There are as many ways to approach the stove as there are ways to kneel and kiss the ground, to paraphrase Rumi. Some of us are optimists and when we cook we engage in hope and a desire to nourish, finding pleasure in feeding and being fed, providing ourselves and our loved ones with the strength to carry on, all which are optimistic notions. Some of us are perhaps a little more pessimistic, although I would argue that cooking well is basically a optimistic endeavor—but is this true? Pessimists, please plead your case in the comments!
But sometimes, often, we cook out of duty. We have a family to feed, or some sort of entertaining debt to pay off, or even our own bellies to fill. Sometimes the day-in, day-out obligation to get something on the table is nothing more than that: an obligation, especially when purse strings are tight and there's no escaping it through a stop at a restaurant or take out. It can feel like drudgery, or at least very hard work, and have I used the word 'relentless' yet? We only stop eating when we're dead, or nearly dead. So there's really no end to it.
I have no problem with cooking out of duty or drudgery -- I hardly expect every single moment of my life to be imbued with the glow of hope and vision and pleasure. And let's face it: life is largely about maintenance, and eating and cleaning and finding shelter can fall squarely under that category. In fact, it's this 'chop wood, carry water' pragmatism that makes cooking all the more enjoyable for me. It grounds me, literally, to the ways in which I am simply an animal on this planet, engaged in something that all animals everywhere are also doing: rustling up something for dinner.
What to do, then, when your time in the kitchen is boring, when it's just nothing-special, everyday grub? The chopping of another onion, the peeling of carrot after carrot. Another day, another pot roast. In the Zen kitchens I've cooked in, these moments are considered a golden opportunity to wake up to the nature of our conditioned thinking. In Zen, every moment is brand new and all activity is the ground for awakening. You may be faced with the monumental task of chopping five gallons of vegetables for that afternoon's soup, but each broccoli is a new broccoli, each carrot is very different from the other carrot. So you take the long view and approach the task one carrot, one onion, one broccoli at a time. If you can manage to see that, to stay aware and attentive, there is no boredom, there is no stale routine. Or if there is, it kind of doesn't matter. This is easier said than done, I know (boy, do I know), but it's not impossible.
So awareness, attention, appreciation can be brought to any task, be it scrubbing the sink or taking out the compost or creating a gorgeous 5-layer birthday cake for your best friend. The layer cake may seem more fun and challenging but the truth is, it's all good, it's all life, it's all awakened, precious, alive-on-the-planet activity. You just have to remember to see it that way.
So the next time something you're doing seems like nothing more than obligation and duty, the next time you sigh with boredom at the thought of getting together yet another meal or find yourself wanting to swerve into the Burger King parking lot instead of facing another evening in the kitchen, remember that one of the few things we have control over in this life is our attitude, our perspective, the heft and quality of our mind. Yes, it might be a boring or menial chore but just approach it one chopped onion, one peeled carrot at a time and maybe, just maybe, you'll catch a glimpse of the treasures hidden there.
At the very least, you'll end up with dinner and what's more precious and necessary than that?
Related: Weekend Meditation: Playfulness
(Image: Dana Velden)