Friday, August 26, 2011

Secret Ingredients

I'm considering doing a retreat with Bernie Glassman. He wrote the book Instructions to the Cook, which uses cooking as an analogy for his Zen teaching.  This inspires me to blog about a mindfulness-cooking analogy. 
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
There are some stews that don't quite taste right until you add salt.  And then, when you add just a teaspoon of salt to a big pot of stew, it becomes delicious.  You could give a child two different cups of the stew to compare, one cup without the salt, and one cup with the salt. The child might not be able to articulate why one stew tastes better, but she'll eat all of the stew she likes and leave the stew that she doesn't like. 

Lemon juice can work in a similar way for lentil soup, or for some salads. There can be a type of  brightness to the flavor of a summer salad with a little lemon juice.  Without the lemon, there can be a dullness.  Excellent chefs are trained in combining small amounts of just the right spice so that even ordinary dishes have a brightness. It is common to call it the "secret ingredient." The person eating a dish might not be able to articulate why it tastes special, or if it's an ingredient or a type of cooking method, or something else that works so well.  But if it works, they'll eat the whole dish.

This is, of course, an analogy for a life well-lived versus a life of dullness.
A life lived with mindfulness is a life that is actually tasted.

So, what is it that I teach in MBSR class?
The answer to this question can be as hard to articulate as the answer to, "exactly what does salt do to the flavor of your beans?"  I've heard Jon Kabat-Zinn say that MBSR is "much ado about almost nothing."  Putting a teaspoon of salt into a big pot of stew can seem like almost nothing. And yet, it makes all the difference. It can be the difference between a stew that your 10-year-old will love, and a stew that she refuses to eat.

And, analogously, a pinch of mindfulness can be the difference between a robotic sort of going-through-the-motions kind of life, and a life that feels human and bright. So when life feels robotic, stressed-out, dry, and tasteless, an MBSR class might be an appropriate way to re-inspire the way you are cooking the meal of your life.  MBSR will not really teach you anything you don't already know. It will instead be a reminder to you about a kind of "lemon juice" ingredient that you already have in the back of your metaphorical cupboard. 

For many people, the process of going through the eight weeks of an MBSR class can jog their memories about their own secret ingredients.  The MBSR program involves learning a number of practices, such as mindful meditations, mindful walking, and yes, mindful eating.

Each practice, when looked at from the perspective of a cooking analogy, can be viewed as a kind of saltshaker/container that has the potential to hold a secret ingredient. In class, I offer options to see what works for each individual.
     Here's a kind of container that holds "lemon juice" for some people.  
     Does it hold lemon juice for you? 
     Here's a kind of container that holds "nutmeg" for some people.  
     Does it hold nutmeg for you?
We experiment.  Each mindful practice "container" has worked for some people at one time or another. But no one container can show everyone how to access their own lemon juice.  One type of container might be good at one point in a practitioner's life, but then life shifts, and a new container becomes more appropriate. 

Just as any good cook experiments in the kitchen, a mindfulness practitioner experiments in life.