, without judgement. It also a great way to be helpful. When the head cook asks me to start washing the teetering pile of pots and pans in the corner, I just say OK. When I finish, I tell her I'm free and she gives me the next task, making eight gallons of split pea soup.
So slowly, bit by bit, and together with my fellow crew members, lunch is built. Basmati rice, the soup, a simple green salad. The atmosphere in the kitchen becomes, as the Buddhists say, one mind with many hands. It's amazing what can get done with that kind of shared vision and companionship.
Towards the end of my shift, stirring the large pot of soup, I thought of Haiti and felt a deep and immediate sensation in my belly of how fortunate I was, surrounded by food and warmth. How I was sheltered, able, and how full of choice and possibility my life is. So rich, so precious, and (one of Haiti's deepest lessons) so fleeting.
What to do, then, with those twin thoughts of abundance and devastation, mindfulness and chaos, living and dying? What is it to be awake, upright and helpful? What is most needed right here, in this moment? Ah, yes. I pick up a ladle, plunge it into the soup and start serving up.
(Images: Dana Velden)