Recently, several people from a class I was involved in decided to cook a meal for about 40 residents of an urban Zen center. Our focus was on mindful attention, doing one thing completely, and not bringing our small selves (ego) into the mix. Zen kitchens discourage idle chatter so with the exception of giving and receiving instructions, we agreed to keep completely silent during our afternoon together. We gathered after lunch, washed our hands, put on our aprons and got to work.
The menu had been planned in advance and mapped out on a "cut sheet." The large walk-in cooler was well stocked with cases of organic chard and carrots and fennel. As we completed each task, we methodically checked it off the cut sheet and moved on to wash dishes until the next task was assigned. For long stretches of time, the only sounds were thumping knives, the crunch of chard being torn from its stem, the splash of dishwater.
A deep communication is cultivated when a group of people work silently together and because we weren't replying on our usual chatter and projections, a more elemental, almost tribal, bond was formed. We moved around the kitchen and in relation to each other with a easy, natural choreography. There's a Zen expression that says "many hands, one mind" and that experience was a strong presence in the kitchen that day.
Last week I visited an old friend (the most creative and improvisational cook I know) in his funky Mission District apartment. Our plan was to cook all day and eat all night, and that's just what we did. We had the music blaring non-stop, a keg of beer on tap, children and dogs running around, three grills fired up in the back yard and an endless stream of friends stopping in bearing gifts from their early spring gardens (thereby causing numerous last-minute menu changes.) It couldn't have been further away from the Zen kitchen. But not really. It's common to equate Zen with imperturbability, like a placid and serene island...or so the marketing executives want us to believe. But another way to look at it is that Zen is essentially about being fully present for whatever is happening in the moment. The request isn't to be above it all, but to be open, alive, present, and engaged right there in the middle of everything. It may be easier to achieve this in careful silence but it's equally important to find it in the middle of madness and mayhem. So I'm grateful to have both the silent kitchen and the all-day, all-night cooking circus in my life. To hold them both as an authentic expression of what it is to be human and alive, and to bow in appreciation of my good fortune to share this narrow sliver of time with so many wonderful people. May it be this way for you, too.